Dark Specters and Black Kingdoms: An interview with historian Ada Ferrer

THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE: Ada Ferrer is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on the themes of race and slavery, and nationalism and revolution, in the nineteenth-century Caribbean and Atlantic World. Her first book, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898, a critical, path-breaking study of the multiracial history of Cuban independence, was awarded the Berkshire Book Prize for the best first book by a woman historian in any field of history. Insurgent Cuba was translated into Spanish and published in Havana as Cuba Insurgente: Raza, nación y revolución and in French as La Guerre d’Indépendance Cubaine: Insurrection et Émancipation à Cuba! 1868-1898. Ferrer’s second book, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, has just been published. It promises to add to our understanding of both Haiti’s and Cuba’s struggles for freedom and the significance and impact of the Haitian Revolution on the Americas. Ferrer’s articles have appeared in the American Historical Review, Annales, Review: Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center, Revista de Indias, Caminos, and Radical History Review.

Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898, examines ideas of race, nation and citizenship in the context of Cuba’s late nineteenth-century anti-colonial struggles. Freedom’s Mirror examines the impact of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution on Cuban society. What led you from one project to the next?

My first book, Insurgent Cuba, examined the role of slaves and former slaves in the wars for Cuban independence and in the development of Cuban nationalism more broadly.  One of the things that struck me in doing the research for that book was how very important the idea—or even just the mention—of Haiti was. The Spanish government in Cuba constantly invoked Haiti as a warning and accusation, as a device with which to argue against Cuban independence. “This is a black movement,” they would say; or this is the prelude to “race war,” or to “a black republic like Haiti.” Opponents of independence constantly used the specter of Haiti. This specter of Haiti was not something I discovered; in fact, it was very common for historians and other writers to talk about how the specter of Haiti partly explained the “late” independence of Cuba. As is well known, most of Latin America became independent between 1810-1826, whereas Cuba did not defeat Spain until 1898.  Historians often explained that divergence by arguing that local elites were unwilling to risk a rebellion, for fear of unleashing “another Haiti.”

So, I became interested in getting behind or beyond that specter. It was that interest that led me to begin working on Freedom’s Mirror. I wanted to understand what people in Cuba actually knew about Haiti and how exactly they knew it.

And what I found surprised me. I found that for all the use of Haiti as a specter in nineteenth-century Cuba, in fact, Haiti in Cuba was much more than spectral. A specter is something incorporal, imagined. Haiti was definitely imagined in Cuba, but people also knew it and experienced it much more intimately, materially.

I’ll give you an example: There is a hugely important phase of the Haitian Revolution, in 1793-1794, when most of the black rebel slaves of Saint-Domingue ally with Spain (which controls Santo Domingo, right on the border with Saint Domingue). You have tens of thousands of rebels fighting against the French, and they do so as “auxiliaries” of the Spanish army. What we had not appreciated in the past is the extent to which the Spanish army on the Saint-Domingue border was actually composed of troops and officers from Cuba. So, in effect, you have men from Cuba dealing with Toussaint Louverture, Jean François, Georges Biassou, and other leaders of the black rebellion.  One of the Cuban officers, the Marques de Casa Calvo, who would later be the last Spanish governor of Louisiana, and who owned two sugar plantations and an unknown number of slaves in Havana, actually started a business with the rebels—buying sugar equipment from them and then sending it to Havana. He became the godfather of Jean-François and even flirted and danced with his wife. A sector of the Cuba elite thus had intimate contact and knowledge of the revolution. They thought they could control it and manage it. It was not some shadowy bogeyman, but a concrete, material part of their political education.

Among slaves and people of color you see something equivalent. Many scholars have argued that the Haitian Revolution –to quote Eugene Genovese—“propelled a revolution in consciousness” among African Americans. I agree, but again it was one based on material contact and knowledge. So, I was surprised for instance to see that documents such as the Haitian Declaration of Independence and other important texts of black leaders were actually translated into Spanish, published in newspapers, and circulated in Cuba, where they were read and discussed by people of color. Black people had real access to the words, ideas, and pronouncements of the revolution. Again, it was not only some vague abstract hope that slaves and free people of color in Cuba had; they engaged with the revolution and later with the Haitian state in more concrete ways. There are many other examples I could give and that appear throughout the book.

“A Black Kingdom of this World: History and Revolution in Havana, 1812,” one of the chapters in Freedom’s Mirror, riffs on the title of Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of this World. Is Carpentier’s historical imagination important to your own reconstruction of Caribbean and Atlantic events? And what is the significance of 1812 and, as you put it, the “next Black Kingdom” of the world of José Antonio Aponte and others?

Carpentier is a beautiful writer, and I think that is important. His vision of the Haitian Revolution, even perhaps of revolution more generally, also strikes a chord with me. The Kingdom of this World is in many ways a pessimistic novel. The main character, Ti Noel returns to independent Haiti (having spent decades in eastern Cuba) and finds a majestic black world. Black men rule; the priests and saints are all black; so are the artists and musicians. This is power; this is something new created from revolution. But if the artists and saints and kings are black, so too are the men who force others to labor, who compel people to march, to carry stones and build fortresses, to plant and harvest, to obey. This too is created by revolution—a new freedom that contains within it new structures of domination. Some literary critics have argued that Carpentier’s vision of the revolution is too negative, too skewed, too focused on the repression of King Christophe. In some ways, however, Carpentier’s Haiti recalls the one imagined by José Antonio Aponte in Havana in 1811-1812. Aponte’s Haiti (like Carpentier’s) appears to be Christophe’s—not Toussaint’s or Pétion’s.

As some of you know, Aponte was a free black carpenter in Havana; he was a veteran of the colonial free black militia, maybe a priest of santería. And he was apparently the leader of an ambitious plot to rebel, raise the slaves and free people of color, and overthrow slavery in Cuba. The movement did manage to strike on several sugar plantations on the outskirts of Havana, but it was soon crushed.

Aponte was an exceptional, fascinating person—creative and erudite. He kept a book of paintings or drawings—a kind of mixed media scrapbook in which he drew and pasted in other images. It depicts a breathtaking array of stories, allegories, characters: Greek and Roman gods, European and mostly African kings and emperors, black priests, saints and other biblical figures, his own ancestors, Indian women, roosters, ships, moons, stars, and on and on. Unfortunately, the book is lost, and we know about it only through the descriptions Aponte gave to authorities when questioned. Still, there are many things we can glean from Aponte’s judicial testimony.

The book is many things, and I think Aponte created it as many things, as work of art and interpretation that could call forth different stories and different meanings depending on who saw it and what Aponte wanted to reveal to them. Thus an important-looking black figure in the book was—when Aponte spoke to authorities—a black dignitary in Rome. The same figure, when he talked to his co-conspirators, became King Christophe of Haiti. One way that I think Aponte intended the book to be read was as a meditation on black sovereignty. The book was a pictorial, intellectual, subversive experiment in thinking through a black kingdom—the one he and his companions were seeking to create, the one modeled by contemporary Haiti, by historical Ethiopia.

The significance of Aponte for Cuba has always been clear. This was one of the most ambitious antislavery movements in the island’s history. But Aponte—his book and his movement—also provide a wonderful opportunity to explore the intellectual history of the Black Atlantic. Even without the actual book and with only Aponte’s testimony about it, we have an incredibly rich source for exploring the worldview of a black artist and revolutionary, a rare if puzzling glimpse into what he knew and read and what he might have imagined. Still, we do well to think about the book in the context of the political movement that Aponte was making. Aponte showed the book to his fellow conspirators, explaining some of its images as a way to plan for and think about their own revolution. The book is a fascinating object, a missing visual text, but it was also part of the material history of an antislavery revolution.

The essay “Talk about Haiti: The Archive and the Atlantic’s Haitian Revolution” critically engages with the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s well-known and oft-deployed claim concerning the “silencing” of Haiti within the historiography of the Atlantic World by examining the remarkable efflorescence of narrative knowledge about Haiti in Cuba during and after Revolution. “If this was silence,” you state in the introduction, “it was a thunderous one.” But I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how and why Trouillot’s claims have gained such traction and how and why the metaphor of silence has persisted?

Trouillot’s metaphor, Trouillot’s work has had such traction because it captures something indisputable about history as written. We all know that history is written by victors. Reading Trouillot’s incisive critique reminds us of that: there is no Haiti in what have long been the standard references on the French Revolution. Indeed, even in the nineteenth century, it was rare to find historical actors writing about Haiti, for the most part they continued to write about Saint-Domingue, or Santo Domingo, or San Domingo. Part of the political isolation imposed on Haiti was intellectual—the powers of the world wrote as if the new nation did not exist. Silence was a political instrument, in addition to being an intellectual position. Trouillot’s insights point us to those truths.

But the intellectual and political work of silencing does not always require a literal erasure. Trouillot himself acknowledges that when he writes about what he calls “banalization”—when something by constant repetition, “gnawed by all sides” he wrote, becomes trivialized, emptied of revolutionary content. At the time of the Haitian Revolution, the revolution was everywhere invoked; power holders spoke constantly of the dangers of “other Haitis.” This was not a literal silence, but a figurative or “thunderous” one, maybe akin to the constant, seemingly automatic addition of the descriptor “the poorest nation in the hemisphere” after the name Haiti in popular and journalistic writing today. This is why Trouillot’s idea of silence—understood broadly as both erasure and banalization—has resonated so deeply; it brilliantly and evocatively captures the ways in which power pervades what we know as history.

There is one area, however, where I think Trouillot’s arguments could be developed differently, and that is in relation to the archive, which Trouillot understands as an institution of power. That is indisputable and I wholeheartedly agree. But having spent a lot of time researching and reading in archives, I appreciate how very messy and unpredictable they can be. Their scope and the every-dayness of the massive volume of records they hold is something that is hard to fathom from the outside. And so I think that in addition to understanding the archive as site of power, we can also understand it as a place that also reveals the fissures in that power. Silences exist clearly, but they do not emerge fully formed, or total. In the abundance and outsized character of the archive, we have an incredible resource for tracing the ways in which the very silences that Trouillot writes about are constructed, maintained, challenged day to day, by real people and institutions, in real places under concrete circumstances.

Ideally, I think, we should be able to somehow combine the eloquent critique of Trouillot’s with the intelligent faith of Arlette Farge in her book The Allure of the Archive.

Can you say something about the nature of the archives you visited and on the kinds of documents you were able to unearth?

For me, the archives—even in their tedium—are an incredible source of energy and creativity and thinking. Their messiness, their voluminousness is generative. For Freedom’s Mirror I worked in about twenty of them, mostly in Spain and Cuba, but also France, England, Haiti, and the U.S.

One kind of document that I used a lot is judicial testimony from cases of rumored or actual conspiracies and rebellions. Over days and weeks, and hundreds and even thousands of pages, authorities asked questions: who initiated the plot, what was their specific plan, who tried to recruit whom, who acceded? And so on. The testimony accumulates, much of it recounting conversations among conspirators or between conspirators and potential recruits. Throughout, denials are routine; also frequent are attempts to deflect blame. Often, one witness’s testimony at the beginning of the process contradicts that given later, and almost always, testimony from one witness directly contradicts that of another. What we encounter in this mountain of testimony, then, is contradictory fragments of captured speech, a profusion of questions “whose answers” to quote Arlette Farge “are incomplete and imprecise, snippets of speech and life, whose connecting thread is difficult to make out.”

Still, amidst the unavoidable uncertainty, we find some arresting surprises in this voluminous archive that records the speech of people whose speech and thought was not usually recorded. For example, witnesses often recount subversive conversations about freedom and revolution. That testimony—that captured speech—regularly reveals that conspirators invoked and discussed histories that they deemed relevant, they analyzed the past for lessons, discussing a range of precedents. For example, sometimes they discussed amongst themselves the rebellions and petitions for freedom by the King’s slaves in the copper mines of El Cobre; they discussed a deadly, but ultimately failed rebellion of slaves in Puerto Principe in 1798; in one instance, African slaves talked about Charlemagne and his twelve peers as an example. More often, they spoke of the Haitian Revolution and, later, of the actions of the Haitian state itself as guides and motivation.

It is the presence of such discussions that makes the testimony of enslaved and free black witnesses an invaluable source for pursuing the study of what Laurent Dubois called “the intellectual history of the enslaved,” or for writing an intellectual history of the Atlantic World in which enslaved and free people of color are active participants.

One of the things that is most exciting about the process of archival research is not knowing exactly what you’ll find. For example, I have spent years looking for Aponte’s missing book of drawings. At one point, I became convinced that maybe it was in the Nobility Section of the Spanish National Archives in Toledo, Spain. The papers of the Someruelos family are there, and Somoruelos was the Spanish governor of Cuba during the Aponte conspiracy. He left almost immediately after Aponte’s execution, and he had apparently asked to see some of the trial material before his return to Spain at the end of his tenure. Could he have taken Aponte’s book with him? And might it now be tucked among his family’s papers in Toledo? So, I went to look.

I didn’t find it. But I found something else, entirely unexpected: a couple of small half sheets of paper, in rushed, sloppy handwriting, with the briefest description of the start of the rebellion in the Havana countryside. I don’t think anyone had used them before, and they revealed something I don’t think anyone had known about before. Namely, that the rebels attacked the sugar plantation owned by Havana’s deputy to the Spanish congress, a man who had very publicly opposed the abolition of slavery and the slave trade just months before. That the rebels would target his property reveals something incredibly important about the political project of the rebels. Yet that aspect of the movement had been written out of contemporary accounts then and since. An instance of the kind of erasure Trouillot wrote about, perhaps. Still, the archive itself helped us find it.

Image: From Justo G. Cantero, Los ingenios: colección de vistas de los principles ingenios de azúcar de la isla de Cuba (Illustrator: Eduardo Laplante) (1857)

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One Comment

  1. d
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for publication, interesting history to read.


    https://diasp.eu/posts/2762659

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  2. Kramer auto Pingback[...] Ferrer on The Public Archive Read this important interview with Cuban-American historian Ada Ferrer on her latest book, Freedom's Mirror. Anyone interested in [...]

  3. By Ferrer Interviewed by the Public Archive | #ADPhD on February 24, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    [...] The Public Archive recently interviewed Ada Ferrer about her latest book, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (2014): FERRER: “Among slaves and people of color you see something equivalent. Many scholars have argued that the Haitian Revolution –to quote Eugene Genovese—“propelled a revolution in consciousness” among African Americans. I agree, but again it was one based on material contact and knowledge. So, I was surprised for instance to see that documents such as the Haitian Declaration of Independence and other important texts of black leaders were actually translated into Spanish, published in newspapers, and circulated in Cuba, where they were read and discussed by people of color. Black people had real access to the words, ideas, and pronouncements of the revolution. Again, it was not only some vague abstract hope that slaves and free people of color in Cuba had; they engaged with the revolution and later with the Haitian state in more concrete ways. There are many other examples I could give and that appear throughout the book.” [...]

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    Kramer auto Pingback[...] Dark Specters and Black Kingdoms: An interview with historian Ada Ferrer – THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE: Ada Ferrer is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York [...]

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