Sara E. Johnson, The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. xxii + 289 pp. (Paper US$49.95)

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

The Fear of French Negroes represents an historical analysis and literary criticism of the various experiences of French colonists of African descent in the Americas in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. Sara Johnson charts her course creatively at the outset. By turning the oft-mentioned phrase “fear of French negroes” on its head, she sets out to, among other things, discover African-descended French colonists’ fears—as opposed to European-descended peoples’ fears of black refugees from the French colonies—on their journeys throughout the Americas in the Age of Revolution. The result is an at times complicated series of essays exploring how “transcolonial collaborations offered black actors unique opportunities to negotiate mobility, liberty, and self-expression from within a hemispheric system of chattel slavery” (p. xxii).

The first chapter is the most deeply rooted in contemporary sources, and the most edifying. Drawing on a well-known article published in American Quarterly, it looks at the disturbing practice in American slave societies of training and employing dogs to track fugitive slaves. In Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and eventually the antebellum South, slaveowners and their allies reserved the gruesome practice for absconded slaves. In a truly remarkable demonstration of transcolonial solidarity, French, Spanish, British, and southern U.S. slaveowners and collaborators trained dogs not only to capture but also to mutilate and maim their human prey. The result was an international system of racially inspired and state-sanctioned torture that because of its widespread use during the Haitian Revolution gives new meaning to the common expression, the “horrors of St. Domingo.”

The second chapter moves in an entirely different direction by studying the iconography of black Haitians in the Dominican Republic, the most central being Domingo Echavarría’s engraving of a sandaled and pipe-smoking Haitian military general. According to Johnson, who negotiates French, English, and Spanish sources effortlessly, black Haitians in the Spanish imagination often became, in spite of their military and physical prowess, racial caricatures, “unshod savages dressed up for play” (p. 75). A comparison of Echavarría’s engraving with a 1950s-era painting of a similar subject attempts to demonstrate the transcolonial reach of Haitian Vodou across the centuries, though the sparse evidence will leave historians unconvinced.

The following chapter turns to the unrelated subject of slavery and privateering on the Gulf of Mexico. The focus is on free French men of color who participated in the transatlantic slave trade along the North American Gulf Coast and in particular Louisiana. There is little new here for those familiar with the exploits of Joseph Savary and other black contemporaries of the famous Laffite brothers. Even Johnson admits that a dearth of contemporary historical evidence makes drawing any conclusions difficult. That being said, all will benefit from her reminder that transcolonial interactions among African-descended people were subjugating and unequal just as often as they were liberating and egalitarian.

In the fourth chapter, Johnson focuses on a series of images of elegantly dressed French bondswomen to demonstrate how female black refugees cultivated cultural traditions throughout the Saint-Domingue diaspora. Sartorial and musical preferences, which distinguished “French set girls” (p. 126) from their British and Spanish peers, upset local elites who loathed witnessing cultural survivals from the revolutionary black republic among the large population of free and enslaved black people. Moreover, they demonstrated the ease with which black refugees from the French colonies maintained dual identities as they dispersed throughout the Americas. A concluding note on the survival of the African- and French-inspired musical form of tumba francesa in contemporary Cuba offers additional proof of Saint-Domingue customs permeating the West Indies across time and space.

The last chapter seeks to uncover transcolonial—or in this case transnational—collaboration in U.S., Haitian, and French black print culture in the 1830s and 1840s. Here, the evidence points to an energetic transatlantic conversation on black history, tradition, and civil rights among black intellectuals and general readers alike. Johnson shows that in the three newspapers under review, Colored American (United States), Revue des Colonies (Paris and Martinique), and L’Union (Haiti), black writers launched an “African diasporic literary canon, the first of its kind in the Americas” (p. 161).

It is hard in a short review to do justice to an ambitious book with such a broad reach. Rare is the academician who handles print culture, visual culture, and aural culture with such deftness. Despite a tendency to overspeculate on limited and temporally inconsistent evidence and a hesitancy to link the disparate chapters together under a unifying theme or idea more explicitly, Johnson’s study contributes directly to the study of the Haitian Revolution and the Saint-Domingue diaspora. It also adds much to the cultural studies of African-descended people in the Americas more generally.


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