In our “Rethinking Romanticism” series, we ask leading scholars to propose new directions toward building inclusive and anti-racist fields of study. In today’s post, Jack Webb discusses his new book, Haiti in the British Imagination: Imperial Worlds, 1847-1915, in which he illuminates the cultural, economic and political exchanges between Haitians and Britons in the nineteenth century.
Interlocutory Cultures: Haiti and Britain in the Nineteenth Century
By Jack Webb
Sometime in the early 1860s, the British Consul General to Haiti, Spenser St John, toured the mountains of the country’s hinterland. This was a place infrequently visited by British travellers as it instilled fear in many a foreign missionary, writer and trader. The official dictate of the Methodist Church, for instance, was that the mountains were out of bounds altogether for their personnel. Yet, inspired by the heroes of Victorian popular culture, such as his friend Richard Burton, who had infiltrated Mecca to great fanfare in England, St John refused to be perturbed and ventured out from Haiti’s capital amidst the sound of far off drumming. To his surprise, what he found were relics of England, not only in the forts built during the British occupation of the country in its revolutionary wars (1791–1804), but also artefacts that had arrived more recently. One Vodou temple, he discovered, was adorned with engravings from the Illustrated London News, a newspaper produced in his hometown. St John lamented the practice of Vodou, or ‘Vaudoux’ as he termed it, as the strongest evidence for the case that Haitian civilisation had been ‘decaying’ since the nation’s independence from France in 1804. The fact that these clippings from Britain’s most technologically advanced and respectable newspaper appeared on the walls of this temple was, for him, a most vulgar and ‘savage’ misuse; to his mind, it only highlighted how far apart were the people of Britain and Haiti in their culture and ‘character’.
This prosaic does, of course, tell us much about imperial fantasies of opposition. The Victorians were obsessed with creating binary distinctions, whether that was between man and woman, domestic and public, Black and White, city and countryside, metropole and colony or, indeed, ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’. In keeping with this, the narratives of British history that came out of Victorian Britain were exclusively ‘white’; they were Whiggish tales in which British people were the agents of history and the builders of the Empire that drove the rest of the world forwards. In these Victorian British histories, Haitians, like people of African descent more broadly, had no place as agents. And yet, the relationship between people in Britain and members of the sovereign nation state of Haiti was not one solely of contrasts and opposites, of silences and occlusions nor of (British) oppression and (Haitian) resistance. As the newspapers stuck to the walls of the Vodou temple illustrate, there were cultural, economic and political exchanges going on between Britons and Haitians, even in the places that the British considered to be most opposed to, and far removed from, the British ‘metropole’. The Victorians may have insisted that Haiti, and Haitians, had little say over how the empires of the Atlantic World, especially that of Britain, played out. However, the saga of Anglo-Haitian cultural and political interactions is much more dynamic and exciting than that; it involves multi-directionality, mutual impact and dialogue.
Luminaries in the field of Haitian studies, such as Gina Ulysse and Marlene Daut, have emphasised the urgency with which we need to move away from a history that only considers reactions to Haiti by the Atlantic World’s other imperial powers, and towards a recovery of the agency of Haitians. In my recently released book, Haiti in the British Imagination: Imperial Worlds, 1847–1915 (Liverpool University Press, 2020), I move to restore Haitians to an active role in histories of imperialism in the Atlantic World by assessing the dialogical dynamics of exchange between Haitians and Britons. Haitians made powerful interventions into the workings and ideologies of British imperialism through their direct refusal of British colonial aggression. Throughout the nineteenth century, they destroyed the equipment of British companies expropriating their resources; repelled British military forces who landed on their territory; sank the ships of the Royal Navy and invaded British Consulates as they saw fit. In many instances, it was the British Empire that felt the need to ‘resist’ the might of Haitian agency.
Such encounters threw into question the imperial narrative that the British were exceptional in their ability to colonise and rule over those terrains of the world considered ‘uncivilised’. Haitians were quick to voice powerful interventions in these narratives, at times altering the ways in which Britons thought about Empire altogether. At the same time as people like St John asserted in newspaper articles and travel narratives that Haiti was a place where civilisation was receding, Haitians produced and disseminated their own representations of the country for British and Atlantic-wide audiences. As representatives of a sovereign state, they met and impressed Queen Victoria with their etiquette, they made speeches to packed-out halls on the profundity of Haiti’s anti-slavery and anti-colonial existence, and they crafted photo albums of the Haitian heads of state so that people could see with their own eyes the power of Black sovereignty and statesmanship that had manifested in Haiti. Of course, not all Haitians in Britain were so quick to make political statements: some visited as socialites, to smoke cigars at London’s finest establishments, others entertained Britain’s urban street crowds, and at least one attempted to cash in on Haiti’s sovereign status by swindling restaurateurs with a claim to Haitian-royal status. These real-life Haitians in England were encountered by Britons outside of the usual newspaper or travel narrative. Many of them, especially those who did make political interventions, forced British racial ‘theorists’, colonial administrators and, at points, the broader British populace to rethink their Empire.
Haitians were key in formulating, disseminating and correcting ideas about Haiti and about the British Empire in Britain. Rather than being divided as radical opposites, as many a Victorian might have argued, Haiti and Britain were in fact interlocutory cultures. Through acts of dialogue, Britons and Haitians impacted on the worldviews of one another, and with that they changed the political and cultural landscapes of the Atlantic World.
Image: Faustin the First, Emperor of Hayti, In Council
 Gina Athena Ulysse, Why Haiti Needs News Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle, trans. by Nadève Ménard (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2015).
Jack Webb is Research Associate in Postcolonial Print Cultures, School of English, Newcastle University. He is the author of Haiti in the British Imagination, 1847–1915 (Liverpool University Press, 2020), which explores the early circulation of postcolonial texts in the Atlantic World, as well as several articles on the history of Haiti and the British Empire. He is co-editor of Memory, Migration and (De)Colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond.