Historical Background Notes: Introduction

One of the initial goals of our original Revealing La Révolution project was for these historical pamphlets to be used in the undergraduate classroom. This had two functions: one, showcasing the archival resources of the University of Maryland’s Special Collections; two, encouraging students to embark on original archival research projects. In an effort to catalyze the pedagogical use of these pamphlets, we collaborated with Dr. Sarah Benharrech on a research assignment given to University of Maryland undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in her course “Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions,” taught in Fall 2015. We hope that this partnership will serve as a model for other instructors to integrate Colony in Crisis and other archival resources into their coursework.

The following notes provide clear and concise background information about the people involved in the administration, commerce, social structures, and other aspects of life in colonial Saint-Domingue leading up to the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

The topics were varied and the students could choose from a selection of people, places (Saint-Marc, Les Cayes), demographic groups (colonists, slaves, free people of color), and specific historical events (the Louisiana Purchase, the colonists’ lobby Club Massiac), etc. Their prompt was to write a concise, informative précis that defined, explained, or located the topic of their choice. To that end, they delved into primary and secondary sources, compared them with contemporary historical analyses, with the intention of writing the most accurate and scholarly accounts possible. Students ultimately composed their texts in English as well as in French in order to make it accessible to a wider readership, fitting with the mission of A Colony in Crisis.

For many students, it was the first time that they had to investigate the past and apply basic notions of historical method. Their motto was ‘go beyond Wikipedia,’ exploring the notes section of various entries to see how they might be improved upon. Instead of relying upon previously written encyclopedia entries, students searched for and compared new sources. Students gained valuable hands-on experience selecting, referencing, and organizing the most authoritative sources on the many subjects covered in these notes.

All notes have been verified and corrected during several stages of the writing process by either myself or the editors at A Colony in Crisis. Rather than engaging in a historiographical debate, we have preferred to rely on well-informed contemporary historians and use often quoted sources from previous centuries. Any biases or inaccuracies have to be attributed to the sources, some of which, dating from the colonial period, continue to provide distorted – but revealing – perceptions of issues, people, and politics. For this reason, the many sources used by the students are carefully listed in the footnotes, should readers wish to further explore the history of Saint-Domingue.

(Sarah Benharrech, Associate Professor of French)