July 30, 2010 cameron

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #56 – Nick Stark on Haiti (Part Two)

We’re back with Nicholas Stark to discuss St. Domingo / Haiti and Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery in 1802. Was Toussaint L’Overture really a “saint” (his name translates as “all saints” or “all souls opening”)? Was Napoleon really a racist?

Nick does another amazing job of delving into the primary sources from this period to paint a picture of Napoleon’s motivations for his actions and his subsequent regrets.

Thanks to everyone for the wonderful feedback we had from the last episode. I’m sure you’ll agree that Nick does an amazing job for a 19-year old undergrad. He has a huge career ahead of him.

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Comments (18)

  1. Daniel from Ontario Canada

    Greetings from Canada. I love this podcast; it is an excellent way to learn about Napoleonic History and be entertained! Keep up the good work guys.
    I have often heard that some of Napoleon’s policies in war and politics have been heavily influenced by other people before him. For example I read somewhere that he was a student of the Art of War by Sun Tzu and as Emperor of the French, he modeled his empire after the Caesars. Do you think this was true?

    • Cameron

      Hi Daniel!

      Yes, absolutely true. Napoleon was a ferocious reader and an ardent student of history. He had a special miniature library built for him to take on campaigns which contained something like 1000 books. Imagine what he would have done with an iPad!

  2. Ray from Luxemburg

    Greetings from Luxemburg. I enjoy every second of this podcast. Keep up the good work

  3. Andrew Lawson from Ontario

    Nick Stark gave a fantastic talk. It’s nice to know that young people are still getting involved in historical studies. He certainly knows his subject!

    • Gro Jo

      “He certainly knows his subject!” No, he does not. His presentation was a mess and he flat out lied when he claimed that Napoleon didn’t know any Black people so he wasn’t sympathetic to them as he was to the Jews. Napoleon was personally acquainted with several prominent people of African descent such as Toussaint’s sons and the father of Alexandre Dumas, general Thomas Alexandre Dumas. General Dumas served with Napoleon in Egypt. Stark seemed to think that Toussaint owed Napoleon blind obedience, why? France retained St-Domingue only because Toussaint and his men defeated the British and Spaniards with no help from France. The claim that Napoleon’s generals were the ones who got the idea to restore slavery is another lie. The military expedition authorized by Napoleon could only have had only one aim, to destroy the Black indigenous army and thereby clear the way to restore slavery. The plan worked on Guadeloupe but not in St-Domingue. The biggest lie told by Stark and company was that the restriction of the former slaves was the same as slavery. That lie is so stupid that anybody taken in it by it deserves to be lied to. The restrictions were akin to the English laws that Henry VIII used to control vagabondage.

  4. Rory

    I’m a long time listener of the podcast, and have to admit that I always enjoyed it. I always waited with baited breath for the next episode. However, hearing David Markham trying to defend slavery and our guest expert Nick qualifying Napoleon’s racism as some sort of humane racism!! I couldn’t believe my ears. I’m pro-Napoleon but this was just astounding. I may be overreacting, but at least I’m not spending the guts of an hour defending racism & slavery. Well done Cameron for your views, but I think I’m gone with this podcast & unfortunately take leave of this show from now on. Even worse, my view of David & his up to now wonderful expertise has probably been irreversibly tainted.
    Sorry for what appears to be a rant but I feel quite strongly about this.

    • Cameron

      Rory, I’m pretty sure both David and Nick mentioned during the episodes that the whole affair was a very black mark on Napoleon’s career, as, apparently, Napoleon said himself.

  5. Rory,

    That seems a bit harsh. I was expecting a bit of wriggling on this subject to be honest, but it was a pretty straight account. The worst interpretation you can put on it is that they tried to come up with excuses on Napoleon’s behalf. It didn’t sound to me at all like there was any suggestion that David or Nick were remotely in favour of slavery. Cameron was outright critical of Napoleon.

    For my part, thanks to the team for enlightening me a lot about a subject I knew very little about.

  6. @Rory I’m terribly sorry to have so shocked you, sincerely I am. I do think there is a misunderstanding, and perhaps the fault is on my own side for not being clear enough. I was in no way promoting slavery or racism. What I was doing was providing the context for Napoleon’s decision, which for him was rooted mostly in economics, not in racism. When it comes for racism, my point was that he was not in the crowd of the enthusiasticly pro-slavery bourgeois majority, but rather that his views are more of the type of racism of the late-19th, early 20th century, which leans towards a racial superiority, but not necessarily to dehumanizing the black, more like a Lincoln approach, which is commendable by his time but still damnable by our own standards today. If I’m not much mistaken, I did claim that views of racial superiority are misguided in reference to Napoleon.

    The point I can most see you objecting to as “promoting slavery” was when I mentioned how restoring slavery was not a big difference. I in no way said that in reference to “slaves being used to it” or “designed to slavery,” etc., but rather only referenced that no-one, even among the black leaders, wanted truly free-labor. Toussaint himself, the great liberator, had installed forced labor, and then following the Haitian Revolution, 1802-03 which we will discuss shortly, the newly created Emperor of Haiti, the black Dessalines, maintained forced labor. Forced labor, which I spent a while describing, is identical to slavery in virtually every way except in the people who run the plantation, which I know for a fact I SPECIFICALLY condemned Napoleon for not realizing. But in this respect, the ruling class of the entire world in the 19th century is to blame, not specifically Napoleon, since they al did exactly the same, and the lot of the black when ruled by a fellow black was often only nominally better than when under a white.

    I specifically said this on the show, but I will repeat it here: none of what I said is or was in any way, shape, or form meant as a defence of slavery or racism, but rather only explaining the rationale outside of personal-racism of Napoleon for the return to slavery in Guadeloupe.

    Rory, if you are not oppoed, follow what other writings I have done, what I talk about on politics, etc. outside of even history topics. If you take me up on it, I guarantee you that you will see clear as day that the charge of defending slavery or racism, or any form of such bigotry is not only the farthest from my being, but also that I actively strive to eliminate bigotry in the modern world. I am one of the worst suited candidates in the world for the insulting titled of “defender of slavery and racism.” In fact, if you listen to the two podcast episodes together and follow the theme, my work is constructed as an attack on imperialism, of which Napoleon’s decision fits in perfectly, and imperialism was and still is one of the great scourges of the world.

    In conclusion, Rory, you are perfectly free to stop following the podcast, but know that I think you misunderstood my efforts, which were merely to it the subject into context and provide the French perspective of the time, and know that I most strongly object to and am personally insulted by being referred to as a defender of slavery and racism, which if you knew my work even a tiny bit more, you yourself would realize was inappropriate to call me, but which I can to a degree understand from you only having heard this small piece. Please accept my apologies if I failed to make my personal views known, but you must not confuse historical analysis with personal opinion.

  7. And furthermore, you could simply listen to my excitement in the first episode when describing the abolition of slavery, which I outright called one of the single greatest achievements of the Revolution, which is high praise for an event which ushered in such vast improvements, where slavery was abolished for the first time in the West, and the motion was carried unanimously. I said so on the show, but I will repeat it here: Napoleon’s decision to restore slavery on Guadeloupe and to even consider it on St Domingue was the SINGLE worst decision of his entire career, primarily from the perspective of humanity but also from the perspective of Napoleon’s own career.

    • Gro Jo

      “The point I can most see you objecting to as “promoting slavery” was when I mentioned how restoring slavery was not a big difference… but rather only referenced that no-one, even among the black leaders, wanted truly free-labor. Toussaint himself, the great liberator, had installed forced labor, and then following the Haitian Revolution, 1802-03 which we will discuss shortly, the newly created Emperor of Haiti, the black Dessalines, maintained forced labor. Forced labor, which I spent a while describing, is identical to slavery in virtually every way except in the people who run the plantation, which I know for a fact I SPECIFICALLY condemned Napoleon for not realizing. But in this respect, the ruling class of the entire world in the 19th century is to blame, not specifically Napoleon, since they al did exactly the same, and the lot of the black when ruled by a fellow black was often only nominally better than when under a white.” Wow! How stupid is Stark? Not being killed at the whim of a “master”, being paid for your labor instead of having it stolen from you, not having your children and or wife sold to keep some white degenerates in luxury, having the opportunity to escape field work by joining the military, to be able to educate your children to the highest standards of the time and to have the constitution of the land regard you as fit for any job that you are capable of doing is the same as slavery? As I wrote in a previous comment, the “forced labor” Stark denounces was created and run by whites and defended by the “great liberator” as Stark dubs Toussaint because it allowed the restoration of commerce. The real conflict between Toussaint and the freed slaves was over their hatred of big landed estates and their preference for small plots that they and their families could exploit on their own.
      “And furthermore, you could simply listen to my excitement in the first episode when describing the abolition of slavery, which I outright called one of the single greatest achievements of the Revolution, which is high praise for an event which ushered in such vast improvements, where slavery was abolished for the first time in the West, and the motion was carried unanimously.” Well mr. Stark the fact that you left out a few “minor” details about that event such as the fact that the French commissioners who declared the abolition of slavery on St-Domingue were only burying a corpse that the slaves had slain in August 1791, and that France’s hold on the island was tenuous and could only be maintained by blacks adhering to the French cause undermines your abolitionist credentials because you minimize black agency in the whole affair. I congratulate rory for being the only one to see through the pretense of scholarly detachment. The impression I would have come away with if I didn’t know better after listening to these podcasts was that blacks are so stupid that they don’t know what’s good for them.

  8. John G

    I am still listening and loving your podcasts, and I am so glad we’ve just had another two episodes with the help of the brilliant Nicholas Stark.

    I also abhor slavery and racism, but we have to judge Napoleon’s actions in the context of the age he lived in. There are many examples in Napoleon’s life which show that he was a progressive thinker, did much for the rights of the underprivileged and did much to bring about greater equality. That’s part of what made him great. Many of the actions he took in this regard went against what was normal (such as what he did for the Jews). These are the actions that show what sort of man he was.

    But he also lived in an age of far more ignorance about slavery and racism than we have today, and we need to judge his actions in that context. Transfer Napoleon into this age and, just as he was at the forefront of progress on issues of equality in his own age, I have no doubt that he would be a trailblazer for progress in this regard today.

    It’s not like he’d be living in our age and trying to re-instate slavery.

  9. Gil from Eastern KY

    If Napoleon were around today I feel he would be considered either a moderate republican or a conservative democrat, that is to say kind of a middle of the road politician. He obviously did some progressive things but in other aspects he was strikingly similar to the old regime. Of course when I think of Napoleon as someone like an Arlen Spector or Joe Lieberman it does make me lose some respect for him. On the bright side he was a military genius. That’s just my opinion.
    I would also have to disagree with you Nick when you say Napoleon’s racism was commendable in his time. I don’t think you could say it was commendable when there were people like Henri Gregoire, who supported equal rights for all people no matter their religion or skin color.

  10. @Gil That’s a fair point about Gregoire, but I don’t think that undermines my point. Gregoire was also an exception, not a norm, so saying someone was more humane than Napoleon is not saying that Napoleon still wasn’t more humane than the norm. In the same way, it would not be inaccurate to call Robespierre radical, even though there were more progressive radicals like Jacques Hebert and Babeuf. But your point that there were more pro-black people than Napoleon is fair.

  11. Paul Caspall

    Excellent debate, one of the better ones.

    Points to Cameron for continually challenging the ‘in Napoleon’s defence’ POV; made for a very balanced and gripping debate. I could see both sides, but found it difficult to completely condemn Napoleon on this one. In the end, I was against him, but only marginally.

    None of the speakers have anything whatsoever to apologise for. Some folks however might benefit from listening to what was being said in the context of the discussion rather than jumping to emotional, subjective conclusions because they’ve pressed their own buttons.

  12. Julian [A Canadian Bonapartist]

    @Gil

    I have to disagree on what Napoleon would be today, for myself I always thought of a left-winger, mainly because he really was left wing for his time. He promoted the power of the individual to climb up the political ladder-proof can be seen in his marshals, Lannes-the man who should have been a dyer, Ney, the cooper, Massena, the common sailor.

    Was Napoleon racist? He had friends in Egypt, Russia, and spent much of his childhood being called racist names because of his Italian accent. I always thought of him as someone who could not possibly be racist having received so much abuse in that respect.

    I’m not trying to attack your comment or anything, but I just saw it and disagreed.

    • Gro Jo

      “None of the speakers have anything whatsoever to apologise for. Some folks however might benefit from listening to what was being said in the context of the discussion rather than jumping to emotional, subjective conclusions because they’ve pressed their own buttons.” Nonsense, anybody who didn’t find this mendacious “debate” offensive shares the worldview of the debaters. What is that worldview? I would call it the Dred Scott decision view, according to the U.S. supreme court judge who rendered that opinion, Blacks could claim no rights that Whites were obliged to respect. Napoleon was truly a man ahead of his time he came to that view more than 50 years prior to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Blacks in St-Domingue rose up against the slave system and destroyed it in 1791. Sonthonax was sent to restore slavery and guarantee the rights of the gens de couleur. He failed and had to change course by offering freedom to the former slaves who would fight for France. Stark makes it sound like Sonthonax and Polverel
      freed the slaves out of the goodness of their hearts. The “forced labor” system that Stark is so eager to ascribe to Toussaint L’Ouverture was in fact instituted by these French commissioners. Napoleon overthrew the council of 500 by threatening them with his cavalry and withdrew the rights that Blacks enjoyed in all the territories of the French empire. The only emotional reaction to all these facts comes from his admirers who can’t face the fact that their hero was a tyrant. All I have to say to them is that you are not the only ones to suffer from this affliction.

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