In This Review

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
By Michel-Rolph Trouillot
192 pp, Beacon Press, 1995
Purchase

Trouillot, a distinguished Haitian scholar who teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has produced a sparkling interrogation of the past. He examines the suppression of the role of Africans in the Haitian Revolution to demonstrate how power silences certain voices from history. The background is the "war within the war." As Napoleonic France attempted to reestablish imperial control and eventually slavery, black creoles -- natives of the island or the Caribbean -- fought dissident groups composed of Bossales -- African-born ex-slaves mainly from the Congo. The Congo-born guerrilla leader, Jean Baptiste Sans Souci, one of the most effective opponents of the French, was murdered by Henry Christophe, his former comrade and commander. When Christophe became King Henry I of Haiti, he built the Sans Souci palace literally and figuratively over the murdered African hero's body, obliterating his memory entirely when European visitors assumed the name Sans Souci was borrowed from the palace of the same name in Potsdam, Germany. Haiti was, Trouillot convincingly shows, the first modern state of the so-called Third World, and it experienced all the trials of postcolonial nation-building when new elites partially appropriated the culture of the masses and silenced dissent. The silencing was doubly effective because the Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave revolt in history, was largely written out of the texts by historians of the period. Trouillot places the Haitian story within the context of the denial of the Holocaust, the debate over the Alamo, and the meaning of Columbus. A beautifully written, superior book.