Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thornton on the Ideology of the Haitian Revolution

J. K. Thornton, '"I Am the Subject of the King of Congo": African Political Ideology and the Haitian Revolution', Journal of World History, 4, (1993), pp 181-214.

I have finally gotten to this essay, which was left over from the past semester; glad that I did so. Not surprising, exactly, since I’ve heard about it several times, but satisfying.

Thornton’s argument in this essay is straightforward. Since perhaps as many as two thirds of the people in San Domingue in 1791 had been born and socialized in Africa, historians should look at least in part to political discourse in Africa in seeking to explain their actions. The continual civil wars in the Kongo over the course of the 18th century meant that, especially in the later part of the century, a large number of defeated soldiers were enslaved, and sold across the Atlantic. Thornton has demonstrated elsewhere clear tactical continuities between the Kongolese civil wars and fighting in what would become Haiti during the revolution. Soldiers who had fought in the first fought again in the second. In the essay under discussion here, Thornton continues to discuss this particular group, though he points out that it is far from the only one.

The civil wars in Kongo, Thornton tells us, were in part fought over (or put another way, generated) two conceptions of kingship. One is autocratic, linked to conquest and a strong centralized state. The other is more limited and puts the king in the role of blacksmith, which is to say mediator, rather than amoral warrior. Thornton suggests in this article that the latter limited conception of kingship developed mostly as an alternative to the continual warfare generated by the un-winnable contest for hegemony between “two great family-based alliances, the Kimpanzu and the Kimulaza” (186). Thornton runs through several forms of evidence and consequence, finishing off with the following Revolution-era ‘war chant’ that has been interpreted in various ways:

Eh! Eh! Bomba, hen! hen!

Canga bafio té

Canga moune dé lé

Canga doki la

Canga li.

Unsurprisingly, the crucial word for Thornton is ‘Canga,’ or kanga, which can mean ‘to bind,’ ‘to kill,’ and also can carry the connotation of Christian salvation, as for instance it did in the 18th century Kongo, which officially became a Christian kingdom in the early 16th century. Historians who see the Haitian Revolution in purely racial terms tend to read these words as declarations of race war. Thornton, looking to Kongo, sees something very different. Similarly, he points out that the smaller leaders who resisted Louverture and Christophe were mostly Kongolese who had fought for a decentralized and mediatory kind of monarchy in the Kongo. This is to say that these people fought in part for a certain understanding of political right opposed strongly to the authoritarianism manifested by Louverture and others. The idea, suggested by the likes of C.L.R. James, that this rebelliousness was the result of immaturity or savagery, is simply wrong and stems not from analysis but from ignorance. This is, in no small measure, Thornton’s historiographical punch—though, interestingly, he argues against Fick (though agreeing with her bottom-up approach) on several points.

What does the Europeanist think of all this? At first I was concerned that Thornton was only going to point out that these people, coming from Africa, would bring African ideas with them, but that he would fail to bring specifics to the table. In fact, this essay makes clear that the specifics are available, even if its architecture is interpretive rather than empirical. It makes me want to read his book on Africa and the Atlantic. It would be interesting to look more closely at Thornton's methodological presuppositions, and no doubt one could pick some holes. In particular, what is this ideology? For instance, why is it that we (and they) continue to speak about monarchy even when the king is elected? No doubt for no very good reason. What are the modes of discourse in which this Kongolese ideology perpetuates itself? More prosaically put, why do these people continue to fight about these things, and not something else? To what extent?

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