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By Marcel Brelot

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In resisting metropolitan authority, they opened the way for an alliance that was ultimately to carry out the destruction they had so feared. The slave revolt that broke out in August 1791 was remarkable in its organization, speed and spread, and quickly took root in the richest part of Saint-Domingue, the Northern province. Whites, bewildered by the extent of the attack, rallied and fought back, and many expressed confidence that the slave rebels would be defeated within a few months. But, aided by the access to arms they had across the border with Spanish Santo Domingo, and soon by concrete assistance from the Spanish, the slave rebels managed to hold on and defeat the missions sent against them.

Where Portuguese navigators had shown the way in the fifteenth century, other European nations sailed in search of trade and profit, with occasional subsidiary hints, in increasingly numerous travel narratives, of disinterested discovery. It was not until 1639 that France set up its first West African trading post, near the mouth of the Senegal river. A hundred years later, despite the anonymous author’s wayward sense of geography, it is clear that the first black African hero in a French novel, Histoire de Louis Anniaba (2000 [1740]), returns to reign over an area upstream from Saint-Louis du Sénégal.

But it reached its height as a colony almost a century before French colonialism in Africa and Asia began in earnest, and Haiti was post-colonial decades before much of the rest of the world was colonial. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires have tended to dominate historiography and criticism in colonial and postcolonial studies, to the detriment of an engagement with the colonial processes which created Europe and the Americas simultaneously from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth centuries.

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