1776, The Slaveholders’ Revolution: A Review of "Negro Comrades of the Crown"
by Dr. T. P. Wilkinson
Blacks posed a military threat to the slaveholder’s plans for an independent America. “Horne’s history of African-Americans fighting on the side of Great Britain against the United States and its racist regime shows that the continued hostility of the United States government at all levels toward African-Americans is not the product of mere cumulative prejudice against people of color.”
1776, The Slaveholders’ Revolution: A Review of Negro Comrades of the Crown
by Dr. T. P. Wilkinson
Negro Comrades of the Crown
New York University Press, 2012
“Horne shows that African and British contemporaries saw the American war of independence as a unilateral act by the planter and mercantile elite to defend chattel slavery.”
In 1938 C. L. R. James published Black Jacobins—as he wrote at the time—with the explicit aim of demonstrating that Africans in the Western hemisphere had not only been victims of slavery but also agents of their own liberation. Moreover, his narrative was constructed consciously to address the struggle against colonialism in Africa itself. James chose the history of the Haitian revolution for a number of reasons, one of which was its exemplary impact on the consciousness of the African Diaspora.
In 1965, Malcolm X reiterated—e.g. in his Oxford Union speech—that Black nationalism was not a parochial response to white racism but the recognition that it was nationalism which had given strength to every movement to oppose colonial oppression of which slavery and racism had been integral parts. Especially in numerous interviews and speeches after his return from Mecca, Malcolm X saw that the question of liberation “for human beings” is an international struggle. However specific the local characteristics of oppression might be, consciousness of the history and dynamics of that struggle are essential for attaining human liberty anywhere.
Since Haiti established its independence from France in 1804, it has been an enemy of the United States. As a result, the US collaborated in subjugating the black nation through a kind of collective debt peonage that culminated in the 1913 US Marine Corps invasion, making it a quasi-colony of the North American republic. The US Marines finally withdrew after a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in 1935. US influence in the country persisted culminating in the 1956 transfer of power to the Duvalier dynasty defended by a US-trained national guard—a tyranny that would persist until 1990 when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was chosen to be president in Haiti’s first free elections since in the 20th century. Aristide abolished the national guard and in doing so removed the mainstay of US control over the island.
“The United States government continues to clothe its hostility to Haiti in humanitarian language—echoing the cynical façade of Leopold’s Congo Free State.”
By 1991 the US government had been successful in having Aristide deposed. Since then the policies of 1913 have been effectively reinstituted, persisting into the 21st century. Bizarrely enough in contemporary language, the United States government continues to clothe its hostility to Haiti in humanitarian language—echoing the cynical façade of Leopold’s Congo Free State. Now after nearly two decades of US suppression of the Aristide revolution in the West Indies most populous and poorest state, it appears as an incomprehensible mystery that the US government exhibits no intention of vacating the island republic or yielding sovereignty to its population. On the contrary, there is every indication that the US would welcome a Duvalier restoration. But then again, the condition of African-Americans in the US itself is at an all-time low. Maybe therein lies a clue to the persistent virulence of US policy toward the Republic of Haiti.
Gerald Horne recovers the necessary and hitherto concealed historical background to support the argument ventured by James and polemicized by Malcolm X. His latest book, Negro Comrades of the Crown, begins with what white historians would no doubt consider an anachronistic view among Africans, namely that the great independence declaration of 1776 should be seen as an expression of the same spirit inherent in Ian Smith’s UDI in 1965 and not as an Enlightenment relative to the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. Horne shows that African and British contemporaries saw the American war of independence as a unilateral act by the planter and mercantile elite to defend chattel slavery and continental conquest against a motherland committed to abolition of the slave trade and ultimately to the abolition of chattel slavery. The ruling elite in North America south of the St. Lawrence held slavery to be an essential part of what would later be called Manifest Destiny, integral to the wealth and enrichment of the whites, who dominated those thirteen British colonies to become the United States.
“The ruling elite in North America south of the St. Lawrence held slavery to be an essential part of what would later be called Manifest Destiny.”
The occasion of Professor Horne’s unquestionably polemic history is the shadowy War of 1812, whose bicentenary is recognized this year. This conflict between the newly independent American republic and its former imperial rulers is usually given no more than a cursory treatment in the official and textbook histories of the United States. It rarely occupies more than a few pages in any school history book. The only things one ever learns about this relatively brief war is that Washington, DC was burned, Andrew Jackson became a popular hero, and Francis Scott Key wrote the tedious text that later would be set to a glee-club melody as the country’s national anthem in 1931.
Nowhere is one told that the United States very nearly lost the war against the British Empire. More significantly the importance of the war for the struggle against African slavery in the US is utterly ignored. As Horne concludes even today African-Americans are treated as subtly disloyal to the Republic but no one seems to know why. The story of Negro Comrades… opens a grand vista of world history by illuminating the War of 1812, not only in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, but in the struggle against slavery of which the Haitian revolution was a crucial part. Here Horne continues in the style of C. L. R. James by recovering the voices of Africans throughout the British Empire, the Caribbean, and the USA whose fight against chattel slavery and its constitutional preservation in the United States was and had remained a casus belli since 1776.
“The Haitian infection was feared throughout the Caribbean wherever a white planter elite still held sway.”
Professor Horne has already shown in previous work, such as The End of Empires (2008), the persistent ideological warfare waged for the hearts and minds of African-Americans by the US ruling elite. In the wake of the Haitian revolution, many elements of the US slavocracy advocated deportation of free Blacks along with intensification of already draconian laws against slave rebellion and abolitionists. The Haitian infection was feared throughout the Caribbean wherever a white planter elite still held sway. In fact Spain exploited this fear repeatedly among Cuban planters to suppress independence movements until it lost control of the island to US suzerainty in 1898. Contrary to conventional historical narrative which focuses on slavery’s destructive impact on African identity, the American War of Independence and the Haitian Revolution did much to establish international solidarity among the African Diaspora concentrated in the United States and Britain’s remaining American and Caribbean dominions.
While official US history makes Britain the aggressor, raiding US merchant navigation and impressing Americans into British naval service, it ignores the Royal Navy’s mission to suppress the slave trade and thus liberate American chattel from bondage on the high seas. The official narrative also ignores US designs on British North America—Canada— strongly motivated by the desire to eliminate this refuge for escaped slaves as well as to extend slavery throughout the American continent. As a result of these lacunae the hostility of the US toward Britain—which persisted until 1914—and the increasing viciousness of US laws enforcing the race and bondage regime—which have scarcely subsided—can scarcely be explained or rationally debated.
“American War of Independence and the Haitian Revolution did much to establish international solidarity among the African Diaspora.”
Until the completion of the Louisiana Purchase and the seizure of Florida, the US slavocracy felt itself under constant internal and external threat. One could say even that the fanatical defenses of white supremacy erected since 1776 are the deep psychological foundation for today’s seemingly incurable national security psychosis. In fact Horne’s history of African militancy and military daring leading up to the American Civil War provides the deep history for the inseparability of racism and fascism in the US. Whether it is the race riots incited in Northern states to oppose the Civil War draft, the state-sanctioned creation of the Ku Klux Klan to defeat Radical Reconstruction or the various Red Scares of the 20th century, the ultimate targets have been African-Americans. Horne’s history of African-Americans fighting on the side of Great Britain against the United States and its racist regime shows that the continued hostility of the United States government at all levels toward African-Americans is not the product of mere cumulative prejudice against people of color. He also shows by implication that racial prejudice did not arise from a generalized perception of African-Americans as inferior. Rather as in all colonial projects—or better said, in all projects of which grand theft is the central element—it is essential to create and maintain the inferiority of those who are robbed. They must be persuaded that what they have lost they did not deserve, if only because they were unable to defend it against theft. Even today the depiction of Haiti and other black and brown nations is one of hopelessly poor, helpless, incompetent and corrupt—in a now-fashionable term—“failed” states.
Therefore blinding African-Americans to their national military history or reducing it to the role of adjunct to Union regiments in the American Civil War, helps perpetuate the notion that African liberation for Americans is a purely American affair—that it is the successive rational persuasion of whites that blacks really are equal that has led to the end of chattel slavery and statutory Jim Crow in the US. By painting the Haitian Revolution and the West Indian Regiment, the Negro-Indigenes-British alliance in the Seminole Wars out of American history, generations of Americans have been left in utter ignorance as to the international scope of the struggle for African liberty and dignity. Gerald Horne expands well beyond Howard Zinn’s admirable work, which [documented] the history of the many poor whites opposed to the erection of the American plutocracy who were driven either to Canada, to the West—where they frequently lost their lives in land wars with Native Americans against whom they had to fight for mere survival—or were simply decimated by the military actions of the US planter-mercantile elite. In other words, the US was obsessed with internal security from its very beginnings and used the most ruthless methods to impose it. The US elite saw itself surrounded by Africans allied with British determined to abolish the crime against humanity of chattel slavery. In the South that elite was acutely aware that Africans constituted an internal enemy—ready to align itself with the British invader at any time. Moreover, the Caribbean-based British West Indian Regiment and the military units raised and commanded by African-Americans in Canada were viewed as a serious threat—scoring numerous victories over armies of the American republic.
“The US elite saw itself surrounded by Africans allied with British determined to abolish the crime against humanity of chattel slavery.”
On the other hand Horne does not make the mistake of ignoring the ambivalence of British official anti-slavery policies. He does not make the strong allegiance to Britain into a proto-socialist mentality. Africans of property were not advocating a classless society. Instead he recalls that the Haitian Revolution could not be defeated by British intervention and that white minorities throughout Britain’s Caribbean colonies were justifiably afraid they would not be able to suppress slave revolts there either. The British government—not unlike the one that refused to recognize Rhodesian independence in 1965—did not want to surrender any more territory or economic resources to the control of its distant colonials and preferred loyal African majorities to revolutionary slave insurrections. Elimination of slavery in the Caribbean was also a strategy for suppressing white defection to the hemispheric alliance the US was trying to establish (and would justify in the so-called Monroe Doctrine, itself a strange phenomenon in that this coda of US imperial doctrine has entered the consciousness of white America as a principle of international law.)
Moreover both African and European contemporaries from 1776 until 1860 commented frequently on the hypocrisy of the American republic’s claims to be the epitome of liberty while casting chattel slavery in constitutional concrete. There was very little sympathy for the elite that repelled monarchy but was addicted to blacks as sub-humans in chains. The US government had then—as now—considerable difficulty establishing its legitimacy both at home and abroad. Within its borders ever more draconian measures were adopted in the hopes of separating indentured servants from slaves (although for decades the distinction was often only nominal in some jurisdictions)—presaging the apartheid ideology used to define white Afrikaners in the Union of South Africa.
As Horne proves, Washington was left virtually undefended in 1814 because Virginians feared that the forces needed to British would dilute their defense repel the against Negro insurrection—a far more lethal threat. He shows that far from being the defensive war portrayed in the official US history, the Seminole Wars were waged in a manner comparable to 20th century US tactics in Southeast Asia—it was border war waged under 19th century counter-insurgency doctrine, complete with assassination, massive deportation and pacification measures. The equally small radar blip in the far Northwest—Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, is restored to historical context. Although much has been written to show the relationship between settlement and conquest of Texas and the expansion of slavery, very little has been said about the attempts to expand white domination of the continent in the territory adjacent to Britain’s far western territories. Usually depicted as a mere border dispute, Horne shows perhaps with some useful speculation—citing the actions of George Pickett in blue uniform before donning grey in 1860—that the chattel slavery/racial supremacy interests in the US were not only aggressive throughout the continent but that they were vigorously opposed by Africans serving the British crown everywhere.
“Washington was left virtually undefended in 1814 because Virginians feared that the forces needed to British would dilute their defense repel the against Negro insurrection—a far more lethal threat.”
This tension with both economic and military consequences has been concealed in US history whether taught in schools, universities or television. As a result the relationships between the US and its neighbors—Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Grenada, Haiti—not to mention the sister republic on
Hispaniola—are distorted beyond recognition or comprehension. Moreover, the fact that until 1914, the major enemy of the US was Britain and not Germany—with implications for the strong support found for German (and even Nazi) imperialism among the US elite—cannot be explained without recognition of Britain’s very different racial policies compared to those persisting in the US. Those policies—although not without contradictions-- were nonetheless the result of African political, economic, and military contributions to the British Empire.
Negro Comrades of the Crown traces the roots of those contributions and the conflicts they engendered. It shows another reason why race and loyalty constitute a political dyad in the United States even today. The disproportionate severity of criminal and penal codes as applied to African-Americans into the 21st century—as if the so-called Civil Rights movement had never occurred—is a benchmark for the sincerity of race relations in the United States and an integral element of its contemporary foreign policy—one marked by more than two centuries of astounding resilience and consistency. Clearly the legacy of historical and institutional fear that survives in the white and even “mixed” elite of the United States is based on deep bad faith: on the recognition that the country’s senior ethnic minority has been systematically deprived of the parity it deserves—and which it largely attained in the British empire. It reflects a deeply held fear that African-Americans could join with the rest of the world and in the words of Malcolm X “by any means necessary” fight with their brothers and sisters in the Caribbean to seize their just share of the republic built on the backs of their ancestors.
Gerald Horne’s book is a tribute to the international struggle of Africans for human dignity. It also reveals the unstated fears and unearths the historical justification in the souls of white folks— recognizing the institutional silence that this book aims to pierce.
© 2012 Dr. T. P. Wilkinson