Johnson Edwards on Stieber (2020)

Stieber, Chelsea. Haiti’s Paper War: Post-Independence Writing, Civil War, and the Making of the Republic, 1804-1954. New York UP, 2020, pp. xi + 365, ISBN 978-1-4798-0215-9

Chelsea Stieber’s Haiti’s Paper War examines Haiti’s first 150 years after independence from France. Beginning in the year where many scholars end their works, she explains that “historians regularly mislabel 1804 as a republican revolution when in fact it ushered in a postcolonial state, then empire” (2). This is an important corrective as too many scholars let their own North Atlantic biases guide a narrative of the Haitian Revolution that aligns more so with a utopian view of the American and French Revolutions. Stieber calls this the “myth of the inevitable republic” (3). This book adds to our understanding of post-Haitian independence by destabilizing the idea of Haiti as a monolith, showing how “through a sustained synchronic and diachronic engagement with the plurality of Haiti’s textual existence since 1804, we grasp the internal battle over the nature of freedom, civilization, and the meaning of literature that fundamentally shaped Haiti from its founding to our present day” (19).

She devotes her first chapter to Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s two-year reign from 1804 to 1806. Chapters two and three focus on the civil war that erupted after republicans from the South assassinated Dessalines in 1806 until Jean-Pierre Boyer unified Haiti in 1820. Stieber argues that “this civil war context is central to understanding Haiti’s long postcolonial nineteenth century: the foundational political, intellectual, and regional tensions that constitute Haiti’s fundamental plurality” (1). At the forefront were two competing meanings of liberty in post-independence Haiti. Republicans believed liberty meant “individual rights, political equality and the active contestation of any arbitrary government” (4). In contrast, Dessalineans saw liberty as anticolonial and antislavery. This civil war was not just fought on battlefields; it was, perhaps more importantly, a paper war. Therefore, she relies on print sources like newspapers and pamphlets, but this paper war was not limited to literate participants. For example, Stieber demonstrates how Northern performative states, such as the one governed by Henry Christophe, included the illiterate subjects of the newly formed Haitian state in an “oral process” through the reading aloud of texts and documenting of oral discussions in official minutes and political pamphlets (7778).

Stieber traces the continued divisions from the civil war through Boyer’s presidency and his invasion of neighboring Santo Domingo in chapter four. She examines what she calls Boyer’s “paradoxical republicanism” (131). Although he claimed to be spreading universal rights, his 1826 Code Rural established rural inhabitants as second-class citizens. In print, Boyerists attempted to demonstrate a national culture through “their Amerindian past that linked East and West, African cultural transmissions born of the slave trade, and local expressions, local color, language” (140). An earthquake shattered Boyer’s hopes to present a unified Haiti, revealed the importance of regional identities, and spawned the Liberal Revolution of 1843. Chapter six shifts to Haiti’s second empire under Faustin Soulouque and two competing conceptions of civilization. While the republic-in-exile crafted a narrative “establishing Haiti’s parentage with the French Revolution,” imperial Haiti used visual and popular culture to critique the Western, racialized concept of civilization (165). Stieber asserts that the scholarly silence regarding Soulouque’s rule is due to the “potent myth of Haitian republicanism” (166). She emphasizes the presence of his image in the French and Atlantic press in the 1850s. 

Chapters seven and eight trace the development of the republic from 1858 to 1930. Fabre Geffrard overthrew Soulouque in 1858 but did not solidify republican authority until 1869. After a failed revolution under Sylvain Salnave, Haiti’s political landscape transformed with a new singular focus on the republic. However, the factionalism dating back to 1804 was reborn in two political parties with differing visions for that republic: the Nationals and the Liberals. Liberals sought to end the civil war by establishing a regime of skilled elites, and the National Party consisted of populist rural elites and peasants. The U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1930 disrupted the republic. Stieber examines Stella, “a little-studied literary magazine” printed in the North, highlighting how the “writers situated” their works “within the longer Haitian tradition of nationalist, Dessalinean intellectual production” (229). 

Although this work makes a significant contribution to the scholarly discourse, the author assumes considerable knowledge on the part of her reader which may render this book inaccessible to most undergraduates or general readers. Valuable biographical information on important figures, such as Juste Chanlatte, is at times omitted or relegated to footnotes where the reader is referred to other readings. Nonetheless, her explanatory notes are an incredible resource, especially for graduate students, as they delve deeper into the historiography and complex concepts. In her epilogue, Stieber calls on scholars to consider more deeply how different movements and individuals from intellectuals of black radical thought to US popular culture have used Haiti for various purposes over time, but the most important “use” of Haiti, she posits, is “to continually critique the narrow confines of white, Western normativity and assert the inherent dignity of all beings” (259).

Erica Johnson Edwards
Francis Marion University