Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of human rights reached its defining climax in the Age of Revolution

The Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture painted on the body of a bus operating in Port-au-Prince, July 2008. Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images

The Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture painted on the body of a bus operating in Port-au-Prince, July 2008. Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images

Here is the challenge: to write a history of modern political thought and culture that can simultaneously – and equally – embody and communicate the perspectives of those who arrived in Virginia in the hold of the slave ship São João Bautista, of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Napoleon Bonaparte, of Andrew Jackson and Harriet Tubman. While such a project might seem quixotic, we have to try. That is the political history that we’ll need in order to construct a future politics that moves beyond the legacies of racial slavery, rather than perpetually dwelling with them. The field of ‘Atlantic History’, which has expanded dramatically in the past decades, is the thing that will enable us to do it.

That the United States was born of a history of conquest and settlement that brought people from Europe and Africa across the Atlantic is, of course, an unavoidable part of the nation’s history. More broadly, this is the story of all the Americas, though the particular ways in which European, African and Native American peoples became intertwined in the process varies greatly from place to place. The questions posed by Atlantic History are about how to tell that story. Who do we place at the centre of this history? What categories of analysis should we use, and what social, economic and institutional structures should we focus on?

It makes good sense that a body of water has become the basis for a questioning of some of our broadest and most cherished historical narratives. Until the invention of the railroad, water was the most important vehicle for movement – of people, goods, rumours, songs, ideas. The world was connected by ports, and in many ways ports came to resemble each other. But if it was a connected world, it was also one in which experiences and perspectives were widely divergent. From whose perspective should we try to reconstruct what the Atlantic world actually looked like?

At the basis of every work of history is a question of positioning. This is also, on some level, an ethical question. Whose history are you telling? And from whose perspective? As the Haitian thinker Jean Casimir likes to put it, when you write the story of Columbus arriving in what the indigenous people then called Ayiti, you have to make a decision: are you on the boat or on the shore?

Traditionally, the history of the Americas was written largely from perspective of Europeans, the conquerors and settlers. It was their writings, their archives, that sustained the history, and in a broader sense European epistemologies and ideologies that undergirded the very sense of what constituted history. In the past decades, historians have struggled to reverse this pattern, telling histories grounded in the perspectives and experiences of Native Americans as well as the Africans and African-Americans who were enslaved in the Americas.

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