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Ecological Chains of Unfreedom: Contours of Black Sovereignty in the Atlantic World


Black sovereignty in the Atlantic world pivots, as in the case of Haiti, from a haunting apparition to a haunting recognition, never quite forming a tangible, and legal, sovereignty unto itself. Haiti's tangled and complicated geopolitical positioning within the Atlantic world gives this spectral state of being meaning. Sovereignty, or, as I will suggest, the processes of recognizing sovereignty and the material shape of its appearance, imbues Haiti's sovereign claims with a specific racialized threshold. Reading along Haiti's racio-national edge also illuminates the tenuous position on the international stage of Liberia and Abyssinia – two nations, along with Haiti, that represented the only nation-states in the Atlantic world by the end of the nineteenth century with a majority black population and independence. Although a small representative group, these sites deserve far more scrutiny within the fields of race and sovereignty studies by legal scholars and scholars of transnational American studies, especially because of the ways the nations battled for recognition and respect amongst other nation-states who may have attached derogatory notions of humanity onto the political work and rights of these self-avowed black nations. Haiti is an important example of this phenomenon.

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1 Drexler Michael J., “Haiti, Modernity, and U. S. Identities,” Early American Literature, 43, 2 (2008), 453–65, 454.

2 Kalmo Hent and Skinner Quentin, “Introduction: A Concept in Fragments,” in Kalmo and Skinner , eds., Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 125, 45.

3 For more on this see Dash J. Michael, Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

4 Dubois Laurent, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Picador, 2013), 12.

5 For more on this see Harvey David, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

6 Chakravartty Paula and da Silva Denise Ferreira, “Accumulation, Dispossession, and Debt: The Racial Logic of Global Capitalism – An Introduction,” American Quarterly, 64, 3 (Sept. 2012), 361–85, 364.

7 Mr. Cooper to Mr. Cass, 17 June 1858, letter, S. Ex. Doc No 37, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860), italics mine.

8 Ulysse Gina Athena, “Sibylle Fischer” (interview), BOMB Magazine, 90 (Winter 2005), available at

9 For more on this vast scholarship see the classic James C. L. R., The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London: Penguin, 2001); in addition to Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Books, 1997); Dubois Laurent, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); and, more recently, White Ashli, Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

10 In addition to the texts in note 9, see Scott David, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Goudie Sean X., Creole America: The West Indies and the Formation of Literature and Culture in the New Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Nesbit Nick, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008); and Popkin Jeremy, You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

11 Anthony Bogues, “Reframing Haiti as an Archive of Freedom,” Special Commemorative Session of the UN General Assembly on the Occasion of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 25 March 2010, available at

12 Fischer Sibylle, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 1.

13 Ibid., 274.

14 For more on these shifting views on sovereignty see Agnew John, “Sovereignty Regimes: Territoriality and State Authority in Contemporary World Politics,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95, 2 (June 2005), 437–61; Suganami Hidemi, “Understanding Sovereignty through Kelsen/Schmitt,” Review of International Relations, 33, 3 (July 2007), 511–30; and Bartelson Jens, “On the Indivisibility of Sovereignty,” Republic of Letters: A Journal of the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts, 2, 2 (June 2011), 8594.

15 Denis Baranger, “The Apparition of Sovereignty,” in Kalmo and Skinner, Sovereignty in Fragments, 47–53, 50.

16 Grovogui Sibo N., Sovereigns, Quasi Sovereigns, and Africans: Race and Self-Determination in International Law (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 68.

17 I explore this concept in far more detail in my forthcoming monograph, All Hail the Queen: Haiti, Black Sovereignty, and the Power of Recognition in the 19th Century Atlantic World.

18 The rare instances of entreaties of recognition (such as that offered by France in 1825) tended to come with enchaining capital conditions and fees.

19 In other places, I have categorized how Haitian leaders responded to these views of absurdity by enchaining racialized labour to Haitian soil. See Salt Karen, “Haitian Soil for the Citizen's Soul,” in Adamson Joni and Ruffin Kim, eds., American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons (New York: Routledge, 2013), 3749.

20 Grovogui, Sovereigns, Quasi Sovereigns, and Africans, 43–44.

21 Ibid., 51.

22 There is a wide range of scholarship on this issue. Key examples of works to this effect include Bartelson Jens, A Genealogy of Sovereignty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Agamben Giorgio, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Heller-Roazen Daniel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); and Schmitt Carl, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. Schwab George (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

23 Sheller Mimi, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (London: Routledge, 2003), 14.

24 Examples of this include note 25 and Huggan Graham and Tiffin Helen, eds., Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment (London: Routledge, 2009), and the new journal Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities.

25 DeLoughrey Elizabeth and Handley George B., “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetics of the Earth,” in DeLoughrey and Handley eds., Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3–39, 4.

26 Trouillot Michel-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), xix.

27 My conceptualization of twilight islands in the Caribbean context is informed by anthropologist Marc Augé's conceptualization of non-places. For more on this see Augé Marc, Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (London: Verso Books, 2009).

28 Sheller, Consuming the Caribbean, 36.

29 Navassa Phosphate Company, Report of Dr. G. A. Liebig (Baltimore: Navassa Phosphate Company, 1864), 5.

30 Ibid., 8.

31 James Jennifer, “‘Buried in Guano’: Race, Labor, and Sustainability,” American Literary History, 24, 1 (Spring 2012), 115–42.

32 See Duffy Burnett Christina, “The Edges of Empire and the Limits of Sovereignty: American Guano Islands,” American Quarterly, 57, 3 (Sept. 2005), 779803.

33 Cong. Globe, 34th Cong., 1st Sess. 1698 (1856).

34 For a good overview on guano see sources in notes 31–32 and 35, as well as Skaggs Jimmy M., The Great Guano Rush: Entrepreneurs and American Overseas Expansion (London: Macmillan, 1994).

35 Cushman Gregory, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 39.

36 Burnett, “The Edges of Empire,” 799, original emphasis.

37 “48 USC 1411 Guano Districts,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School, at, accessed Sept. 2013, emphasis added.

38 Mr. Cooper to the President, 24 June 1858, letter, S. Ex. Doc. No 37, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860). Valuation listed also comes from the same executive document.

39 Ibid., italics mine.

40 Ibid.

41 Commander Turner to Mr. Toucey, 16 August 1858, letter, S. Ex. Doc. No 37, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860).

42 See Clark B. C., A Plea for Hayti, with a Glance at Her Relations with France, England and the United States, for the Last Sixty Years (Boston: Eastburn Press, 1853); and Clark B. C., Remarks upon United States Intervention in Hayti, with Comments upon the Correspondence Connected with It (Boston: Eastburn Press, 1853).

43 Mr. Clark to Mr. Cass, 13 Nov. 1858, letter. S. Ex. Doc. No 37, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860).

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Mr. Appleton to Mr. Clark, 17 Nov. 1858, letter, S. Ex. Doc. No 37, 36th Cong., 1st Sess. (1860).

47 For more on the riot see Cashman John, “‘Slaves under Our Flag’: The Navassa Island Riot of 1889,” Maryland Historian, 24, 2 (Fall/Winter 1993), 121.

48 Spadi Fabio, “Navassa: Legal Nightmares in a Biological Heaven?”, IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin, 9, 3 (2001), 115.

49 “Arguing over an Island of Biological Treasures,” UNESCO Courier, 51, 12 (1999), 13.

50 Bauduy Jennifer, “US, Haiti Face off over a Tiny Island's ‘Green Gold,’” Christian Science Monitor, 90, 228 (20 Oct. 1998), 1.

51 For more on this see Crosby Alfred, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

52 For more on a planetary sovereign see Wainwright Joel and Mann Geoff, “Climate Leviathan,” Antipode, 45, 1 (2013), 122.

53 For a more detailed consideration of the term “slow violence” see Nixon Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

54 Ted Widmer, “Little America,” New York Times, 30 June 2007.

55 For more see Bruyneel Kevin, Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of US–Indigenous Relations (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

56 Dash J. Michael, The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 45.

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