A review of Rumors of Change: Repercussions of Caribbean Turmoil and Social Conflicts in Venezuela (1790-1810), by Maria Cristina Soriano.
Maria Cristina Soriano’s dissertation contributes to one of the most vibrant fields of Latin American and Caribbean history today: the study of the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the politics of people of African descent and on revolutionary processes across the Atlantic world. Building on the work of scholars such as Ada Ferrer, Sybille Fischer, and David Geggus, Soriano shows that Venezuela was embedded in the Caribbean intellectual and material webs that produced widespread social upheaval in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The wealth of Soriano’s research goes beyond the addition of a heretofore little-studied region of the revolutionary Caribbean. Inspired by authors like Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton, her innovative methodological proposal is to analyze the sources of information that circulated through the Atlantic world as a means of apprehending the type of knowledge that contemporary people had about events in revolutionary Saint-Domingue, and how such knowledge informed political relations in Venezuela. Thus, Soriano provides a fascinating picture of the role that books, official documents, pamphlets, as well as other oral sources of information such as rumors, gossip, and songs, had in the creation of political networks, ultimately resulting in rebellions and their repression across northern Venezuela.
In Chapter 1, Soriano addresses Michel Trouillot’s idea that the Haitian Revolution was silenced by the powerful elites who in the late eighteenth century feared slave rebellion and resisted, even repelled, an engagement with the notion that people of African descent had intellectual capacities and political goals. While Soriano agrees with Trouillot and acknowledges that there was a complex interplay between the interests and definite power of those elites to curve a subaltern brand of radical politics, her work demonstrates that, to a large extent, theirs was an impossible aim. Indeed, beyond the historical and historiographical “silencing” that Trouillot and others have denounced and reversed in recent decades, the Venezuelan case suggests that between 1790 and 1810 the emergency migration of people from Hispaniola (both the French and Spanish sides of the island) resulted in the wide circulation of news and information about the Haitian Revolution, impacting neighboring territories and beyond.
Inviting us to expand our understanding of these statements, in Chapter 2 Soriano asks the important question of how and why these material and intellectual factors overwhelmingly favored the transmission of political knowledge that fueled rebellions and conspiracies during the time when Saint-Domingue was in turmoil. In this chapter we also see how the particularities of colonial Venezuelan society – with its dependence on enslaved labor and a growing free black population – constituted a fertile ground for social and political conflicts, even before the Haitian Revolution. Moreover, Soriano delves into the question of how Venezuelan elites sought to preserve their monopoly of information by controlling the access of people of African descent to literacy and written texts. She argues, however, that this was not a realistic expectation and turns to a discussion of the importance of oral channels for subalterns’ political education.
While in Chapter 2 Soriano presents evidence suggesting that the period following the French Revolution saw the increased production and circulation of books about politics, in Chapter 3 she turns to less traditional oral sources to explore how the continued arrival of people (visitors, fugitives, prisoners) to Venezuela’s coastal areas had an impact among different social sectors in colonial Venezuela. Here Soriano introduces one of the central arguments of her study: that slaves and free coloreds in Venezuela saw the Haitian Revolution as an example and a reference that attracted them because of the values of freedom and equality it represented. Significantly, she adds that these values had relevance for “blacks in Venezuela [who] shared oppression with those on the Caribbean islands” (p. 179).
The 1795 Black Rebellion of Coro is the first case that allows Soriano to take a closer look at the political action of slaves and free blacks in Venezuela, paying particular attention to the role of information produced and transmitted before and after the insurrection. In Chapter 4, her careful analysis of the sources reveals fascinating discrepancies between the events of the rebellion and the way in which the colonial elites recorded these events for the purpose of punishing the rebels. She illustrates the fundamental role that the fear of Saint-Domingue had in shaping elite discourses about the slaves and free blacks. At the conceptual level, colonial elites in Venezuela tended to assume that slaves and free blacks wanted a revolution and to establish “the Law of the French” or a Republic. Soriano says that these terms seem to be the elites’ interpretations of the rebellion in the context of upheaval in Saint-Domingue.
This does not mean, however, that Saint-Domingue was not relevant for the Venezuelan rebels. Following William Roseberry, she notes that the Saint-Domingue Revolution became a “language of contention.” As a trope it had different interpretations among clashing social sectors, yet it had equal significance for all. Moreover, according to Soriano, the “uses” of Saint-Domingue illustrate how Saint-Domingue was not simply an example or a threat – it was adapted to the particular circumstances of Venezuela in each locality, where people appropriated its symbols (both positive and negative, such as freedom and violence) to mediate political relations.
Chapter 5 focuses on the Conspiracy of La Guaira in 1797, explaining how this port city’s location allowed for the passage of political ideas, texts, and people. Creoles influenced by the ideas of the American and French Revolution organized and led the conspiracy. Yet Soriano states that these elites also sought to mobilize people of African ancestry, for whom the Haitian Revolution was another crucial reference. She adds that this interest in generating alliances with subalterns motivated elites to produce accessible documents that would allow for those ideological connections to be established. The interesting documentation on which Soriano’s analysis is based suggests that the elites’ efforts included writing songs and other texts that could be read to people of color and memorized to be retold orally (p. 270). Here Soriano reasserts her point that the examples of the revolutionary Atlantic were translated to local contexts and linked to specific grievances.
In the sixth and final chapter, Soriano deals with interesting evidence related to the runaways who lived in Caribbean Venezuela. She shows instances when apprehensive elites used information about the victims in Haiti and Santo Domingo to radicalize the view of blacks as incompetent rulers. These cases support her argument that the Haitian Revolution became a fundamental context that fed elites’ and subalterns’ perceptions of each other and their antagonistic relations.
Overall, as Soriano states in the epilogue, this dissertation addresses the historical erasure of the links between the Haitian Revolution and contemporary people in Venezuela. It also delves into the mechanics of the production and transmission of information regarding revolutionary events in Venezuela and the Caribbean, mechanics that reflect the region’s core social tensions. Those tensions, in turn, explain subaltern radicalization at a moment of elite vulnerability. Elites used force and justified violence based on the notion of an imminent threat of rebellion, yet they also were willing to make some concessions to the enslaved and free black populations as they attempted to prevent another widespread insurrection.
Soriano’s work is a welcome reminder of the multiple variables that marked political relations during the revolutionary context, and how local processes shaped responses to threats and opportunities. In the past two decades the historiography on Latin American independence has redefined the causes and origins of the independence movements, highlighting the role of the Spanish monarchical crisis that followed the Napoleonic invasion of the peninsula in 1807. Instead, Soriano’s reappraisal of Venezuela’s two major political movements in the late eighteenth century counters the assumption that there were no sources of radical politics in Spanish America preceding the crisis of the Spanish throne. Surely her monograph will inspire scholars to bring together the two seemingly divergent strands of the region’s history.
Department of History
Archivo de Indias (Sevilla)
Archivo General de la Nación (Caracas)
Archivo Arquideocesano de Caracas (Caracas)
John Carter Brown Library (Brown University)
Biblioteca Nacional (Madrid)
Biblioteca Nacional (Caracas)
New York University. 2011. 377 pp. Primary Advisor: Sinclair Thomson.
Image: Archivo General de la Nación, Caracas, Venezuela. Sección: Intendencia de Ejército y Real Hacienda, Legajo: XCII, folios: 96-118.