Theses Doctoral

“Children of Africa, Shall Be Haytians”: Prince Saunders, Revolutionary Transnationalism, and the Foundations of Black Emigration

Alcenat, Westenley

After the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), under the leadership of freed Black American-born Prince Saunders, working in conjunction with formerly enslaved revolutionaries, invited some 13,000 free African-Americans to leave the United States to emigrate to world’s first Black republic of Haiti. This migration offered the possibility of economic freedom and a promise/redefinition of the boundaries of citizenship and equality in the Atlantic world.
Part I, “Abolitionist Pioneers and Origins,” begins with a summary biography of Prince Saunders and an overview of the world of transatlantic slavery he was born into. Its major context is nineteenth century Anglo-European ideologies of freedom, equality, and citizenship.
The dissertation also considers the origins of black revolutionary transnationalism by looking at its early pioneers and the revolutionary processes that widened the scope for the eventual success of antislavery to become an ideology rooted in human rights claims. Chapter 1 explores the late eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century as crucial periods in which free Blacks in the United States, slaves and freed people in Haiti, and British abolitionists embraced the morality that slavery and racism posed the greatest dangers to a world mired in revolutionary claims to natural rights.
Part II, “Ideas and Ideologies,” considers how Saunders worked to frame the legacy of the Haitian Revolution as a democratic project that shaped the ideology of revolutionary transnationalism. In this view, citizenship was defined as unrestricted by national borders. By Saunders disseminating the idea of citizenship as transcending borders, the idea of Haiti became a radically subversive alternate to American citizenship. By propagating such views, Saunders transformed himself into a transcultural, bi-national hybrid American-Haitian, embodying the overall dynamism of black revolutionary transnationalism. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the fusion of transatlantic abolitionism and Haitian revolutionary ideology into a full-fledged emigration idealism that showcases the operative capacity of Black citizenship.
Part III, “The Era of Emigration and Colonization, 1816-1833, in Chapters 5 and 6 respectively grapples with the real consequences of African American emigration to Haiti and Prince Saunders’s legacy. The first wave of emigration from 1816–1826 was followed by a second wave from 1859-1865. In the interim, Blacks debated the relative merits of Haitian emigration versus colonization as a strategy for citizenship. The status of Haiti as a feasible home ebbed and flowed in the minds of Black emigrationists who increasingly viewed West Africa, as well as parts of Latin and South America or Canada, as options for escaping to citizenship.
I conclude by exploring these debates for what they tell us about fragmentation and ruptures in the free Black community regarding the best strategies for reform and citizenship beyond the gaining or granting of freedom. It must be noted, however, that in the penultimate conclusion to Prince Saunders’s struggle, the coming of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period thereafter took African Americans away from the meaning and significance of Haiti.
Finally, readers will note that each part and chapter of this volume is intended to synchronize with the whole but also stand as single-chapter essays.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 1, 2019