BOOK: Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn

 The Atlantic World Reborn
288 pages, 292 x 229mm (9 x 11½ in.), portrait

123 colour and 20 b&w illustrations, hardback

ISBN: 978 1 904832 94 2

Publication date: November, 2011
Publisher: D Giles Limited, London

Price: US$65.00/UK£45.00


There is an old and revered Igbo saying that states: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” History has many storytellers and their unique views of the past often privileges one set of heroes over another. This is certainly true of the heroes, villains and victims of the 18th century – a revolutionary age that fought to uphold the egalitarian values of occidental democracy, whilst simultaneously enacting one of the greatest crimes against humanity through the transatlantic slave trade. It is a period ripe with contradictions, where the notions of liberty, equality and a brotherhood of man were ultimately denied in the face of commerce and the racial prejudices that it justified.

There is much to be learned from this zeitgeist period, and many stories that are yet to be fully told.  Revolution! The Atlantic Word Reborn is a book that adds further nuances, documentary evidence, and perspectives to a period we think we know well. Instead of presenting the 18th century revolutions in America and France as intercontinental, and exclusively Eurocentric, struggles over political independence, national values and taxes; the book’s narratives include the Haitian Revolution into a wider Atlantic frame. As a former French slave colony, and singular Black republic, Haiti and its revolution are presented as a historical anomaly with far reaching consequences. The narrative emphasises the ways in which European revolutionary fervour influenced and inspired Africans towards self-emancipation: it explores the origins of the Haitian revolution, its cultural and political implications, the role of it’s African leaders and warriors, and ultimately the pressure they exerted on European hegemony.

Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn is an accompaniment to an exhibition of the same name currently on display at the New York Historical Society. Yet whilst the exhibition enacts a sensory reproduction of the transatlantic atmosphere of revolution through video, sound, artefacts and printed archival evidence; the book is a completely different endeavour. Here, you will not find a catalogue of works from the exhibition, but instead a selection of ten detailed scholarly discussions by eminent historians, and a concluding meditative essay by the exhibition’s curator Richard Rabinowitz . This may not necessary make for easy or leisurely reading, but it does provide a serious compliment to scholarship and wider thinking in this field.

As a physical object, this is a beautifully produced hardbound volume with a gorgeous dust jacket including a detail of Anne-Louis Girodet’s 1797 portrait of Haitian general Jean Baptiste Belley. The book offers a pleasant reading experience and rich colour reproductions of historical imagery and documents. Several reproductions in the book have rarely seen the light of day, which is a treat for scholars and certainly a huge selling point for anyone interested in adding to their own library or collection. It is only a shame that much of the imagery in this book  (in particular paintings and prints) is used solely for illustration and therefore not fully discussed or contextualised in the narrative. This is a critical omission because (particularly in Europe during this period) images played such a vital role in influencing mainstream attitudes towards people, places and events beyond immediate purview.

Nevertheless Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn makes a critical effort to redress former historical emphases of 18th revolution, from an exclusively European to a transatlantic phenomenon that includes the documented influences and experiences of people of African descent.

Temi Odumosu

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