republics in revolt
Founding the Postcolonial Republic in Bergeaud's Stella
Émeric Bergeaud’s Stella is frequently lauded as Haiti’s first novel. Written while the author was in exile during the 1840s and ‘50s and only published in Paris in 1859 after his death, Bergeaud’s story retells the events of the Haitian Revolution from the perspective of two enslaved brothers, Romulus and Remus. The scant scholarship that exists on Stella tends to interpret the text as an allegorical retelling of the Revolution intended to vindicate the Haitian revolutionaries. While undoubtedly that, Stella, just recently translated into English for the first time, also accomplishes two other politically significant aims that combine postcolonial and republican themes.
First, as has been recognized by scholars like J. Michael Dash, in recasting the Revolution as a moment of political founding and Haiti as a new Rome, the exiled Bergeaud offers his fellow citizens an origin story for a state newly committed to republican values and self-governance, re-centering the Haitian people as the voice of their own revolution. Second, Bergeaud’s appropriation of French republican values also poses a significantly richer philosophical challenge to French imperialism than mere adaptation of a founding myth. I argue that Bergeaud’s second aim is to identify the ways in which French claims of social and political universalism are contrary to the state’s imperial project.
Developing ideas found in the work of Dash, Achille Mbembe, and David Scott, among others, I demonstrate that the novel interrogates the relationship between republican France’s proclaimed principles of universalism and its exclusionary colonial practices on the island then known as Saint-Domingue. Ultimately, Stella reveals how Haiti, by adopting a republican identity in the wake of the Revolution, claimed qualities its former colonizer had both professed for itself and denied its colonial holdings. In so doing, Bergeaud critiques the performative hypocrisy of France’s reigning ideologies, republicanism and universalism through the recourse to violence depicted in the text. Part of a larger project on the role of violence in revolutionary republican political thought, particularly literary accounts generated by the French and Haitian Revolutions, this paper contributes to scholarship on Caribbean political thought; law and literature; and political violence.