Ada Ferrer

Freedom’s Mirror

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Freedom’s Mirror Summary

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In her non-fiction book, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (2014), Cuban-American author and historian Ada Ferrer examines the global aftermath of Haiti’s successful 1791 slave rebellion. While the rebellion set off a massive—albeit slow-moving—wave of emancipation and abolition throughout the Americas, Cuba responded by doubling down on slavery, significantly growing its sugar industry which was built on the backs of forced laborers.

During the eighteenth century, most of the economic activity in the Caribbean was devoted to fulfilling European demand for sugar. The recent implementation of newly-invented irrigation systems resulted in a huge boom in sugar production, one that nevertheless required a great deal of immensely demanding manual labor, which in the French colony of Saint-Domingue—now referred to as Haiti—meant the extensive use of slaves taken from their homes in Africa. By the 1780s, France imported up to 20,000 slaves a year from Africa to work in the sugar trade. According to historical records, the dollar value of the crops exported from Saint-Domingue to France each year was nearly equal to the combined worth of what the Thirteen Colonies of America exported to Great Britain in a year.

In addition to long hours, backbreaking work, and maltreatment at the hands of the plantation overseers, the slaves routinely died of tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Because the yellow fever death rate was so high—over fifty percent in some seasons—overseers cared little for the health and nutrition of their slaves, concluding they were likely to perish from disease anyway. In addition, although the French monarchy had passed laws prohibiting the cruelest behaviors toward the slaves—including rape, torture, and castration—the local authorities in Saint-Domingue reversed these statutes. By the late 1700s, there were nearly a half million slaves on the island of Saint-Domingue, outnumbering whites and free blacks by a ratio of ten to one.

With Saint-Domingue already a powder keg about to burst, the new French government established by the French Revolution granted citizenship to free black men across the empire. Whites in Saint-Domingue were outraged, leading to a conflict with the colony’s free blacks, many of who worked as overseers and in other less menial positions on the plantations. Because of these tensions, free blacks became far more likely to provide aid to the slaves when revolts broke out. On August 21, 1791, a tropical storm began to roll into Saint-Domingue. The local voodoo high priests, viewing this as a sign that the revolt should commence, proceeded to command thousands of slaves in the Northern province to kill their masters and their families. Long years of unbearable suffering had engendered in many of the slaves a hatred of whites that manifested itself in the rape, torture, and murder of their masters and their masters’ families. Within ten days, virtually the entire Northern province was controlled by the slave insurrectionists.

Over the next thirteen years, there was a long, protracted battle in Saint-Domingue involving French troops and later British troops hoping to control the colony. Historians estimate that up to 350,000 residents of the colony died during the conflict, the vast majority of whom were slaves and free blacks. Meanwhile, up to 100,000 British and French troops died during that same period. But in the end, Saint-Domingue became the free republic of Haiti under the control of a government led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave and a key military leader in the rebellion. The largest and most successful slave rebellion in history, it caused a dramatic rethinking about white supremacy and the immorality of slavery throughout the Western world. Though not in Cuba, writes Ferrer.

In the years following the Haitian rebellion, Cuba emerged as a burgeoning slave economy, even though it meant recreating many of the conditions that directly led to the Haitian Revolution. Causing even more concern was the fact that Hispaniola, the island containing Haiti and the Dominican Republic, lay just fifty miles off the coast of Cuba, across the Windward Passage. In short, rather than resulting in the exportation of slave rebellions to nearby islands, the Haitian Revolution caused an economic vacuum to open up in the area, one that Cuba was all too eager to fill. The main takeaway of this seems to be that, for nations that long relied on slave labor for the majority of their economies, the Haitian Revolution led to a decrease in that country’s appetite for maintaining its slavery-based economy. However, for a country like Cuba, with little history of slavery, the Haitian Revolution provided an economic opportunity too attractive for the whites there to pass up.

Furthermore, the new Haitian leader Dessalines had little appetite for encouraging slaves in neighboring countries to revolt. He proclaimed, “Let our neighbors live in peace. Let us not, as revolutionary firebrands, declare ourselves legislators of the Antilles, nor let our glory consist in troubling the peace of our neighbors.”

According to H-Net, “Ferrer’s work brings the slavery and antislavery debates of Haiti and Cuba into the nineteenth century and shows how the trajectories of both countries were woven together despite heading for diametrically opposed end goals.”