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American Studies

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The first use of aerial surveillance in the Americas was recorded in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the waning years of the eighteenth century. The device, a manned hot air balloon, was launched at the Gallifet plantation, a thriving center of the colony’s sugar economy. Hovering above the island’s north coast, French colonial passengers gained a sprawling vantage point from which the world could be both seen and imagined: a conquest of air to complement the conquest of land. But in 1791, things were not so clearly visible. After months of quiet planning, Haitian rebels emerged from the thick woods onto that same Gallifet plantation, setting fire to buildings and fields, choking the night sky with smoke. Despite its omnipotent heights, colonial surveillance had failed to prevent an uprising of enslaved African people in this, the world’s most productive colony, the economic engine of the French empire, and largest market for the European slave trade.



Christina Heatherton, “Making the First International: Nineteenth-Century Regimes of Surveillance, Accumulation, Resistance, and Abolition,” in Cambridge History of America in the World, eds. Kristin Lee Hoganson and Jay Sexton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 295-315.

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Cambridge History of America in the World



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