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Claude’s Comments: Why loud Caribbean silence as Haiti marks 214th anniversary of Independence?

If, as Americans do, Haitians counted the birth of their nation from the launch of the revolutionary war, August 2017 would have marked the 226th anniversary of Independence. Instead, they chose the end of the Revolution, 1 January, 1804.

On New Year’s Day 214 years ago, after his decisive defeat of Napoleon’s elite forces, Jean-Jacques Dessalines stood triumphantly in the seaport town of Gonaïves, a pre-Columbian indigenous settlement, to declare the independence of the self-governing dominion created by his predecessor, Toussaint Louverture, which he renamed the Republic of Hayti.

The declaration stunned the imperial powers of the day, compelling many to reset the parameters of colonial rule and transatlantic human trafficking.

Photo: Toussaint Louverture was the best known leader of the Haitian Revolution.

It all began one night in late August 1791 when the black rebel leader known to history as Boukman Dutty made the first declaration of general emancipation in the Caribbean. In the midst of a pre-insurgency, oath-taking ritual, Boukman addressed the revolutionary congress of about 200 enslaved persons gathered in Bois Caiman, with the solemn words that would change the course of history:

“You have been torn from the womb of slavery and born again to freedom. The past is now dead and now you are free. Free! As you and your fathers were free in Guinea.” [My favourite version, quoted from The Black Sun by Lance Horner & Kyle Onstott].

Boukman was killed only three months into the Revolution. It would take the black and free coloured revolutionaries all of 13 years, the loss of approximately 100,000 of their people, and the defeat of mighty armies of Spain, England and France before Dessalines could declare the former colony a sovereign state, the second republic in the Americas.

Dessalines’ republican constitution of 1805 set new boundaries: it was the first state to combine a proclamation of enlightenment principles of equality and freedom with the enactment of laws to protect those principles for all citizens.

Haitians are some of the proudest peoples of the region, and for good reason. They know their history, its text, context and subtext. Although the Cubans fought a brutal war of independence, they ended up exchanging one colonial power (Spain) for another (the USA) under the deceptive Pratt Amendment of 1901. The legacy of that humiliation continues with American control of Guantánamo Bay.

Photo: Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France.
(Copyright Ernest Crofts)

Haiti might have remained an outpost of France had Napoleon Bonaparte had the foresight to accept Toussaint Louverture’s proclamation of a self-governing, slave-free dominion within the French empire. Toussaint’s decision to stay within the empire was not surprising because, from 1794, he had united all the fighting forces of revolutionary St Domingue as free soldiers fighting under the French flag and backed by the French revolutionary government’s declaration of emancipation. Toussaint’s self-governing dominion, however, was intended to secure that freedom from a possible change of French policy.

Napoleon was so furious at this black upstart that, under cover of the Treaty of Amiens (1802), he despatched a massive expeditionary force of some 40,000 men, including many of his elite troops and under his trusted brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc, to restore slavery not only in St Domingue but also throughout the empire. In all, Napoleon despatched some 80,000 troops and auxiliaries to the former colony.

The Haitian Revolution had almost collapsed under the weight of overwhelming French military force, but more decisively from French deployment of treachery, leading to the kidnapping of Toussaint, who was transported to France to be imprisoned like a common criminal. When all seemed to be going the French way, Dessalines took the fate of Haitians in his hands and dealt the French one of their worst defeats before World War l.

For more than two decades after the declaration of Independence, France remained the major counter-revolutionary threat to the young republic. The first of their many problems was the constant threat by France to invade and restore the old regime of plantation slavery. It is customary for military victors to exact indemnities from defeated nations. The French demand, however, was a historical aberration, because they were the vanquished and Haiti the victor.

Photo: General Jean-Jacques Dessalines was the leader of the Haitian Revolution in 1803 and the first ruler of the independent Haiti.

This curiosity is underscored by the fact that France itself was at the time made to pay reparations for the Napoleonic wars. The threat only abated after 1826 when Haiti agreed to pay France an indemnity of some 10,000,000 francs, equivalent to the value of the colony in 1789. At any time, defaulting on payments could mean military invasion.

Haiti’s precarious independence was compounded by the US conspiracy to exclude only Haiti from the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which explicitly protected all other new America republics from European invasion and re-colonisation. In retrospect, this exclusion was an open invitation to France to tighten the squeeze on Haiti and, if necessary, invade to restore the old system.

Haiti’s impact on the hemisphere has been largely underrated and even disregarded because of the insidious label, “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” While still a French colony, black Haitians had fought with regular French troops against England to help rebel Americans win the War of Independence. One of the most prominent among these Haitians was Henri Christophe, a leader of his own revolution, and President of Northern Haiti after Dessalines’ death.

The eminent Pan-Africanist, WEB Dubois, was the first scholar to fully explore the dramatic impact of the Haitian Revolution and the infant Haitian Republic on American policy and economy, including its westward expansion.

In his dissertation, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870,” Dubois argues that the Haitian Revolution was the “prime” cause “which led Napoleon to sell Louisiana for a song.” Louisiana was the gateway to the American hinterland.

Photo: A artistic recreation of the Battle for Palm Tree Hill during the Haitian Refugees volution.

Dubois further argues that the combined effects of the Haitian Revolution “rendered more certain the final prohibition of the slave-trade by the United States in 1807.” Other scholars have drawn a similar conclusion that the Haitian Revolution was decisive in Britain’s acceleration of the timeline of abolition of her own transatlantic slave trade.

Better known but still underrated is Haiti’s direct role in the decolonisation of Latin America. Simón Bolívar, the Father of continental Spanish American independence, twice sought refuge in Haiti under President Alexandre Pétion. Pétion provided Bolívar with over 4,000 rifles, ammunition, food and 300 veteran soldiers to launch his military campaigns in exchange for a promise of emancipation of enslaved Africans in the liberated territories.

It was this debt that the late President Hugo Chávez recalled when he sought to finance a feature film of the Haitian Revolution.

Notwithstanding Bolívar’s ultimate success, it was Haiti that started the ball rolling against Spanish colonialism when Toussaint overran the French and Spanish forces and annexed Santo Domingo to Haiti. It was the first time that the island was united under a single government. When Santo Domingo won independence in 1844, it was not from Spain but from Haiti.

For several decades, the Haitian Revolution inspired slave insurgencies, including in Cuba in 1812 and 1843, Louisiana in 1811, South Carolina in 1822, Virginia in 1831, Jamaica in 1831, Brazil in 1835 and even Trinidad in 1803.

Haitians continued to participate in revolutionary movements in the Caribbean up to the mid-20th Century. Haitian fighters and doctors, for example, were with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra in the year leading up to the attack on the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Haitians were also with Che Guevara in Africa and Latin America.

Photo: Late Cuban leader Fidel Castro (left) and Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara (centre).
(Copyright Indian Express)/caption]

Haiti was an international player in other fields as well. As the leading Pan-African state, Haiti has represented the Caribbean well. In the seminal 1900 Pan-African conference in London, Haitian diplomat Benito Sylvain represented Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik ll.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, Haiti actually declared war on Japan as well as America’s other wartime enemies, Italy and Germany. Unable to mobilise its own armed forces, Haiti contributed a contingent of airmen who fought with the famous African American squadron, the Tuskegee airmen.

It is a sad indictment on the leadership of the region that there is so much silence in the face of international rip-offs of the Haitian people following the devastating earthquake of 2010, combined with US racist deportation threats to Haitians who were afforded special status following the same catastrophe.

This silence is even more inexplicable in the face of blatant, signature eugenics-immigration policy of the Dominican Republic against the Haitian people.

[caption id="attachment_27228" align="alignnone" width="500"] Photo: Haiti attacker Duckens Nazon celebrates after his team’s win over Honduras at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
(Courtesy MexSport/CONCACAF)

About Claudius Fergus

Claudius Fergus
Claudius Fergus is a retired Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at UWI’s St Augustine Campus who specialises in the abolition of British colonial slavery and its transatlantic slave trade. His major work on the subject is Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies (2013). He has other extensive publications in peer-reviewed journals and edited books.

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27 comments

  1. First it was the colonialists who subjugated our bodies and minds to the extent that we ended up believing that everything they preached and / or practised was the best. We looked at our oppressors and wanted to be them. They looked down on who we call even today, the natives and considered us inferior. Our cultures including our languages and religions were in many cases banned and became illegal. In our quest to become them we too scorned those like us who were denigrated. The missionaries who brought western education and religion played their part in this subjugation. I applaud them for their contribution but recognise at the same time their motives and the harm that was done to our psyches. Unfortunately, even today we do not care to know who we are and we do not want to recognise the commonality of our struggles and histories.

  2. It’s very sad to see that the US used and played Haiti so many times and one of these instances would have been their participation in WWII against Japan. Haiti was used only as an extension of the US, similar to how PR is to it now. Useful but discarded. As much as it sounds nice to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen however, these were black men who served the US agenda against others.

    The US, France and Britain played off Haiti very badly between all of them and still today the US controls it so that it does not develop with the DR well in their pockets, it is surrounded by a set of vipers and thieves whose only agenda is to use the little resources that it has but it still mystifies me that this is done up to today. meddling in their internal politics as it does elsewhere. Surely, Haiti’s gold mines are not that large? Since Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the US has paid and conspired to set everyone in Haiti against each other because that is also part of the reason why it was being kept down. And then came the earthquake and Clinton.

    The only way I see more news coming out of Haiti (because the international media is controlled where Haiti is concerned) is if the other Caribbean islands took a greater interest and started partnering on some projects. I don’t know but Haiti is in such a morass, the Agitators have long seen to it that the fair skinned mulattoes treat the poor blacks very badly, the society is racist from the middle class go up. It is really cornered, perhaps because it was that strong and a threat, who knows but Haiti is a very complex animal today.

    Haiti has been so victimised, that it is also a reason (I may be wrong) why voodoo still plays such an important role today. I think that it was one of the few forms of fighting back, similar to a form of shamanism called kanaima (Amerindians in Guyana/Venezuela/Brazil). It’s part of a battle against all the successive modern colonizing forces, from the first settlers to the missionaries, to the robbers of their resources, to the current development agencies like the UN. They try to assert their native autonomy. It’s a method of war and violence on colonialists, modernity and globalization. It is a very complex issue with Haiti, it is really being used and deliberately kept down. No one will win against that special axis anyway – US, France and England except if you make yourself different and try to do business with the other continents or political ideologies. This is how Castro won out. Russia, China elsewhere, not north america.

    As I said, thieves and conspirators against not just people of African descent but all indigenous peoples. It’s very sad. Sorry to be so vitriolic.

  3. This was a really interesting read. I never realized Santo Domingo had been annexed to Haiti. The more I read about the history the more angry it makes me that she was given such a raw deal. David Rudder says it best “Haiti I’m sorry….we misunderstood you”

  4. Great read.

    I particularly like this mention: “One of the most prominent among these Haitians was Henri Christophe, a leader of his own revolution, and President of Northern Haiti after Dessalines’ death.”

    Henri Christophe is a a silent giant. Most are aware of his contributions to the Revolution, and his turn to despotism in the end, which perhaps mars his legacy.

    What most likely are unaware of is that as a 15-year old, Christophe fought in the American Revolutionary War, during the battle of Savannah (Ga.)

    • I am particularly appreciative of any progress you make in your awakening about the facts of the Haitian revolutionary expansion in the region Nigel S. Scott.

    • I would be appreciative of any improvement in your reading comprehension. My position hasn’t changed. I still welcome your proof that the Haitian revolutionaries intended to provoke a wider Pan-regional/Pan-American liberation movement.

    • No pedant’s diatribe necessary today Nigel S. Scott, that fact is easily extractable from the essay above. In fact the references to Haitian revolutionaries’ attempts to export the the revolution are so many on the internet and in this essay that most writings on the subject end up focusing on the folly of expansion tactics. It was even a British strategy to apprehend the isolated battle hardened elite fighters on route to new liberations and assassinate them.
      Am I right in assuming that you are blind to these facts due to ancestral allegiance to the White planter side?

  5. Great read . Tho i read black jocobins wasnt aware of Haiti s role in other fields of revolutionary conflicts : Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions and its contribution to the Tuskegee airmen

  6. All of this and yet still other countries that were under slavery nenefitted but turned their backs on Haiti. The St Domingue revolution was one of the most instrumental in the fight for abolition of the slave trade and slavery.

  7. The primitives were the enslavers peter and eventually they will lose the war.At present France is still stealing Haiti’s money with the help of other primitives.

  8. When I share this, can people outside the group see it?

  9. We get a half hearted superficial look at slavery and indentureship and barely a chapter on the Amerindians.
    I probably learned more about Aztecs and Mayans in school than about Caribs and Arawaks.

  10. The now (and long time since!) Europeanized Caribbean embraces the myths of a primitive Haiti and prefer not to discuss this.

  11. ..Because the history we teach in school, even today, is not about the march of our peoples towards Freedom and Progress over the difficult centuries; the complexities of that arrhythmic (sometimes apparently terminated) march; and the role of poor and ordinary people in all of that. (We love so see history as the story of great MEN, and not as a process influenced by the mass)..

  12. So why didn’t I get any of this in school? History would have been so much more interesting. Sigh.
    I thought it was a fascinating read myself.

  13. And Saint Lucia and Grenada.
    Excellent piece which I will easily use to reinforce my position as a Caribbean unionist. Dr Fergus puts meat on the bone on the subject which has been my preferred casual reading for 40 years. I proffer that this is the essential history that is missing from Trinidadian sociology that has left us in the morass of racial suspicion, greed and lies about who we are.
    All hail the professional historian, but whosoever job it is to to communicate this essential information to the people needs a big push.

    • If I knew all this as a student, maybe I would have bought a Dessalines tee-shirt instead of a Che Guevara. Lol.
      From the time you set foot in South America, there are Simon Bolivar statues everywhere.
      How does the Caribbean recognize Toussaint Louverture?
      Thank goodness for Michael (David Rudder’s) excellent song of course. But we have really been robbed of our history.

  14. ..Excellent, excellent article. Historically and politically accurate. I would only add (for clarity) that the so-called Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was not altruistic in intent. It was a declaration of young USA’s own imperialist intent to dominate the Americas and a warning, even at that early stage in its centuries long evolution to today’s status as the world’s only super power, that it considered the so-called New World to be its natural sphere of influence. The Haitian Revolution held serious long term economic, political, geo-political and social consequences for the long suffering people of Haiti, but Haiti’s key role in the history of Freedom in the Americas is not held in proper perspective by most. Excellent article..

  15. I hope that people cast off the short attention span thing and read this.

    • Claudius has wasted no time in making some excellent contributions to Wired868.

    • Earl Best

      If only because it will make clear the meaning of that wonderful calypso line that says this: “Toussaint was a mighty man and, to make matters worse, he was black.” (I suspect that last word was originally written in italics!)