19 January, 2010
While the mass graves are being filled up in Haiti and international opinion devotes some fleeting moments of attention to this unhappy nation, all we hear about is misery, poverty, corruption, chaos. This of course was to be expected. Haiti is seen as simply another “failed state” one can only feel sorry for and which will need international intervention. Few people remember – if they ever knew – that Haiti has a glorious past. It was the people of Haiti who two hundred years ago made the first serious attempt to turn the lofty principles of the French into palpable reality.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Haiti, in those days Saint Domingue, was France’s richest colony. Haiti’s sugar-plantations and Haiti’s African slaves provided the economic backbone also of revolutionary France. After the fall of the Bastille, both Haiti’s white slave-owners and emancipated Haitian mulattoes sent representatives to the revolutionary convention in Paris. Haiti’s slave and plantation owners were relieved that the French monarchy and French commercial controls had collapsed which opened up an interesting new market in neighboring United States. Haiti’s mulattoes were enthralled by French revolutionary principles. A Haitian mulatto leader, Lacombe, insisted that freedom, brotherhood and equality were principles which ought to be observed also in Haiti. He was immediately hanged by irate French slave owners.
Haiti’s popular majority, hundreds of thousands of African slaves, sent no representatives to revolutionary Paris. Instead they organized themselves, using the cover of voodoo sessions, which were tolerated by French plantation owners who thought their slaves were merely gathering to dance and worship their African gods. But, says the foremost historian of the Haitian revolution, Trinidadian author C.L.R. James, Haiti’s slaves were already a modern proletariat, collectivized by their work on the big plantations. And they too heard the rumors from France and the signals of the revolution.
The first Haitian slave rebellion took place in the month of August 1791. Twelve thousand slaves in the northern parts of Saint Domingue rose up, ransacked the plantations and hanged their oppressors from the nearest palm trees. And this is where Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s revolutionary leader, enters world history. He was a literate, black supervisor on a plantation where his French master seems to have been fairly tolerant and was protected by Toussaint against rebellious slaves. For a while Toussaint was seen as a benign Uncle Tom, but he had read his Julius Caesar and realized that the slaves needed military organization. He raised a black army and had the satisfaction of defeating two European invasions, first the troops sent out by revolutionary France to quell the slave rebellion, after that one hundred thousand British soldiers, dispatched by prime minister William Pitt the younger. The invaders were thoroughly beaten by Haiti’s African defenders and by yellow fever.
In France, especially the Jacobins showed a great deal of sympathy for revolutionary Haiti, and in 1793 slavery was banned. However, after assuming power, the First Consul, Napoléon Bonaparte, decided to reintroduce slavery and, as he put it, “rip the epaulettes off the shoulders of the Negroes”. Napoléon sent new invasion forces. Haiti did survive as an independent nation but was under perpetual pressure from France, England, the United States and Spain. Toussaint L’Ouverture died in a French dungeon.
Haiti, it could truly be said, drew the ultimate consequences of the French revolution. In the United States and in France freedom was born for white people. In Haiti freedom was born for everybody.
But why did everything later go wrong? C.L.R. James in his marvellous The Black Jacobins, published in 1938, suggests that Toussaint L’Ouverture in fact remained too much of a loyal French citizen. He wanted the formerly enslaved Haitians to become exemplary Frenchmen. He wanted to show the world that black men could build a civilized state. French should be spoken as correctly in Port au Prince as in Paris. And he intervened brutally against his own followers, who began wondering if they would have to go on slaving for French plantation owners, white and mulattoes, who had been invited back to Haiti by Toussaint L`Ouverture.
C.L.R. James sadly concludes that Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s revolutionary leader, was in fact a Black Jacobin, a Caribbean Robespierre, radical but authoritarian, not inclined to listen to his people. Instead of mobilizing the population of Haiti to claim their rights, Toussaint first of all wished to be accepted by the contemporary international establishment and be seen as a reliable upholder of the colonial economy. After Toussaint, the leaders of Haiti turned out to be less respectful – concerning the ruthless Dessalines C.L.R. James famously comments: “His ties to French civilization were of the slenderest”. But they successfully fought Napoleon’s forces and in 1804 declared independence. However. in order to be accepted by what has sometimes been called the civilized world, independent Haiti had to pay damages to France and to the white slave-owners who had already made gigantic profits from France’s richest colony. In order to pay, Haiti had to borrow enormous sums from French banks. Haiti remained in the hock for more than a hundred years, with sad consequences for the Haitian economy. The final payment to France was made in 1947.
We now hear Barack Obama talk about the common history that joins Haiti with the United States. Am I the only one who sees a certain resemblance between Toussaint L’Ouverture, struggling for respectability, and the current US president who is so overly respectful in his relations with Wall Street and other rulers of the world? I suggest Obama, in addition to Eduardo Galeano’s The open veins of Latin America, handed to him by Hugo Chavez a few months ago, should also read C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins to remind him how lofty ideals were once translated into reality.
Björn Kumm is a journalist living in Malmö, Sweden. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org