“Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom…”
Haiti, the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbeans, is today one of the poorest countries in the world. The State itself is weak, without any army and crumbling infrastructure, Haiti practically lives of the sharp philanthropy of Western Aid agencies. But hidden behind the poverty, destitution and fragile State which presents itself to the contemporary visitor, lies one of the greatest anti-colonial struggles of the third world. When Haiti won independence from France in 1804, it was the first colony of the modern world to win freedom.
Haiti was one of the richest colonies of the 18th century world, the pride of France, its owner and the envy of the British and Spanish colonists. Its produce – primarily sugarcane, coffee, cotton, tobacco and leather provided France with 11 million pounds of its total 17 million pound export trade. More ships anchored in Haiti than did in Marseilles, France’s primary port of that era. But Haiti’s wealth was produced from the blood and sweat of half a million African slaves who were worked to death on the fertile land of the island. The working and living conditions of the slaves were so horrendous that most did not survive beyond a few years in Haiti, but this caused no moral or economic inconvenience to their owners who merely replaced them with new slaves from the hundreds of slave ships which arrived from Africa’s western coast each year. Treated worse than animals, killed, maimed and beaten at the mere whim of their owners who found it easy to replace this inexpensive “commodity”, these wretched of the earth produced the wealth of the French bourgeoisie which inspired in that venal class the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for which the French revolution is so well remembered.
“Old Pirates they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships…”
Despite the worst of the terrors and cruelties, the proud Africans refused to accept their servitude and at the first opportunity ran off from the plantations and formed bands of free-slaves, living in the forests which clothed the hills of this emerald green island. These rebel slaves were called “Maroons” and they often raided the plantations, killed the white slave owners and freed their compatriots. Both in Haiti and neighbouring Jamaica, Maroons had formed well entrenched enclaves by the 1750s. Some slaves also managed to buy their freedom from their owners, but this was a small number. Often these Maroons tried to revolt all over the island and throw out the slaveowners, but almost always they failed as their conspiracies were uncovered and they were unable to match the military might of modern European armies.
Even at this time, the slaves of Haiti realised that they could not be free as long as colonialism continued in the world. Therefore, as early as 1776 over 500 free-slaves and mullatoes of Haiti went to Georgia to fight alongside the American colonists in their war of independence from Britain. This was an unprecedented and, somewhat inexplicable act. As a contemporary observer has noted, for black free-slaves to fight, on their own volition, alongside slave owning whites of the United States for the latter’s freedom takes a particularly farsighted vision of the world. The slaves of Haiti displayed such a vision in abundance in their freedom struggle.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds…”
Haiti’s revolution started on the night of 14th August 1791 when Bookman addressed a gathering of a few thousand slaves assembled in the forests near the main city now known as Cap Haitian. Bookman was a learned man in Africa who had been brought to Haiti as a slave. It is said that he had read the Quran and had imbibed ideals of equality from both this holy book as well as the French Enlightenment thinkers. Bookman laid out the plan for a general insurrection of all the slaves of Haiti to begin on the morning of 20th August. The level of organisational maturity and military preparedness of the slaves can be gauged from the fact that this island wide rebellion remained unknown to the French colonial authorities or the white slave owners and killed close to 15,000 whites in its fury. It almost uprooted French rule and the hated slavery from Haiti, but eventually, the poorly armed and untrained slave army couldn’t match the bayonets of the French and retreated to forests.
It was during this period of retreat that the Haitian revolution found its unsurpassed leader, a former slave by the name of Toussaint L’overture. Toussaint was his given name and L’overture means “opening of doors” in French. L’Overture opened the door of freedom for the slaves of Haiti.
Toussaint was semi-literate and organised the remains of the slave army into a modern force. The slave army grew in strength and confidence under him. Not only was Toussaint an able general of the army, he was a good political leader. Realising the weakness of the slave army in its initial years, he merely called for the abolition of slavery using the slogan of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” which had been raised by the French Revolution itself and had now become the official ideology of France. In the meanwhile, the British forces, smarting after the loss of their American colonies, attempted to usurp Haiti from France by promising the slaves freedom. Historians, using documents in the archives, have shown that this was a deliberate false promise, but the slave-army of Toussaint knew instinctively the evil designs of the British. He sought the help of the Spanish army to defeat the British forces in Haiti and once the British had been driven out, he attacked the Spanish army and sent them packing off the island. All this while he expressed formal acceptance of French rule over Haiti but Toussaint and his army of free slaves had already abolished slavery in Haiti and were de-facto rulers of their own. Toussaint set up a modern administration and used the French connection to improve education and the economy of the colony.
Finally, France under Napoleon’s growing imperial appetite could not accept the autonomy of Haiti and the freedom of its slaves. In 1802, Napoleon sent a massive armed expedition of his best troops under the command of his brother-in-law, LeClerc to take back this slave paradise of the French bourgeoisie. The French army met with initial successes and were even able to capture Toussaint and send him to France where he died a prisoner. But within less than two years, the French armies had been decimated, LeClerc was dead and the whites had been massacred and packed off. On 1st January 1804, Haiti announced itself an independent country. In these 13 years, the slave army of Haiti had defeated the three mightiest armies of their world – the French, British and Spanish.
Haiti’s revolution did not end with their own indepdendence. Haiti remained a beacon of freedom in the Western Hemisphere for all slaves and unfree people. It gave political asylum and funds to Simon Bolivar in the 1820s when he had nowhere else to go, it hosted the American (slavery) Abolitionists in the 1850s. It was living proof that slaves could defeat the mightiest armies of the world. It announced to the world that the ideals of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” were not the private property of the slave owning colonial whites, but of all humans. It was perhaps for this subversive role of its very existence as a free black republic in a slave owning world that France, Britain, Spain and the USA put a joint maritime embargo on Haiti for over 60 years after its independence which crippled its economy and converted this rich colony into an impoverished nation. The impudence of the slaves was punished thus.
“How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look…”
[The song lyrics given in double quotes are from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song]
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This article was published in The Post on 16 January, 2008.