By Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas
Submitted to AlterPresse on July 30, 2012
Author’s Note: On February 11, 1998, I presented at the US National Archives “Haiti: The Birth of a Nation,” as part of the Black History Series. Today, the matter of who we are and how we began is still relevant, as we seek to determine our future. Below are the texts of the announcement and the presentation.
Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas, July 29, 2012
"Wednesday, February 11 Black History Series
"Haiti: The Birth of a Nation." Marie-Therese Labossiere Thomas will present an overview of the Haitian Revolution, which led to Haiti’s independence in 1804. She will discuss early Spanish and French colonization, slavery and the Maroon struggle for freedom, the emergence of Creole and Vodou in the plantation economy, and the French Revolution and related international developments. Noon. Room 105."
The information that I am about to present will relate, as originally announced, to the Haitian Revolution, which led to the independence of the country in 1804. In addition, however, I will also share with you a brief overview of the impact of the Haitian Revolution upon the struggles for African American liberation and Latin American independence. Thus, let’s begin the entire exploration entitled “In Conquest of Liberty” with the first part: “Haiti: the Birth of a Nation.”
A. HAITI: THE BIRTH OF A NATION
The long struggle against colonialism and oppression in Haiti started with the resistance of the indigenous populations to their enslavement by the European invaders who had arrived in the island in 1492. Gentle and peaceful, the Taino/Arawak – erroneously named Indians by the Spanish conquerors – were soon decimated by firearms, mistreatment, forced labor, and foreign diseases, after a heroic resistance. To this day, their legacy survives in “Ayiti,” (in English: Haiti) the original name of their island, which was reclaimed nearly three centuries later by a people forcibly transplanted from Africa, whose struggle for freedom had led to the creation of an independent country.
The Spaniards had called the island Hispaniola (Little Spain). As they slaughtered the native population in their search for gold, their need for new sources of labor led to the slave trade from the West Coast of Africa. The first Blacks arrived in Hispaniola in 1503. From the beginning, they never ceased to revolt and take refuge in the mountains, along with remaining Indians. Called “Maroons,” from the Spanish word “cimarron” (untamed), they kept alive the idea of freedom, and became the roots of the long struggle that led to independence. According to historian Eric Williams, two years after the inauguration of the slave trade in the Caribbean in 1503, the Governor of Hispaniola urged the Spanish government to suspend the slave trade as Blacks “ran away, made common cause with the Amerindians and taught them bad habits.” Nineteen years after their first arrival in the island, the Africans rose in 1522, in their first recorded organized revolt.
The fate of the island became closely linked to European politics. More interested in the search for gold than in the emerging sugarcane plantation economy, the Spaniards maintained settlements in the eastern portion of the island, and abandoned the western part, as they left for Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Florida, among other areas. Thus, French pirates increasingly used that western portion of Hispaniola, which they called St. Domingue, as a base against Spanish vessels and settlements. Retaliation from the Spaniards was often devastating.
In those days of mutual dependence for survival between the French buccaneers, pirates, indentured servants and the few remaining Blacks and “Indians” left by the Spaniards, bravery and courage in battle were often a factor of social standing. Furthermore, the absence of European women gave rise to a mixed-blood population of mulattos who often inherited from their fathers. By recognizing only two classes of people in the French colonies, the free and the slaves, the Black Code of 1685 legalized the existing situation. In 1697, by the Treaty of Ryswick, Spain officially recognized France’s possession of St. Domingue, which later became Haiti. Still later, the eastern part of the island would be known as the Dominican Republic. Thus ended the constant strife between French and Spanish settlers.
The Sugarcane Revolution
With peace came prosperity and, as the demand for sugar grew in Europe, so did the size of the plantations. At the beginning of the 18th Century, St. Domingue was France’s richest possession. The small, isolated settlements and footholds of the French buccaneers and pirates, gave way to large plantations connected by good roads. Larger and larger groups of Africans, imported to work in the ever-growing sugarcane fields, replaced the few remaining Indian and Black slaves left by the Spaniards. To the early days of white indentured servitude, succeeded incentives to metropolitan white families to settle in the colony. Consequently, to the early days of the equality, at least recognized by law between the free: whites, mulattos, and blacks, also succeeded naked racism as a way to justify the increasingly dehumanizing system of plantation slavery, along with newly erected legal barriers affecting even the wealthiest non-whites. Amid the deep rivalries, resentment, and distrust between white colonists and metropolitan administrators, amid the rift between landowners of both races, the poor whites’ hatred fueled by color prejudice found fertile ground in a potentially explosive context. Thus, in 1789, the French Revolution led to turbulent times, where alliances shifted in violent turmoil according to the economic, social, or political interests in place.
African Captives - The Struggle for Freedom
While the plantation system developed, the number of captives removed by the slave trade, mainly from Senegal to the Congo-Angola region of Africa, grew accordingly. In 1789, they formed the great majority of St. Domingue’s population, which included 500,000 enslaved Africans, 40,000 free Blacks and mulattos, and 30,000 whites. To quote Haitian historian Jean Fouchard: “Saint Domingue was a mill where Blacks were crushed along with sugarcane, and the main graveyard of the slave trade. The colony ‘ate’ its slaves at a breakneck rate which the increasingly massive ‘arrivals’ of slave ships and, even to a lesser extent, the birth rate could not compensate.” [The translation is mine.] Consequently, the majority of the enslaved population at the time was born in Africa.
A constant through centuries of colonization, African resistance to slavery took various forms, whether individual (suicide, abortion, infanticide, poisoning) or in groups, including revolts or escapes. All along, the Maroon population continued to increase in the outskirts of the cities and colonial estates, as well as in the mountains. With daring raids, extensive plantation network, and coordinated actions, such as the revolt of Makandal in 1758, the Maroon bands continued to sustain the flame of freedom. Changes in the economic, social, cultural, and political fabric of the colony were also providing avenues to the growing large-scale resistance movement. Those changes included:
1. The development of a common language. As a matter of policy, African captives brought to St. Domingue were separated from members of their ethnic groups and sold to different plantations. However, over time, they eventually developed a common language – Creole – which allowed for greater communication.
2. The emergence of a common religion. Although converted to Christianity upon their arrival in the island, and forbidden to practice their traditional beliefs, Africans were nevertheless allowed to meet for ‘African dances,’ as a form of recreation, on Saturday nights and Sundays. Then, they congregated secretly around their priests and priestesses who kept alive their ancestral traditions. Those included the religious practices of various African ethnic groups, as well as the specialized knowledge of herbs and plants. While the true meaning of the dances was kept secret to avoid punishment, a new religion called Vodou – from the Dahomean word Vodun, meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘deity’ – emerged under a thin veil of Christianity. Thus, Africans used Catholic saints and their attributes to represent their ‘lwa’ or ‘spirits’ with relative safety. Their deeply held beliefs inspired feats of heroism in their quest for freedom.
3. The beginnings of industrialization. The embryo of industry needed for the production of sugar, the main export of the colony, often required a degree of specialization among enslaved Africans. Those skilled workers whose services were sometimes rented to other plantations contributed in expanding the network of communication.
4. The evolution of the plantation system. Finally, the sheer size of the plantations made it difficult to feed such a mass of slaves with a weekly ration. Thus, Africans who, by then, were congregating in families, were given parcels of land to cultivate and feed themselves, while any surplus could be sold at the marketplace. Thus, the slave system was evolving toward a kind of serfdom, allowing for greater freedom of movement as well as increased opportunities for successful escape and large-scale organization.
In August 1791, the African captives took advantage of the struggle for social equality between the plantation owners, white and black, which had erupted in the context of the principles of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ proclaimed by the French Revolution. Led by Boukman, a Vodou priest born in Jamaica, the Africans rose in a massive and general uprising. Later, as royalist Britain and Spain tried to seize French colonies with the support of reactionary plantation owners, the French Revolutionary government had no other choice but to recognize the freedom already taken by enslaved Africans, and to rely on their support. Thus, the abolition of slavery was officially proclaimed in St. Domingue on August 29, 1793, and throughout the French colonies, in 1794.
The Independence War
From the masses of those formerly enslaved Africans emerged outstanding leaders. Among them was Toussaint Louverture, the military and administrative genius, who brought structure to the struggle, and knew how to play French, Spaniards, and British against each other. Victorious, he secured the island for the French, and was named its governor. Later, as Napoleon Bonaparte –who had seized power in France – sent an army to St. Domingue to reestablish slavery, Toussaint resumed the fight for freedom. Treacherously arrested and about to be deported to France where he later died in prison, Toussaint declared, as he set foot aboard the ship taking him to exile: “By overthrowing me, you have only cut down the trunk of the Tree of Liberty of the Blacks in St. Domingue. It will grow again by the roots, for they are deep and many.”
That same month, in May 1802, France officially restored the system of slavery in Martinique and Guadeloupe. In July of that same year, Blacks deported from Guadeloupe aboard a frigate, “jumped and swam ashore to give their brothers in San Domingo the news that slavery had been restored in Guadeloupe. The insurrection became general,” says historian C.L.R. James.
Facing indiscriminate killing during the reign of terror established by the French, men, women, and children struggled with incredible bravery for their freedom and dignity. Under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave whose military talent and hatred for the French led to decisive victories, Independence was proclaimed on January 1, 1804. Thus, Haiti, the first country that arose in recorded history from a successful revolution of slaves, the first Black – and second independent – country of the Western Hemisphere, was born.
B. HAITI: “BEACON OF FREEDOM”
Alone and ostracized, Haiti opened a new path for humanity and survived against impossible odds. Poles and Germans who had defected from the French army during the war for independence were given full citizenship, and the Haitian Constitution guaranteed freedom and granted citizenship to any runaway slave setting foot in the country.
The United States and African Americans
Haiti’s existence thus had a direct impact on colonialism, and presented a challenge to the slave system, including to that in the United States where Africans were still in bondage. Interaction among the two countries was not, however, a new phenomenon. Jean-Baptiste Point-du-Sable, who founded the city of Chicago, was a free mulatto who had migrated from the then-colony of St. Domingue. During the U.S. Independence war, several of those who later became leaders of the Haitian Revolution had fought as volunteers with the French forces in the battle of Savannah. Among them was Henry Christophe, born in Grenada, who subsequently ruled northern Haiti. In addition, according to Aptheker, since the early days of the slave revolution in the island, migrations of property owners to the U.S. had led to the adoption of various laws in Southern states to control and limit the importation and movement of slaves. Furthermore, the defeat of the French armies during the Haitian Independence war had allowed the United States to negotiate successfully the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803.
Soon after the proclamation of Haiti’s independence, free Black neighborhoods in various areas of the U.S., including Alexandria, VA; Rockville, MD; Durham NC; and in Missouri, near the Mississippi River were named Hayti (as it was written at the time.) In addition, in 1817, American Blacks were invited by the then Haitian government to settle in the country. The first such migration took place, soon afterwards, in the early portion of the 19th century; the second, organized by James Theodore Holly, occurred in 1861.
The revolts of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Veasey, and Nat Turner were said to have been influenced by, or somewhat connected to the Haitian revolution. Since Haiti’s independence was perceived as a threat to the then existing international order, it was not officially recognized by the United States until 1862. In addition, the autobiography of Ida B. Wells states that Frederick Douglass, who had served as U.S. envoy to Haiti from 1889 to 1891, was chosen by the Haitian Government as its representative to the 1892-93 World Expo held in Chicago, in order to allow for the participation of U.S. Blacks, who had been barred from that event by segregation.
Francisco Miranda and Simon Bolivar, both heroes of Latin American independence, benefited from Haitian hospitality, advice, and logistical and volunteer assistance, in their quest to liberate their homeland from Spanish domination. While Miranda’s efforts were unsuccessful, Bolivar – who had found asylum twice in Haiti, in 1815 and 1816 – fulfilled the request from Haitian President Petion to abolish slavery in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, where he proclaimed independence. There, he also encouraged adoption of Constitutions modeled upon that of Haiti. Still later, in 1895, Jose Marti, on his way to the battlefields for the independence of Cuba from Spain, received assistance, support, and solidarity from Haitians dedicated to the ideal of freedom.
A triumph of the human spirit, Haiti’s Independence inspired international liberation movements throughout the 19th century. Then, by its very existence, the country had inflicted a major defeat upon colonialism, and presented a challenge to the existing order. Treated as an international pariah, Haiti survived economic barriers, political isolation, and a continuing menace to its sovereignty. In that difficult context, the new country coalesced into a nation, from a diversity of African ethnic groups thrown together in an inherited colonial structure. Transcending the consequent internal strife, the heavy cost of human frailties and betrayals, and the painful reality of foreign interventions, the Maroons’ legacy of freedom and self-determination remains at the core of the Haitian psyche.
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Selected Bibliographical Sources
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Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. Blacks in the Westward Movement. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.
Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. New York,: International Publishers, 1970.
Barthélemy, Gérard. Le Pays en Dehors. Montreal, Canada: CIDIHCA, 1989.
Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick. Haiti: The Breached Citadel. San Francisco, Westview Press, 1990.
Charlier, Etienne. Aperçu Historique sur la Formation de la Nation Haïtienne. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Les Presses Libres, 1954.
Dorsainville, J.C. Histoire d’Haiti. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Deschamps, 1969.
Dunster, A.M. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Edited by). Chicago, 1970.
Fouchard, Jean. Les Marrons de la Liberté. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Deschamps, 1988.
James, C.L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1963.
Labossière Thomas, Marie-Thérèse. Haiti and U.S. Afro-Americans. Kiskeya, Feb. 1989 (1): 3
Leyburn, James G. The Haitian People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.
Logan, Rayford. The Diplomatic Relations of the United States and Haiti, 1776-1891. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.
Niles Register, October 17, 1818, People of Color (2): 117-118
Rigaud, Milo. Secrets of Vodou. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1985.
Williams, Eric. From Columbus to Castro, the History of the Caribbean. New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1984.
Woodrick, Nadine. Growing Up in Rockville’s Proud Black Community Called “Haiti”. Metro Chronicle, October 13, 1988 (2): 1,10.