by Marie Chantale S. Déclama
Greetings, February is the month of the year designated for the celebration of Black History. Since anyone of African descent living in the United States today is classified officially as African American, then as Haitians we should be celebrating Black History month. This normally would be the time to brush the dust off all the old books, articles, and memorabilias of our past heroes and heroines and sing songs of their heroic deeds. We are encouraged to talk about and display our contributions and accomplishments throughout the month. There is just one problem! Haitians have never had any limits or constraints as to when or how black history should be celebrated. Black history is a year round event for us, because we are all makers of Black history. We live and breath history every day, we dont cease to exist for eleven months and re-surface each February. Just look around you! As Haitians we have much to celebrate, we not only contributed to Black history but we were once the leaders.
Let us briefly look at some of the conditions that forced us to make history. In St. Domingue (now Haiti), to say that the life of a slave was worse than that of any beast of burden could not possibly describe the misery that these human beings had to endure. The work day began at day-break, they worked in the fields for 16-18 hours a day. They worked like animals, and they were fed and housed like animals. Some slaves were given two hours at midday, Sundays and feast days off. This time was used to cultivate small plots of land they needed to keep starvation at bay. In spite of being treated like an animal, beaten, starved, and abused to the point of docility, they still remained unmistakenly human, with the intelligence and resentment that a human being would harbor toward those responsible for his misery.
In order to have a human being accept these conditions, brutality and terrorism had to be used to insure the safety of the property owners. Slaves did not have to be at fault to be punished, punishment became the controlling factor. The more depraved the punishment, the better were the results according to the plantation owners. For example, during whippings a piece of hot wood or cinders would be applied to the slaves open wound. After the beating, aloes, lemon, hot ashes, pepper or anything producing a burning sensation would be poured into the bleeding wounds. Very often, slaves were mutilated, body parts cut off for stealing food, private parts cut off to simply deprive them of their rightful human pleasures. Boiling wax and boiling cane syrup was poured on their bodies. Some slaves were roasted alive on slow fires or had their rectum filled with gun powder then blown up. Slaves were often buried up to the neck then sugar or molasses was smeared on their heads so that ants and flies could devour them. Slaves were commonly made to eat their excrement, drink their own urine and saliva and that of other slaves. Women were not spared, they were often burned alive in pits and ovens. They had to wear iron collars if they were suspected of having abortions. They wore a collar until they produced a child. One well documented method of torture was when the slave was tied to four posts on the ground, if she was pregnant, a hole was dug to accommodate the unborn child. There were thousands of tortures that was designed to be used on the slaves. They even had public spectacles in arenas like that of the Roman Empire, where for sport, slaves would be thrown to wild beasts imported from other countries. Every manner of torture had a specific name and the imagination of the depraved slave master was the only limitation to the tortures. It has been noted that the gas chamber may have originated in St. Domingue where they were used to gas the rebellious slaves. This sounds like a holocaust! Can we dare use that word or is it on reserve. It is estimated that Africa lost at least 70 million of her children to the slave trade. This is a human catastrophe that had been started by the Spanish then continued by the French and other European nations.
These tortures were not isolated incidents, they were the norm, they became a necessity in order for the white planters to protect themselves against these "half human," "unjust," "cruel," "barbarous," "deceitful" slaves. The planters had to treat and keep the slaves as the brutes they painted them to be, after all, their safety rested on the fact that these human beings were kept in profound ignorance and unrelenting cruelties to assure their docility. The French however, made a major mistake; they refused to acknowledge that the slaves were human beings, with resentments, memories and the intelligence of human beings. Nothing based on untruth and injustice can survive for long. The preferred method of St. Domingue planters was to work a slave to death and replace him with another from Africa within seven years. Because of this method of management, there was a constant crop of fresh new African slaves. These new slaves never believed or accepted that they were anything less than human, they in fact thought they were superior to their masters. They had a sense of themselves and proudly kept their identity. They were constantly on the lookout for a way to escape. Keep in mind that there were leaders, chieftains, healers, artisans, orators, religious leaders, warriors, etc. in the St. Domingue slave population.
One priest, Father duTetre was a keen observer of the slaves of St. Domingue, he notes that the slaves had a secret pride and feeling of superiority to their masters when they were by themselves. It had also been observed by others that the slaves exhibited "a remarkable liveliness of intellect and vivacity of spirit" when they were interacting with each other and away from their masters. There was no sense of fatalism among these slaves, if fatalism was observed, it was well orchestrated and dramatized for their masters. The Frenchs refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the slave was their downfall. Perhaps they really believed in all their ignorance that intelligence could be degraded by the crack of a whip.
The Haitian slaves had all the necessary ingredients for a rebellion, and with the help of leaders like Mackandal, Boukman, Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, etc., the slaves were able to rally and plan a successful revolt. They gathered secretly at night in the woods and on one fateful night, they gathered once more for a powerful Vodun ceremony where they took an oath to destroy the plantations and their masters. Their motto was hence to live free or die as it still is today in Haiti. This night marked the beginning of the uprisings. The slaves were inspired by Boukman, a Vodun priest and fiery orator, who provided leadership, spirituality and guidance. This particular gathering became known as Cérémonie Bois Caïman.
After returning to their plantations, the slaves started the systematic poisoning of their masters and the burning down of the plantations. They would then run off and join up with bands of maroons who had been organizing raids for over a century. The slaves, freemen, and mulattos eventually joined forces to achieve one cause, and that was the defeat and expulsion of the whites in St. Domingue; few were spared and even fewer were allowed to escape.
Toussaint like many of the other leaders, was well suited for his role. He was an educated slave who could read and write in French and Latin. He learned geometry, drawing, and the use of medicinal plants for healing. It was this ability to heal with herbs that helped propel him into the revolution. When he joined in the revolt, he functioned as an herbalist, a role equivalent to todays physician. Toussaint had exceptional intelligence and leadership abilities. Like Toussaint, Henri Christophe was a slave with more privileges than the others. He was allowed more freedom and was a volunteer in the United States revolutionary army. He and some 800 volunteers fought courageously and fiercely for the Americans in their fight for freedom. Although this band of slaves and freeman from Haiti assured America a victory in the battle of Savannah, they were nonetheless repaid with betrayal later on. The United States not only sided with France against Haiti after the revolution but also refused to recognize her and was instrumental in preventing other countries from recognizing Haiti for a period of over fifty years. This period was of course after slavery was abolished in the United States. Today, the United States policy toward the treatment of Haiti has not changed since the days of slavery.
It is evident that Haiti has contributed to American history in a variety of ways. The events leading up to the St. Domingue revolution directly shaped the United States boundaries. If it was not for the rag-tag band of Haitian slaves whom Napoleon Bonaparte referred to as those guilded niggers defeating the most powerful army in the world at the time, France would not have had to liquidate its land in the southeastern to southwestern region of North America to the United States. After her defeat in Haiti, France was so cash poor that she had to sell the United States a vast amount of land. This was known as the Louisiana Purchase. Today all the states included in the Louisiana Purchase are part of the United States as a direct result of the Haitian Revolution.
It should also be noted, that as mentioned before, Haiti contributed soldiers to the American Revolutionary War. This group of volunteers fought one of the bravest battle ever performed by foreign troops on American soil during the battle of Savannah. These volunteers were known as Les Chasseurs Volontaires. These volunteers included Henri Christophe, who later became a leader in the Haitian revolution. Today none of these events are found in American history books. Although there is a memorial in Savannah, Georgia dedicated to the Chasseurs Volontaires, but for what ever reason, information cannot be found about this memorial. It perhaps got erased from history as many other black contributions.
Haiti has also contributed to American culture. The Haitian Revolution directly affected the American slaves. Inasmuch, as the United States tried to downplay news of the revolution, the news of a successful slave uprising spreaded like wild fire up the coast and throughout the land. News of the revolt reverberated in the hearts and consciousness of the slaves. In their own misery, words of this successful uprising brought them hope. The slaves often gathered at night with their families and children after a long day of toiling in the fields. They told stories about this not too far away land where the slaves have fought and won their freedom. Some secretly hoped to reach that land called Haiti where any slave could live free. Not only did Haiti win her freedom, but she also spent money to help free slaves in other countries such as in Bolivia. Haiti became a land open to all who wanted to live free and such was the law where any slave who reached the shores of Haiti would automatically be free. Haiti became a threat to countries whose economies depended on slavery. The United States and other slave traders would by-pass the island to prevent their slave cargoes from reaching the shores of Haiti. To offset this, Haiti would buy shipments of slaves then set them free. This, of course, was unacceptable and had to be prevented. Thus, the policy towards Haiti became that of total isolation. This isolation nevertheless could not stop the spread of the ideals of freedom. The French revolutionary motto (used by the Haitians) of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity had already penetrated the hearts of those who remained in bondage. The wild-fires of the revolution influenced men like Denmark Vesey, (who himself had been in Haiti previously) to start a slave revolt in the United States. Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, and many more African American leaders were inspired by the Haitian revolution, and some slaves escaped to Haiti to live. It was a reverse migration in essence, because many of the American slaves, especially those of Louisiana were brought from Haiti rather than directly from Africa. It made economic sense for the United States to buy Haitian slaves for its plantations than to have them shipped all the way from Africa. It is not a coincidence that the people of Louisiana speak Creole, eat foods called boudin, mirliton, beignets, red beans and rice, etc. It is not a coincidence that they celebrate Mardi Gras and have the Vodun religion. Certain names of foods such as mirliton is unique to Haiti and Louisiana. Another of Haitis contribution to America and her culture is her children, the same children who are being turned away from the shores of the United States today. Haiti gave us Jean Baptiste Point-du-Sable, who founded Americas great city of Chicago. He is mentioned in history books as a Black Frenchman. But we know that he was born in Haiti of a Haitian mother and a French father. Haiti also gave us Jean Jacques Audubon, who was born in Haiti, then migrated to Louisiana and founded the Audubon Society. One of Haitis ex-slave, Pierre Toussaint whose owners had escaped the Haitian revolution, is about to become the first African American canonized saint. How did he become an American? He was just another positive role model who was absorbed into American Society. But his Haitian heritage is downplayed and eventually forgotten.
The African American people of yesteryear looked toward Haiti for inspiration, and hope. Today we are no longer in physical bondage but we are still in mental and spiritual bondage. There is no escape until we can recognize ourselves in each other. Our heritage is the same but yet one does not recognize the other. Haitians and African Americans should be celebrating history together just as families gather to celebrate Kwanza or Christmas. But how can we do that if we have been taught to see only our imaginary differences? Haitian contribution in America has been systematically wiped out of history. The policy of isolation is alive and well. This policy worked so well that people who are rightfully related to each other cannot even recognize or acknowledge each other. This is a direct result of slavery, this is also an example of the chains which still binds our consciousness. Back in the time of physical slavery, we were torn from our families and those we love. The shock was so great to an individual that if he or she should later stumbled on this long lost relative or love one, he or she could not afford to spare the emotion of caring anymore. It became a protective mechanism to detach yourself from love ones. It was too painful to re-live the trauma of this type of separation. This became part of our programming, and has become engrained in our consciousness. Today, over 400 years have passed and the programming continues, we still cannot acknowledge each other, it is still too painful. The difference today is that some of us actually believe that we are different people. Many have used the phrase divide and conquer, but I dont think I have ever seen it fit so well as in this instance.
Let us gather in February, the month that was rationed for us to honor those ancestors, or let us in celebration reach out to the African Diaspora and re-educate, and reacquaint ourselves with those long forgotten from our memories. The re-education of ourselves is a lifetime process, it cannot be rationed to one month out of the year, for during this process you will find yourselves yearning for more and more truth. It is a divine command to all men to Know Thyself. If one wishes to begin the celebration, one does not have to go far off in some unknown land. Start searching within yourself and there you will find guidance and a whole infinite universe. The gates are open to all, the path leads to one truth, your fears are your only limitations. If you follow the dictates of your inner self and start your search, then you have taken the first step toward your journey, and in so doing, you have broken the first link of the chain that binds the mind. Tomorrows Black history, will be the revolution that brings freedom to the mind.
Last revised on 11/05/2004