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Whitewashing the History of Abolition


This week the world officially commemorated one of the pivotal events of modern history with deafening silence. On August 23, 1791, a group of slaves in Haiti led by a man named Boukman ignited a revolt that changed the world. They attacked their French masters, and kept fighting until Haiti wrested independence from Napoleon in 1804. Haiti’s rebellion metastasized: the independent nation run by former slaves inspired people held in bondage throughout the world, and forever undermined the “moral” and philosophical underpinnings of slavery. Slavery held on for decades- more than seven decades in the U.S. – but from that time on it was fighting a losing battle.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaims August 23 the official “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition,” but there is little behind the proclamation. The UNESCO website’s link to “Activities Worldwide” shows a blank page for the United States. France, alone among former slave trading countries, has an activity listed, but that is for last March’s launch of a virtual UNESCO exhibit, aptly titled: “Lest We Forget.” The link to the virtual exhibit does not work. There is no mention of the anniversary in any major U.S. media outlets, and very little even on the internet.

In contrast, the film Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce and the fight to end the slave trade in the British Empire, made a big splash when it opened last February. In less than four months, enough people saw the film in the United States for the movie to gross $21 million.

Wilberforce, a wealthy member of the British Parliament, risked his reputation, his political career and even his health in a long struggle to convince his colleagues to pass the Slave Trade Act. The Act became a critical step in ending slavery when enacted in 1807, and both Wilberforce and the Act deserve an important place in history.

But neither deserves to overshadow the Haitians and their revolution. Haitians risked their lives as well as their health and careers- over 300,000 Haitians died fighting for abolition, many cruelly tortured and mutilated along the way. Haitians actually ended slavery in the country, for good, while the Slave Trade Act only ended the transport of slaves by ship in the British Empire (the Empire did not actually abolish slavery until 1834). But it is the Slave Trade Act, not Haiti’s revolution, which is widely celebrated as the beginning of the end of slavery.

The orator, statesman and emancipated slave Frederick Douglass was appointed U.S. Minister to Haiti, where he saw the disservice that history was already doing to the country. In an 1893 address to the Chicago World’s Fair, Douglass acknowledged the contributions of Wilberforce and the other abolitionists in England and the United States. But he reminded his listeners that:

“Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery. Until she spoke no Christian nation had given to the world an organized effort to abolish slavery….. Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world, and our land of liberty and light included.”

Amazing Grace actually advanced the process of writing Haiti out of the history of abolition. I caught only one reference to Haiti in the film- a sentence about the revolution’s outbreak in a scene from the early 1790’s. The film managed to chronicle the abolition movement’s progress through to 1807 without even mentioning 1804’s actual abolition.

The world had another chance to give Haiti its due three years ago, during the bicentennial of the nation’s independence. On the big day, January 1, 2004, Thabo Mbeki, President of the most powerful African nation, South Africa, came to celebrate. But the former slaveholding nations, led by the United States, disliked the economic policies of the people Haitians had elected to serve them, so they boycotted the events. They also forced the less powerful countries of Africa and the Caribbean to stay away, so Haiti’s historic celebration was muted.

Instead of sending congratulations to Haiti’s government, the United States sent guns and money to those trying to overthrow it. When the international spotlight did arrive in Haiti seven weeks later, it came to witness the violent return of another brutal U.S.-supported dictatorship. That dictatorship led to another 4,000 Haitians dying in political violence.

I enjoyed Amazing Grace despite its slighting of Haiti, and found it a compelling and inspiring film. That might be because I, like most moviegoers, am a lot closer socially and economically to William Wilberforce than to Boukman and his comrades, or even to their descendants in Haiti today. I am willing to work hard for what I believe in, but I do not put my life on the line. At the end of a hard day’s fight I sleep in a comfortable bed with a full stomach.

We all risk being closer morally to John Newton, the slave-ship captain turned preacher who wrote the hymn that gave Amazing Grace its title. Newton had a series of religious conversions that led him to abandon slave-trading and eventually become a prominent abolitionist. But he traces his original conversion to 1748, while he continued to work on slave ships until 1754. By some accounts, he continued to profit from investments in slave-trading companies for decades more.

Haiti has always challenged Americans by embodying conflicts between our espoused ideals and our limited willingness to implement them. In Douglass’ youth, we had declared all men created equal, but we refused to recognize Haiti because it was governed by men with the wrong skin color. In 2004, our government proclaimed that democracy was worth establishing in Iraq by brutal force, but not protecting in Haiti. Our peace and human rights movements protested the Bush Administration’s violations of international law in overthrowing Iraq’s dictator, but silently accepted the same Administration’s overthrow of Haiti’s elected president. In 2007, we make and watch movies that celebrate the end of slavery, but we refuse to allow the slaves credit for their own liberation.

They say that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Americans cannot or will not accurately remember our own past, or Haiti’s, but it is the Haitians who are condemned when we repeat the past. They pay the price for our coups d’etat, our development assistance embargos, and our occupations. We cannot take back the previous punishment we have inflicted on Haiti, but we can remember it, and thereby do our best to avoid repeating it.

BRIAN CONCANNON Jr. is a human rights lawyer and directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti,


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