January 1, 1804–January 1, 2004:
This day is sacred.
It is the 200th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution.
Fought by Haitians.
Won for us all.
Between 1791 and 1804, hundreds of thousands of Africans enslaved in Haiti ignored the rivers, forests, precipices, swamps, mountains, gorges, bloodhounds, rifles, cannon, and whips that separated them and united to launch a massive, brilliantly executed, spectacular war of liberation that the armies of Spain, England, and France (with the help of the United States) all fought desperately–and failed absolutely–to crush.
The Haitian Revolution was no “lucky break” involving “a few unruly slaves.”
This was no “plantation uprising.”
St. Domingue (as Haiti was then called by the French) was at that time the most prosperous colonial possession of any European power. It created far greater wealth for France than the thirteen American colonies combined. Its massive wealth-generating capacity caused it to be known far and wide as “The Pearl of the Antilles” and its French owners had a clear and proven management strategy for profit maximization: push the slaves to their absolute physical limit, work them literally to death, and then quickly import replacement slaves from Africa who would, in turn, be worked to death. This, St. Domingue’s plantocracy had discovered, controlled operating costs, kept the pace of economic activity at a highly efficient and productive pace, minimized slack and wastage, and produced massive, stupendous profits.
Two hundred years ago today, however, after a 13-year war of liberation, the slaves of St. Domingue celebrated their victory over France and other European powers by establishing the Republic of Haiti. They had wrested from Napoleon the engine of France’s economic expansion, banished slavery from the land, and ended European domination of 10,000 square miles of fertile land and hundreds of thousands of slaves to work it.
They had shattered the myth of European invincibility.
“Most have assumed that (Haiti’s) slaves had no military experience prior to the revolution,” John K. Thornton explains in African Soldiers in the Haitian Revolution. “Many assume that they rose from agricultural labour to military prowess in an amazingly short time…. However, it is probably a mistake to see the slaves of St. Domingue as simply agricultural workers, like the peasants of Europe… …A majority of St. Domingue’s slaves, especially those who fought steadily in the revolution, were born in Africa… …In fact, a great many… …had served in African armies prior to their enslavement and arrival in Haiti… …Sixty to seventy per cent of the adult slaves listed on (St. Domingue’s) inventories in the late 1780’s and 1790’s were African born… … …(coming) overwhelmingly from just two areas of Africa: the Lower Guinea coast region of modern Benin, Togo and Nigeria (also known as the “Slave Coast”), and the Angola coast area….
“Where the African military background of the slaves counted most was in those areas, especially in the north (of St. Domingue), where slaves themselves led the revolution, both politically and militarily… … …These areas…threw up the powerful armies of Toussaint Louverture and Dessalines and eventually carried the revolution.”
A successful revolution in Haiti, Thornton explains, “required the kind of skill and discipline that could be found in veteran soldiers, and it was these veterans, from wars in Africa, who made up the general will of the St. Domingue revolt… …Kongolese armies contributed the most to St. Domingue rebel bands… …(Their) tactical organization was very different from that of Europe… …(and they) had learned to deal successfully with Portuguese armies and tactics in the years of struggle (in Africa), driving out invaders… …No doubt these tactics could help those who found themselves in St. Domingue on the eve of the revolution.
“Kongolese armies seem to have been organized in…platoons…that struck at enemy advancing columns and sustained an engagement for a time before breaking off and retreating… …They made use of cover, both from terrain and from woods and tall grass, in hiding their movements and directing their fire. When they fled it was not possible to follow them.” Portuguese troops who had fought the Kongolese in Africa also reported that the Kongolese used “shocks–larger engagements involving massed Kongolese units. According to the Portuguese accounts, large bodies were assembled for shocks supported by artillery, sometimes they formed in extensive half moon formations which apparently sought partial envelopment of opposing forces, in other cases in columns of great depth along fronts of 15-20 soldiers….
“Their tactics showed a penchant for skirmishing attacks rather than the heavy assaults favoured by Europeans in the same era… …Kongolese armies had a higher command structure that could mass troops quickly, and soldiers were also accustomed to forming effectively into larger units for major battles when the situation warranted…. …Dahomey’s armies included a fairly large professional force… …Oyo relied heavily on cavalry forces, had relatively few foot soldiers and throughout the 1700’s was the pre-eminent…military power in (west Africa)… …Dahomey’s troops… …fought in close order using fire discipline quite similar to that of Europe… …
“It was from these disparate ‘arts of war’ that the revolutionary African soldier of St. Domingue was trained… …
“One can easily see, in the formation of the bands mentioned in the early descriptions of the (Haitian Revolution), the small platoons of the Kongolese armies, each under an independent commander and accustomed to considerable tactical decision making; or perhaps those small units characteristic of locally organized Dahomean units; the state armies of the Mahi country; or the coastal forces of the Slave Coast… …
“In addition the pattern of attacks with small scale harassing maneuvers, short, sustained battles and then rapid withdrawals are also reminiscent of the campaign diaries of the Portuguese field commanders in Angola. Felix Carteau, an early observer of the war in the north of St. Domingue noted that the (slave revolutionaries) harassed French forces day and night. Usually, he commented, they were repelled, but each time, they dispersed so quickly, so completely in ditches, hedges and other areas of natural cover that real pursuit was impossible. However, rebel casualties were light in these attacks, so that the next day they reappeared with great numbers of people. They never mass in the open, wrote another witness, or wait in line to charge, but advance dispersed, so that they appear to be six times as numerous as they really are. Yet they were disciplined, since they might advance with great clamor and then suddenly and simultaneously fall silent….
“It was not long before observers noted that the rebels (in St. Domingue) had developed the sort of higher order tactics that was also characteristic of Kongolese forces, or those of the Slave Coast….
“In addition to these tactical similarities to African wars, especially in Kongo, there were other indications of the African ethos of the fighters… …they marched, formed and attacked accompanied by the ‘music peculiar to Negroes….’ Their religious preparation, likewise, hearkened back to Africa….
“It is unlikely that many slaves would have learned equestrian skills as a part of their plantation labor… …Since there was virtually no cavalry in Angola, one can speculate that rebels originating from Oyo might have provided at least some of the trained horsemen. Also, the Senegalese, though a minority, also came from an equestrian culture… …
“African soldiers may well have provided the key element of the early success of the revolution. They might have enabled its survival when it was threatened by reinforced armies from Europe. Looking at the rebel slaves of Haiti as African veterans rather than as Haitian plantation workers may well prove to be the key that unlocks the mystery of the success of the largest slave revolt in history.”
St. Domingue’s policy of working its slaves to death and then quickly importing replacements from Africa proved to be the ultimate karmic boomerang. St. Domingue’s African-born slaves not only were not yet broken psychologically, but they were also in possession of significant military training and experience gained on the other side of the Atlantic. And they combined with brilliant, indefatigable, St. Domingue-born blacks like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines to create a black revolutionary juggernaut the likes of which Europe and the United States had not seen before–or since.
The blacks of St. Domingue forced the world to see both them and the millions of other Africans enslaved throughout the Americas with new eyes. No longer could it be assumed that they could forever be brutalized into creating massive fortunes and building sprawling empires for the glory of Europe and America.
On January 1, 1804, hundreds of thousands of slave revolutionaries established an independent republic and named it Haiti in honor of the Amerindian people, long since killed off by European brutality and diseases, who had called the land Ayiti–Land of Many Mountains. They had banished slavery from their land and proclaimed it an official refuge for escaped slaves from anywhere in the world. They had defeated the mightiest of the mighty. They had shattered the myth of European invincibility.
Europe was livid. America, apoplectic. The blacks in St. Domingue had forgotten their place and would be made to pay. Dearly. For the next two hundred years.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines, and their slave revolutionaries must forever live in our hearts as inspiring, authentic counterweights to the “yassuh-nosuh-scratch-where-ah-don’-itch-and-dance-tho-there -ain’-no-music” image of our forebears that Europe and the United States have drilled into our psyches.
And we must remember that history forgets, first, those who forget themselves. Via means direct and indirect, crass and subtle, there have been whispers and street corner shouts that “current conditions in Haiti” make our celebration of the Haitian Revolution “inappropriate” at this time.
We, whose souls and psyches have been bleached of everything prior to the Middle Passage are now being told that we must tear from our consciousness and rip from our hearts the most dramatic and triumphal assertion of forebears’ dignity, worth, and perspicacity since the Middle Passage.
How diabolically contemptuous.
Not only must we not forget the Haitian Revolution, we must celebrate it. Today, through all of this its bicentennial year, and beyond.
And we must research, understand, and expose what happened to Haiti and in Haiti since the revolution. We must become fully conversant with the role of “the world’s leading democracies” in Haiti between 1804 and today. We must develop a keen understanding of the repercussions of the 61-year economic embargo that the United States imposed on Haiti in response to its declaration of independence, and we must recognize the current-day consequences of France forcing Haiti to pay 90 million in gold francs (equivalent today to some $20 billion) in 1825 as “compensation” for Haiti declaring its independence–or be crushed militarily by France.
Today, “the world’s leading democracies” cluck and gloat at their ongoing stranglehold–in the form of a crushing financial embargo–on today’s descendants of Toussaint, Dessalines, and their freedom fighters. Throughout the Americas, we who benefited from the daring war waged by the slaves of St. Domingue, must reject the maneuverings of the world’s most powerful nations in Haiti and find ways to build bridges to the Haitian people and the officials they choose–through the ballot–to lead them.
Just over two hundred years ago, after there had been a “cessation of hostilities” and the brilliant military strategist Toussaint L’Ouverture had already retired to a quiet life in the St. Domingue country-side, France decided, nonetheless, to arrest and ship him to a prison cell 3,000 feet up the Jura Mountains of France where he would freeze to death. As he stepped on board the boat that would forever take him away from St. Domingue, Toussaint issued a promise to his captors and a call to us all.
“In overthrowing me, you have cut down in St. Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep.”
We are those roots.
The revolution was fought by Haitians, but won for us all.
Through our work and with our resources, in a spirit of self-respect and self-awareness, we must serve as counterweights to the powerful nations who deem the ballot box sacrosanct in their countries, but surreptitiously encourage and manipulate its rejection by “the opposition” in Haiti. We must serve as proponents of political civility and social justice in Haiti while “the world’s leading democracies” slyly encourage recalcitrance, tumult, and division. We must reject being manipulated by the corporate media into embracing the notion that in France, Germany, the United States and other “civilized nations” elections are the only legitimate determinant of the will of the people, but in Haiti those street demonstrations specially selected by the corporate media for coverage tell us all we need to know about anybody’s will. We must impress upon all Haitians the fact that the outside world does not distinguish between–and cares nothing about–Lavalas, Convergence, or any other political grouping. The world sees only “Haiti,” “Haitians,” and all the connotations that western media have attached thereto. Those nations that two hundred years ago failed desperately in their attempts to crush the Haitian Revolution today have a deep psychic need to “prove” Toussaint’s progeny capable of nothing but disaster. We must reach out to and work with our Haitian brothers and sisters to prove these nations wrong.
Throughout the Diaspora, we must stand with and defend Haiti–on this the anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, throughout this bicentennial year, and for all time. For in so doing, we stand for and defend ourselves.
Haiti, Jessica, and WMD
America’s foreign policy officials have perpetrated horrific untruths recently. Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” Jessica Lynch’s “battlefield heroism” and “abuse,” and Aristide’s “failure to deliver” in Haiti are cases in point.
Iraq’s oil, the fear of war-triggered terrorism, and Iraq’s antiquity have made us more aware, and less susceptible–though not immune–to media manipulation regarding Iraq. Similarly, American soldiers who have served in Iraq have American defenders who will not allow these soldiers’ contributions to be overlooked while, for example, Jessica Lynch’s truth is trampled and twisted to whip up “patriotism” and animus for “the bad guys.”
Who, however, knows or cares anything about Haiti? How many Americans know that–in our names–American policy-makers have used our country’s enormous power to block 8 million Haitians’ access to approved loans for safe drinking water, literacy programs, and health services? How many know, when we read about “Haiti’s steady slide,” that powerful American policy-makers are massively responsible? These officials are holding the Haitian people, who desperately want to own their democracy, in a brutal economic death-grip. Is this the face that America intends to continue showing to the black and brown peoples of the world? Ordinary Americans can no longer afford indifference.
Our president says that we are terrorism targets because “they are jealous of us”; because “we love liberty and they do not”; because we represent “truth and justice.”
Is it really our compassion and magnanimity that cause the rage in distant hearts to reduce Bali tourist spots to embers, Manhattan towers to dust, and our Nairobi embassy to rubble? If so, the Dali Lama is in great danger.
In these times, Americans must assess what our policies are doing to human beings beyond our shores. And we must realize that the same “information” machine that lied about WMD and Jessica Lynch lies about much more–including Aristide and Haiti.
The United States has had Haitian blood on its hands for a long time. Today, they are dripping.
In 2000, the year of our electoral meltdown, election observers in Haiti recommended that seven senate seats (out of a total of 7,500 positions filled nation-wide) go to a run-off. Haiti’s electoral commission disagreed, creating the only international concern about the election. To avoid “the wrath of the mighty,” these senators resigned. However, American officials who had vehemently opposed the restoration of Haiti’s elected government in 1994, now seized on the run-off controversy to further demonize Aristide, break the Haitian people’s spirit, and “prove” the Haitian Revolution a failure
Powerful Americans are crushing the Haitian people’s dream of building their own democracy in their own image, and these officials blocking Haitians’ access to safe drinking water tells us all we need to know. They loathe Aristide because he represents the poorer, blacker masses of Haitian society, whereas America’s traditional allies have always been Haiti’s moneyed, white or mulatto “elite.” The parallels between America’s policies toward Haiti and our policies towards apartheid South Africa have never been lost on me.
During my colleagues’ and my battle to end America’s long-standing collusion with South Africa’s white supremacist government, highly respected U.S. government officials publicly asserted that Mandela and the African National Congress were terrorist and that the anti-apartheid movement was antithetical to U.S. interests. Aristide’s government was restored in 1994 following a coup in which Haiti’s US-allied army killed 5,000 civilians. And those American officials who had defended apartheid South Africa lost no time in turning their policy venom full bore on today’s descendents of the most spectacular slave revolt in the history of all the Americas–and the man Haitians chose to lead them.
Aristide has not “failed to deliver.” Powerful individuals from the most powerful nation on earth have placed a financial embargo on his country and made the strangulation of his government–and therefore his people–a priority. They are determined to render him incapable of delivering so that his people will, in time, tire of the excruciating hardships and tire of him.
At the dawn of this New Year, perhaps we should reflect on what we have done to Aristide, what we have done to the Haitian people, and on Thomas Jefferson’s lament: “When I consider that God is just, I shudder for my country.” The way we continue to treat weaker peoples and nations around the world will determine, for years to come, whether justice is something Americans have reason to welcome or something we have reason to dread.
RANDALL ROBINSON is founder and former president of TransAfrica. He is an author and lives in the Caribbean.