Following the opening of the Mark Lombardi exhibit of conspiratorial drawings at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco we repaired to North Beach for a grand dinner, our motley crew led by the inimitable Iain Boal, the geographer activist, convenor of Retort gatherings, and people’s art critic who had just explained the drawings to us: the penciled constellations, or networks of high and low finance and how they were connected to the parcel of rogues of international power which were on view at the gallery. We raised our glasses to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the black republic.
All over the world people with the least historical sense were doing the same, because it was the disgraceful week following the coup d’état of democratic Haiti and the kidnapping of Jean Bertrand Aristide by the USA and its nefarious creatures among the private security forces, the CIA agents, the DEA thugs, the hitmen of the tontons macoute, or the Haitian Fraph: all those demons who used to only inhabit the gothic imagination or the voodoo nights of Zora Neale Hurston. Now, alas, they were summoned by Bush blanc blanc against the former liberation theologian, friend of the poor, and advocate of jubilee.
The Haitian constitution of 200 years ago eliminated distinctions of color: all Haitians were to be “black.” All who embraced the struggle against Napoleon and the slave masters were henceforth, if they chose, black. Of special honor were the Poles and the Germans who defended the country in its mighty struggle against the empires of Europe. Other whites were naturalized as “among the children of Haiti.” In the Haitian vernacular today, however, there are the petits blancs (ordinary white folk) and then the blancs blancs (the big ones). This we learn from the excellent account by Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2004).
An English soldier of twenty-five years, Marcus Rainsford, was captain in the Third West India Regiment, when he went to Haiti in 1799. He provided the first account in English of the first successful slave revolt in all of history. “The rise of the Haytian empire is an event which may powerfully affect the condition of the human race,” he wrote, expressing a sentiment which surely qualifies the petit blanc as “black.” And now two centuries later, surely the human race can affect the condition of Haiti!
C.L.R. James taught us to honor the Haitian struggle in its victories against the Spanish emperor (a dolt), the English king George III (a mad man), the French emperor Napoleon (a short fellow). The first-generation Congo American troops defeated them all. In 1938 James recollected this struggle as Italy invaded Ethiopia. James wrote to prepare the African Service Bureau for the liberation struggles led by Kenyatta, Nkrumah. He wrote the script for the anti-fascist drama of Toussaint played by Paul Robeson, later to be destroyed by the anti-communism of the U.S.A. So, victorious against three empires. James did not, however, dwell on the fourth. (Did he mention it?)
1803 was the year of Hegel’s Phenomenology, as well as the year of Beethoven’s great piano sonatas. At breakfast Hegel read The Wealth of Nations with the news from Haiti. Thus, the placid periods of Adam Smith’s rhetoric, entrancing to the pompous and avaricious alike, were mixed with the atrocity stories designed to hammer bloody nails into the coffin of the European abolitionists separating them from the slaves themselves. For Hegel classical liberalism and Napoleonic terror went together as naturally as sugar in the morning coffee. Hegel thus had to know that the struggle for freedom was a world history, and it was from below. Rainsford wrote that the cause of the Haitian revolution was “the spirit of liberty.” This most carnal of revolutions drew the most ‘spiritual’ response from poets as well as philosophers. Take Wordsworth for example.
“Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!”
begins Wordsworth’s sonnet published in January 1803. It then continues with an image central to the era of dispossession from the commons,
“Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow Sing in thy hearing,”
The image in this context calls for several comments. First, Toussaint had a way with animals. He was a horse whisperer, Rainsford tells us, and the very cows trusted him. Second, what was to revolutionize European music was its urban composers began actually to listen to the singing all around them. Third, it had been this image which had described the whole essence of the French Revolution in the famous passage of The Prelude when Wordsworth, shortly after having marched with the soldiers from Marseilles singing their call to arms, came across the young woman with a cow on the verge of the road, her common of herbage, “‘Tis against that which we are fighting,” his comrade explained, leaving it deeply ambivalent whether it was poverty or commoning that he opposed. In the latter he would ally with Babeuf, the founder of communism, in the former his ally would be the enclosing developer.
No such ambivalence distorts the classic Haitian novel, Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain, translated by Langston Hughes. It too takes up the issue of cooperation and commoning. “Formerly the water had flowed freely there in the sun, its rippling and its light mingling like the sort laughter of cutting knives In those days when they had all lived in harmony, united as the fingers of the hand, they had assembled all the neighborhood in collective coumbites for the harvest or the clearing.” “Today I work your field, tomorrow you work mine. Cooperation is the friendship of the poor.” Marcus Rainsford found the same spirit two hundred years ago–the coumbite and the fertility of the forest. He found that “the productive system of the earth seemed to be founded on original principles. Every individual employed a portion of his time in labor, and received an allotted part of the produce for his reward, while all took the field, from a sense of duty to themselves. A perfect combination appeared in their conduct, and every action came directly from the heart.”
Roumain explained that “this water problem is life or death for us.” “When she comes out of the stream, cool bracelets rippled from her legs. She places the gourds in a wicker basket that she places upon her head.” Thus the Haitian revolt stirred deep capacities of the “human race” including the cooperative nature of labor, the commonages permitted to the poor in the midst of neo-liberal privatization, the possibility of shared water resources, and far different gender division of labor. These were some of the issues that I believe lay at the trans-Atlantic base of struggle during the Age of Revolution. It is easy to see that they failed. And, frankly, Toussaint had little faith in them; his project was to rebuild the sugar plantation and the export sector. On the other hand, in economics as in war, nothing is inevitable. Back to Toussaint.
” or thou liest now Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den,”
Betrayed by Napoleon, Toussaint lay shivering in a Jura dungeon in the Alps where he expired in April 1803. Boom! we hear the awesome, painful bass C# chord which darkly announces the beginning of Beethoven’s piano sonata, opus 27, the “Moonlight” sonata. The man who freed music is going deaf while the man who freed the slaves freezes to death–“deep dungeon’s earless den” Indeed! Wordsworth continues.
“O miserable Chieftain! Where and when Wilt thou find patience! Yet die not; do thou Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow: Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again, Live, and take comfort”
Marcus Rainsford found himself under a sentence of death. Having departed Le Cap, he was apprehended further along the coast–his passport was not in order and he was masquerading as an American. He was freed by a letter from Toussaint with whom he had played billiards a few times in Le Cap and where he also observed Toussaint refusing to sit at the head of the table. Rainsford found “a real system of equality.” Rainsford was made welcome at a laborer’s cottage, thirteen children, and he noticed a copy of one of Volney’s volumes lying on the table. Rainsford was impressed by revolutionary Haiti, not only for equality; but “crimes were by no means frequent, and those rather attributable to accident than vice” and “health became prevalent throughout the country with its attendant, cheerfulness, that exhilarator of labor.”
” Thou hast left behind Powers that will work for thee: air, earth, and skies;”
These “powers” are woefully attenuated, ethereal, and disembodied. Now of course they have become commodities, no longer common to mankind, but subject to privatization, poisoning, and Ronald Coase-like calculations for ‘rational choice’ or that ‘voodoo economics’ with which George Bush senior taunted Ronald Reagan. Actually, the earth was pretty much gone in England, at least as an agrarian proposition to feed the nation by means of common lands. The Parliament of landlords had seen to that with the Enclosure Acts.
“There’s not a breathing of the common wind That will forget thee; thou hast great allies; Thy friends are exultations, agonies, And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.”
What was the breathing of the common wind? Who were his allies according, not to romantic poetry, but to history and political science? For he had very few in England. In Ireland none, at least not officially, as Ireland was expunged from the political page of history by the Act of Union the year earlier, creating instead the United Kingdom.
Here are some of those “exultations, agonies.” Haiti hosted the liberator, Simón Bolívar, who abolished slavery in independent Latin America. Haiti inspired Gabriel’s 1800 Richmond, Virginia, revolt. In Rio de Janeiro in 1805 the soldiers honored Toussaint. It inspired Aponte’s revolt in Cuba in 1812. The Haitians inspired Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy in South Carolina in 1822. In the abolitionist movement on the ground, that is, among the plantation workers, such a breathing may be felt in the sighing, in the heaving. It was inhaled in Barbadoes in 1817, Demerara in 1823, Jamaica in 1833 that immediately prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in the British dominions.
Nat Turner and William Lloyd Garrison took a deep breath of this common wind. It blew with hurricane force during the war of liberation against slavery in the U.S.A. where the 13th, the 14th, and the 15th amendments to the constitution provide a confirmation of victory only to exhale in a flatulent burst of betrayed aspiration, because one of these amendments became the excuse for prison labor while another became the charter of irresponsibility for U.S. corporations.
Aghast at the murderous lies fumbling from the White House and State Department, we tried to find some truth in the reflection that could be provided by Lombardi’s art. Lombardi pencils in the circles of power. The paranoid instinct of American political science at its best is ever on the look-out for the smoking gun or the tell-tale spots on the laundered money or the lipstick on the collar, or the pulleys and levers behind the smoke and mirrors. Conspiracies, James Kellman writes, are the stuff of history. The vévés of the unseen Haitian powers–Damballah, Agwé, Erzulie, &c. – are drawn on the ground to consecrate a particular area where with music, libations, etc., these powers or loas may be summoned.
Granted we can compare Aristide to Toussaint, who then do we compare Bush to? It is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We do not have far to go. It is not that mysterious. The name was Thomas Jefferson. The point concerns the continuity of the American empire and Jefferson’s founding fathering of it. In addition to Bush blanc blanc we add Jefferson blanc blanc. Two hundred years ago in April Dessalines proclaimed that “these implacable enemies of the rights of man have been punished for their crimes.” The people of Haiti were “mutilated victims.” It is a phrase of special importance to the republic to the north whose constitution had notoriously counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of assessing the number congressional representatives. Thus, a population of the virtually mutilated determined the character of Congress. It was this Congress which selected Thomas Jefferson third president of the USA after a tie in the electoral college. Thus the title of Gary Wills’ book “Negro President.”
“Yes, we have paid these true cannibals back crime for crime, war for war, outrage for outrage. I have saved my country. I have avenged America,” said Dessalines. Pause for a moment to consider his meaning of the geographic expression “America.” It does not include the U.S.A. They chose the name ‘Haiti’ because it was the name given the land by the indigenous Taino people who were destroyed by the dogs of Christoper Columbus. The memory of Dessalines was deep. In 1802 he called his forces the “Army of the Incas” then a year later the “Indigenous Army.” His knowledge of America was profound.
The president, Thomas Jefferson, excluded the black republic, using it indeed to expand the sway of King Cotton, via the Louisiana Purchase. To Dessalines the meaning of America is anti-slavery, to Jefferson it was pro-slavery; to Dessalines Haiti is an independent country, to Jefferson the U.S.A. an expansionist one. Dessalines swore “Never again shall a colonist, or a European, set his foot upon this territory with the title of master or proprietor;” while Jefferson asked the British to help to “confine this disease to its island.”
A Haitian admirer of Jefferson drafted the Haitian declaration of independence but Dessalines flatly rejected it. One of his assistants remarked, “In order to draw up our act of independence, we need the skin of a white to serve as parchment, his skull as an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen.”
Julius Scott, the Afro-American and Caribbean historian at the University of Michigan, tells, an amazing detail, prefiguring it all. Jefferson would not send an ambassador, instead he dispatched Tobias Lear as commercial attaché to the new Haitian republic. He came to present his credentials on 4 July 1801, the 25th anniversary of Declaration of Independence. He was dismayed to learn the people in the streets of Port-au-Prince however were celebrating Haiti’s new anti-slavery constitution. The credentials did not include a personal letter of congratulations from the new president of the U.S.A. Lear wrote that Toussaint “immediately returned my Commission without opening it, expressing his disappointment and disgust in strong terms, saying that his Colour was the cause of his being neglected, and not thought worthy of the Usual attentions.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson was receiving an ambassador from Napoleon Bonaparte who intended to send his brother-in-law, Leclerc, to San Domingue in order to restore slavery. Jefferson assured him the French fleet would receive clear passage from American vessels. “Rid us of these gilded negroes,” Napoleon wrote Leclerc, “and we will have nothing more to wish for.” The United States refused diplomatic recognition to the black republic until 1862. Poor Tobias Lear committed suicide, but over “other issues” Professor Scott tells me.
The only book Jefferson published in his life-time was his study by stratigraphy of the mysterious burial mounds, or tumuli, that used to dot the American landscape. Disturbing the dead in this way was part and parcel of taking the land. It was Vico who found that burial customs were human. Unquieting the graves, thus, was a precondition of genocide. Perhaps Gary Wills next book on Jefferson will be a study of Jefferson and the zombies.
George Washington Williams was the first African American Ohio state legislator. He also edited a short-lived journal called The Commoner which may remind us of the unfinished business started two hundred years ago. Freedom from slavery was part of the struggle; access to water, to land, to a common life was the other. Against them imperialism and its handmaiden terrorism arose. George Washington Williams was not able to write the biography of Toussaint that he planned. He did, however, coin the expression “crimes against humanity” and it is these which the blancs blancs commit and which are described by the arts of Lombardi.
PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti,” Critical Inquiry (summer 2000)
Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2004)
C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, second edition (1963)
James Kellman, Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural & Political (AK Press, 1992)
Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (1805)
Gary Wills, “Negro President:” Jefferson and the Slave Power (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)