Freed because of Haitians

Freed because of Haitians
HEART TO HEART
Betty Ann Blaine

October 12, 2004

Dear Reader,

There's a somewhat indescribable feeling you get - a kind of pain in your heart, or a knot in your stomach when there is injustice or when cruelty or unkindness is meted out. That's the feeling I got when I heard the news of the decision to repatriate the Haitian refugees.

Aside from any legal, policy, economic or whatever imperatives there are, it seems to me that there is a moral imperative that should have guided our sensitivity on this matter. How could we have made this announcement at a time when the Haitian people are undergoing such great suffering? Have we become a country without a heart, or is it that we view our Haitian brothers and sisters with disdain?

If the answer to the latter question is yes, then it seems appropriate to me to remind ourselves of the significant role our Haitian brothers and sisters have played in our own liberation.

When the brilliant and heroic ex-slave, Toussaint L'Ouverture (a name that his soldiers applied to him meaning 'a man who always found his opening'), led Haitians to victory over the French colonial power in 1794, it spawned a spirit of hope and inspiration that reverberated across the black world in unparalled proportions. Here was a group of slaves, under bondage for 250 years, finding the courage to overthrow a formidable colonial power. It was unthinkable, it was mind-boggling, and it had serious psychological effects on white people throughout the colonial world and beyond.

The island of Haiti (then named Saint Domingue), was not simply a slave outpost. Saint Domingue prided itself on being the richest colony in the world. The country in the 1780s accounted for some 40 per cent of France's foreign trade; its 7,000 or so plantations were absorbing, by the 1790s, 10-15 per cent of United States exports; its relatively small coastal plains produced about two-fifths of the world's sugar, and its mountainous interior delivered over half of the world's coffee. What could have given a group of slaves the nerve to think that they could topple this type of establishment?

It took 250 years to enslave the population of Saint Domingue, but it only took 15 years for a colony of coerced and exploited slaves to successfully liberate themselves, and the rest of us.

The Haitian Revolution completely "metamorphosised" the social, political, intellectual and economic life of the colony. Socially, the lowest order of the society - slaves - became equal, free, and independent citizens. Politically, the new citizens created the second independent state in the Americas, and the first independent non-European state to be carved out of the European universal empires anywhere.

According to one scholar: "The Haitian model of state formation drove xenophobic fear into the hearts of all whites from Boston to Buenos Aires and shattered their complacency about the unquestioned superiority of their own political models."

But by far the biggest blow that the revolution registered was its far-reaching psychological impact. It completely destroyed the myth of white invincibility and superiority, and of course, blacks' apathy and inferiority. In the words of an English planter living in Jamaica and member of the British Parliament: "A spirit of subversion had gone forth that set at naught the wisdom of our ancestors and the lessons of experience." The notion that slaves who were thought to be indispensable "chattel", could free themselves, named themselves Haitians, and proceeded to define all Haitians as "black", produced a massive body blow to the accepted view that in the world hierarchy only one colour dominated - white. Most profound of all, the Haitian Revolution represented living proof of the consequences of not just black freedom, but black rule.

The revolutionary consequences of the Haitian experience were immediate. Anti-slavery uprisings quickly sprung up in Jamaica and St Kitts. At least two slave uprisings in the United States - Gabriel Pressor's campaign in l800, and Denmark Vesey's revolt in 1822 - were unquestionably inspired by the Haitian Revolution.

American President Jefferson was terrified of what happened in Saint Domingue. He referred to Toussaint's army as cannibals, and feared that Black Americans would be inspired by what they saw taking place just off the shore of America. Jefferson spent virtually his entire career trying to shut down any contact, and therefore any movement of information between the American continent and the Caribbean island. He called upon Congress to abolish trade between the United States and Haiti, and in 1806 trade was formally cut off, sending the already weakened Haitian economy into collapse.

Lessons of history are always instructive, and in the case of Haiti it is important that we as Black people, and Jamaicans, never forget the Haitian contribution to our collective freedom. Our responsibility is to act rightfully and righteously in the face of the historical facts, and make sure that what we know is passed on to future generations. Jamaica owes a big debt to those courageous freedom fighters of Haiti. With love.

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The Jamaica Observer
http://www.jamaicaobserver.com

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