Many people are aware of the phrase that opens the 1776 declaration of independence by the American colonists against British rule:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

As is obvious, this declaration of ‘equality’ did not extend to black slaves who remained enslaved until 1865.

Fewer are probably familiar with the history of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and its French controlled colony of St Domingue (now Haiti). In particular, what is less well known is how, after the arrival of deputies from St Domingue, in 1794 the French state abolished slavery in all its colonies in the following decree:

Decree of the National Convention, 16 Pluviose year II of the French Republic, 1794:

The National Convention declares the abolition of Negro Slavery in all colonies; in consequence it decrees that all men, without distinction of colour, dwelling in the colonies, are French citizens, and will enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.

The decree lasted eight years until Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France.

And fewer still are likely to know of the Haitian constitution framed in 1805 by revolutionary leader and former slave Jacques Dessalines. Amongst other articles Dessalines disallowed any non-resident white person from owning property in Haiti but at the same time enabled Polish and German soldiers who had fought in the colonial wars to naturalize as citizens. In perhaps the most striking provision, he decided that all Haitians regardless of skin colour would henceforth be called ‘blacks’ (preempting the sociological debate on ‘normative whiteness’ by two centuries).

1805 Constitution of Haiti, promulgated by Emperor Jacques Dessalines:

Article. 1. The people inhabiting the island formerly called St. Domingo, hereby agree to form themselves into a free state sovereign and independent of any other power in the universe, under the name of empire of Hayti.
2. Slavery is forever abolished.
3. The Citizens of Hayti are brothers at home...
7. The quality of citizen of Hayti is lost by emigration and naturalization in foreign countries...
12. No whiteman of whatever nation he may be, shall put his foot on this territory with the title of master or proprietor, neither shall he in future acquire any property therein.
13. The preceding article cannot in the smallest degree affect white woman who have been naturalized Haytians... The Germans and Polanders naturalized by government are also comprised in the dispositions of the present article.
14. All exception of colour... being necessarily to cease, the Haytians shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks.

It seems tragic and paradoxical that Haitian independence should have come to be framed in racialist, isolationist terms having begun amidst strong claims for universal human equality and freedom. The current situation of Haiti as the poorest state in the Western hemisphere seems starkly at odds both with its historical significance in the region and these early hopes. I raise these issues here from the point of view of historical interpretation: how do we weigh up the relevant historical details which might make sense of Dessalines declaration? Recently I tried to create a chronology that would somehow contextualise his constitutions looking at what happened before and after; the more events I added the more I felt I needed to add...

(It goes without saying that a starting point for understanding the Haitian revolution in depth is CLR James' The Black Jacobins)


Here is my faulty attempt at a chronological context:

1507: New World slavery initiated by Spanish.

1522: Slave rebellion breaks out in the sugar mills of Hispaniola including those of Columbus' son, Diego Colon. Slaves capture the town of Azua near Santo Domingo, are defeated and hanged.

1648: English Puritans settle on a small Bahamian island calling it ‘Eleuthera’ - ‘freedom’.
1650s onwards: intensive New World slavery begins focused on plantation-based sugar production in the Caribbean, Brazil; tobacco and cotton in Southern states of British America.
1655: Having failed to capture Hispaniola, British invade Jamaica which becomes their largest slave colony.
1667: The Dutch cede New Amsterdam (now New York) to the British in return for guarantees over the (formerly British) slave colony, Surinam.
1688: English writer, Aphra Behn, publishes her fictional account of a slave revolt in Surinam, Oronooko, probably based on first hand knowledge of the colony.
1697: French colonists acquire control of Western Hispaniola (St Domingue, later Haiti).
1759: The French cede Quebec to the British in return for guarantees over their lucrative slave colony, Guadeloupe.
1775. The Thirteen Colonies of British America rebel against British rule.
1776: A group of white, ethnically English lawyers draft the Declaration of Independence: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’
1778: Volunteer slaves from Haiti leave to fight with the French against the British in the American war of independence.
1783: Britain grants the United States independence under the treaty of Paris.
1783: The 'Book of Negroes' lists 3000 (mostly West Indian) blacks who fought with the British against the American independentists with a view to resettling them in (what is now) Canada and later Sierra Leone.
1787: British Quaker anti-slavery committees encourage Clarkson and Wilberforce to bring an anti-slavery bill to the House of Commons.
1789: French revolution begins.
Rights of Man published in 1789: 'Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility'.
1791: Slave insurrection and revolution begins in the French controlled St Domingue (Haiti, the largest producer of sugar in the world).
1791 (April): Wilberforce introduces the first bill for the abolition of the slave trade in the British House of Commons; defeated 163 votes to 88.
1793 (January): Louis XVI executed.
1793: British ally themselves with French plantocracy in Haiti and invade.
1793/4: Toussaint L'ouverture, leader of the Haitian troops, allies himself with Sonthonax general of the French army in Haiti on an understanding that Sonthonax will free Haitian slaves.
1793: Sonthonax sends three blacks, three whites and three mulattos to argue for an alliance between the Haitian Revolutionaries and the French Republic at the Convention of the French republic.
1794: The National Convention proclaims its Decret du 16 Pluviose An II, Abolissant l'esclavage.
1798: Toussaint defeats the British and leads invasion of Spanish Santo Domingo, freeing slaves there (slavery later reintroduced).
1799: Napoleon takes power in coup of 18 Brumaire; crowns himself emperor.
1802: Napoleon reimposes slavery, sends an expeditionary force to Haiti.
1802: Toussaint is captured and sent into exile in France where he dies in 1803.
1800s: The slave plantocracy in Haiti shifts its activities to Cuba developing slave plantations there.
1804: Former slave, Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitians defeats French expeditionary forces.
1804: Dessalines crowns himself emperor of Haiti.
1805: Dessalines proclaims a new Haitian constitution.
1806: Dessalines is assassinated.
1807: Henri Christophe, former slave, restaurateur, revolutionary is declared president of Haiti.
1807: Southern Haiti secedes under mulatto general Petion and the country is split.
1807: British Parliament abolishes the slave trade.
1811: Christophe declares himself King of the northern state of Haiti. He forms an alliance with the British entertaining a long correspondence with abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.
1815: Simon Bolivar seeks refuge in Haiti.
1816: Bolivar sets out to liberate South America with Haitian troops supplied by General Petion.
1820: Christophe commits suicide and his son is assassinated in the palace at Sans Souci.
1821: Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer leads an invasion of the Dominican Republic freeing slaves there and imposing a 22 year period of Haitian rule.
1825: France forces Haiti to pay an indemnity of 150 million francs in return for recognising its liberty.
1838: Britain abolishes slavery in its colonies.
1848: France abolishes slavery in its colonies.
1865: The U.S. abolishes slavery.
1865: Morant bay rebellion in Jamaica leads to direct rule by Britain as a crown colony.
1868: first slaves manumitted in Cuba.
1886: Cuba abolishes slavery during its anti-colonial struggle with Spain.
1888: Brazil abolishes slavery.
1897: Germany demands an indemnity of $30000 from Haiti for imprisoning one of its citizens.
1898: Under the pretext of the Maine incident, the US annexes Cuba and Puerto Rico.
1914: Jamaican Marcus Garvey co-founds the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
1915-1935. US Marines invade Haiti in defence of US economic interests. In a violent counterinsurgency 2000 Haitians are killed. The US imposes racial segregation and the extensive use of chain gang (corvee) labour.
1930: With US backing, Rafael Trujillo becomes dictator in the Dominican Republic until his assassination in 1961.
1933: With US backing, Fulgencio Batista becomes dictator in Cuba until he is forced into exile in 1959.
1937: Trujillo orders the massacre of thousands of Haitians near the border with the Dominican Republic.
1957: Papa Doc Duvalier comes to power in Haiti.
1959: Cuban revolution.
1962: Britain gives independence to Jamaica its largest Caribbean island colony.
1983: On the pretext of a Cuban military presence, 9000 US troops plus 300 regional allied soldiers invade the left leaning island state Grenada.
2004-2009. UN (MINUSTAH) peace-keeping forces led by Brazil are accused of human rights abuses including, in collaboration with the Haitian National Police, atrocities against civilians in Cite du Soleil.

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Replies to This Discussion

In the early 1800s, King Henri Christophe ordered the building of the largest fortress in the Western hemisphere.

The ruins of the palace at Sans Souci, Northern Haiti, where Christophe committed suicide and his son was assassinated.

in 1983 approximately 9000 US troops plus 300 regional soldiers invaded the left leaning Caribbean state of Grenada (pop. 110000). Propaganda leaflets dropped by the US military:

Papa Zaca and Papa Ogoun by Haitian artist, Hector Hyppolite c. 1947. A revolutionary iconography transformed into a religious one. (Arts of the Americas)

The only correspondence that springs to mind is another Victor - Victor Hugues, who was sent by the revolutionary government to abolish slavery in the Caribbean and mobilise the French Caribbean against the British. He reinvented a form of privateering since much of the French forces were under blockade in France. However, I will have to look into Hugo; Dumas had a St Domingue Caribbean creole background.

1904 postage stamp showing Jacques Dessalines.

There is a novel of Victor Hugo based on the historical facts you describe called VUG ZARGAL. I read it as a fiction in the childhood but now it seems to me that it has strong historical roots. Do you know what connections Victor Hugo could have with Haiti since he never travelled there ?
A religious iconography becomes a revolutionary one (Tariq Ali's Pirates of the Caribbean). Castro, Morales and Chavez as Bolivarian 'pirates'.

With Ecuadorian, Rafael Correa in the second edition.

"In an audacious stroke, Raoul Peck claims Alexander Sokurov’s Moloch as his own. Transplanting the Russian director’s unsettling mountain idyll between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun from Bavaria to the green heat of Haiti, Peck tucks a searing critique of absolute power within the most elegant chamber drama. It’s a masterful move.

As it happens, Haiti has a castle even more impressive than Sokurov’s, high atop a mountain outside Port-au-Prince. Built from massive stone blocks that seem to rise up out of the jungle, it is a remnant of colonial power and debauchery hiding in the mists. Peck uses this setting to increasingly shattering effect.

It is from this height that the President rules. Styling himself an imperial monarch, he rattles paranoid around the enormous castle, as isolated and fragile as one of Shakespeare’s mad kings. Obsessed equally with what the television tells him and the comely shape of his new maid, he enforces rules with an erratic terror common to many despots." Excerpted from:

"Film director Raoul Peck tell CNN he’s uncomfortable that his earthquake-ravaged country has become just a victim in the eyes of the world. Peck, director of Moloch Tropical (which just screened at the Berlin Film Festival) and once Haiti’s culture minister, says he knows the world is watching — and thinking — about his native country now, following the January 12 earthquake that killed thousands and left the capital city of Port-au-Prince in ruins.
Even though he’s taking advantage of the world’s attention, he wishes there could be a deeper understanding of his country, a more nuanced view of the Caribbean nation. It’s very uncomfortable to be in a place of a victim in the eyes of the rest of the world,” Peck told CNN in Berlin. “Showing ‘Moloch Tropical’ shows another side of Haiti.” He said that it was important for him to be in Berlin to “give a different view of what people might think of Haiti.”

That’s especially true when the only information being spread about Haiti is from news snippets in the wake of catastrophe, he said. It’s very difficult “for anyone else to understand that this is a normal country — with its problems, with its moments of happiness. It’s a mixture of all of these,” Peck said.

Catastrophes trigger the world’s emotion and solidarity, but “when [they're] not in the news anymore, things don’t get the same support,” he told CNN.

“My fear is that when the lights go out that nobody will still be at their side.”

Shot on location in northern Haiti, “Moloch Tropical” is a “political marker” about power in Haiti over the last half-century, he said. It chronicles a despotic president’s final day in office. Peck called it a fable about what happens to democratically-elected leaders after they assume power. He said he hopes the film will shine a light “on the struggles for democracy that have been burning” in Haiti for the past three and a half decades. “I’m active as a filmmaker. I’m active as a person of culture, but I’m active as well as a citizen,” said Peck, who returned to Haiti a few days after the earthquake struck." Excerpted from:
Remembering Haiti
Lessons from the field
Sidney W. Mintz

"About five decades ago, I lived in Haiti for a year and a half. I was trying to figure out how the marketplaces—which, then as now, tie the country together economically—actually worked.
Learning about the marketplaces—how people bargained; brought things there; sold them to other people; and brought other things, or money, home—is a pretty humdrum task, on the face of it. Yet Haiti is a big country, especially if there is just one of you, and it has hundreds of markets, thousands of people busily engaged in commercial traffic, and hardly ever a wordless exchange. It’s a lot to try to get one’s arms around, as people say these days. But being able to speak to people comfortably in their own language—becoming so familiar on sight that people stop looking at you, even when you are sitting in the market and selling for a friend!—and learning how to find things out without prying or causing a slight, is a special sort of empowerment. It was often demanding work, no matter how softly I trod. A good anthropologist is, among other things, one who knows how to apologize locally, and how to endure being an object of ridicule at times.
I arrived on the island only days after François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had put down the first coup attempt against him. Tempers were short, foreigners unwelcome. At first, life in the countryside—â déyò, as the Haitians say—was little affected, but tensions soon grew. The tonton macoutes, Duvalier’s urban militiamen, spread from the cities and tightened their grip throughout the country; Haiti’s rural officials, nearly all of them local peasants, were gradually being convinced of whose side to be on.
I spent most of my time in two different marketplaces: one, a large regional marketplace in the southern peninsula, near a roadside village; the other in town in the north, not far from the ruins of Henri Christophe’s famous citadel. I figured out how to live in those two places—where I could sleep, who would supply me with food, how I could keep the gas tank of my Land Rover filled, and the like—though none of it was easy to arrange.
I made my first contacts with people who lived some distance from where they traded. This meant wandering off the road, sometimes substantial distances, leaving the car behind so as to meet people and learn how food moved and who moved it. I began to make friends with farmers and the women who went to market. At night I’d get back to my one-room shack in the town of Fonds-des-Nègres, which was furnished simply: a footlocker, a folding cot, a Tilley lamp.
My arrangements for eating were adequate, though a little odd. Shortly after I’d rented my shack, a woman named Destine opened a café nearby. Ti-dè, as everyone called her, had been married to an eccentric Frenchman who processed vetiver for its oil, an ingredient in perfumes and to this day an important Haitian export. When they broke up, Ti-dè moved a hundred yards away from him and set up shop. And because Fonds-des-Nègres is just about halfway between Port-au-Prince and the southern city of Les Cayes, trucks of all sorts would stop there. The café seated only four, if memory serves, but I became a permanent evening fixture for a while.
Kids would gather in front of Ti-dè’s place. They had no money at all, but for them, that café brought the aroma of the wider world. Truckers everywhere are envied by rural youth, and Haiti is no exception. Ti-dè had put two benches in front, for idlers. The kids were almost wholly illiterate; they came from peasant families nearby, and the only work they knew was how to hoe and pick coffee. But they knew about movies and Europe, and they were all wonderful actors, who would fall into a pose and recite a bit of garbled classical verse in an instant. Their antics delighted each other, and they certainly delighted me. After eating I would go home, light my lamp, and work on my notes before turning in."
There is a lot to be said about Sidney Mintz's style of living and writing as an anthropologist. The most obvious quality is his humanity, a quality of kindness, of being able to treat others as you would like to be yourself. The half-allusion to Christianity is deliberate, since the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13, that ends with the comment about faith, hope and charity, is I think a charter for the kind of ethnographic style that Sidney epitomises. When Paul says he used to see "through a glass darkly", I interpret this as the twisted mirror of racism which leads us to project our fears and anxieties onto others whom we demonise. Kharitas is inspired by God's love for everyone. The best approach to fieldwork is to try to meet others as equal human beings and S reveals this in his description of the kids, for example. Of course we always start from social conditions of inequality, so reaching this balance isn't easy. I could go on about how he achieves something similar in his prose, but perhaps I made the point already.

I was at a panel commemorating Sidney's friend Eric Wolf with whom he shared doctoral research in Puerto Rico. His contribution was as painstaking and apparently simple as the above piece. I congratulated him on it and he said that it was one of the most difficult things he had ever had to write. I imagined that he meant it was hard to get it right when his friendship with Eric meant so much. I don't suppose writing about Haiti in the wake of this disaster was easy either. All those decades in the trenches and he still labours over his wordcraft in the interest of humanity.

Huon Wardle said:
The crowd surged as the white men came back, knocking over a drawer that spilled its contents in the snow at my feet. I stooped and started replacing the articles; a bent Masonic emblem, a set of tarnished cufflinks, three brass rings, a dime pierced with a nail hole so as to be worn about the ankle on a string for luck, an ornate greeting card with the message ‘Grandma, I love you’ in childish scrawl; another card with a picture of what looked like a white-man in black face seated in the door of a cabin strumming a banjo beneath a bar of music and the lyric ‘Going back to my old cabin home’; a useless inhalant, a string of glass beads with a tarnished clasp, a rabbit foot, a celluloid baseball scoring card shaped like catcher’s mitt, registering a game won or lost years ago; an old breast pump with rubber bulb yellowed with age, a worn baby shoe and a dusty lock of infant hair tied with a faded and crumpled blue ribbon. I felt nauseated. In my hand I held three lapsed life insurance policies with perforated seals stamped ‘Void’; a yellowing newspaper portrait of a huge black man with the caption: MARCUS GARVEY DEPORTED.
I turned away, bending and searching the dirty snow for anything missed by my eyes, and my fingers closed upon something resting in a frozen doorstep: a fragile paper, coming apart with age, written in black ink grown yellow. I read: FREE PAPERS. Be it known to all men that my negro, primus Provo, has been freed by me this sixth day of August, 1859. Signed John Samuels. Macon… I folded it quickly, blotting out the single drop of melted snow which glistened on the yellow page, and dropped it back into the drawer. My hands were trembling, my breath rasping as if I had run a long distance or come upon a coiled snake in a busy street. It had been longer than that, further removed in time, I told myself, and yet I knew that it hadn’t been. I replaced the drawer in the chest and pushed drunkenly to the curb.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947).

Marcus Garvey with the UNIA

‘This Toronto is the New American South. And the Wild Wess – Calgary and Alberta, and all out there in the wilderness of the West! This is Birmingham, Alabama.’
‘Birmingham-Alabama? Or Birmingham-Atlanta? To me is like Haiti!’
‘And Birmingham-England, Notting Hill, Paris-France, South Africa, Holland, Montreal… I leff-out anything? Racism gone international, now. We, in this country, watching the outsourcing – is that the word for it, now – of racism…’
‘I thought the word for it was multiculturalism.’
‘Multiculturalism, my ass! Who they fooling? They think Wessindians is fools? Because we don’t carry-on, and shed tears, and demonstrate when a piece of racism lash our ass, they think we is fools?’
‘I like Toronto, though.’
‘I like multiculturalism, still.’
‘Multiculturalism? Is multiculturalism, so you say? What is so multiculturalistic about Toronto? Toronto is a collection of ghettos. Ethnic ghettos. Cultural ghettos. In other words, racial ghettos, and – ‘
‘Oh Christ, I never looked at it that way! That’s right!’
‘You got Rosedale: Anglo-Saxon people. Jane-Finch: black people and visible minorities. High Park: the Poles. Sin-Clair, all up there by Dufferin and Eglinton: the Eye-talians…’
‘And all’long the Danforth… Danforth Avenue… is the Greeks…’
‘This Toronto-Canada? Six o’one, and half-dozen of the other!’
‘But what you know about Haitians? You’s a West Indian!’

Austin Clarke, More (2010)
New York Times Archive 1897:

HAITI YIELDS TO GERMANY; She Salutes the Flag, Receives the Minister, and Settles the Question of Indemnity. QUIET AT PORT AU PRINCE Nothing More Serious than a Ministerial Crisis Likely to Result from the Humiliation of the Republic.

December 8, 1897, Wednesday

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti, Dec. 7. -- The trouble between Germany and Haiti appears to be settled. The Haitian Government has saluted the German flag, and the foreigners who had sought refuge on board ships in this harbor have returned to their homes.
New York Times 2010:

Jamaica Declares Emergency Amid Unrest
Published: May 23, 2010

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — The Jamaican government declared a state of emergency in portions of Kingston, the capital, on Sunday after supporters of a gang leader who is wanted in the United States on gun and drug charges attacked three police stations in an attempt to pressure the government to let him remain free, officials said.

In the western Kingston neighborhood where the gang leader, Christopher Coke, is holed up, residents set up barricades and exchanged gunfire with the police. The Daily Gleaner reported that gunmen allied with Mr. Coke, who is commonly known as Dudus, were roaming the streets with high-powered rifles.

Amid growing unrest, the government met in an emergency session to try to keep the lawlessness from spinning out of control. The authorities, who said other gangs appeared to be coming to Mr. Coke’s aid, called on him to turn himself in for a hearing on extradition to the United States.

“The police are publicly calling on Christopher Coke, otherwise called ‘Dudus,’ ‘Short Man’ and ‘President,’ to hand himself over,” a police statement said. “The security forces wish to make it very clear that they view the barricading as an act of cowardice on the part of selfish criminal elements, mainly Mr. Coke.”

Mr. Coke is accused by federal prosecutors in the United States of running a major cocaine and marijuana trafficking operation from Tivoli Gardens, the neighborhood in Kingston that he controls. The State Department sought his extradition last August to New York, where he is accused in United States District Court of trafficking drugs and using the proceeds to buy guns in the United States and send them back to his allies in Jamaica.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who represents Tivoli Gardens in the Jamaican Parliament, initially balked at sending him to the United States. He argued that results of the wiretapping conducted by Jamaican law enforcement officials that led to Mr. Coke’s indictment were illegally obtained by American prosecutors.

After protests from the Obama administration and from opposition politicians, Mr. Golding agreed to comply with the extradition request. It was then that Mr. Coke’s neighbors in Tivoli Gardens, who say he keeps the peace in the neighborhood, began striking out at the government.

American prosecutors say that Mr. Coke is the leader of the Shower Posse, a drug gang that his father, Lester Coke, used to lead. The gang is accused of hundreds of drug-related killings in the United States in the 1980s. Federal officials sought to extradite Lester Coke to face narcotics and murder charges, but he died in a mysterious fire in his prison cell in 1992 before he could be turned over to the United States.

“It’s kind of like déjà vu,” said Curtis Scoon, a movie producer working on a film about the Shower Posse. “His father was in the same situation.”

Both of Jamaica’s major political parties have fostered ties with neighborhood gangs, which turn out the vote in exchange for political favors.

Christopher Coke, who runs a consulting firm that receives sizable contracts from the government, is linked to the Jamaican Labor Party led by Mr. Golding. Until recently, Mr. Coke was represented by a prominent senator chosen by the ruling party, Tom Tavares-Finson, a criminal defense lawyer. In an interview, he had described his client as a legitimate businessman, not the monstrous criminal described by American prosecutors.

Ross Sheil contributed reporting from Kingston, Jamaica.



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