Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti I: Beyond the Mountains


Deye mon genmon--Beyond the mountains, there are mountains.

Language is a repository of culture, and perhaps no single expression in the French Creole dialect better illustrates the Western Hemisphere’s most long suffering nation. The phrase describes the Haitian landscape, dense folds of green mountains and impenetrable tropical valleys, as perceived from the sun scorched coastal plain.

In Creole, the only language spoken by the vast majority of contemporary Haitians, this saying is invoked as a vengeful warning to the perpetrator of an evil deed. It could as well describe the waves of misfortune that have roiled the island nation over half a millennium of recorded history. The earthquake that razed large swaths of Port-au-Prince has claimed untold lives and by any measure ranks among the all time worst natural disasters. Sadly, it is just the latest devastation wrought on a countryside utterly disfigured by centuries of exploitation and bloodshed, poverty and displacement. One need not consult the history books for evidence, the ruined landscape has rendered Haiti’s eastern border with Santo Domingo visible from outer space.

Fault lines are not the only natural phenomena that have conspired against the Caribbean nation. Ocean currents doomed the island’s Taino inhabitants five centuries ago. Waters streaming straight across the Atlantic deposited a group of Europeans led by a cocksure Italian who had grossly underestimated the circumference of the globe. India this new land was not. The islanders might have been spared further molestation if it hadn’t been for the little gold pieces they wore in their noses. Columbus liked the look those little gold pieces, and he convinced his bullion minded bosses for a commission to search for more.

Columbus and his contemporaries returned, and brought with them small pox, plague, yellow fever, influenza, and a rash of other diseases to which the Taino had no natural defenses. The Spaniards’ insane demands for more and bigger gold pieces forced the dwindling native population into the mines. Many of these enslaved islanders were pushed to suicide, though it must be said historians still debate the veracity of this Black Legend. Regardless the extent they were man made or natural horrors, after little more than a century the decimation of the original Haitians was complete.

The next two hundred years brought more suffering to the island. After unfruitful attempts at indentured servitude, the colonial powers hit a formula that drove modern capitalism into the 19th Century. The Europeans shipped firearms to Africa, slaves across the Atlantic, and sugar back to Europe.

Nowhere was formula more successful than the French colony occupying the western third of Hispaniola. Saint Domingue, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” was the most profitable plantation island in the Caribbean and the envy of all the mercantile powers in the North Atlantic. At the dawn of the French Revolution, Saint Domingue produced nearly 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe and North America, and was responsible for up to two thirds of the tropical groceries produced in the French colonial possessions.

This enthusiasm did not extend to the Africans who toiled for the island’s sugary pearls. Conditions for the island’s workforce were so grim as to preclude human reproduction anywhere near replacement level. In 1789, after 150 years of the triangle trade, an overwhelming majority of the colony’s 500,000 slaves had been directly imported from Africa.

A plantation slave working the cane fields had a life expectancy of seven years from the time his chained feet were set on the on the docks of Cap Francois. A significant number who survived the hellish Middle Passage wouldn’t endure two seasons of drudgery on a sugar plantation. The survivors of this period, referred to in the planters’ ledgers as “seasoning”, might look forward to 10 years of more toil. Or a slip during the 20-hour shift at harvest might end in the voracious teeth of the cane mill. Even if a foreman were on hand to cut the harness of the horses driving the mill shaft and to sever the slave’s arm clean above the elbow, infection would likely finish the machine’s work.

There were mountains beyond the mountains that fronted the miserable coastal plain, and beyond these mountains there were survivors. Thousands of slaves annually fled the horrors of the plantation regime, and those who managed to evade the slave catchers and colonial special forces sought hideouts carved into the remote folds of jungle-clad slopes. Entire communities subsisted in the interior, self-governing bands who raised a guard to stand watch beyond camouflaged moats and wooden palisades. These maroon communities were largely self sufficient, though the occasional raid on the plantations supplemented provisions and no doubt boosted morale. That these groups became recognized by treaties attests to their strength vis-a-vis a colonial government that lacked the power to eradicate them.

The maroons did more than survive apart from the plantation economy. They provided a cultural continuity impossible on the plantations. Their stories traveled up and down the Atlantic Coasts with the slaves and free men of color among the seamen who worked the ships of the maritime economy. Spread upon the common wind, events on Saint Domingue inspired slaves and terrified planters throughout the New World. Slaves of the Western Atlantic would follow the exploits of Haitian leaders during the Revolution, but the consciousness of African struggle in the New World had deeper roots.

Uprisings in Cuba, Louisiana and Brazil chose to invoke an earlier enemy of plantation society. In 1805, a band of Brazilian slaves wore amulets bearing the name of the legendary Haitian maroon Macandal.

In the early 1740’s Macandal escaped his plantation for the mountains beyond the mountains. By most accounts Macandal had lost his arm up to the shoulder when it was caught in a mill shaft, and he later escaped to the mountains from his job as a shepherd. The maroon gathered knowledge of the land and oral history from the survivors who had spent decades in remote caves and mountain hideouts. Schooled in Africa, he was literate in Arabic and likely taught himself to read French. He applied his understanding of African medicinal arts to the plant life of the island. In time he built a network of maroons and slaves throughout the island.

According to oral tradition, Macandal sat before his followers with a bowl at his feet and gave a lesson in history and his vision for the future. He explained that the bowl represented the island most of them had been brought to in chains. He then pulled a yellow scarf from the bowl. The yellow symbolized the original inhabitants of the island. Next he pulled a white scarf, symbolic of the people who had destroyed the original inhabitants and now ruled the island. The last scarf was black, the color of the people who would destroy the whites and reclaim possession of the land. In a short time, he said, they would restore island to its original name, Hayti, the land of mountains.

Macandal did not conquer Haiti, but he shook the plantation system to its core. With his botanical knowledge he mastered the art of poison, and with his island wide network of conspirators his potions entered the livestock pens, then houses of the French elite at the close of 1757. Macandal's poisons killed hundreds. The whites were hysterical, they felt their vulnerability due to a total dependence on the slave workforce. At the last minute, Macandal’s larger plot to overthrow the planters was uncovered. He was hunted down and burned at the stake, though his followers claimed the one-armed man wiggled free of his binding and escaped the flames in the form of a fly.

Thirty years later, the half million slaves toiling on Saint Domingue had not forgotten Francois Macandal.

The first and only successful slave revolt in history had roots far deeper than the echoes of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that began to reverberate on the island after the storming of the Bastille. The 1791 rebellion that began on Saint Domingue’s northern plain had many underlying causes, not least demography, a ten to one ratio of slave to white, coupled with the growing economic clout, and accompanying legal and social marginalization of a free, mixed race class that came to threaten, and rival in number, colonial whites.

After the decades of unimaginable violence inflicted on a slave workforce-- hung by the ear with nails and stuffed up the ass with gunpowder, being whipped, burned, branded, buried alive, disfigured and crushed by instruments of torture it would be kind to describe as medieval--the reprisal was light. Many planters escaped with their lives to Paris and New Orleans.

A grey haired coach driver in his late 40's, ancient by the brutal standards of the island, rose from obscurity to command the slave uprising. Toussaint L’Ouveture organized the chaotic outburst into an effective regular army. Toussaint’s direction of this fighting force would credit him among the most effective generals in the history of the modern world. His armies would defeat the French, the Spanish, and the English, the big three maritime powers of the age. Like Macandal, accounts of Toussaint would be feted in song and story on the slave rows from Maryland to Uruguay.

After defeating Napoleon's bid to reclaim her colony in 1802--at the great cost of a scorched earth policy and the loss of the great Toussaint--Haiti would become the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also a pariah state, shunned by the slaveholding powers who feared Haiti’s example. From the time of the burning of the northern plain in 1791, Haitian leaders were faced with the harsh reality that their one valued commodity, sugar cane, was not something that could be abandoned. If the island nation was to support even the most basic aspects of government, let alone a military capable of repelling hostile world powers, Haiti would need to have a viable GDP. Someone would have to cut and process the cane.

Toussaint was faced with this problem throughout his military campaigns. Christophe, Toussaint’s right hand lieutenant who would become Henry I, and Dessalines, the first ruler post independence, all faced the same dilemma. Each in turn were forced to issue decrees conscripting former slaves back into the detested cane fields. It is amazing how successful both men were in continuing the island's export economy. Within 18 months of his emergency rule, Toussaint managed to raise sugar production to nearly 70 percent of pre-war levels.

Yet for an ex-slave, the chief desire was a plot of land far from the plantation. It was inevitable that sugar production would not be sustainable in the long term and a testament to people's respect of the revolutionary leadership that this terminal decline was forestalled until after Christophe’s presidency. The subsistence farming that still employs a majority of poor Haitians was a rebellion from the detested work with the sugar cane.

In the next post I will engage in a very brief history of the first Black Republic.

1 comment:

Tim said...

It makes for good, if dark reading. Excellently worded, but what about the phrase in Creole?