Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti II: A Bayonet for the Pen

To Toussaint L’Ouverture

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den.
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. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies.
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.

William Wordsworth

With the British defeated and Napoleon’s ships of the line not yet on the horizon, Toussaint set to rebuild a shattered colony. Bereft of resources, skilled technicians, or any organ of state apart from the military he had molded from the chaos of revolt, he set a new foundation upon the ashes. The General in Chief commissioned schools, roads and a court system, established a tariff and a tax system, and above all, devised a new economic system to restore the plantation economy, the island's only conceivable source of wealth, without the return of the slavery. The compromise was a feudal model with vassals from the officer corps given the plantations and a class of conscripted ex-slave serfs whose hours and pay were to be regulated by the state.  

Toussaint handpicked a delegation charged with drafting a constitution, but he would not live to see the creation of the Black Republic. An armada carrying 28,000 troops arrived to reclaim the island as a stepping stone to a restored French-American empire. This time the plans were drawn by Napoleon himself.

Toussaint and his generals faced one last scorched earth campaign against superior forces. They torched the coastal towns and cities, poisoned the wells, and retreated into the mountains. But Napoleon had wisely sent his troops for a winter campaign, and the Haitians were months away from the rains that brought the season of fevers.

 Toussaint's troops were outnumbered and outgunned, and he was compelled to explore a negotiated surrender. Tricked into what he thought was an informal meeting outlining his terms, the Haitian leader was captured and whisked through the night to a war ship that immediately set sail for France.

“In overthrowing me they have cut off only the trunk of black liberty.” Toussaint said, eying Haiti’s emerald slopes for the last time. “It will flourish again through its roots. They are many and deep.”

Within months of the publication of Wordsworth's homage to the imprisoned leader, Toussaint expired in a freezing cell set high in the Alps. His loss was devastating to the prospects of the country he had delivered through a decade of constant warfare.

Not that his enemies would fare better. May came, and so did the rains. The French  were bled by malaria and the Yellow Fever, then crushed by Toussaint’s one-time lieutenant Dessalines. The thousands of soldiers and millions of Francs wasted in the Haitian campaign dashed Napoleon’s hopes for American empire and forced his hand in the sale of Louisiana to the United States.

Dessalines was no Toussaint; he lacked the vision of his mentor. The military dictatorship set up by Toussaint, for lack of alternative, became the precedent Dessalines and an endless succession of military rulers would follow.

 Toussaint realized a successful Haitian state could not flourish without knowledge, skills, and resources from the outside world. Born into the cane fields, Dessaline’s only schooling had been the brutality of the lash.  In the seat of power, his vision was focused on the common passion for revenge.

New Year’s Eve 1803 was also the eve of Haiti’s formal Declaration of Independence. The generals who had assembled to deliver this proclamation found their drafts lacking. No wonder, few of them could write or read. Each revision had to be read allowed so that the General-in-Chief could follow their stumbling progress.

“But this doesn’t say what we feel,” the convention’s secretary exclaimed, “We should have a blanc's skin for the parchment. We'll use his skull for the inkwell, his blood for ink, a bayonet for the pen!”

Dessalines agreed with the sentiment, and on the spot assigned the man to write Haiti's first national document. Perhaps the outburst inspired him to pen the opening stanza for the Haitian state with more blood.

In his first month in power, Dessalines set out to exterminate all white men, women and children on the island. His soldiers blocked access to the ports while whites were rounded up and killed. Planters were ordered to pay steep ransom in exchange for their lives, those that showed up were first relieved of their gold, then their heads. After a month of methodical slaughter, a decree was issued that any women or children still in hiding would be given safe passage. Those foolish enough to heed the decree were executed. Dessalines did spare a handful of American merchants and British citizens, a few priests, and the pitiful dregs of the Polish Legion that two years before in Italy had been forced onto West Indies bound frigates.

The above events are not catalogued for their cruelty; in the context of the preceding plantation regime, the violence was not exceptional. Yet Dessalines’ myopic leadership played into the hands of his enemies abroad, and would have long lasting repercussions for a nation already challenged by an inhospitable climate and a lack of resources. The mere existence of the Haitian state was a threat to the Atlantic plantation system, and his vengeance served as justification for the world to shun the new nation. It would be over two decades before a single government would recognize Haiti, and by that time  the island was deep on a course that would careen from slumber to nightmare.

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