Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti - Hispanolia's First Free Republic

             The world watched in disbelief as an Earthquake devastated Haiti. It reminded me of an Earthquake here in California, Loma Prieta, which left devastation in its wake. Yet Haiti could ill afford to have a disaster of that magnitude. The fragile infrastructure no longer exists and even Haiti's President is left wandering the streets.  It is with great pride that I heard Americans offer assistance, from the President to the average citizen. I have a personal interest in Haiti as a Genealogy Researcher researching my Bonaparte Ancestry. I believe they were slaves in Haiti and sold to South Carolina in the late 1700’s, prior to Haiti becoming free.
            It was with revulsion and disbelief that I heard, Pat Robertson’s theory that Haitian slaves made a “pact with the devil” 200 years ago in order to free themselves from the hated clutches of Napoleon Bonaparte's regime – resulting in a curse that led to the destruction of much of Port-au-Prince and a massive loss of life in Tuesday's earthquake.” They have a place in history that no one in the region can rival. They brought down Napoleon and secured freedom for themselves and their people. They were after all slaves, and according to Pat Robertson, because they did not want to continue as slaves, God cursed them.  Mr. Robertson may consider himself a Bible Scholar, but he is certainly no historian. Maybe he should check out this blog before continuing to give his opinion about Haitians.
            The First People of Haiti 
           The Arawak name for Haiti was Kiskeya, meaning Mountainous Lands. On December 6, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed at Mole St. Nicholas in Haiti's north. Thus began a new phase of life on the island of Hispaniola. The first settlement in the New World was La Navidad, on Haiti's north coast. This settlement, which housed sailors from the Santa Maria, which sank off Haiti's coast, was founded on December 24, 1492.  Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americas. The Arawak lived throughout the Caribbean, and are sometimes referred to as Taino. They are the Natives who inhabited an area, which ranged from Venezuela through the Caribbean and Central America all the way to Florida. However, the particular group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Hispaniola was the Taino Indians. Just as Africans were enslaved, so were the Native Arawak, many of whom intermixed with the African Slaves.  The Haitians are not just African, they are mixed raced, just as most African Americans.
      Toussaint L’Overture The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon 
         Haiti had been “a hell on earth” for the slaves, writes Le Monde’s history specialist, Jerome Gautheret. “Each year, 50,000 slaves were brought to Haiti to compensate for the … terrible mortality among the slaves. In such a fragile society, order could only be precarious, based on terror and violence.  In Paris, while ‘Friends of the Blacks’ pled for civil equality for all free men and gradual emancipation of the slaves, a powerful colonial party [in Haiti] tried to maintain the status quo.”  Napoleon was one of the greatest generals who ever lived, but at the end of the 18th century a self-educated slave with no military training drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence.
           The remarkable leader of this slave revolt was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint L'Ouverture, and sometimes the “black Napoleon”). Slave revolts from this time normally ended in executions and failure – this story is the exception. It began in 1791 in the French colony of Saint Dominique (later Haiti). Though born a slave in Saint Dominique, Toussaint learned of Africa from his father, who had been born a free man there. He learned that he was more than a slave, that he was a man with brains and dignity. He was fortunate in having a liberal master who had him trained as a house servant and allowed him to learn to read and write. Toussaint took full advantage of this, reading every book he could get his hands on.
       In 1789, the French Revolution rocked France. The sugar plantations of Saint Dominique, though far away, would never be the same. Spurred on by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the early moderate revolutionaries considered seriously the question of slavery. Those moderate revolutionaries were not willing to end slavery but they did apply the "Rights of Man" to all Frenchmen, including free blacks and mulattoes (those of mixed race). Plantation owners in the colonies were furious and fought the measure. Finally, the revolutionaries gave in and retracted the measure in 1791.
          The news of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in Saint Dominique, and Toussaint became the leader of the slave rebellion. He became known as Toussaint L'Ouverture (the one who finds an opening) and brilliantly led his rag-tag slave army. He successfully fought the French (who helped by succumbing to yellow fever in large numbers) as well as invading Spanish and British. The slaves in Haiti were jubilant and Toussaint agreed to help the French army eject the British and Spanish. Toussaint proved to be a brilliant general, winning seven battles in seven days. He became a defacto governor of the colony.  In France, the Jacobins lost power. People finally tired of blood flowing in the streets and sent Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, to the guillotine, ending the Reign of Terror. Leaders that were more moderate came and went, eventually replaced by Napoleon, who ruled France with dictatorial powers. He responded to the pleas of the plantation owners by reinstating slavery in the French colonies, once again plunging Haiti into war.
           By 1803 Napoleon was ready to get Haiti off his back, and made an agreement with Toussaint to terms of peace. Napoleon agreed to recognize Haitian independence and Toussaint agreed to retire from public life. A few months later, the French invited Toussaint to come to a negotiating meeting with full safe conduct. When he arrived, the French (at Napoleon's orders) betrayed the safe conduct and arrested him, putting him on a ship headed for France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be placed in a prison dungeon in the mountains, and murdered by means of cold, starvation, and neglect. Toussaint died in prison, but others carried on the fight for freedom.  Napoleon suffered a similar fate, dying in a prison under suspicious circumstances.
            The end to the war came in January of 1804, when Dessalines and his generals declared the independent state of Haiti. They chose the Arawak word for the island, which meant” the land of the mountains." Dessalines spent the rest of his life as governor-general, even being crowned emperor in 1805 in imitation of Napoleon, but he died in an uprising the following year. France occupied Spain from 1808-1812, allowing the Creole leaders to take control in the Caribbean and the Americas. It was at the end of this war, however, that France finally recognized the colony of Haiti as its own country. Haiti's precarious history has continued to this day. The Ex Slaves on Hispaniola had gotten a taste of a free world, and they fought to keep it that way, but the European interest was continuously troublesome. 
           Just as America needed help with Hurricane Katrina, the Haitians now need assistance.  They are down, but not out,  as they are a resilient people, and God has their backs.  Haiti is a society built on the land of the Arawak and the labor of slaves.  They were willing to die for freedom, rather than live as slaves.  Many died in the Earthquake, and many more survived. The world is there to assist Haiti (including France), and maybe we can assist them in getting on firmer footing. Haitian Society is a contrast of the very wealthy and very poor people, with no Middle Class. There are educated Haitians, there and throughout the Diaspora.
Our prayers and thoughts are with the Haitian People.

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