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Remembering the Haitian revolution 200 years later

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On August 21, 1791, on a night that threatened the mother of all tropical storms, a number of slaves broke the rules of their plantations and gathered at Caiiman Woods in the Northwestern plains of Saint Domingue, soon to be renamed Haiti. The French Revolution had broken out in Paris. Rumours did the rounds among the slaves that the King of France had decreed three extra rest days a week for the slaves but the slave owners would not allow it. There were rumours also that it has been decreed that all men and women are born equal and free.

Among the slave owners, their ears did not hear what the slaves heard. Rather, they heard that Les Amis des Noirs in Paris (the Friends of Black Humanity) had sent spies to rouse the slaves to revolt. Slave owners, outnumbered twenty to one, became jittery and scared. They became more cruel to the slaves, to teach slaves lessons they must never forget. A cook who over-cooked the master’s roast was thrown into the furnace to roust herself.

The slaves had had enough. Once everybody was gathered, Cécile Fatíman, a mambo, female Voodoo priestess, took a long, curved sword, which she brandished, to the chanting of incantations. She seized a black pig and slit its throat. Lightning flashed. Then, Boukman, one of the leaders of the gathering, announced with pride: “Ogun, the God of War, wants the slaves to revolt.” So, everyone vowed to kill white slave owners and take revenge. “The God of the white man calls him to commit crimes; our God asks only good works of us.” Boukman continued: “ But this God, Who is good, orders revenge! He will direct our hands; he will aid us. Throw away the image of the God of the Whites who thirst for our tears, and listen to the voice of Liberty that speaks in the heart of us all.” Then they drank the warm blood of the pig to seal their sacred pact. They secreted some of the hairs of the pig in their persons to make charms and amulets, talismans that would make them invincible.

It was only then that the storm broke and everybody left for their plantations “surrounded by lightning and thunder.” The following night, scattered revolts erupted in neighbouring plantations.

Whether or not the Haitian revolution started like this, every narrative of the revolt begins with this stormy night of voodoo and vows of vengeance. And like all civil wars, there were ups and downs, desertions and leadership changes. By January 1804, the slaves had won and the land was renamed its pre-European name Hayiti – the place of mountains, pronounced Haiti.

Saint Domingue was the richest colony of them all in the Caribbean, richer than the British American colonies later to be the United States, richer by far than the Spanish colonies in Mexico and even beyond. But they were riches extracted cruelly, and unshared with those who produced them. Their destruction consumed the slave owners in an unspeakable orgy of killings that January of 1804. That destruction would consume the winners, the now freed slaves, and their children and their children’s children until today, year after year, decade after decade, two hundred years on.

The land that became Haiti had seen too much human suffering. The way and manner the original inhabitants were finished out was not a picnic. The story goes that the leaders of the Tainos were invited to a feast. When they were all seated, the Spaniards set the banquet hall on fire and the Taino leaders were burnt alive. Taino commoners were forced to work the gold mines and the plantations until they all died out to be replaced by African slaves. As one writer concludes, “Haiti’s first two hundred years of colonial rule symbolised one important rule of economic growth that Haiti was to encounter numerous times in its history: the reckless search for quick riches, with its complete disregard for individual human suffering, may result in a short-term creation of wealth, but not in long-term development.”

The history of Haiti, pre- and post-independence left the people of Haiti with two characteristics ingrained in them – when drastic, even traumatic change happens to the under-dog, it has only the top-dog as exemplar. The early leaders of Haiti took after the departed French rulers. They gave themselves titles and enriched the tailors of Paris who fashioned for them various dresses and costumes to deck their dignities. At the same time, Haiti’s new rulers wanted their fellow blacks, ex-slaves, to go back onto the plantations and work for Haiti as they had worked for Saint Domingue. The ex-slaves refused. The plantations were divided up and each Haitian family had a plot of land for subsistence farming. Good bye to plantation wealth and riches. Henceforth, Haiti would survive on hand-outs, charities and grants in aid. There are over a thousand NGOs in the country providing schooling, hospital services and other chores that governments should do. The government does little. The under-dog needs to watch out that it does not, in its turn, become the hated top-dog.

The second characteristic ingrained in the Haitian is “the casual disregard of the law (which) has remained a hallmark of the Haitian society to the present day.” There were laws governing the organisation of the colonial society. Known as the Code Noir (Black Code) proclaimed in 1685, it stated that “masters could not rape their female slaves and had to marry them if they did.” Slave families could not be separated at auction. Owners had to feed and clothe and house their slaves properly, even in old age. Slaves could not be tortured or given capital punishment single-handedly. Slaves could sue their owners for ill-treatment.

The slave owners did not abolish the Code Noir. They just ignored it. Freed slaves became full-fledged French citizens and immediately sought the means to own slaves in their turn, continuing what Wole Soyinka has called “the eternal cycle of human stupidity” that man’s inhumanity to man and woman does not stop with them. Two hundred years of Haiti’s past, let’s hope does not become two hundred years of Africa’s future. Let it not be!
bankole.omotoso@elizadeuniversity.edu.ng


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