Of Haiti and Shitholes

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“Attack and Taking of the Crête-à-Pierrot,” 1839. Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At Hunt the Devil, we believe that America is not just a country, but rather a continent. We have had occasion in the past to write about Haiti after comments by Pat Robertson in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake (a death toll of 100,000 souls) to the effect that Haiti’s misfortunes throughout history were the result of having sworn a pact with the Devil (see our blog post “Compact with the Devil”).

We have written about Haiti again in a recently published book chapter that looks at Barack Obama’s presidency within the context of the general history of the Americas (see Robert L. Ivie and Oscar Giner, “Barack Obama at the Threshold of a New America,” in Robert E. Terrill, ed. Reconsidering Obama: Reflections on Rhetoric, New York: Peter Lang, 2017).

What follows is a brief excerpt from that publication:

In the island of Saint Domingue (formerly Hispaniola, today the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where Columbus founded his original Spanish colony, Native Americans, Europeans and Africans first confronted each other in the New World:

The fundamental pattern of their relationship all over the Western Hemisphere—dispossession and extermination of the Indians by the Europeans, who go on to exploit the seized territory with African slave labor—was set for the first time here.

On August 14, 1791, during the giddy days of the French Revolution, the performance of a voodoo ceremony in Bois Caiman changed the course of American history. A black pig was slaughtered and its blood was drunk by ritual participants. A combined army of black slaves and free mulattoes fought the first successful slave rebellion in history, and forged the first black republic in 1804….[i]

In this Caribbean crucible of violence and aspiration for liberty, the raza (the Spanish word that would come to mean “the people”) was forged, and the mask of a new identity began to take form.[ii]

Citadelle_La_Ferrière_Haiti_(8070546891)

Citadelle La Ferrière, Haiti, 6 October 2012. (Credit: Stefan Krasowski)

The Haitian slave rebellion had been preceded by numerous slave uprisings in the West Indies, Brazil and North America. The specter of future successful slave revolts presented an immediate threat to European colonial powers in the New World. Haiti’s insurrection created an enduring myth: the dark side of the myth was propagated by French émigrés from Saint-Domingue who fled to escape the terror of the uprising:

These exiles brought with them not only the passepied and the contredanse, the powdered wig and the Parisian dress…, but also terrible stories of rape, murder, looting and destruction which were enough to keep Cuban planters from giving an inch to their slaves for nearly a hundred years.

Conversely, the revolt perpetuated a shining dream of freedom from colonial rule among American creoles. Haiti gave to history the legendary names of Toussaint Louverture (the name means the Opening), Dessalines and Christophe. From Haiti in 1815, Simón Bolívar launched his war for the liberation of South America; in exchange for a promise to abolish slavery, Haitian President Alexandre Pétion supplied Bolívar with an army, ships and arms. From Cap Haïtien in 1895, José Martí sailed for death and martyrdom in the war of independence he had organized to free Cuba from Spanish rule.[iii] 

1024px-Frontispiece_from_the_book_Saint-Domingue,_ou_Histoire_de_Ses_Révolutions._ca._1815

“Incendie du Cap” (Burning of Cape Francais). “Revolte générale des Négres. Massacre des Blancs” (General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites), circa 1815. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For the slave colonies in the US, events in Haiti proved to be “their worst nightmare made real.” But for antebellum black abolitionists, Haiti became a hopeful dream, a star that beckoned on the path to freedom. Many of the Haitian rebel leaders had fought with French forces at the siege of Savannah during the American Revolutionary War….

In 1889, Frederick Douglass was appointed Minister to the Republic of Haiti by President Benjamin Harrison (Douglass served until 1891). At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), the ex-slave, essayist and abolitionist orator lectured his audience on “the bearing of [Haiti’s] example as a free and independent Republic, upon what may be the destiny of the African race in our own country and elsewhere.” Douglass was speaking as co-commissioner of the Haitian Pavilion at its dedication:

We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago…. Striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.

Four hundred years after Columbus’ first voyage, on the eve of the US imperial century, Douglass forewarned his audience: “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black or forgiven the Almighty for making her black.” [iv]

No true American would ever refer to Haiti—in spite of the poverty and natural disasters that have ravaged that sacred territory—as a “shithole.” You might as well refer to Gettysburg and Antietam in the same terms, or taking a cue from Orwell’s head pig when it lifts his leg to urinate on the plans for the windmill in Animal Farm (see our previous blog post “Napoleon the Pig”), urinate on the US flag or the US Constitution.

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“Battle of San Domingo,” also known as the “Battle for Palm Tree Hill,” by January Suchodolski, 1845. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[i] Madison Smart Bell, Toussaint Louverture (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 7 and 20-21.

[ii] Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus, eds., Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1904: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 128.

[iii] Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 77. José Martí (1853-1895) was a precursor of Spanish American Modernism and the Apostle of Cuban independence.

[iv] Madison Smart Bell, Toussaint Louverture (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007), 30-3; “Frederick Douglass Speech in Chicago: Lecture on Haiti,” http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/haiti/history/1844-1915/douglass.htm Retrieved june 12, 2016.

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