Immortal Technique: (Reflections on the Haitian Revolution & Present Condition)

(Reflections on the Haitian Revolution & Present Condition)
By Immortal Technique

http://www.everydropchi.com/

Since the recent tragedy that has befallen the proud and persevering nation of Haiti, there has been an outpouring of support followed by a few disturbing falsities being spread about the history of the island and its people. I wrote the following to shed some light on events during and around the Haitian Revolution. Please remember memorizing and reiterating should never pass for learning. Deciphering the significance of individuals and events is what truly teaches us not just about history, but also about ourselves.

There is a wide spectrum of beliefs behind what has caused Haiti to suffer ceaselessly over the years. Some see the problem as being mostly political, bad governance, modern day colonialism, and the perceived necessity to make an example to the world of what a successful slave revolution will get you. There are even those on the fringe who cling to an ancient superstition that the island was freed by a mythological pact with Satan (video) In order to shed light on the issue I am forced to go back in time. Obviously not to the beginning of occupational history, but far enough to give others a realistic perspective on Haiti and it’s struggle.

We join a story centuries in the making. It is the year 1794 and the scent of musket powder blows over all of Europe. The French Revolution may have changed the face of the world, but its unintended consequences that influenced its colonies would come to overshadow France’s own glory. It was during this year, on the 4th of February, that France’s First Republic Convention (under pressure from massive slave revolts) decided it had to transcend the stumbling efforts of the ‘enlightened monarchs’ of Europe and abolish slavery. Yet in the customary fashion of our own Declaration of Independence’s “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal,” the gesture, much like these words, became a glaring example of self-righteous insincerity. Equality, the fraternal twin brother of Independence, was aborted at the fetal stage of development and the Revolution came to betray itself.

Francois-Dominique Toussaint

Known then as “Saint Domingue” (French for Santo Domingo,) the colony that we now call Haiti, yielded great fortune to those who possessed her. It was rich with sugar, cotton, tobacco, cocoa and other valued resources. So much so that the European Superpowers of that day fought bitterly against each other to control the island and her inhabitants. After all, the African slaves living on Saint Domingue were the proverbial engines that ran the machine. From among them appeared a man who was born a slave but who would become free and lead all his countrymen toward that same destiny. He was a glitch in the matrix, an act of nature, and a mistake to be corrected in the eyes of the islands autocratic semi-feudal society. His name was Francois-Dominique Toussaint soon to be heralded, “L’Overture.”

As a former servant and carriage driver, he had abstained from participating directly in previous uprisings stemming from the refusal of slave masters to honor “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” He had waited patiently and then allied himself with other rebel leaders who had risen to the task of overthrowing colonial rule. His ideas were innovative and his guerrilla tactics highly disciplined. No wonder then that he rose through the ranks of the rebellious forces so quickly.

Before fighting alongside the French against other colonial powers, Toussaint had been in league with the Spanish, who along with Great Britain were at war with France. The Spanish were used as a support system for his designs when white colonials refused to endorse the full rights of citizenship to free blacks given by the French edict of 1792. In other words, for Toussaint they were there to serve his vision rather than him serving theirs. Having so many different nations vying for a piece of the pie proved a difficult task to navigate. To his credit, Toussaint had managed to out-maneuver them all, cleverly using their own tactics of pitting one against another. But when Spain and England did not follow through with their promises to free slaves, he discarded his allegiance to them.

After grueling and hard-fought campaigns against the Spanish and British, he took control of the French Colony. Toussaint promoted reconciliation among the races, which wasn’t any easier then than it would be now. He also engaged and renegotiated better terms of trade with Britain and the new American Republic alike. Catholicism was adopted as the national religion and slavery was abolished. The news traveled around the world like lightning- the African Slaves were undergoing the course of reversing 300 years of domination.

As news of the Independence of Haiti was circulating, the reaction was mixed. Toussaint’s actions openly received the approval of Alexander Hamilton, who saw Europe’s weakening in the West as an opening for America’s bid for commercial supremacy. He even aided in the drafting of the precursor to the island’s first constitution in 1801. However, when Thomas Jefferson came to power, American support was reined in. Jefferson openly own slaves and had even fathered children with the now famous girl he owned, Sally Hemmings. But much more than his personal stake in legitimized servitude, it was the perceived international threat that most likely shaped his opinion. The surrounding colonies and his new Republic being destabilized by the idea of a successful slave revolt obviously frightened him. His assertion being that their freedom would suddenly cripple the economy built around them. He is quoted as saying that it was necessary at all costs to “confine the plague to the island.” I guess “My emancipation / don’t fit your equation.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

By 1801, Toussaint was in full control of Saint Domingue. In a moment of perhaps self-preserving foresight and/or genuine altruism, he advanced onto the Spanish side of the island. His army defeated the remaining white colonial powers and freed all the slaves, showing the people of color the first glimpses of freedom they’d known practically since the time of Columbus. He rejected the ancient custom that dated back to the Middle Ages, of sending his children as hostages to his ‘Suzerain’ as a symbol of fidelity. He further declared his intentions in a famous letter addressing Napoleon himself. It was titled: “From the First of Blacks to the First of the Whites.” In it he pledged his loyalty to France. He stated firmly that slavery would be utterly annihilated; that he (Toussaint) would remain governor indefinitely (a suggestion from Hamilton and then Sec. of State Pickering). Furthermore Saint Domingue would be a free and independent state. The correspondence must have come as a shock to then Consul Napoleon. It was probably the sheer audacity of a former slave proposing terms of independence, albeit in the most polite and articulate manner, that struck him. This man was obviously more dangerous than he could have ever imagined. Toussaint and his people represented something that had to be proved false no matter the cost.

See the very existence of their independence showed the entire human race a side of history that we are only now truly rediscovering. European society had relied mainly on creating divisions and the spread of epidemics, not simply superior military prowess to overcome the indigenous populations of Africa and the Americas. The Haitian Revolution exposed the façade of European invincibility, and it tore away at their justification for invasion on the grounds of Christianization. The mythology of racial superiority began to take the shape of an ancient death mask from classical antiquity.

Napoleon would hear no more and dispatched his brother in law Gen. Charles LeClerc to the island with a huge force of infantry troops and warships. His stated intention was to secure the new state. At first confrontation ensued, but they arrived at a truce once Toussaint promised that the French would not attempt to reinstate slavery. However, the moment he let his guard down he was almost immediately betrayed. Toussaint and his entire family were arrested. Restoring the island to France’s control, LeClerc had Toussaint sent to prison in France. But this was just the beginning. He quietly moved to begin the process of re-enslavement. “Since terror is the sole resource left me, I employ it…destroy all the mountain negroes, men and women, sparing only children under twelve years of age,” read his report to Napoleon.

The Mulatto

The French now shifted their focus on using the former so called “Mulatto” people who Toussaint had defeated in previous military campaigns to maintain control of the island. They, the “Mulatto’s” had been at odds with elements of the Revolution earlier although they had suffered almost equally from the torments of slavery. The very concept of the “Mulatto”, that still to this day plagues the African, Latin American, Caribbean, and so Called West Indian world, merits an explanation all to itself.

The Latin ‘mulus,’ became the Old Spanish or Old Castillian ‘mula,’ finally evolving into the Spanish and Portuguese “Mulatto,” that symbolized the reverse anthropomorphic semblance of a human being. A mule is the physical combination of a horse and a donkey. This part is simple enough. But the symbolic nature of this has a racial connotations that tear apart our society even today. The horse symbolizes the White European, elegant, regal and highly valued. And the donkey embodies what they thought the purpose of an African/Indigenous slave should be; a beast of burden to be worked until the day that ‘it’ dies.

The combination of a horse and a donkey create a species that rarely if ever is capable of reproducing. The male is always born sterile, and the female is exceptionally similar in this way. Hence the idea that nothing good can come from them. This concept then became permeated in the portrayal of the “tragic mulatto” in 19th century American literature, leading into classic Hollywood cinema. It is a theme symbolized by the downfall of a “Mulatto” or “Quadroon/Octoroon” attempting to pass for white. It also focused on the conflict of those trapped between two races. Those who despised and pitied their darker half and their own skin color, while needing the approval of whites to validate themselves. In most of the stories peace is only found for the said main character in death. The very definition of its existence solidified the role of White and Black in the American caste system, whose remnants we all still presently reside in. It also laid out the role of Blacks to themselves, without many of them even to this day understanding the loaded straw man argument about race posed within the terminology.

It was the Haitian Revolution that challenged the very idea of slavery and the existence of a lesser man. It put the “enlightenment” of Europeans on trial, and forced America to confront what she was becoming as opposed to what she was supposed to be. The usage of concepts like the “Mulatto” were necessary for late 18th century white society to put institutionalized racism on life support for another 150 years, and create a violent split in the psychology of Mother Earth’s first children.

They had used a traditional stratagem inherited from the Romans/Byzantines of understanding an empire’s limited capacity for multi-dimensional warfare on a global scale, and employed the service of a smaller state to outflank its opponents in conflict. Only this time it was not using the Visigoths to fight the Huns (Battle of Chalon, 451 A.D.) or the Cumans to fight the Pechenegs (Levonium, 1091 A.D.). Napoleon and those that served his court were innovators of the worst kind. They perfected what other colonial powers beforehand had only begun. They created virtual new age “foederati” for their designs by ripping a subsection out of the very people they sought to subjugate. In return for cooperation, the French promised the desperate “Mulattos” more rights and more privileges in what they painted as a new Saint Domingue. Effectively this action created a safe haven for racism that is even now nestled like a neonate Viper storing the poison of generation after generation. The idea built itself within the conscious and subconscious mind of an enslaved people, to keep them in bondage psychologically even if they found themselves physically free. This is evident not only in the continued degeneration of Black and “Mulatto” relations well into the mid 1800’s under Jean Pierre Boyer, but in present Black & Latino society’s obsession with skin color.

In other words, the French colonization efforts efficiently solidified adding dimensions to racism and the notion of racial superiority by creating a different “race” in our own minds. It was wicked and brilliant in its service to the cause of reducing man to property as it was to being duplicitous to the so-called ‘Mulatto’ himself. For in the end he was closer to his Master in his eyes only. To the French he was still little more than an animal, subject to an active and de-facto ‘Code Noir’.

(The cruel logic of the seemingly schizophrenic reflections in King Louis XIV’s Code Noir of 1641, is regarded as a predecessor to the U.S.’s Black Codes, which shaped the legal standing of former African slaves in the post civil war Era. It covers everything from the immediate persecution and expulsion of Jews, to laws concerning a slave’s position, methods of torture and capital punishment that could be implemented.)

Click to read the Code Noir http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/335/

Jean Jaques Dessalines and Black (Slave) Rage

Tricknowledge, is a late 20th century Harlem terminology for an old cosmopolitan strategy. It is used to describe an imperial power not having the physical force to conquer a people, and therefore resorting to the art of deception to achieve victory. Calculating lies are used to manipulate the target into compromising positions before it is attacked. Yet even with all of her elegantly worded deception, sweet-accented mandates, and counter-mandates, France would only hold the beautiful island prisoner for a few more fleeting moments of history. Once the Revolution was set into motion there was no opposing inertia capable of stopping it. Toussaint may have been taken under arms to France where he lived incarcerated, in a frozen fortress near Bensancon (eventually succumbing to pneumonia although some suspected poison), but the Revolution rolled on. In fact, right before Toussaint’s death, a perhaps karmic parting gift of yellow fever swept Saint Domingue weakening the French garrison and even claiming the life of Charles LeClerc.

Jean Jaques Dessalines

Napoleon’s Saint Domingue police state barely lasted a year, until it became blatantly evident that slavery was to be reinstated just as it had been on Guadeloupe. In the end, after watching the brutal conflict and horrific mistreatment of his own people, it was one of Toussaint’s young General’s, Jean Jaques Dessalines (who had ironically allied himself with LeClerc when Toussaint was captured), who decided to emerge as the leader that would avenge his people. Truthfully though, and perhaps more important to his own soulful vanity, he really sought to avenge himself. To hear him described by the contemporary European authors of his time, he sounds like the very manifestation of chaotic violence. But every scar has a story, and Dessalines had many scars. In fact a large percentage of his body was covered in painful grooves, partially healed lacerations and whip marks that made some of his skin look like it had melted over itself. He had received some of these in very visible places, and even the most sensitive areas of a man, for his perceived ‘insolence’ as a slave.

It is said General Dessalines would look upon his scars in the mirror and cry out in rage before battles. Then crashing into his enemies he fought with the valiant nature of a man seeking freedom, and persistent fury of a heart that would only be quenched by vengeance. His aim became to ensure the small Revolution’s continued success at any military cost. He was determined to maintain it by implementing the same campaigns of terror that the slave owners had recently utilized on him and his people. And this is what terrified white Europeans to the core of their being. Provoking most landowners and slave masters to flee. Some of them though, daring to look, must have surely seen a piece of themselves in him and been rattled. This is thought to be what initially led to the invention of stories about his pact with the devil and deals with voodoo spirits, as these then served the impertinent need to differentiate his actions from theirs.

To better understand how the slaves were treated and what exactly he sought to repay to his former masters for, I chose this famous quote from Henri Christophe‘s personal secretary. He, who was once a slave, describes in sick details the daily torture inflicted on the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domingue by the French.

“Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat shit? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man eating-dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?”

His preferred mechanism for punishing European colonials, many of whom were former slave masters, was indeed ruthless. He implemented “Black Rage” as both his foreign and domestic policy, which meant the absolute destruction of the white colonists, soldiers, and civilians. Before him others had angrily suggested this sort of retribution but none had the gall to carry it out. After all, ideologues may design a Revolution and dismantle an empire verbally, but ideas are powerless without the hand that wields them mercilessly. In the end a combination of this, and allowing remaining whites to live without owning any property and having little say in government, was the result.

I make no attempt here to justify the actions of Jean-Jaques Dessalines, but a person cannot be made a slave unless they are terrorized and de-humanized. Unless they are mentally, spiritually and in many cases physically castrated, unless their women are raped before them and children are sold and tore from the womb in front of their eyes. He did in essence what he was taught to do by those that shaped his world.

His collective punishment & scorched earth policy frightened the remaining white colonials to such a degree that most migrated en masse to the other side of the island or to the mainland. General Dessalines fought many battles and eventually claimed the independence of Haiti on January 1st, 1804. During this time period he had ravaged the Eastern side of the island and having swept away all opposition, made himself Emperor in 1804. His absolute rule inspired anger and resentment, and only 2 years after his coronation he was assassinated. The country divided itself between North and South until power was consolidated again. The legend of Dessalines came to life upon his death. Stories grew out of the resentment of the white exiles that had once owned his people and now happily welcomed his demise. Even the “Mulatto” section of Haiti that never received his trusting and felt shunned by him. His immediate demonization followed in these circles, without a thought or a backtracking moment in history to consider what were the circumstances caused him to be. No context that showed the nature of the slow functional genocide of his people.

Just silence. And that silence without context continues even today while people suffer one of the worst natural catastrophes that has ever be known to mankind.

Extortion of Haiti

Not a word from proud France who defied the American War machine over Iraq, but has kept silent over these two centuries when concerning the 150 million gold francs it extorted from Haiti in 1838. The number was later lowered to 90 million gold francs but the factual story behind the extortion goes as such. Under the guise of a cessation of hostilities (a promise to curb re-invasion), repaying indemnities and for the loss of “property” (slaves) during the Revolution, France demanded payment. And of course since Haiti had no such sum in their treasury at the time, French bankers eagerly paid the first 30 million gold francs at exorbitant almost mafia-inspired interest rates. So high that it was not until 1947 that Haiti was actually able to repay THAT particular “loan”. By the mid to late twentieth century the IMF’s policy of changing it’s agricultural focus and conditional foreign aid had since indebted the island nation beyond ruin. In the wake of this current tragedy, I believe France should immediately repay the blood money it stole years ago no matter its legal apprehensions of reparations. This isn’t about reparations for slavery it’s about the over 20 billion dollars in the modern equivalent paid to a reinstated tyrannical king. It is not the pinnacle of restoring Haiti, but the beginning of repair.

Jean Betrand Aristide

I would be remiss to not pause here and point out that this was written as a moderately detailed historical account of events in and around the Haitian Revolution. It is not the entire history of the island and does not go in depth into the modern self-defeating racial and political schism between Haiti and the Dominican Republican during the mid 20th century. I purposely steered clear of recent events concerning Jean Bertrand Aristide because it deserves an article on it’s own. I also cannot and will not lay the blame solely on Europeans for the condition of Haiti. The French themselves cannot be demonized anymore than the Spanish, English, Portuguese or Belgians, etc. for their role in colonization. Although to rule out foreign intervention for Haiti’s condition would be ignoring a huge amount of independent variables that affect the equation. While military backed World Bank policy has always kept the island as an economic vassal, the mismanagement of resources and corrupt leaders also bled the nation dry.

At some point we have to accept the personal responsibility for repairing the framework of society ourselves, and not relying on the people that ruined our indigenous civilizations to fix them all the time. Brutally repressive dictators, such as Duvalier, who were allowed to exist by the U.S. because of their stance against Communism, must be put into their proper context as well. They are not simply a Western invention, but rather the natural order of bequeathing absolute power to an agent of “stability,” an experiment that could easily be repeated in our own Republic. And so we as a nation cannot claim ignorance in our understanding of this political formula anymore, whether at home or abroad. The sad truth is that we as a public entity or a people may understand this relationship and dissect it now, but our own government has recognized it since the founding of the nation.

We may sometimes point to these historical figures and attribute superstitious characteristics to them in order to either justify or vilify their position. My main problem is when it starts becoming obvious that our own government uses complete and utter falsities to promote a military objective. The following is an account written by a Soldier who participated in the ousting of then President Aristide, it sheds light on the deliberate dissemination of such information:

http://www.ibiblio.org/prism/May96/haiti.html

If he (Dessalines) really made a pact to deliver his nation to absolute evil then why only the leader of the one successful slave revolt on the hemisphere? Why just him and not every other military commander throughout history that faced insurmountable odds? And when is that sort of such vindictive and violent force ever justified? See, that my friends- is at the very core of what Haiti and it’s historic Revolution truly represent. That undiluted tactic of delivering oneself from slavery and oppression through physical force. The French Revolution beheaded their King they did not pay his family restitution. The American Revolution gave Britain no reparations and in fact collected the land of it’s Indigenous allies after England ceded it without so much as a word to the Native American’s still living there. Yet only in modern history have enslaved people of color been trained to think suffering through the worst of what an oppressor can punish them with is the only way to gain legitimacy or victory.

Are we tragically “Mulatto?”

Are we as Black and Indigenous people only noble and righteous in an emasculated form of confrontations against such a fate? Are we only correct in our undertaking of a non-violent approach to confronting Imperialism or Fascism? More of white America praises Martin Luther King Jr. as peacefully resistant and the preferable alternative to Malcolm X’s truth without modesty. More would rather hear the scholarly Fredrick Douglas than experiencing the fear-invoking Dessalines. I do not seek to discredit the legacy of either Douglas or King. We are all indebted to the vital parts of the struggle for freedom that they played historically. But why are Europe and American spared the same constant criticism by present day historians. Would we turn the other cheek to Hitler? What would a non-violent march and a hunger strike against the Confederate South have accomplished? Without colonial militias, Native American Warriors, and the French & Spanish Armadas, wouldn’t the (U.S.) Constitution have ended up as British toilet paper? As a matter of fact, if Ghandi’s tactics had been used in the American Revolution, wouldn’t he have been lying in a ditch in Virginia some 234 years ago? Without the purchased attention of a global media outlet is shaming the world even possible? And even if we managed to procure one, how could a profit margin be replaced by a soul, when that’s the one thing that a multi-national news corporation will never have?

I believe a balance is always necessary, and that might never makes right. It just makes right now. Having the power to take land, force payment or enslave others doesn’t make your cause justified. In fact I would argue that an oppressor who lies to his slaves about their ten thousand year old history, and presents them as a fraction of a human being to all, is in truth more savage than that which he has reduced his fellow man to. Strength and power are the tools that can reinforce a document, a government, a people and a nation. Without them there is only the word, and unfortunately we are not as evolved as we would like to believe because we do not respect words, not even the words of God when we write them in our own image. We are taught to only respect fear and violence.

I am not arrogant enough to claim to have all the answers, but I come rather humbly myself to pose these questions so that you may discover the answer. May we repay the slave master by acting like the slave master? Or have we already gone this route before? Perhaps in our forgotten history we have already employed these strategies amongst ourselves. Can it be that we treated each other this way when Rome was yet to be conceived and Greek civilization was still an adolescent student of Egypt? Why is violent Revolution coupled with diplomatic conflict settlement only the recourse of the Super powers alone? Why is it presented to us as fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps it was our oppressor’s pact with the devil that made it so. These are question that are easy to answer only if a personal bias already exists within us, they are harder to answer when they speak to all of humanity, and what it reflects about the future of our species.

The earthquake itself did not discriminate by skin color when deciding who would die in the collapsing buildings. It cared nothing for their religion, family connections, or politics. Corrupt diplomats have perished within the same epicenter as innocent hardworking families and dedicated public servants. The old and the young perish together subtracted from both sides of the equation. Our evolution is the rediscovery of the past not an invention of a mythical future. Will we always be a petty small people as a complete and single human race that we do not look beyond what is obvious in our faces as opposed to what is obvious in the actions that our hearts strive us towards?

As I look at the proud, resilient and suffering nation of Haiti. I have heard every sort of theory for this tragedy, an act of God, HAARP, and even superstition backed by the hands of social senility wielding faith. In the end I am left to ponder what role did the world’s super powers play in burying Haiti before the Earthquake, and what sort of role will we now play in digging her and our own collective human soul out of the rubble?

Beyond this though I think we should begin to seriously change the way that we look at each other around the world. We are a global community, a single race of people who might one day all become Haitians.

To all my brothers & sisters, those that have lost family and are suffering.

My Condolences along with Revolutionary Love & Respect,

Immortal Technique

Felipe Coronel

Check out the website...Every Drop Counts is a grassroots organization assembled in response to the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti….A group of young artists and activists in Chicago came together with the goal to raise funds in order to send filtration equipment that will provide sustainable, clean bathing and drinking water (Thus, the name Every Drop Counts.)

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Haiti’s Tragic History Is Entwined with the Story of America

Haiti’s Tragic History Is Entwined with the Story of America

By Robert Parry, Consortium News.

http://www.alternet.org/world/145142/haiti%27s_tragic_history_is_entwined_with_the_story_of_america?page=entire

In announcing the U.S. response to Haiti’s devastating earthquake, President Obama noted the two countries’ historic ties. But few Americans know that sad story.

Announcing emergency help for Haiti after a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake, President Barack Obama noted America’s historic ties to the impoverished Caribbean nation, but few Americans understand how important Haiti’s contribution to U.S. history was.

In modern times, when Haiti does intrude on U.S. consciousness, it’s usually because of some natural disaster or a violent political upheaval, and the U.S. response is often paternalistic, if not tinged with a racist disdain for the country’s predominantly black population and its seemingly endless failure to escape cycles of crushing poverty.

However, more than two centuries ago, Haiti represented one of the most important neighbors of the new American Republic and played a central role in enabling the United States to expand westward. If not for Haiti, the course of U.S. history could have been very different, with the United States possibly never expanding much beyond the Appalachian Mountains.

In the 1700s, then-called St. Domingue and covering the western third of the island of Hispaniola, Haiti was a French colony that rivaled the American colonies as the most valuable European possession in the Western Hemisphere. Relying on a ruthless exploitation of African slaves, French plantations there produced nearly one-half the world’s coffee and sugar.

Many of the great cities of France owe their grandeur to the wealth that was extracted from Haiti and its slaves. But the human price was unspeakably high. The French had devised a fiendishly cruel slave system that imported enslaved Africans for work in the fields with accounting procedures for their amortization. They were literally worked to death.

The American colonists may have rebelled against Great Britain over issues such as representation in Parliament and arbitrary actions by King George III. But black Haitians confronted a brutal system of slavery. An infamous French method of executing a troublesome slave was to insert a gunpowder charge into his rectum and then detonate the explosive.

So, as the American colonies fought for their freedom in the 1770s and as that inspiration against tyranny spread to France in the 1780s, the repercussions would eventually reach Haiti, where the Jacobins’ cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity” resonated with special force. Slaves demanded that the concepts of freedom be applied universally.

When the brutal French plantation system continued, violent slave uprisings followed. Hundreds of white plantation owners were slain as the rebels overran the colony. A self-educated slave named Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the revolution’s leader, demonstrating skills on the battlefield and in the complexities of politics.

Despite the atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, the rebels – known as the “Black Jacobins” – gained the sympathy of the American Federalist Party and particularly Alexander Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean himself. Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, helped L’Ouverture draft a constitution for the new nation.

Conspiracies

But events in Paris and Washington soon conspired to undo the promise of Haiti’s new freedom.

Despite Hamilton’s sympathies, some Founders, including Thomas Jefferson who owned 180 slaves and owed his political strength to agrarian interests, looked nervously at the slave rebellion in St. Domingue. “If something is not done, and soon done,” Jefferson wrote in 1797, “we shall be the murderers of our own children.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the chaos and excesses of the French Revolution led to the ascendance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant and vain military commander possessed of legendary ambition. As he expanded his power across Europe, Napoleon also dreamed of rebuilding a French empire in the Americas.

In 1801, Jefferson became the third President of the United States – and his interests at least temporarily aligned with those of Napoleon. The French dictator was determined to restore French control of St. Domingue and Jefferson was eager to see the slave rebellion crushed.

Through secret diplomatic channels, Napoleon asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army traveling by sea to St. Domingue. Jefferson replied that “nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint [L’Ouverture] to starvation.”

But Napoleon had a secret second phase of his plan that he didn’t share with Jefferson. Once the French army had subdued L’Ouverture and his rebel force, Napoleon intended to advance to the North American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River.

In May 1801, Jefferson picked up the first inklings of Napoleon’s other agenda. Alarmed at the prospect of a major European power controlling New Orleans and thus the mouth of the strategic Mississippi River, Jefferson backpedaled on his commitment to Napoleon, retreating to a posture of neutrality.

Still – terrified at the prospect of a successful republic organized by freed African slaves – Jefferson took no action to block Napoleon’s thrust into the New World.

In 1802, a French expeditionary force achieved initial success against the slave army, driving L’Ouverture’s forces back into the mountains. But, as they retreated, the ex-slaves torched the cities and the plantations, destroying the colony’s once-thriving economic infrastructure.

L’Ouverture, hoping to bring the war to an end, accepted Napoleon’s promise of a negotiated settlement that would ban future slavery in the country. As part of the agreement, L’Ouverture turned himself in.

Napoleon, however, broke his word. Jealous of L’Ouverture, who was regarded by some admirers as a general with skills rivaling Napoleon’s, the French dictator had L’Ouverture shipped in chains back to Europe where he was mistreated and died in prison.

Foiled Plans

Infuriated by the betrayal, L’Ouverture’s young generals resumed the war with a vengeance. In the months that followed, the French army – already decimated by disease – was overwhelmed by a fierce enemy fighting in familiar terrain and determined not to be put back into slavery.

Napoleon sent a second French army, but it too was destroyed. Though the famed general had conquered much of Europe, he lost 24,000 men, including some of his best troops, in St. Domingue before abandoning his campaign.

The death toll among the ex-slaves was much higher, but they had prevailed, albeit over a devastated land.

By 1803, a frustrated Napoleon – denied his foothold in the New World – agreed to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territories to Jefferson. Ironically, the Louisiana Purchase, which opened the heart of the present United States to American settlement, had been made possible despite Jefferson’s misguided collaboration with Napoleon.

“By their long and bitter struggle for independence, St. Domingue’s blacks were instrumental in allowing the United States to more than double the size of its territory,” wrote Stanford University professor John Chester Miller in his book, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery.

But, Miller observed, “the decisive contribution made by the black freedom fighters … went almost unnoticed by the Jeffersonian administration.”

The loss of L’Ouverture’s leadership dealt a severe blow to Haiti’s prospects, according to Jefferson scholar Paul Finkelman of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

“Had Toussaint lived, it’s very likely that he would have remained in power long enough to put the nation on a firm footing, to establish an order of succession,” Finkelman told me in an interview. “The entire subsequent history of Haiti might have been different.”

Instead, the island nation continued a downward spiral.

In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the radical slave leader who had replaced L’Ouverture, formally declared the nation’s independence and returned it to its original Indian name, Haiti. A year later, apparently fearing a return of the French and a counterrevolution, Dessalines ordered the massacre of the remaining French whites on the island.

Though the Haitian resistance had blunted Napoleon’s planned penetration of the North American mainland, Jefferson reacted to the shocking bloodshed in Haiti by imposing a stiff economic embargo on the island nation. In 1806, Dessalines himself was brutally assassinated, touching off a cycle of political violence that would haunt Haiti for the next two centuries.

Jefferson’s Blemish

For some scholars, Jefferson’s vengeful policy toward Haiti – like his personal ownership of slaves – represented an ugly blemish on his legacy as a historic advocate of freedom. Even in his final years, Jefferson remained obsessed with Haiti and its link to the issue of American slavery.

In the 1820s, the former President proposed a scheme for taking away the children born to black slaves in the United States and shipping them to Haiti. In that way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and America’s black population could be phased out. Eventually, in Jefferson’s view, Haiti would be all black and the United States white.

Jefferson’s deportation scheme never was taken very seriously and American slavery would continue for another four decades until it was ended by the Civil War. The official hostility of the United States toward Haiti extended almost as long, ending in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln finally granted diplomatic recognition.

By then, however, Haiti’s destructive patterns of political violence and economic chaos had been long established – continuing up to the present time. Personal and political connections between Haiti’s light-skinned elite and power centers of Washington also have lasted through today.

Recent Republican administrations have been particularly hostile to the popular will of the impoverished Haitian masses. When leftist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice elected by overwhelming margins, he was ousted both times – first during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and again under President George W. Bush.

Washington’s conventional wisdom on Haiti holds that the country is a hopeless basket case that would best be governed by business-oriented technocrats who would take their marching orders from the United States.

However, the Haitian people have a different perspective. Unlike most Americans who have no idea about their historic debt to Haiti, many Haitians know this history quite well. The bitter memories of Jefferson and Napoleon still feed the distrust that Haitians of all classes feel toward the outside world.

“In Haiti, we became the first black independent country,” Aristide once told me in an interview. “We understand, as we still understand, it wasn’t easy for them – American, French and others – to accept our independence.”

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