All tropical islands are magical, but none more so than Haiti. Here, the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean kiss white beaches and palms trees sigh over the exchange. But that image is quite often tarnished by the grinding poverty, burning hunger and relative isolation of it's people. Despite being hounded by the media as a dangerous place and having had it's reputation shredded by the film industry, Haiti endures. Not just because of its remarkable people. But for it's amazing faith in itself. Once called the Pearl of the Antilles, Haiti has suffered egregiously at the hands of the many for the profits of the few. But I return every year, because the Siren's call is still palatable beneath the squalor of Cite Soliel. Because even the roughest peasant has the manners of a Napoleonic courtier. Because I met Gran Bwa one night, out on a lush patch of pasture under a full moon, and he was the most amazing creature I have ever come across. Because as Tina Girard once wrote, "Once you've gone to Haiti, you are forever Haitian in your soul." Ayibobo to that.
I also return, because on the island of Haiti, one is never alone, physically or spiritually. Vodou spirits are omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, particularly among the Creole speaking folk outside of the main cities. Ride a taptap bus downtown in Port-au-Prince, and there is Ogoun Feray, waiting to offer a helping hand, as you hike aboard. Shop at the Marche Fey, and Vodou is everywhere - in every stall and under every awning. Travel the length and breadth of the island, and wherever you look, you see the imagery of Vodou painted on walls, on doors, on buses and taxis, even on the people themselves. There's simply no escaping from the Vodou. Let's face it - it's a tiny island, so it's just plain-out crowded. The first all black republic of the Western Hemisphere holds roughly 8 million people within it's borders, on a land space about the size of the state of Maryland. Makes for fast friends, right away. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's start at the beginning with the arrival of the Invaders.
The first known settlers of the island were the Ciboneys who migrated from what is currently the North American continent in 450 A.D. These people were followed in 900 A.D by the Tainos (good people) who were members of the Arawak nation and had origins in the Amazon valley. The Tainos were a peaceful agricultural people who lived in large villages also peopled by a small number of friendly Caribs who had emigrated from what is today South America. The Tainos called the island Ayiti which meant `land of mountains'.
Christopher Columbus arrived on December 5, 1492, landing at Mole Saint Nicholas at the western tip of the Northern Peninsula of Haiti. He and his crew enjoyed the hospitality of the Tainos. In fact, when the Santa -Maria wrecked near the coast of what is today Cap-Haitien, the Arawaks were happy to help Columbus salvage the ship, carrying timber ashore. The timber was used to build the first European settlement in the `New World': La Navidad (Nativity).
Columbus returned to Spain to organized an even bigger expedition. Upon arriving at La Navidad, they found that the Caribs had taken over, destroying the fort and slaughtering all the people within. Columbus abandoned the site, sailing East and established a colony in what is presently the Dominican Republic. Gold was found in a nearby river, dooming the island to Spanish exploitation and ruin.
The Spaniards weren't content with the gold- they also saw cheap labor in the Arawaks. They used any method to control the native populations: rape, murder and whippings to name but a few. This regime of terror led to the decimation of the local population of native peoples. Estimates suggest that somewhere between 300,000 and one million natives died between 1492 and 1550. With the native population dwindling as well as the gold, the Spaniards left to ruin Mexico and Peru as they had Hispaniola.
Officially under Spanish rule, the island was an exhausted ruin by the early 1600s. By 1630, French and British buccaneers had got a foot hold on the island of Tortuga and by 1644 had established a settlement near Port-de-Paix on the North shore of Haiti (Hispaniola). If turn around is fair play, then the Spanish had to run for their lives, as these pirates would raid their treasure laden ships, stolen from the Aztec and Inca empires. The seizure of land by the buccaneers and their constant raiding of Spanish ships eventually led the Crown of Spain to cede the Western third of the island to France through the Treaty of Ryswick (1697). This portion of the island was renamed Saint Domingue and later became `La Republique d'Haiti'. Let me say here, the French saw a good thing and went for it. Though the Spanish had bled the gold from the country, there were other resources to be had : indigo, ebony and mahogany to name but a few. And the soil that had so enthralled Columbus, also drew the French for agriculture - cotton, cocoa and coffee. The island flourished economically when under French rule. Trade with the colony was valued at around 140 million dollars per year, and pretty much drew the attention away from that radical bunch of upstarts in North American.
This astounding economical success was obtained at a terrible price - the blood and bondage of human slaves. Over the years, members of the Congo, Ibo, Nago, Mandingue, Arada, Dahome and other West African civilizations, were taken from their homeland, transported under abominable conditions and used as forced labor in the colony . In 1685, as a sort of empty gesture of concern, Louis XIV established the `Code Noir' , a rule by which any free slave was to be granted full French citizenship. However, it came with a price tag of course. The colonists were not going to go quietly into the night on that one. With more slaves than colonists, they decided that slaves freed by either gift or purchase (affranchis or gens de couleur -- people of color) would remain part of an under class with the privilege of ownership, but without the right to vote, join the army, become a medical doctor or pharmacist, or sit in the colonists' section in church. In other words, freedom without anywhere to go.
The news of the French Revolution of 1789, and of the `Declaration des droits de l'homme' (Human Rights Declaration) brought new hopes to the slaves and affranchis of Saint Domingue. Colonists did not however take the news with much enthusiasm and did not apply the reforms to the colony. The result of that was a series of revolts, first by the people of color in 1790 - met with brutal repression - then by the slaves in 1791. A slaved who we only know of by one name, Boukman, is credited with organizing the repressed population of slaves into an army of consequence, which resulted in the destruction of the sugarcane plantations and the massacre of thousands of colonists. The act of organizing and encouraging the slaves into revolt is remembered even today as the Ceremony of Bois Camian (Alligator Woods). But this was just the tip of the iceberg. As successful as this one revolt was, there was still trouble for the tiny island of mountains. The European business community was not about to lose it's cash cow to a bunch of rabble rousers. Britain, forever wanting more than it's share of glutinous income, saw a chance to add to it's purse and invaded the island.
On August 29, 1793, a French Commissioner named Sonthonax abolished slavery on the island, and no one really knows why. Either he was radically anti-slavery or more likely, he wanted to have the 500,000 former slaves help the French push back the British invasion. This is where we see the first black general of the army emerged - Toussaint Louverture.
Louverture, a free man of color since 1777, formed a battalion of former slaves under the French flag and drove out the British invaders. For his courage and valor at the front, he was appointed governor of Saint Domingue. In 1801, Toussaint went on to conquer the Eastern part of Hispaniola, abolished slavery there, and installed himself as governor of the entire island. Bonaparte saw this as a threat to France's control of the island and sent his brother Leclerc, along with 20,000 troops to the island. Their mission was to capture Toussaint and reestablish slavery in the colony. Toussaint was deceived into capture in 1802 and shipped to France where he died while imprisoned in a cold jail cell in the Jura.
Toussaint's allies Henri Christophe and Jean-Jaques Dessalines had also surrendered to the French but they remained on the island. History favors the fortunate and France was not one. LeClerc's army, devastated from Bonaparte's travels through North Africa and now sent to the subtropics, was exhausted, tired and run down. They began to contract Yellow Fever at an alarming rate. Added to this was the news that France was planning to reinstate slavery. That had to be the straw that broke it for these men, who had fought so valiantly beside the French, only to find out they would be betrayed in the end. On November 18, 1803 under leadership of Christophe, the French were defeated at the famed Battle of Vertieres outside of what is today Cap-Haitien.
20,000 French soldiers may have come ashore, but one year later, 2,000 swam for their lives off the beach. Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the island on January 1, 1804 and gave it back its native name of Haiti. The first republic in the world to be led by a person of African descent was thus born.
Their freedom was hard won, but there would be an even bigger price to pay - isolation. In the ensuing years, the institution of slavery would come and go, and the European community would try to keep it's greedy finger in the export pie. Haiti would suffer endless rounds of dictators, insurgents and lack luster leadership, all to no avail. When the last of the French priests left in 1845, Haiti would find itself cut off from the world for 80 years. A punishment for having sought to toss off it's shackles of bondage. The emerging American and older European communities turned their backs on the tiny fledging nation. Haiti was on it's own.
And in that isolation, a strange thing happened. Though poverty, hunger, class division and all the ills of a modern society would get a foot hold, so too would the comfort of a religion that sought to answer the questions we all struggle with. Why ? Why had they been abandoned? First by their own country men who sold them into slavery and then by the Spanish, and finally by the French. And why were they left to their own devices? There is a saying in Vodou - "The Spirit chooses who it wishes." Perhaps, the Spirit needed it's voice to be heard. In the cacophony of war, gestalt talks and treaty terms, the spirit doesn't have a voice. But in the quiet of a lakou courtyard, when the work of the field is done, and the drums talk, there the spirit can speak. And more importantly, can be heard.
Haiti, History, and the Gods by Joan Dayan 1998, University of California Press
Haiti by B. Hermann and M. Montas, (c) 1975, Actions du Pacifique
Haiti: The Black Republic by S. Rodman, 4th ed., 1978, Devin-Adair, Co.