Thursday, August 14, 2014
Why Haiti Might Never See Her Former Glory Againby Ronald Stimphil
Liberty, as most would acknowledge, comes often with a high price tag. In the case of the beloved Haitian nation, one may even infer price gouging as the new country was excessively fined for daring to break away from the norm that “the African-originated man must remain a slave.”
This high price was felt both internally and externally. Internally, it came in the form of all the plantations and the luxurious cities which had to be burned in order to extinguish all hope of economic resurrection in the minds of the white oppressors. Externally, it came in the form of the indemnity of one hundred and fifty millions francs imposed on her by the then French king, Charles X, in 1825, who sent a menacing fleet to secure compliance, even as the Monroe Doctrine had been in full force for two years.
The independence of Haiti had sent shock waves throughout the entire world, and elicited responses from both sides of the freedom aisle. To the many emerging free nations in Latin America, the new country became the original purveyor of, and symbol for, true freedom (James, 1989). However, to the imperialist nations, it became a certain threat to economic license and white power, as a black nation’s independence had the potential to bolster in the remaining global slave population a sense that freedom was indeed attainable, and as such, causing the main source of free manpower to collapse and induce ruin in lands that relied on slave labor.
Careful students of Haitian history understand the impact that its independence has had on world history and societies. Many are trying to come to grips with the utter devastation, the desperation and the dismay experienced today by what was once the “Queen of the Antilles.” How could this former Pearl of the Caribbean,” the only country in the world where freedom holds its true meaning, have been put back in chains, shoved back into its clam or perhaps become a lost treasure waiting to be rediscovered?
From the time that I was in primary school in my native Haiti, I had always been fascinated by the proliferation of solutions that were offered or advanced in an effort to get the nation out of the economic mire in which it has been from its inception. Besides having heard my teachers theorize over the solutions that could help Haiti to get on the road to economic prosperity – proposing everything from decentralization to reforestation, I also had a few relatives who were involved in development projects. One of them was an uncle – a beekeeper – who used to participate in agricultural fairs which lavishly displayed “projects” that were aimed at helping the country change course economically. He was frugal and was often excoriated by his colleagues for having asked no more than the bare minimal amount of money needed to display his products during the fair. They consisted of all types of honey, fresh honeycomb, bee wax, wax candles, royal jelly, etc. People used to love hearing his depiction of the wonders of royal jelly, the medicinal properties of bee stings and the multiple culinary uses of honey.
Every time I attended those fairs, I would be delighted to see popcorn machines powered by solar batteries and natural gas production using dumped trash, being demonstrated for the curious public. The humongous ears of corn obtained with organic compost (as it had been determined that chemical fertilizers kill the natural nutrients in the soil) were truly impressive, and the vast displays of tree samples aimed at stopping the devastating effects of erosion as well as scores of other useful projects too many for me to name in this short essay, were pleasing to the eyes of every spectator. The fairs were an exciting and comforting time for me as a teenager, for they represented the hope of the future. I saw in them the imminent salvation of the country.
However, once the fairs were over, the “projects” remained just that: projects. A very select few ever materialized. Some skeptics used to assume that most of those projects never became a reality because they would stop bringing money to those who were supposed to lead them if they did, and the thousands of dollars that were poured every year into mere demonstrations of how they were supposed to work simply represented a steady flow of income to many project directors. The skepticism and the cynicism gradually dashed all hope in me, as the great majority of those ventures never really came to fruition; and disillusion steadily set in over the years.
Later on during my secondary school days, I came close to sensory overload from the proliferation of solutions recommended by my professors who often expounded again and again on the wonders of decentralization and the virtues of a return to sustainable agriculture. By that time, I myself have become a skeptic with just a sliver of hope still alive. Some of my classmates became believers and even invested their entire lives to rebuilding the country. Conversely, it took a whole lot on my part to keep my hope from dying, especially after I asked my mother, whose husband was a farmer, how the irrigation project in her town was going.
She informed me that the project fell apart just three years into it because the money had run dry, and my stepfather was unable to unite the paysants and bring them to take the project over and resume it using their own means. I was astonished at the news, for this was an irrigation project that benefitted every farmer in the region. At first, I had marveled at the ingenuity shown on the part of the builders. That project consisted of a series of small dams that were built to control the flow of water through different parcels of land. At hearing that the project fell apart, my awe turned to disbelief. For the inhabitants to have left the water to run dry after the project funds ran dry was comparable to committing economic suicide. This was quite a perplexing situation to say the least. One good man’s willingness was powerless to save the masses.
That sad state of affairs, however, opened my eyes to a new reality. We were dealing with people who, for one reason or another, were willing to commit socio-economic suicide despite of the fact that the situation was far from being desperate. The resources were readily available, the means could be acquired, the manpower was obtainable, but there was no consensual willingness to make all of this work together for the common good or so that all would benefit. I was not made fully aware of the details for the stoppage, but it was still disturbing that such self-destructive attitudes would occur on such a large scale. Instead of standing on their own and acting in unity to work the land, they were waiting for the white foreigner to invest in, and sustain, a project that benefited native domestic Haitian inhabitants of Haiti (So much for the motto “L’union fait la force”). Moreover, this did not represent an isolated incident by any stretch of the imagination.
It then became clearer to me that the deepest problem of the country did not entail a lack of resources, nor a lack of creativity, nor a lack of opportunities, but in sick hearts. Psychological studies have determined that people who exhibit self-destructive behaviors in environments where they could thrive are thought to fall into either one of these two categories: a trade-off involving immediate pleasure and delayed consequences or faulty knowledge and reliance on strategies that do not work (Baumeister & Bushman, 2011). Perhaps one or more of those factors were at play here, or perhaps none was the case. I suggest something more drastic than psychology would offer by asserting that our problem is rooted in God. This is not at all the classic theistic case where the unexplainable is given a simplistic clarification in God. Rather, if we are to find a serious solution to Haiti’s manifold problems, we must be willing to look carefully in unusual places. This approach will embitter detractors, but it will surely strike reality in the minds of those who are willing to hear the facts and follow the arguments.
Reality is not always what it seems. There are times when the solutions to our problems are not found in obvious places, as the visible reality is always governed by an invisible superior reality. As a logical, reality (not show) – oriented, perfectly down-to-earth and heaven-bound born-again Christian, I have come to discern that the solutions to Haiti’s lingering afflictions belong to that higher reality. Let me remind my atheist, agnostic or otherwise non-Christian readers that I am not throwing God at a problem because I am ignorant of the solutions. Rather, I am entreating this readership to consider the fact that Haiti’s woes are inherently spiritual.
This higher spiritual reality cannot be ignored as it denotes faith put in action for those who became world conquerors. Jews possessed the land of Israel because Yahweh gave it to them. The Muslims conquered most of Africa and part of Europe because they believed that Allah asked them to convert infidels. Christian Europeans unleashed a conquest of old and newly discovered lands, and made African slaves, because God promised through Noah to “expand Japheth’s territory and make Canaan his slave.”[i] In like manner, Haiti’s problems did not start merely with slavery, but it is firmly rooted in Haitians’ attitude toward Almighty God.[ii]
Haitian ancestry originated from Africa, namely the western and central parts Africa (Congo, Guinea, Nigeria and especially Benin, formerly Dahomey). Those populations had inhabited the region for over four millennia. They were the descendants of Ham, Noah’s youngest son. Incidentally, I may need to rectify an incorrect pervasive belief that Ham was cursed with the curse of slavery. According the correct biblical account, Ham was not cursed, but his youngest son Canaan was. Ultimately, the curse found its fulfillment in the Semite descendants of Abraham occupying Canaan’s land and the Gibeonites deciding to enslave themselves to Joshua and the Israelites rather than being utterly destroyed as was to be the fate of all the inhabitants of the land. Today, it is alleged that the descendants of the Gibeonites are the "Falashas."[iii]
It was important to make that distinction, because for a long time (until today) a lie had been perpetrated and circulated that the entire Hamite clan was cursed, and that by implication all black people were cursed. “The Hamite curse” is a misnomer and should have been instead “The Canaanite curse.” The misnaming was done with the goal of perpetuating the lie. This lie essentially became a biblical mandate for all Hamite descendants (black people) to be indiscriminately enslaved.
Now that we have cleared the air of the legend that all black people are cursed, we must consider that they had been enslaved nonetheless, either by their own, by Arabs, or by Jews, and sold to white traders. This began happening primarily around the time that the Moors were pushing their conquest of Africa in order to promote and spread Islam. At that time, most of the mighty formerly unified kingdoms of North Africa had already broken apart under the Greeks and the Romans, neither one of which had made inroads towards central and West Africa where the black populations receded and split into smaller competing tribes and kingdoms, exacerbating the slave trade.
This is the background of the Haitian people. Their Japhethite brothers were convinced that they were cursed with slavery, and that freedom could only counteract the fulfillment of the curse. Their own Hamite ancestors betrayed them and sold them to oppressors whose sole goal was their degradation, dehumanization and exploitation for filthy lucre. The most vociferous abolitionists were a few evangelical Christians whose worst adversaries were sadly found among their own groups. It never left the minds of many white evangelical Christians that Haitian slaves acted against God’s will when they revolted against their French slave masters. Some would even go as far as to surmise that only through a pact with the devil could they have gained their liberty.
However, against all odds, discounting all flawed beliefs about their destiny, Haitians rose up as one, moved by an intense desire to claim back the freedom with which God has endowed every human being on the face of this earth. They cried out to God. Being a God who is loving, merciful and just, Yahweh God heard their cry, came through for them, and Haiti became a mighty independent little black nation – the first black republic.
Many authors or historians have offered a revisionary reading of the historiography of the Haitian Revolution (Joseph, 2012), but this is not my intention. My goal rather is to demonstrate that God had always been involved in helping Haitians achieve independence. The facts of the Haitian revolution speak for themselves if we are willing to let them express themselves without distortion. The deal is that the facts only tell the full story when mixed with the divine background story, for God is always in the picture even when man denies His input. For instance, the book of Esther in the Bible may not have the name of God mentioned explicitly throughout the book, but Jews believe strongly that God was acting backstage on behalf of the Jews, because God never lets man’s injustice against fellow men go unpunished. Here is then a synopsis of the full story of the Haitian revolution as reconstructed in the light of both the seen and unseen realities.
While slavery became a normal trade, there had always been a growing parallel trend to abolish it for some time. That trend intensified toward the end of the eighteenth century. For that purpose, God raised people such as John Newton (a former slave trader who left us the hymn “Amazing Grace”) and William Wilberforce (who worked tirelessly to make a stand for the abolition of slavery from the time he became a born-again Christian believer) to work to end it. They were joined in their fight by a group of other British abolitionists who were convinced that slavery, as it was practiced then, was biblically wrong. Among them were Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and John Wesley who allied themselves with a few Quakers and some free blacks whose freedom Granville Sharp had helped to acquire, namely Olaudah Equiano, Jonathan Strong and James Somerset – the last two would have been sold to Jamaican British planters without Sharp’s intervention.
Both Clarkson and Sharp were very familiar with the politics of Haiti (then Saint-Domingue), and they had both met with Vincent Ogé during his stay in Paris, France where he and Julien Raymond were passionately defending the rights of equality among the free with the help of the Society of the Friends of Blacks (Schama, 2006). While Ogé had no initial intention of abolishing slavery, he was leading a revolution that was bound to be the precursor of Dutty Bookman’s “Bois-Caïman” insurrection.
In fact, when the Planters of Saint-Domingue refused to implement the resolution of the National Assembly of Paris that guaranteed the rights of all free men born of free parents to participate in the politics of the colony, Ogé made a speech which was a staunch warning that dissent would not be tolerated. No serious historian can deny that the slaves, especially the literate ones, were mindful of this movement of freedom around them. No one, even if not an historian, would suggest that the abolitionist movement, the freedom movements and the Haitian revolution were isolated incidents that were totally unrelated. It is rather a sad fact that many writers treat the Haitian Revolution, and subsequently Haitian independence, as an exclusively inside job that was solely generated by the resolve of the slaves, the sagacity of their leaders and the unbounded magic of the voodoo religion. At that juncture (Ogé and Chavannes’ rebellion), no one in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) was considering independence except the Planters, the “grands Blancs” (Schoelcher, 1982).
The facts indeed are mystifying in their basic logical realities. Actually, Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes failed in their attempts to bring about equality among the free by force and were executed by being broken at the wheel in February 1791. On May 15, 1791, the National Assembly, appalled at the means of execution employed by the white planters, voted unanimously to enforce that all free people born of free parents in the French colonies were free to lawfully participate in colonial parliamentary procedures, a move that infuriated the white planters and increased the volatility of the colonial class struggle. What Ogé and Chavannes sacrificed their lives for unsuccessfully, they accomplished easily while dead. It is inevitable for the believer in God not to see the hand of God in this.
Meanwhile, slaves who were used either by Ogé in leading the rebellion or by the white planters in quelling it, had already burned in their mind a sweet taste of freedom. By the time they were led by Bookman and his lieutenants Jeanot Bullet, Jean-François Papillon and George Biassou, they were already prepared to take their destiny in their own hands. Before they drank the blood of the pig as a cultural and religious act of fraternity, they were already drunk on the wine of freedom that flows from every person’s heart. While it is wrong to minimize Bookman’s impactful leadership among the revolutionary, there is an unfortunate tendency to amplify the Bois-Caïman ceremony beyond its significance and to exaggerate Bookman’s hegemony in the Haitian Revolution. Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy, and Bookman, its leader (James, 1989).
Bookman, a slave originally from Jamaica, presided over a voodoo ceremony on August 14, 1791. He later led a formidable campaign of destruction starting on the night of August 22, 1791, and though the campaign was effective in its aim, Bookman was ultimately killed in November of the same year and his movement temporarily disrupted. Among his lieutenants who took over, Jeanot was executed shortly thereafter by Jean-François and Biassou for being excessively violent. Then a better-organized leader came on the scene in the person of Toussaint Louverture, the most admired, and the most able, leader of the revolution. Toussaint was first under the command of Biassou, but then he moved through the ranks and eventually fought against his former superiors as it became evident that the latter were not at all interested in a more general slave emancipation.
Eventually, Toussaint sided with the Frenchmen while Jean-François and Biassou went to the Spaniards. Toussaint defeated both the British and the Spanish armies and claimed the entire island for France. Jean-François, still a slave owner, then moved to Cadiz in Spain (Geggus, 2002). Biassou moved to St. Augustine, Florida where he bought a large plantation cultivated by his slaves (Parkinson, 1978). Strangely enough, Toussaint himself had always been ambivalent about the independence of the colony. He preferred a cordial relationship with France and the concession from the “motherland” that slavery would be abolished in the spirit of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity for all. Several authors have mentioned his familiarity with L’Abbé Raynal’s work in which a prediction was made that a great black general would arise who would fight for the freedom of the Africans, and Toussaint was thought to be the fulfillment of that prophecy (Beard , 1853).
Toussaint’s lieutenants Henry Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, for a while, aligned themselves with Toussaint’s idealistic vision of a Haiti becoming a French colony in its own rights. That vision was short-lived after Napoleon sent his intimidating fleet led by his brother-in-law Leclerc to reannex the island for France and reestablish slavery in it. What prompted Dessalines and Christophe to action also compelled Alexandre Pétion, a mulatto who originally fought for France, to join the Haitian revolution: they realized that the powers in the main land of France could not be trusted to decide the destiny of the colonial people when Toussaint got kidnapped and imprisoned, slavery was reinstated in the colonies and the rights of the free blacks and mulattoes were abrogated.
It was then and only then that they engaged on the no-return road to independence. It was then in Arcahaie, on May 18, 1803, that the three main generals of the revolution, Dessalines, Christophe and Pétion, met and created the Haitian flag from the French flag by tearing up the white color from the middle and joining directly the blue to the red, signifying that the white man could not be trusted to be part of the equation of a fight that included freedom of all people. Finally, after a ravaging blow to the French army by yellow fever and a crushing victory at the battle of Vertières over the remnant of the French army led by a vicious General Rochambeau, Haiti proclaimed herself independent on January 1, 1804.
If we are faithful students of Haitian history, we must acknowledge the truth that the country had always navigated the ocean between dependence and independence. From General Governor Toussaint who desired a perfect French colony to President Martelli who craves an invasion of foreign investors, Haiti has never fully come to terms with the meaning of true independence. Haitians, for the most part, have never quite figured out who to depend on and what to cut out.
Deceived by the false promises of a religion based on African nostalgia, Haitians seem to be caught in a quicksandlike quandary, never knowing who to trust or who to associate with. The more they fight the worse things appear to get. If they find themselves to be fighting God, their battle is indubitably futile. “When your enemy is too strong for you, make peace with him,” as once affirmed a wise man. Even the logo on the Haitian flag becomes meaningless if they find themselves fighting against God, “L’Union Fait la Force” (there is strength in number) may work against man, but not against God. “Konplo pi fò pasé wonga”[iv] (plotting is stronger than witchcraft) may be good cliché and even pragmatic wisdom, but it is utter nonsense in the realm of an omnipotent God.
For all the trumpet calls for unity, there has never been a positive movement of solidarity rooted in common goals and common interests among Haitians who have never consented to build on each other’s strength. The only instances of real unity have often been fostered by universal threats of economic disasters, health epidemics or natural catastrophes. No lasting positive cohesion can be achieved based on a negatively impacted will. The enemy of my enemy can never truly become my friend. Haitians typically exhibit a stubborn unwillingness to analyze the past and learn from mistakes.
Unfortunately, until today, Haitians’ understanding of their full history remains Haiti’s biggest hurdle. Someone once said that “anyone who is ignorant of his history is bound to repeat it.” In the case of Haiti, in the light of its seen and unseen realities, the challenge has been raised a notch, for only an understanding of the unseen reality can fully explain the visible reality. As is witnessed presently, even while well imbued of the visible history and armed with an array of tangible solutions to get the country back on track, the best-intentioned Haitian leaders seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle of greed, desperation and dependence from which it appears impossible to break away.
This brings me back to my original contention that the problem with Haiti resides in the heart of Haitians – the invisible reality. Something is wrong with the heart which only God can fix. While many of us are desperately seeking the source of the Haitian problems outside of God, it behooves those who are believers to do their duty and push for help from where help can come. A very wise man once said, “If God is your problem, only God can be your solution.”
Assuming that the premise “the problem of Haiti comes from the heart” is correct, then the natural question that arises is the following: “How did the Haitian heart get to be this way?”
The next step would be to go to the Bible and see if God addresses this matter of the human heart and how it can get so messed up. In effect, the answer lies in this: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”[v]
In the beginning of the article, I made sure to go back to the history of all black people by going back all the way to Noah and his son Ham. I also reminded us that all great conquests throughout time have always been led by divine reference. This is to compel us to understand that we are answerable to God for everything we do.
To many who are either atheist or agnostic, the Bible is a mere collection of myths, but to those who believe, the very breath of God can be felt in this book, and every word is serious and worth considering. Even if one does not believe the Bible for what it is worth, it is nonetheless critical to hear the following case being made for the source of Haiti’s predicaments, for the sheer importance attributed to them by those who believe.
First let us reflect on the relevant changes that have been effected after the flood of Noah’s days:
1. The ground was no longer cursed – the ground became more fertile (perhaps all the dead organisms became fertilizers).
2. The atmosphere changed (a rainbow could be seen in the sky).
3. Man could now eat meat along with all green plants.
Now let us see which ones might apply to Haiti’s case. Although all of these facts cited above are important to a certain degree, the third one would most likely be of prime interest to Haitians, especially because of the blood ingesting warning attached to it. Here is the way God puts it in the Bible:
“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image...” [vi]
Now, one may interject and say that this Old Testament requirement is not for modern times. That could be put up for debate if it were not for the fact that this requirement was carried into the New Testament as well. In fact, in discussing among the newly converted Jews about what the new Gentile believers could observe as far as ancient Jewish customs were concerned, it was stated in a letter sent by James (the half-brother of Jesus) and the Jerusalem Council to all the Christians everywhere that they should “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood.” (Acts 15:29)
These scriptures, while not alluding to the voodoo religion, shed light on the gruesomeness of the Bois-Caïman ceremony. In them, God forbids the eating of meat with the blood in it. In comparison, the participants in the ceremony did worse by drinking the blood of a pig – a biblically unclean animal. In them, God forbids the offering of sacrifice to idols; comparatively, at the Bois-Caïman ceremony, Bookman and the voodoo priestess Fatima led the slaves to sacrifice to Erzuli Dantò – an idol.
Scripturally speaking, the Bois-Caïman ceremony has the potential to make the Haitian heart ripe for the warning prescribed in Romans 1 concerning “changing the truth of God into a lie and worshipping the creature more than the Creator.” In effect, God gave Haiti independence, but the spirits of African ancestors are given the credit. God is supreme and He has no competitor. Furthermore, since He is a God of justice (From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man), then we can readily understand the extent of the Haitian problem, and the solution becomes self-evident. We may emphatically deduce that Haitians, at the core of Haiti’s difficulties, have sinned against God, and will not see any lasting progress until they get right with God.
If indeed God is Haiti’s problem, God has already provided the solution. What He promised to one people, He is able to deliver to all peoples: “And [if] My people who are called by My name humble themselves, pray and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land.”[vii] Obviously, the solution may appeal particularly to those who claim to know God, for God will accept a few righteous as down payment for the unrighteous, as he would have in Sodom’s destruction. If in the case of Sodom, He could not find the minimum ten for whom Abraham attempted to negotiate, let us hope that in the case of Haiti He may find enough righteous so that the nation would be allowed to turn around.
Finally, as essential as decentralization, reforestation, agricultural sustainability and other viable proposed solutions are to the rebuilding efforts of the freest nation in the western hemisphere, until Haitians can repent of the sins of the ancestors for the drinking of the pig’s blood, acknowledge that God is the one who gave them independence, and ask for forgiveness on behalf of those who sinned, the land will never enjoy peace and will never see its former glory. What is it going to take for such a change of heart to occur? Only God knows.
In any case, if I assessed correctly the Haitian problem, we now have to deal with the solution. If, on the contrary, I were to be erroneously wrong in my assessment, I am the biggest Haitian fool, and I should not waste good ink to spew nonsense at such an erudite readership. However, I am neither delusional nor unrealistic about this serious spiritual need, and I believe that with God in the mix, Haitians can be closer to a solution than they have ever been.
Beard , J. R. (1853). The Life of Toussaint Louverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti . London, England: Ingram, Cook and Co.
Geggus, D. P. (2002). Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
James, C. L. (1989). The Black Jacobins. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Joseph, Célucien L. (2012). Race, Religion, and the Haitian Revolution: Essays on Faith, Freedom and Decolonization. CreateSpace.
Parkinson, W. (1978). ‘This Gilded African’ Toussaint Louverture. London, England: Quartet Books.
Schama, S. (2006). Rough Crossing: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Schoelcher, V. (1982). Vie de Toussaint Louverture. Paris, France: Editions Karthala.
[i] This interpretation is taken from Genesis 9:27 [NIV]
[iii] Falashas are Ethiopian Jews who live as foreigners in the midst of Israel. The term may be derogatory to many.
[iv] “A plot is stronger than witchcraft.” is a Haitian idiom which means “when the people plots against you, even the strongest witchcraft made on your behalf will not work.”
[v] Romans 1:24-25 [ESV]
[vi] Genesis 9:3-6 [ESV]
[vii] 2 Chronicles 7:14 [HCSB]