Haiti, very brief history, by Rouvio St-Jean

Author: Coccoon Webware |

(Written originally by Rouvio St-Jean, Haitian writer living in Montreal, translated from the French by Haitian translator Marlye Monfiston, living in Toronto.)

During the colonial era, Saint-Domingue had once again become Haïti and was inhabited by three groups of individuals, each with its own distinct status: Whites, Freedmen and Slaves.

The Whites were people who had emigrated from Europe with the hope of quickly becoming rich. Among them were rascals who had fled from justice, reformed or discharged officers and finally, Whites born on the island and called « créole whites ». This last group had priority over everything. It held all powers, including the power to kill.

The Freedmen included all Mulattoes, Blacks rewarded by white masters and some black women who served as cleaning ladies. Freedmen were frown upon by Whites and had no civil, political or social rights. Lastly, the Blacks were at the bottom of the ladder. They formed the majority of the island’s population. The first Blacks arrived in the colony in 1503.

Blacks were brought over from Africa to bridge the labour (1) shortage caused by the disappearance of Indians decimated by European diseases and hard-working conditions in the mines. Blacks were loaded on large ships called « négriers ». These unfortunate individuals were packed as cattle and would die in large numbers during the voyage. Those who made it alive to the island quickly understood the fate that awaited them. They experienced horrible suffering. They were slaves as clearly defined by Dantès Bellegarde : « It is a thing subject to the Master’s whim, a machine to be exploited to the maximum. » Malnourished, mistreated, they longed for relief: death, as on that splendid day, their soul would go back to Africa amongst their people.

Slaves were the main reason of the economic growth of the colony. Their presence transformed the island at all levels. Commerce, farming, everything worked extremely well. At one point in time, the foreign trade of the island exceeded 240 million of francs, more than that of the United States. Thus, the island was nicknamed the “Pearl of the Antilles.”

Slaves suffered for a long time but they waited for a favourable (2) moment to organize a revolt. On the night of April 22 to 23, 1791, Boukman gave the watchword leading to the uprising at the now famous Bois Caïman ceremony but perished in a battle. At his death, rebels vowed to continue their struggle for freedom. Nothing was going to stop them. This rebellion started in the North, spread to the West and the South. France sent a Commission to the island to stop what it considered a disturbance and to bring back peace. Sonthonax, the most active member of the Commission one day wrote: « The lands of Saint-Domingue should belong to the Blacks. They acquired them with sweat and toil ». And on August 29, 1794, he abolished slavery.

However, in 1802, Napoléon Bonaparte considered it necessary to re-establish slavery. Toussaint Louverture who exercised a prominent role in the colony was a major hurdle to this step backwards. He fiercely opposed it. Under the pretense of soliciting Toussaint’s advice to re-establish peace on the island, General Brunet invited him to a meeting; it was a trap. Toussaint was arrested and deported to France. As he left, he said « In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of Black liberty in Saint-Domingue. It will spring back from the roots for they are numerous and deep ». Toussaint died on April 7, 1803 at Fort de Joux in France. The indigenous army selected Dessalines as its leader to conduct operations and continue the fight. And, in November 1803, the bloody Vertières battle sealed the victory of Dessalines’ troops. The Rochambeau army was shred to pieces. On January 1, 1804, Haïti proclaimed its independence in Gonaïves before a large crowd repeating with one voice: « Live free or die ». However, Thomas Jefferson like the French, refused to recognize this independence.

Then, the victorious army led by Dessalines and his generals travelled to several South American countries to help them win their independence by supplying weapons, ammunition, advice and men. The late President Hugo Chavez never missed an opportunity to remind people of Venezuela, the contribution of this army to the independence of their country.

(1)labor (USA), labour (Canada)

(2)favorable (USA), favourable (Canada)

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