The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

The Origin of the Zombie

The now ubiquitous and popular concept of the zombie (first spelled “zombi”) originated in the fusion of African folklore with the particularly brutal form of slavery practiced in French-ruled Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue). The precise genesis of the concept is unknown, but as one could imagine, its emergence is a long and painful story.

The life of a Haitian slave was one of never-ending fear and suffering. Hunger, extreme overwork, and cruelty were everyday occurrences. Slaves did not eat enough to have children, and those few who were born usually died. The sheer labor intensity required to cultivate and produce sugar – one of the most profitable commodities in the 17th and 18th centuries – required literally working people to death. In the cold logic of plantation masters, the breeding of slaves was a waste of resources: it was better and more cost-effective to work them to death and just bring in more from Africa.

[Note that this is why people of African descent living in former Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies – from Louisiana and Haiti to Cuba and Brazil – have generally retained more of their African heritage, in the forms of Creole, Voodoo, Santeria, and so on. Unlike in the English colonies, where deaths rates were comparatively lower and birth rates higher, new Africans kept being brought in to replenish the labor force. Thus, by the time these colonies became independent, there were enough African-born individuals who retained some form of their language, folklore, religion, and so on.]

Given the constant agony of slave life, many slaves sought solace in the idea of going back to their homeland, which they called lan guinée – literally “Guinea” or “West Africa”. It says a lot that in Haitian Creole, this phrase is now synonymous with heaven, since the only conceivable way out of slavery was death. Though African slaves feared death like anyone else, they also wished for it. Suicide was common, as it not only offered an escape, but served as the sole means of asserting freedom – to take back control over the body your master owned and exploited. It was also the only way the slave could defy their master, through deprivation of their labor, without punishment.

[Slaves generally committed suicide through homemade poisons, and this handiness with toxins made some plantation masters fearful of being targeted in this covert manner. The cultural trope of the African or Voodoo witch doctor may have stemmed in large part from this concern.]

This is where the zombie mythos emerges. In traditional Vodou belief, the zombie is a dead person who cannot go to lan guinée. Rather, the zombie is fated to remain mindless and without control – a slave for eternity. To get to the final resting place of Africa, you needed to be transported by Baron Samedi, a loa, or spirit, of the dead. Among his roles is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. But if for some reason one has offended Baron, the god will not allow that person to reach guinea upon death, thus leaving them behind as a zombie (which in some variations can be controlled by someone else, such as a bokor, akin to a witch or sorcerer).

Needless to say, becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare: it meant that the only path to liberation was gone, and you would continue to be enslaved. It is believed that Africans developed this concept to instill hope: keep being a good and pious person, and avoid offending Baron and other spirits, and soon you would be free. However, many slave drivers also exploited this fear, invoking it to keep slaves motivated and to discourage them from acting out or committing suicide.

Though it originates in the folklore of Haitian Vodou (which itself is a descendent and variation of the original African religion of Vodou), contrary to popular belief, zombies are not part of any formal religious practice.

Moreover, the idea of reanimating corpses or wandering souls is fairly common in mythologies and religions around the world. But the zombie concept that has become popularized in the West seems to stem mostly from Haitian and Louisianian Vodou (which in the former’s case was to the transmitted to the U.S. through our occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century).

Source: New York Times

Haiti’s Imposing Citadelle Laferrière

Some of the largest and most sophisticated fortresses in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Haiti, of which the most famous is Citadelle Laferrière. Located in the north of the country, this defense network was built not by the powerful French Empire that ruled this lucrative colony with an iron first, but by the newly freed Haitians themselves.

Citadelle Laferrière

Citadelle Laferrière (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after achieving independence in the early 19th century, Henri Christophe, a former slave and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, briefly took control of the northern part of the country as a self-appointed king. Like most Haitians, he knew full well how shaky the country’s newfound freedom was: it was second only to the United States in liberating itself from European colonialism in the hemisphere. It was history’s first successful slave revolt and first black republic, having managed to fight off three leading powers (France, Britain, and Spain). Needless to say, these factors did not endear the Haitians to the European-dominated global system. Continue reading

The 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti

History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.

It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.

Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention. Continue reading

Haiti’s Underrated But Out-Sized Influence

It is a shame that so few of us know how unique and influential Haiti’s role in history has been. After gaining independence in 1804 – following a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world – Haiti became the first and only nation in history to be established as a result of a successful slave revolt; many of its first political leaders were former slaves.

Haiti became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second independent nation in the entire Western Hemisphere after the United States, and the second republic in the Americas. It produced such prominent military and political figures as Jean-Baptiste Belley (the first black representative in the Western world), Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West), and Toussaint L’Ouverture (brilliant military strategist and along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West).

Moreover, Haiti’s unlikely success against a major power inspired revolutionaries across the hemisphere, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. Many historians regard Haitian independence as a catalyst for independence movements across Latin America, which picked up pace shortly after; indeed, Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Notably, France’s failure to take back what was then the world’s richest colony contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in the West and sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

Needless to say, Haiti’s independence rocked the institution of slavery throughout the Americas, which would unfortunately contribute to its endemic poverty and instability: for obvious reasons, none of the racist or slave-owning nations that dominated that international system at the time wanted to support the first and only successful black republic, especially one born from a slave revolt.

Thus, Haiti would remain isolated and periodically preyed upon for much of its history. Two decades after expelling the French, it was forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its political and economic isolation. Though the amount was reduced in 1838, Haiti was unable to finish paying off its debt until 1947, leaving the country deeply impoverished — but no less proud and culturally rich.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic: Racial Histories Compared

This excellent hour-long video — part of a PBS series on race hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates — explores the histories and societies of two small but culturally-outsized nations, particularly with regards to racial attitudes.

Watch Haiti & the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided and see more of the series Black in Latin America.

In the Dominican Republic, race has been socially constructed after centuries of intermarriage, and the country’s troubled history with Haiti has created unusual notions about racial classification. Gates also unravels the gripping story of the world’s first black republic, Haiti, and finds out how the slaves’s difficult fight for liberation became a mixed blessing that affects the nation to this day.

The narrative of each nation has implications well beyond their borders, speaking to similar racial attitudes and dynamics in other parts of the world (especially in the United States, Brazil, and other Latin American countries). As the comment section shows, this remains a difficult and contentious topic for many people (though that’s not surprising, given that issues of race and class are usually polarizing and personal).