Revolutionary Roads


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In the first years of the 19th century, Napoleon decided he’d had enough of the Haitian patriot, freedom fighter, and self-proclaimed defender of the French Revolution, Toussaint Louverture. Louverture had organized slave revolts in Haiti and defeated armies sent by the Spanish, English, and the French. A man of the Enlightenment, he took the ideas of liberté, egalité, and fraternité quite seriously. Never sentimental, Napoleon realized that France’s Caribbean colonies were heavy on the lucre, and that he needed slave labor to keep the profits flowing. Louverture had become a nuisance.

Louverture was tricked into a meeting and then captured by the French in 1802. He was brought back to France, where he lived and quickly expired in a little dungeon called Fort de Joux. But before his death, he’d managed to stir the hearts of quite a few. William Wordsworth was one. A youngish Wordsworth penned the following lines in honor of the great Haitian:

TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den; –
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

Wordsworth saw Toussaint as a participant in the promising events of the time: Toussaint in Haiti, the sans-culottes in France, the revolutionaries in New York and Boston. Recent events — not to mention the last 200 years of Haitian history — have proven Wordsworth a poor prophet when it comes to Haiti. The earth, air, and skies have done anything but work for Haiti. People haven’t helped much either. A series of tyrants, monsters, and clowns have made their mark on the place. One of the more notable, Papa Doc Duvalier, fancied himself both a statesman and a voodoo priest. Charismatic and clever, he kept dissenters at bay with his now infamous secret police organization, the Tonton Macoutes. The Macoutes would do terrible things, unspeakable things. They reported directly to Papa Doc and they were encouraged to scare the living shit out of everyone, which they achieved.

No, the promise of Toussaint, as Wordsworth saw it, has gone unfulfilled generation after generation. Toussaint may have embraced the Enlightenment and the dreams of freedom stimulated by the French Revolution, but they did not embrace him back.

Or maybe they did. The lie in Wordsworth’s poetic tribute to Toussaint is in the supposed promise and guarantee of history. History doesn’t make promises. The French Revolution ended one reign of tyranny but introduced the world to new forms of political terror all the same. The Enlightenment-era advances in science and technology went on to help enslave and destroy as many people as they helped. I say this not in complaint, simply in observation. I’ll take my shot at liberté, egalité, and fraternité along with the next man. It is always worth a try.

In this, the awful travails of Haiti are not some mystery from another world. Haiti is simply the darker and unluckier side of a shared history that takes us from Europe to the New World. There is no Toussaint without Napoleon and there is no Napoleon without Saint-Just (the head of the French Revolutionary Committee on Public Safety, which supplied the guillotine with an unending stream of French heads), and there is no French Revolution without the American Revolution. History is shared here. Good and bad are intertwined. Events went terribly astray in Paris just as they did in Port-au-Prince. That the situation has turned out more or less for the better in Paris does not change the fact that Haitian history is not a separate history. The ups and downs of Haiti are the ups and downs of the greater story.

Toussaint’s successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed himself Emperor, just as Napoleon had done, and started right away with killing the Haitian people. Various episodes of ethnic strife, political upheaval, and colonial shenanigans were to follow.

But it is not an unusual story. The road from former colony to functioning and healthy society is not known to be an easy one, be it Canada or Trinidad. The difficulties Haiti faced over the last two hundred years were not radically different from the difficulties faced by the American colonies. The United States had advantages not shared by Haiti but the success or failure of either was hardly a foregone conclusion. Americans, secular and religious alike, enjoy anointing themselves with the supposedly preordained blessings of God or history. Reading the letters of the founding fathers is often a lesson, however, in what a crapshoot the American experiment was. Jefferson and Adams spent most of their time wondering where the inevitable despot who finally ruined everything was going to come from and how long he would take to get it done.

Around the time Haiti lost Louverture to French trickery, the U.S. was a weak and hobbling little country that many of its contemporaries thought had no chance to survive for very long. One of Louverture’s admirers was Alexander Hamilton, himself born in the West Indies to a mother of French descent. Hamilton saw in Louverture not an exotic freedom fighter from another land. He saw himself. He saw the people of Haiti trying to pull off the same crazy gambit as he and his fellow Americans.

That really wasn’t so long ago. And back in those days it wasn’t too hard to see that we were all in it together and that the prospects didn’t look so hot for any of us. From the French Revolution to the American Revolution to the Haitian Revolution the name of the game was turmoil and strife. Men’s passions were unleashed to devastating effect. Monsters crept out of the woodwork, ever seeing the potential for profit in the upending of old rules. Every so often, natural disasters or other misfortunes would step in to up the ante.

I guess my point is the old and sappy canard. We are all Haitians or some such blather. But we really are. We’ve forgotten in our power and wealth and sheer dumb luck that we’re just a little colony in the new world like everybody else. We don’t owe anything to Haiti because they are a poor and strange benighted “other.” (Though, I suppose, that’s as good a reason as any to help someone out.) We owe something to Haiti in the way you owe something to a brother fallen on hard times even though you both came from the same place. We owe something to Haiti because we ought to be ashamed that we let it get so bad when we were just next door all along and we could have called or come by any time. We owe something to Haiti because of Wordsworth and Alexander Hamilton. We owe something to Haiti because history and God do not. We owe something to Haiti because the project of independence and self-determination that the miserable Chieftain Toussaint Louverture started 200 years ago can always get going again. It can’t get much worse right now in Haiti, but maybe this time it can actually get better. • 19 January 2010