Haiti, a must read
Review of the book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by
Review by E. Ablorh-Odjidja
book on Haiti that I think is a necessary read for all African
countries that truly desire to be free. The lessons are many
and they are buried in her history.
The writer, Laurent Dubois, in telling the story of Haiti has
drawn an allegory for every black nation yearning to be free.
Sadly for Haiti, no other nation in the black world has ever
fought so gallantly for liberty only to be burdened by the
poverty she finds herself under today. But there is a reason.
Some may wonder why. But the reason for Haiti’s circumstance
is not surprising; nor is it hidden. It is in the racial
difference. A people of any other race would have been hailed
centuries earlier till today as miracle workers. Instead,
they still “deny our intelligence,” achievements and audacity,
as Dubois will write later.
Haiti: The Aftershocks of History tells the story of how a
slave insurrection in 1791 caused a break with the French
Yet for decades after, the master nation, with the aid of her
western allies, would continue to exact her revenge, pestering
and blocking Haiti’s chance for development with wars and
demands to repossess her.
First, they used military force and when that failed they
resorted to trickery and machinations of the mind-boggling
kind; like demands for indemnity.
Haiti was forced to take loans from French banks to pacify
French lust and greed. By 1914 “80% of Haiti government’s
budget” went to pay the loan for something the French had no
right to own in the first place!
Each day after independence in 1793, Haiti society faced the
stress of being returned to slavery. And as disgusting as the
idea was it also was to form the template by which all
colonials reacted to self-governance by black nations: an
unbridled and active universal wish for unsuccessful black
That, this universal wish to stifle liberty would start with
the French is ironic. These were the same French who in their
1789 landmark revolution defeated absolute monarchy in the
name of liberty. Suddenly this enlightened movement could now
not understand the inalienable rights of blacks or why they
would want to be free!
But, again, the reasoning was simple and obvious: Blacks
should serve as slaves. They could not and should not be
allowed to rule themselves. Haiti was a bad example in that
she became free and thus was a serious threat to the colonial
worldview! The wish to reverse her independence was to become
Fast forward to Ghana under Nkrumah in the early 60s. Same
interest saw Nkrumah as the bad example. He wanted to free
Africa of colonial exploitations. Nkrumah’s efforts had to be
capped with a coup in February 24, 1966 for the same reason
that Haiti’s independence was handicapped.
Same for the Congo in 1960 where Lumumba appeared and was
promptly done in. Nkrumah and Lumumba happened on a continent
thousands of miles away: different plantation, same people and
same reason for their physical and political existence to
expire. Haitian template applied!
Dubois’ book is remarkable in the way it reveals vividly
colonial attempts to build plantation empires worldwide - the
subterfuges and the repression patterns that went on in
Saint-Dominique and colonial Africa. You read what happened
to Toussaint Louverture and his death in a cold cell at Fort
de Joux prison and you can’t help but recall the circumstances
of Lumumba’s death in the Congo.
Haiti was called French Saint-Dominique in the 18th
century. The black population was brought there from the
Congo, according to Dubois. Through their labor, “French
Saint-Dominique grew to become the most profitable colony in
the world,” Dubois writes.
Work on the plantations of Haiti was brutal and “consumed the
lives of the colony slaves” at a murderous pace. This
required constant replenishment of the labor force as “few
children were born and those that were often died young.”
There was constant need for replenishment in the labor force
with more slaves from Africa. But with the replenishment came
the new energy that was to cause the revolution of 1791.
The revolt was led by a slave called Boukman “now remembered
for his rousing call to revolution, (and) a sanctification of
the uprising as holy duty... ” as Dubois recounts.
After Boukman came a decent array of early leaders in Haiti –
Louverture, Dessalines, Christophe, Petion, Boyer and others
who in the context of the histories of the time were giants
and equally as fractious and duplicitous as their European
But they defeated Napoleon and the best of his generals at a
time when France was a world superpower!
What they could not defeat entirely was the system set in
place by the colonial power: a “finely tuned plantation
machine, a place whose entire mode of being was driven by the
production of sugar and coffee for export.”
That was in the 18th century. But, the same
condition would persist in Haiti and work its way decades
later into Africa. Blacks on a continent far removed from
Haiti would find themselves in similar situations; imprisoned
by their own abundant resources and the need by the foreigner
to exploit these!
In Africa it was cocoa, gold, oil and other natural resources
that were hauled away before independence. And after
independence, nothing much changed, in spite of warnings from
prophets of the much anticipated but yet to be achieved
The final analysis is, our world, as we knew it before
colonialism, has been drastically altered and we have been
left with a dilemma.
Haiti comes readily to mind as the crucible of our collective
histories. Events there have reverberated into our own. We
have been left after independence to find cure in our lands
for the lingering malaise that was colonialism.
In a chapter titled “An Immaterial Being,” Dubois describes
the malaise in a highly familiar way: Marie Vierux-Chauvet
trilogy of novels in which “men with guns are taking over
Haiti: its land, its people, even its spirit. Dressed in red
and black, the gunmen shoot songbirds out of trees and, just
as casually, mow down fleeing victims in the streets.”
Needless to say, the above is highly symbolic of military
regimes in Africa!
“Where do these men come from…? They suddenly showed up in
the country and have taken over without any of us being able
to put up a fight,” Vierux-Chauvet novel recalls.
Another recollection of painful military eras in Africa!
Faced with the malaise, Dubois says of conditions in Haiti –
“a time when many found that there was nowhere to turn but
inside – only to discover that even their interior life was
inescapably haunted by the specter of oppression.”
But is there hope? Perhaps. There is the social cohesion
that has existed through tribal times; that surfaced after the
2010 Haitian earthquake. Haiti, without a functioning
government, was able to control the chaos by drawing “on a set
of complex and resilient social institutions that have emerged
from a historic commitment to self-sufficiency and
self-reliance,” according to Dubois.
There is the need to recall that instinct of “self-sufficiency
and self-reliance.” Certainly, in the book “Aftershocks of
History’ there are lessons from Haiti, but only if we are able
to relate to her history and, therefore, ours.
Washington, DC, February 24, 2012
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