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Haiti, a must read

Review of the book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois

Review by E. Ablorh-Odjidja


A 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 colonial yoke.


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 self-rule.


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 the template.


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 contemporaries.


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 African renaissance.


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.


E. Ablorh-Odjidja,Publsiher, Washington, DC, February 24, 2012

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