Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Haiti, its history, its culture and its people
By Jean H Charles
Haiti, previously called Ayiti by the Tainos who inhabited the island, was the most populous and the most organized of the chain of the territories of the Caribbean. Their days were changed on December 5, 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived in a northern bay renamed Bay of St Nicholas because of the feast of St Nicholas on that day. The Tainos received the Spanish explorers with genuine hospitality, offering gold chains to the men. Columbus returned to Spain to inform Queen Isabella of his discovery, leaving behind a crew of sailors.
Yet, the gold exploration had to continue, and a priest by the name of Las Casas, under the pretext of protecting the Taino population from oblivion, obtained from the Queen of Spain, the authorization to grant the right for merchants to seek and bring Africans into the Western hemisphere to labour in the mines.
From 1503 to 1793, almost three hundred years, the black slaves toiled the land, producing sugar, cotton and cocoa that enriched principally the French colonists, who ruled the island with an iron fist.
It was as such until a Jamaican slave by the name of Bookman organized a voodoo ceremony in the northern part of St Domingue on August 14, 1791, to energize the slaves in revolting with the slogan: Better death than return to slavery!
The destruction of the plantations followed, but Bookman was seized and killed. Toussaint Breda, who became later Toussaint Louverture, continued the movement. A well educated and profoundly religious man, Toussaint was aware of the wind of human rights brought upon St Domingue first by the American Revolution in 1776 and later by the French Revolution in 1789.
Through several battles, he defeated first the British, later the Spanish and proposed a French Commonwealth to Napoleon Bonaparte, leading the destiny of the island with prosperity and hospitality for all. His reputation as a nation builder was sterling. Indeed the second president of the United States, John Adams, already trading with the governor of the country, was contemplating advising him to become king of the island.
Bonaparte responded with an armada supported by the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Through a ruse, where family affection was at the root, two sons of Toussaint were on the boat coming from France, and he was lured into the hands of Rochambeau, Bonaparte’s brother in law, who was the commandant of the naval regiment.
Toussaint was captured, imprisoned and sent to die in a prison in France. He had predicted that the roots of freedom were strong and deep and they would not wither.
Jean Jacques Dessalines took up the revolutionary movement and, within three years, he had succeeded, with the support of other generals such as Henry Christophe and Alexander Petion, to root out all the French soldiers from the island. In a memorable battle on November 18, 1803, the ragtag army of slaves succeeded where Spartacus with his 6,000 men could not accomplish with the Roman Empire some 2,000 years earlier in 70BC.
They rang the song of freedom for all slaves on the island and foreshadowed the beginning of the end of slavery in the world.
This saga was a short glorious moment for Haiti. Two years after Independence Day, on January 1, 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines was assassinated on October 17, 1806, by his comrades in arms. His ideas of nation building, making Haiti hospitable to all were not the vision of the majority of the other generals. They envisioned the spoils of the colony for themselves only, and their families.
Haiti has never recovered. Through internal revolts fomented by foreign powers such as France, Germany and the United States, with the assistance of, first, mulatto rulers and later poorly educated black generals, Haiti and its people descended into a spiral of ignorance, misery and environmental calamity until today.
The latest one, the earthquake of January 12, 2010, destroyed its capital Port au Prince, as well as sending to death some 300,000 people. This disaster was preceded by 150 years of neglected mulatto governments and recently 50 years of black dictatorial regimes, followed by illiberal democracy that is closer to criminality than good governance.
The slaves that climbed the mountains of Haiti after the Independence Day became the Haitian peasants. No one has ever bothered to ask them whether they should have good institutions such as schools and hospitals or decent infrastructure such as roads, electricity and communications. They have preserved intact the African culture mixed with the century’s old acculturation taken from the remaining Tainos and French masters during slavery times. Haiti is at the same time a mosaic of purely African, Santa Fe, USA, and Provence, France, culture.
The aftershock of the Haitian revolution was varied and unnerving as a cause. The Latin American revolution with Bolivar, through the help of Alexander Petion, took place. Abraham Lincoln and Frederic Douglass, inspired by Haiti, brought about the black emancipation. As such, the nation was ostracized by the then world order of slavery.
Only the Vatican, through a Concordat in 1860, accepted to send teachers to Haiti to educate the population. The priests and the nuns did what they could, they provided the bread of good formation to the tiny elite that peopled the cities, leaving behind the masses in the rural areas uneducated and ill advised.
Haiti is today a land of two cultures, the land of Catholic, refined, French-speaking and sophisticated city dwellers, as well as the land of voodoo practitioners, dispossessed former peasants living in squalid condition in shantytowns on the outskirts of prime land near the sea or peasants still forgotten in the mountains surrounding the cities.
Desperate, some have taken the ultimate chance of seeking a more hospitable sky through leaky boats to Florida, The Bahamas and all over the Caribbean islands, in particular, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, going as far as Suriname on firm land in Latin America.
Handy in arts and in art-craft, their production under different labels can be seen in the best hotels and shops on the tourist trail of the Caribbean, except that the label made in Haiti is removed. Good agricultural workers, from a native land that has been eroded by poor soil treatment and tree cutting for charcoal, they are replenishing the landscape of the Dominican Republic, Dominica and The Bahamas with fruit trees and hard wood that could have enriched their own country.
With a population of 10 million people, Haiti is in the enviable position of Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark; except it is not as cold. While the Haitian population is highly creative, it is not as educated and sophisticated as those Nordic countries, as such it miss the key ingredient that could propel the country into full employment and the bliss of growth and development.
It is a young population, eager to learn and pierce the world of modernity. Its adult population is resilient and willing to work hard for its daily bread. But its lack of education will continue to hamper the optimum utilization of its natural talents and the zeal to achieve.
In spite of this deficiency, Haiti, a small island with the proportions of the State of Maryland, has a brand name that goes beyond the Western Hemisphere. It has greatly contributed to the nation building process of several countries, through the utilization of its professional citizens, including the Congo, Brazzaville and Quebec, Canada. The famous Haitians, or celebrities with Haitian origins, include a roster that spans the arts, politics, sports and music. The list includes but is not limited to: E-W Dubois, James Audubon, Pierre Toussaint, Wyclef Jean, Edwige Danticat, Michaelle Jean, Andre Michael (boxer) Jean Michel Basquiat, Garcelle Beauvais, Jimmy Jean Louis, 50 Cent, Pierre Garcon, Jonathan Vilma, Maxwell Garcon.
Haiti experienced an avalanche of help from the nonprofit organizations and from the UN after the earthquake of 2010, but donor fatigue is languishing around because of a lack of good coordination and sound vision from the government. Will this new regime of Martelly/Lamothe deliver the goods to a nation and a people, so eager for so long to enjoy the bliss of hospitality?
It is too early to label the new regime as a Teflon government or a true agent of change that will transform the nation into the Tahiti brand of the western hemisphere, because of its natural and spectacular scenery, or the Bali brand of the Caribbean, because of its many cultural and religious festivals that are the staple of everyday life.
Anyway, Haiti has been too good for the region for humanity not to come to its help with enduring and sustainable tools that will change the lives of so many enduring and eager citizens ready to enjoy the bounties of God on this land that was once called the Pearl of the Islands.
August 25, 2012