H is for Haiti

Make it Plain is exploring Black Radicalism with Kehinde Andrews exploring a new letter each day. All of these are sourced from Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, proceeds of which go to the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity There are some limited suggested resources below but please send in suggestions for more, these are just a few to start with

On August 14, 1791 Cécile Fatiman and Dutty Boukam led a Vodou ceremony that included hundreds of enslaved Africans at Boi Caiman in Haiti. The event sparked the Haitian revolution, which was completed in 1804 marking the first successful slave rebellion in human history. It is no coincidence that Vodou was the inspiration behind the revolution. Due to the brutality of slavery on the island around 60 percent of the enslaved were African born. The limitless supply of African bodies made it cheap and easy for the French to work the enslaved to death. With so many African born enslaved the cultural links to Africa and traditional religions were strong. Vodou was a source of resistance, which is why a fear of so called “Black magic” was seared into the minds of the enslaved across the Americas and the Caribbean.

Haiti not only inspired a fear of African culture in the enslavers but also of Africa itself. Importing Africans born free, many of whom had skills in warfare, became seen as a dangerous act. One of the principle reasons Britain ended its slave trade in 1807 was fear of those born in Africa’s potential to cause rebellion. Haiti’s revolution was the beginning of the end of the slave economy. Abolition was not a charitable act by those in Europe and America. Haiti was one of hundreds of rebellions across the plantation system that eventually made slavery unworkable.

The revolution also offers some important lessons for radical politics. The grassroots, those enslaved on the plantation with nothing to lose, were the ones who lit the fire and started the revolution. Initially, those groups with relative privilege were slow to join the struggle. There was a population of the formerly enslaved on the island like Toussaint L’Overture, who once himself owned enslaved Africans. The French had (as was common practice) installed a class of mixed heritage people with relative privilege. Both groups only fully joined the revolution when the masses made enough progress to force them to decide if they were on the side of the French or the enslaved. If we rely on those of us with relative privilege we will never achieve freedom.

Haiti is also a cautionary tale. Having won their freedom the new nation found itself surrounded by enemies. In order to prevent French invasion Haiti agreed to pay 150 million French Francs in “reparations” for the colonisers loss of income due to the Haitians freeing themselves. The debt was so crippling that it took 122 years to pay back. Haiti was cut off from the global economy, isolated into poverty and eventually occupied by the US. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world today because it had a successful revolution. The lesson here is clear. Revolution is not possible without ending the system of oppression. In order to do that we need to embrace the spirit of the Haitian revolution across Africa and the Diaspora in order to overturn the existing social order.

Resources

Akala Oxford Union Address extract on Haitian Revolution

Bayyinah Bell SHEROES of the Haitian Revolution

CLR James Black Jacobins

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