This article was first published in The eXile on February 19, 2004.
Haiti popped into the news again, and I decided it was time to tell the whole military history of the place. It’s got to be the most amazing, bloodsoaked, heroic, messed-up story in the Western Hemisphere: slave armies defeating Napoleon’s troops, huge castles built in the middle of the jungle, endless three-cornered war between whites, blacks and mulattos…it’s just incredible. In fact, it’s so wild and complex I’m going to have to divide it into two columns. This one will cover Haiti up to independence in 1803. Next issue I’ll bring it from there to the present.
Haiti is like the big slaughterhouse across the tracks: you kind of know what goes on in there, but you’d rather not think about it.
Every now and then there’s a bad stench when the wind’s blowing the wrong way, or the drainage ditch runs red with blood for a week — the kind of thing nice people can’t ignore any more. That’s when the do-gooders send a commission to investigate, or even send in the Marines to clean the place up. They stick around a while, till the blood starts slopping around their ankles, then pack up and head home. And nobody worries about Haiti for another few years.
You might remember we had Haiti all fixed up back in the Clinton days. Our boy was Aristide, a “slum priest” who went around sharing lice with the po’ folks and generally out-holying Mother Theresa. Except Mother Theresa didn’t live in Haiti. If she did, she’d be more like the lady that started the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda — she’d tell her followers to go out there and spread the word with Kalashnikovs and pangas.
That’s what happened to Clinton’s tame saint, this Aristide. He won the elections, then the local thugs dumped him…and instead of letting Haiti do things the good old Haitian way, Clinton sent in US troops in ’94, to put Aristide back in charge.
Well, it’s ten years later, and Haiti’s still Haiti. Just last week there was a classic story: some gang calling itself a “Resistance Army” took over Gonvaives, which the story billed as “the fourth-largest city in Haiti.” Whoa, there’s a slogan to bring the tourists running: “fourth-largest city in Haiti.”
This “Army” said it was fighting against Aristide’s government, which it accused of incompetence, brutality and corruption. In other words, acting like every other Haitian government in history.
Then it came out that the heroic Resistance Army just went through a little PR makeover of its own. Yup, it seems they used to call themselves “the Cannibal Army.” That was probably the perfect name for stage one of a Haitian revolution: scare the Hell out of everybody. By getting their name changed to “the Resistance Army,” they were just doing what comes naturally: trying to put a shine on the ol’ machetes, make the struggle look noble.
In a way, the only sad thing about Haiti is the way we keep trying to make it into Ohio. Because it never will be, and only looks ridiculous trying, giving the local killers fancy democratic names. If we just let Haiti be Haiti — a crazy, gory voodoo kingdom — people might learn to respect the place. I have, after reading up on it. Haiti’s history isn’t just a lot of killing, either. A lot of Haitian leaders were brilliant guys who weren’t afraid of anybody — not Napoleon, not Jesus, not nobody. These guys were self-made black Roman Emperors. They came up the hard way, out of slavery in the cane fields, and beat the European armies that tried to take the place back. All comers–French, British, Spanish — the Haitians took them all on and put the fear into them. The only people they can’t beat is themselves, and that’s nothing for soldiers to be ashamed of.
We’ve made them ashamed, by telling them the only way to be worth anything in this world is by working in offices, wearing dress-shirts and watching TV. My life, and God damn does it suck. If I had a little more of a tan, Haiti and a job in the Cannibal Army would look like a pretty good career option.
Unfortunately for me, they don’t want white guys. Desallines, one of the scariest men who ever ruled Haiti with a bloody machete, said it pretty clearly when it came to racial policy: “For the Haitian declaration of independence, we should use a white man’s skin for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!”
Kinda reminds me of what it was like going to high school in Long Beach, Mister White Minority aka punching bag. Every time Roots was going to be on in reruns I’d stay home sick — sick of getting the crap beat out of me in the halls, that is.
I’d probably make a good parchment — you know, lots of room for any added clauses the lawyers want you to put in at the last minute — but even data entry has got to be better than having a Haitian committee writing on my back with a bayonet.
Of course there’s lots of big racial talk in the world, and not much of it means anything. That’s what I respect about Haiti: they mean every goddamn word. Take Desallines; his men killed every paleface they could catch. They were following a good Haitian tradition, dating back to the big slave rebellions, when the black rebels used a white baby stuck on a pike as their flag. Now that’s serious people. You see where all this “Cannibal Army” stuff comes from.
And they’ve got reasons to be pissed off. Once you start getting into Haitian history, you start to get why people play rough down there: because somebody else played way rough with them. Play the tape as far back as you want, and there’s always some badder gang moving in and stomping the Haitians into hamburger.
It was going on when Columbus arrived. Hispaniola, the island Haiti’s on, was a paradise when he got there. The locals were a tribe called the Taino, a branch of the Arawaks, who were by all accounts these cool, relaxed people who believed in free love, the Dick Gregory Bahamian diet, and hanging out on the beach. Like stone-age hippies. Columbus hated to leave (for one thing, the Arawaks had no problem handing over their wives to the Europeans for a week or so) but had to report back to Isabella, so he left some men who started building a settlement. By the time he got back, the place was burnt to the ground by the Caribs, a cannibal tribe that thought “Arawak” meant “BBQ.” They ate Columbus’s men too — a little white meat for variety — and moved on.
Soon there were so few Arawak left that the price per pound was too high even for a Carib planning a big backyard cookout. And in a couple of generations there were no Arawak at all.
Then instant karma kicked in, when the Spanish came back with more men, more guns and wiped out the Caribs. The Caribs went out in style: the last few just jumped off cliffs instead of letting the Europeans capture them and put them to work on the sugar cane plantations the whites were setting up.
Well, that meant a shortage of free labor, which cut into the profit margin. So the plantation owners started buying Africans. Lots and lots of Africans. Nobody’s sure how many, but it’s well into seven figures. Most of them died on the voyage, or under the whip, or from disease, but there were enough left to keep the cane plantations going. And that was important, not just to the local colonists but to France, which ruled the whole island by that time. You have to remember, the Europeans were focused on the West Indies back then. They didn’t think much of North America at the start of the 1700s. It was just a big cold wilderness with no gold, and no potential for raising the tropical crops that really made money. Barbados meant more to England than Virginia, and Hispaniola meant more to France than Canada.
Cotton hadn’t come in yet (remember ninth-grade history? Does the name “Eli Whitney” ring a bell?) It was sugar cane that made the big money. And it’s a real labor-intensive crop. It’s also some of the worst work in the world, by all accounts. One ex-cutter said it was like trying to cut fiberglass poles all day with your bare hands. You come home full of slashes, cuts, bits of bamboo jammed into your hands and arms and face.
Twelve hours, fourteen hours of that a day, every day, with a white guy on a horse whipping your enthusiasm up every time you stop to wipe the sweat out of your eyes. And then, lucky you, you get to go home to a cage and a bowl of corn mush before sacking out for a few hours. Then it’s up at the crack of dawn, or rather whip, and back into the fields.
That was life for black Haitians for a long, long time. And it got them seriously pissed off. The revolts started early and just kept on coming. Now this is a weird thing, the way the Haitian slaves kept on fighting back. Because — and I’m sorry to be so un-PC here, but it’s the truth — slaves in the British possession didn’t revolt much. There never was a big, serious slave revolt in the South, for example. Not even when the Union troops got close. Even then the slaves did what their masters told them to do.
But the French didn’t do as good a job of breaking down the new slaves. The English in Jamaica, Barbados and the Southern US states made sure slaves from different tribes were mixed up, made it punishable by flogging or worse to speak African languages, and forced the blacks to find Christ or die. (Ah, you gotta love those Evangelical assholes!)
The French were sloppy. They let slaves from the same tribes stay together and speak their African languages. They let escaped slaves set up their own villages way inside the tropical forests. They let the slaves keep up African religions — that’s what voodoo is. And they started up a separate mulatto class.
The mulattos are the hardest thing for Americans to understand about Haiti. The thing is, everybody’s racist, everybody in the damn world — but different countries are racist in different ways. Example: I was watching the Ali G show and he’s messing with some stuffed-shirt Oxford guy who says to Ali, “Well, you’re only saying that because you’re black.” I’m watching, thinking, “He’s not even brown. He’s barely tan!” Well, that’s because they’ve got their own racism, where I guess anybody who’s not totally white is black.
American racism down South was kind of like that. If you had any black blood, you were black. That was it, period. You were a nigger, and not a person.
The French didn’t do it that way. They had this half-and-half class, the mulattos, who were free, could get rich, even get educated. And the French treated them sort of like semi-human beings. So the mulattos started identifying with the French, trying to be French, and then getting mad when they were kept out of power. So sometimes they backed the French, sometimes the slaves. They were the wild card — they could go either way.
So when the rebellions started around 1750, you had this amazing, totally messed-up little island full of crazy people who were all going crazy in different ways. Out in the forests are escaped slaves still speaking African languages, doing voodoo and sharpening their machetes. On the plantations there are hundreds of thousands of black slaves getting worked to death under the whip — and they’ve got machetes too. In the cities and in little towns are the mulattos, who speak French and wear those George-Washington three-cornered hats and want a bigger piece of the pie. On top of them is a thin layer of jumpy French colonists who have a shoot-first-ask-questions-later attitude with any slave who gets uppity. And on top of them are a few French government types who keep trying to put the whole mess back into control and make it a nice, comfortable French province.
Guess what? It blowed up. It blowed up real good. The first big explosion was in 1751. A voodoo priest stirred up the escaped slaves in the forest and they attacked the settlements. The field slaves joined them, and 6,000 people died before the French captured the voodoo priest and burned him at the stake. And what saved the French was that this time, the mulattos weighed in against the rebels. They didn’t like these crazy African voodoo guerrillas any more than the French did. They just wanted to eat their croissants and talk about l’amour with the white folks.
Things were quiet for a while — that is, just slaves being whipped to death, runaway slaves burning down isolated settlements, small stuff.
Then came the French Revolution. Kaboom! All Hell breaks loose, not just in Europe but everywhere the French had colonized. The radicals in Paris order that any mulatto who owns land can vote and be a citizen. The Haiti colonists say no way.
So this time it’s the mulattos who revolt, in 1790. And the funny part is that this time, the black slaves get payback on their light-skinned ex-friends by joining the French to stomp the rebel mulattoes. See what I mean? A three-sided fight is a LOT more complicated than a simple two-man bout, and all the Haitian wars were three-sided or more.
In 1791, just one year after they helped the French crush the mulatto rebellion, the blacks started their own. It was the big one, with a half-dozen brilliant guerrilla commanders, some of them smart and decent like Toussaint l’Ouverture, and others just plain scary, like Jeannot, the guy whose armies marched with a white baby on a pike as their flag.They had a simple policy: kill every white you find, and burn everything. They torched the whole island. Ships at sea said the place was smoking literally for months.
Then the vultures dropped in: the Spanish and British landed to take advantage of the chaos and divide the island between them. By this time everybody was killing everybody. There were even black slaves fighting to restore the French king. Toussaint, the smartest leader of the rebellion, decided Haiti would be better off making a deal with the radicals in Paris than the Spanish and British, who’d reestablished slavery everywhere they went. He joined the French forces, kicked the Spanish and British out and beat the mulatto army. He was in charge until Napoleon came into power.
Napoleon had plans for the island. And he had a surplus brother-in-law, LeClerc, who he was sick of seeing around the home office in Paris. So it was the old story: the boss sends his useless brother-in-law on a long business trip to get him out of sight. LeClerc landed in Haiti in 1802 with 20,000 men. Toussaint, who was definitely the noblest man in the whole mess, surrendered to avoid more slaughter. The French made him a lot of promises, broke them in about five seconds and sent Toussaint to France in chains, where he died in a freezing dungeon a couple of years later.
And that was the last good guy in the story. From here on, it’s just bad guys vs. worse guys, vs. even worse guys, vs. guys who would scare Charles Manson.
But there was one last twist before the next cycle of killing. Haiti got its independence after all, in 1803, only a year after Toussaint was tricked and captured. LeClerc’s army was melting like popsicles, dying from every tropical disease. LeClerc died of yellow fever, taking the easy way out. Meanwhile, Napoleon was getting ready to kick some major ass in Europe and he lost interest in America. It was right then, if you recall, that he sold Louisiana to Jefferson for 3 cents an acre (a good buy except for Mississippi, which I personally wouldn’t pay even 1 cent per square mile for).
With Louisiana sold off and his army dead or dying, Napoleon cut his losses. LeClerc’s replacement took what was left of his troops to Jamaica. He figured he was safer surrendering to the British than the Haitians.
Haiti was — ta-da! — a free country.
Oh, but the fun was just starting. I’ll tell you all about it in my next column.
This article was first published in The eXile on February 19, 2004.
Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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