I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Trinidad experienced mass African enslavement for a much shorter time, much later and in smaller numbers than Barbados, Jamaica and Haiti. Largely the population of enslaved Africans expanded after 1793 when both white and mixed planters, from the French West Indies, settled in Trinidad, bringing Africans with them as part of their property. Many of these planters were frightened by the attacks on slavery being waged in Haiti, then called Saint Domingue.
Their fright was justified. Haiti’s struggle to free its almost half a million enslaved Africans was inspiration for emancipation struggles throughout the region, including in Trinidad. Saint Domingue produced shocking prosperity for plantation owners and for the French empire, more than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Torture, terror, rape and genocide produced such wealth. This is why revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ famous speech, for Liberty or Death, defined the hopes and dreams of the once enslaved. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence as a black republic, the first country to do so and to abolish slavery.
I try to connect this powerful place in world-making with the streets of downtown Port au Prince, lined by vendors and market women, making a life like the black survivors of Marley’s music, amidst dust, and in places, rubble and garbage. It’s hard to acknowledge Haiti’s impoverishment while trying to shed all the stereotypes we’ve inherited of its desperate poverty, but we must.
Haiti’s hardships aren’t incidental to its anti-colonial or contemporary story. They are absolutely central. In 1825, France forced it to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French ex-slaveholders. Even with the amount of reparations reduced in 1838, Haiti didn’t pay off its debt until 1947. The 20th century of US occupation and domination required resistance to another era of disempowerment for which the full story is hardly acknowledged or told.
Yet, obviously Port au Prince is only one small representation of a whole country, and if I raise my eyes to the majestic green mountains encircling the city, it’s clear that Haitian realities are also full of forms of dignity and beauty. These are what we should make an effort to see. In Vodun spiritual symbols, reminding us that a people’s art articulates the genesis of their freedom. In community relationships, ever-present entrepreneurship, food provision, literature, scholarship and uniformed school children.
It’s strange to gather here, as an Indo-Trinidadian amidst a panorama of others from the region, and to realize that we of the contemporary Caribbean, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans, are indeed the hope and dream of departed ancestors who imagined another world and who made it possible with their labour and blood.
Reading about Haiti was educational, but it took stepping on this ground for me to connect to the caution to never forget. This is the history that should define us as a region. Walk away from these words remembering the name Anacaona. At 29 years old, she was a Taino chief, or cacica, around 1500 in Haiti when the Spanish executed her by hanging for resisting subjugation. She refused to exchange concubinage for clemency. Walk away remembering the names Victoria Montou, Sanite Belair and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere. Sanite Belair was a sergeant in the army of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and refused to wear a blindfold at her execution. Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniere, also a soldier during the Haitian Revolution, fought in traditional men’s garments. Cécile Fatiman was a Haitian Vodon spiritual leader who presided over a ceremony at Bois Caïman, which is one of the sparking points of the Haitian Revolution.
I too, as Maya Angelou writes, live what was once a hope and dream. I thank Haiti’s people for reminding me that like other Caribbean citizens today, history has given me great responsibility.
We in the region, regardless of our ethnicity or nationality, owe a debt to Haiti, one that we should repay by protecting and pursuing an egalitarianism that still doesn’t exist, whether among genders, sexualities or classes, or whether between our small states and global corporate power, or whether between we ex-colonies and the IMF. In 1804, declaring sovereignty meant ending slavery. What would such a declaration mean and require of us today?