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In Haiti, History, and the Gods, Joan Dayan charts the cultural imagination of Haiti not only by reconstructing the island's history but by highlighting ambiguities and complexities that have been ignored. She investigates the confrontational space in which Haiti is created and recreated in fiction and fact, text and ritual, discourse and practice. Dayan's ambitious project is a research tour de force that gives human dimensions to this eighteenth-century French colony and provides a template for understanding the Haiti of today.
In examining the complex social fabric of French Saint-Domingue, which in 1804 became Haiti, Dayan uncovers a silenced, submerged past.
Instead of relying on familiar sources to reconstruct Haitian history, she uses a startling diversity of voices that have previously been unheard. Many of the materials recovered here—overlooked or repressed historical texts, legal documents, religious works, secret memoirs, letters, and literary fictions—have never been translated into English. Others, such as Marie Vieux Chauvet's radical novel of vodou, Fonds des Nègres, are seldom used as historical sources.
Dayan also argues provocatively for the consideration of both vodou rituals and narrative fiction as repositories of history. Her scholarship is enriched by the insights she has gleaned from conversations and experiences during her many trips to Haiti over the past twenty years. Taken together, the material presented in Haiti, History, and the Gods not only restores a lost chapter of Haitian history but suggests necessary revisions to the accepted histories of the New World.
Rituals of History
The child of savage Africa, Sold to fall under the colonist's whip, Founded independence on the soil of slavery, And the Hill, in its voice, echoed the language of Racine and Fénélon! —M. Chauvet, Chant lyrique, 1825
"Rid us of these gilded Africans, and we shall have nothing more to wish," Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to his brother-in-law General Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc in 1802. Though successful in Guadeloupe and Martinique, Napoleon's soldiers, commanded first by Leclerc and then by Donatien Rochambeau, failed to reestablish slavery in Saint-Domingue. The only locale in history for a successful slave revolution, Saint-Domingue became the first Black Republic in 1804. As the Martiniquan writer and politician Aimé Césaire put it, "The first epic of the New World was written by Haitians, by Toussaint, Christophe, and Dessalines." When Jean-Jacques Dessalines articulated the meaning of "independence" for Haiti, he realized what Césaire called a transformative, "prodigious history" of the Antilles. Dessalines tore the white from the French tricolor—"Mouché, chiré blanc là qui lan drapeau-là" (Tear out the white from the flag, Monsieur)—as he would remove the name Saint-Domingue from the former colony. He called the new nation "Haiti," from the original Amerindian word (Ayti) for the island meaning "mountainous lands."
On January 1, 1804, in Gonaïves, Dessalines proclaimed independence. Speaking in Creole, he recalled French atrocities and urged Haitians to fight to the death for their country. Boisrond-Tonnerre, Dessalines's "high-brown" secretary, demanded—in a formal French that recalled Maximilien de Robespierre's speeches in 1792—"a solemn abjuration of the French nation" in the name of Dessalines: "If there remains among you a lukewarm heart, let him retire, and tremble to pronounce the oath that must unite us. Let us swear to the whole world, to posterity, to ourselves, to renounce France forever and to die rather than live under its domination; to fight to the last breath for the independence of our country." In the attempt to drive a wedge between France and Haiti, Dessalines ordered nearly 3,000 French men, women, and children killed with hatchets, sabres, bayonets, and daggers. No gunshot was allowed, no cannon or musketry. Silence and calm were necessary so that from one town to the next no one would be warned of the approaching slaughter.
Yet no declaration of independence, whether spoken in French or Haitian Creole, could sever the bonds between the former colony and its "Mother Country." Speaking of this massacre, which began in February (after the French had been promised protection) and ended on April 22, 1804, Dessalines declared in French: "Haiti has become a red spot on the surface of the globe, which the French will never accost." The violence was consecrated in the language of those who had been annihilated. We should not underrate the horror of this ventriloquy: the implications of a liberation that cannot be glorified except in the language of the former master. Even as Boisrond-Tonnerre warned of the dangers not of the "French armies," but "the canting eloquence of their agents' proclamations," he perpetuated the rhetoric he condemned. Dessalines's proclamation of April 8 (drafted by his mulatto secretary-general, Juste Chanlatte) is also a highly stylized, Jacobin document. By avenging himself on the "true cannibals," the Haitian, no longer vile, earned his right to "regeneration" and understood at last what it meant to breathe "the air of liberty, pure, honorable, and triumphant." Dessalines concluded by making the Haitian Revolution transferable to the Americas: "We have rendered to these true cannibals, war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country; I have avenged America."
For whom does Dessalines speak? The majority of the revolutionaries did not know French (it is claimed that Toussaint Louverture knew how to read and write, but Dessalines, like Henry Christophe, was illiterate and could barely sign his name). Yet historians, both Haitian and foreign, present them, with some exceptions, as able to speak French. When Boisrond-Tonnerre declared independence in the name of Dessalines on January 1, 1804, he recognized this linguistic colonialism with lyric prescience: "The French name still darkens our plains." Though French shadowed Haiti, with writers articulating the Haitian Revolution retrospectively in French, Creole also shared in the task of coercing difference into governable homogeneity. During the revolution, Creole was imposed as the national language by the Creole (Haitian-born) leaders Toussaint, Dessalines, and Christophe. This emerging language, initially used as a means of communication between slaves and masters, was an amalgam of French vocabulary and syntactic contributions from West Africa, as well as Taino, English, and Spanish. The African-born former slaves, who spoke one of at least two or three African languages, were silenced and subjugated to the Creole linguistic monopoly, a creolization that made for a linguistic accord conducive to political control by Creoles. What strikes a reader of the various French proclamations during and after the revolution is the astonishing homogeneity of what was said, no matter who speaks or for what purpose. Debates in the revolutionary assemblies in Paris, the words of Georges-Jacques Danton and Robespierre especially, once printed in newspapers in Saint-Domingue, were recycled as formulas or favored shibboleths by those who took on the burden of politics and the prerogative of French in the new republic.
Called variously "Black France" by one nineteenth-century observer (Jules Michelet), this "France with frizzy hair" by another (Maxime Raybaud), and merely a "tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle" by Thomas Carlyle, Haiti forced imagination high and low: expression moved uneasily between the extremes of idealization and debasement. In the background of this textualized and cursedly mimetic Haiti, however, remained certain legends, blurred but persistent oral traditions that resisted such coercive dichotomies as genteel and brute, master and slave, precious language and common voice. Though Haiti's "Africanness," like its "Frenchness," would be used by writers for differing purposes, the business of being Haitian was more complex—and the slippages and uneasy alliances between contradictions more pronounced—than most writerly representations of Haiti ever allowed.
Romancing the Dark World
A series of articles on Haiti appeared in the Petite Presse in Paris from September 8 to December 31, 1881. Written by the black Martiniquan, Victor Cochinat, the columns reported on everything from vodou to the military, calling attention to the Haitians' love of artifice, their propensity to exaggerate and mime, and their apparent indifference to the continuing and bloody revolutions that followed independence in 1804. Cochinat also turned to vodou and to tales of cannibalism and magic in order to prove to his French audience that Haiti remained unregenerate.
Louis-Joseph Janvier published his alternately strident and elegiac response to Cochinat in Paris in 1883. Janvier, born in Port-au-Prince, descended from peasants, was the first in his family to be educated. In 1877, when he was twenty-two, he received a scholarship from the Haitian government to study in France. There he remained, for twenty-eight years, until 1905. His collection of meditations, called La République d'Haïti et ses visiteurs, contained long passages from the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and M. Victor Meignan, and a preface packed with quotations from Jules Michelet, René de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Ernest Renan, Georges-Jacques Danton, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Henry Christophe. Janvier claimed that Haitians were on the road to civilization, arguing that the bloodiest political crimes in his country simply proved that "Haiti always imitates Europe."
Be indulgent, oh sons of western Europe!
Recall—I am citing at random, unconcerned about chronology—recall the Sicilian Vespers, the holy Inquisition ... the Albegensian massacre, the war of the Two Roses, the massacre of Strelitz, the sacking of ghettos, the religious wars in England, which is to say the papists hanged by the anti-papists, and the anti-papists burned by the papists, Saint-Bartholemew, the days of September 1792, the 10th of August, the red Terror, the 13th Vendemiaire, the 18th Brumaire, the white Terror, the June days of 1848, December 2, 1851; the month of May 1871.... be indulgent.
The historian Michelet was Janvier's idol, "this sublime thinker." When confronting the succession of coups d'état that imperiled the young nation, Janvier claimed Haiti to be the incarnation of history in Michelet's sense of resurrection: "The history of Haiti is a series of marvelous resurrections."
That Haitian independence had to be sealed in a ritual of blood and vengeance made even more urgent the need to "rehabilitate the black race," to prove that in Haiti everything is French. If we recall Dessalines's proclamation abjuring the French nation after the massacre, which he called his "last act of national authority," we can appreciate the high costs of such symbolic violence. The imagination of future generations of Haitians would be handicapped by the theatricality of the past.
When Janvier wrote his defense of Haiti, the population was about 90 percent peasants. Romanticized for their pastoral innocence and endurance, those whom foreigners had condemned as remnants of "dark Africa" were transformed by Janvier into French-speaking, God-fearing laborers. The ground upon which he constructed his fable of the Haitian nation—proud, vital, earthy, and black—they served as an appropriate symbol of the new Haiti: a gothic Eden resurrected on the ashes of colonial Saint-Domingue. Whether they inhabited the plains or the mornes (hills), the peasants Janvier idealized were fiercely independent, attached to their lands and devoted to their gods. Yet Janvier's sense of "the Haitian" depended on his refutation of vodou, which he denounced as "primitive." He assured his readers that all Haitians were now Catholic or Protestant, that all traces of barbarism had disappeared, and that most Haitians spoke French. After all, Janvier concluded, "French prose, Haitian coffee, and the philosophical doctrines of the French Revolution are the best stimulants of the Haitian brain."
Black Skin, White Heart
The turning of Saint-Domingue into Haiti, colony into republic, demanded a new history that would be written by people who saw themselves as renewing the work of the French who had once abolished slavery and declared slaves not only men but citizens. Yet the reactionary conceptual flotsam of the Old Regime, and the appropriate tags of "civilization," "order," and "dignity" would clash with a "fanaticism" that had no proper language and no right to history. Could the history of the Haitian Revolution be told in the language of France? As Haitian historians attempted to gain access to "civilization," someone else's language (and at least part of the history that went with it) was necessary to their entitlement.
In his 1774 The History of Jamaica, the Jamaican Creole Edward Long turned to an Africa he had never seen, wrote of its unimaginable savagery, compared negroes to orangutans, and did his best to prove "the natural inferiority of Negroes." Yet, there was one chance for the black individual to distinguish himself from his dark surround. Long tells the story of Francis Williams—a native of Jamaica and son of Dorothy and John Williams, free blacks—who, once educated into literature, defined himself "as a white man acting under a black skin." Williams had been chosen to be
the subject of an experiment, which, it is said, the Duke of Montague was curious to make, in order to discover, whether, by proper cultivation, and a regular course of tuition at school and the university, a Negroe might not be found as capable of literature as a white person.
Williams gets a "new" language. He acquires a convertible history. That he composes his poetry in Latin should alert us to the artifices possible in a New World that could be more ancient than the Old. Writing "An Ode" to Governor George Haldane, he disclaims the color of his skin in order to gain acceptance for his poem. Toward the end of the ode, recognition, or proof of rehabilitation, depends not only on the labor of language but the sudden disavowal of an epidermal trait: "Tho' dark the stream on which the tribute flows, / Not from the skin, but from the heart it rose."
"Oh! Muse, of blackest tint, why shrinks thy breast, Why fears t'approach the Caesar of the West!
Dispel thy doubts, with confidence ascend The regal dome, and hail him for thy friend: Nor blush, altho' in garb funereal drest, Thy body's white, tho' clad in sable vest."
If the justification of slavery depended on converting a biological fact into an ontological truth—black = savage, white = civilized—the descendant of slaves must not only pay tribute to those who enslaved but make himself white, while remaining black. Further, acquisition of the forever unreal new identity is paid for by negation of the old self.
What is significant about Williams's "An Ode" is that he talks both to his black Muse and his white patron: he keeps her black, "in garb funereal drest," yet he also makes her white, assuring his "muse" and his white readers: "Thy body's white, tho' clad in sable vest." Finally, the poet concludes, "the sooty African" will be white in "manners," in the "glow of genius," in "learned speech, with modest accent worn." These adornments constitute the whiteness that transforms the heart and, once this has happened, turns the man inside out.
The complex working out of personal identity through a duplicity or doubling of color proves crucial to the making of a nation, and shapes the way the first two major Haitian historians, Thomas Madiou and Beaubrun Ardouin, introduced themselves. Though a mulatto who lived in Paris for ten years, Ardouin focused on his African ancestry. He announces himself in his introduction as "Descendant of this African race that has been so long persecuted," and at the end of his eleven-volume history (published between 1853 and 1860), he exclaims: "Glory to all these children of Africa.... Honor to their memory!" Madiou, also mulatto, lived in France from the age of ten until he was twenty-one. Unlike Ardouin, who defended the affranchis (freedmen) and ignored their interest, after the decree of May 15, 1791, in preserving slavery, Madiou refused to account for Haitian history in accord with the "official" mulatto view. He would later be claimed by Haitian ideologues as the noiriste historian of Haiti. His fiery assessment of Dessalines as a Haitian Robespierre, "this angel of death," based on interviews in the 1840s with former revolutionaries, departed from the critical disdain of the more moderate and elite éclairées (enlightened). If Dessalines was savage, Madiou countered that he remained the "Principle incarnate of Independence; he was barbaric against colonial barbarism."
For both Madiou and Ardouin the labor of writing history demanded that the historian be seen as human while remaining Haitian. They turned to France and the white world, but claimed blackness and repaired the image of Africa, by making Haiti—purified of superstition, sorcerers, and charms—the instrument of reclamation. Throughout Haitian history the recovery or recognition of blackness (négritude or noirisme) never depended exclusively on color or phenotype. Reading Madiou's and Ardouin's introductions to their histories, it is difficult to specify their color. Sir Spenser St. John—Great Britain's minister resident and consul general in Haiti, intermittently from 1863 to 1884—reminded his readers in Hayti, or the Black Republic, in a tautology that makes indefinite the need to define: "Thomas Madiou (clear mulatto) ..."; "M. Beaubrun Ardouin (fair mulatto) ..." Their ability to reclaim and represent their "native land" to a foreign audience depended on their variously authentic and partly spurious claims of color but, most important, on the wielding of proper language. Both Madiou and Ardouin concluded their introductions by apologizing not for color but for style. In Ardouin's case, especially, the apology helped him to prove his nationality, affirmed by nothing less than his resolutely faltering or broken French. He articulated, perhaps for the first time, what Edouard Glissant much later would name antillanité, and what Césaire, speaking about his choice to write poetry in French and not in Creole, would qualify as French with the marque nègre.
If this work finds some readers in Paris, they will see many infelicities of style, still more faults in the rules of grammar: it will offer them no literary merit. But they should not forget that, in general, Haitians stammer the words of the French language, in order to emphasize in some way their origin in the Antilles.
Excerpted from Haiti, History, and the Gods by Joan Dayan. Copyright © 1995 Joan Dayan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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|Note on Orthography|
|Pt. 1||Rituals of History||3|
|Pt. 2||Fictions of Haiti||77|
|Pt. 3||Last Days of Saint-Domingue||143|
|Pt. 4||Gothic Americas||187|
Posted April 6, 2009
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This book is a very well written book good for the scholar or the layman. The author gives you a complete historical background on the Haitian revolution and everything sorounding the circumstances that lead to the creation of the first Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.