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Posts Tagged ‘Jean Jacques Dessalines’

“Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

March 13, 2015   African American Intellectual History Society

William Pickens

This is the third entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The previous post can be found here.

1903 was a demanding year for Pierre Nord Alexis. After seizing the Haitian presidency in a coup, the octogenarian politician had to plan a grand party. Haiti would celebrate one hundred years of independence in 1904, an extraordinary feat given the attempts made by the United States and Western Europe to diminish Haitian sovereignty in the preceding decades. The commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent efforts made to sustain its gains thus had to be remarkable. It had to be worthy of Toussaint Louverture, of Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Alexis established a National Association for the Centennial to ensure that it was. Among its other tasks, the Association staged a competition for the composition of a national anthem. The winner was La Dessalinienne. In January 1904, hundreds of thousands of celebrants flocked to the new Palais du Centenaire in Gonaïves while thousands of their compatriots heard the official introduction of the new anthem in Port-au-Prince. As the ode to the fathers of Haitian independence rang out among the descendants of former slaves, government authorities christened the Place des Héroes de l’Indépendence and unveiled monuments to the nation’s most cherished heroes including Louverture and Dessalines. Surely, the celebration organizers must have thought, these ancestors would be proud. 

Others were not so certain. In particular, Rosalvo Bobo questioned why his compatriots were celebrating at a time when the corruption of the Haitian state threatened to undermine national progress. “Centennial of our freedom,” he scoffed.

 No. Centennial of blacks enslaving blacks. Centennial of our follies, of our turpitudes, and, amidst unceasing pretensions, of our systematic retrogression. Centennial of our fraternal hatreds, and of our triple weakness: moral, social, and political. Our Centennial amidst murders in our towns and countryside. Centennial of our vices, of our political crimes. Centennial of everything that could be most hateful inside the breast of men. Centennial of the ruin of a country by misery and filth. Centennial of humiliation and, perhaps, the definitive degradation of the black race, by its Haitian representatives.[1]

Bobo was severe in his critique. But he did not offer it without aim or purpose. The Haitian intellectual sought to recover the prosperity of the recent past, which was evidenced, in part, by the sizable contingents of Germans, Syrians, and other foreign businessmen who pursued commercial ties with Haitian elites and flocked to Haitian cities. His remarks, then, were a call for reform akin to the jeremiads that flourished among his African American contemporaries who demanded improvements in their communities or in the broader U.S. society. To that end, Bobo urged Haitians “to ask forgiveness from Dessalines, from Toussaint” and “work to emerge from the stupor of an entire century.” If they did, he promised that

1904 will not be a celebration of nothing at all, but the first year of the existence of a gathering of brave black people working modestly and with dignity to be a people. And the tiny republic of Haiti will be able to be a huge thing to all of Europe! And the old continent will be able to take notice, in the year 2004, of the first centennial of the GREAT FREEDOM of the HAITIAN PEOPLE![2]

Yale student William Pickens was less sanguine about the prospects of Haitian independence. In February 1903, the son of former slaves entered the annual “Ten Eyck Prize” oratorical competition at his university. His oration was about Haiti. Pickens first argued that Haiti commanded the attention of Americans because its history shed light “upon the much-mooted questions which involve the welfare of the whole southern section of our country.” He proceeded to elucidate his version of that history. Pickens asserted that the success of the Haitian Revolution was illusory. “With the gain of absolute independence,” he maintained, “the uncivilized horde gained the most efficient weapon of self-destruction” and “destroyed every trace and hope of internal civilization.” In Pickens’s reckoning, they relapsed “into a savagery and cannibalism comparable to any state of their African ancestry.”[3]

This was no call for internal reform. It was a plea for occupation. The future NAACP field secretary surmised that “the savage and the child to rise to higher things must feel the power of a stronger hand.” Haitians, in other words, needed to submit themselves to American civilization. In fact, Pickens assumed that U.S. policymakers were uniquely suited to undertake a benevolent intervention in Haiti because they were “schooled as no other in the problems of the negro race.” He insisted that Haitians would accrue numerous benefits from the proposed foreign intervention because “under American institutions the blacks as a race have reached the highest plane of civilization of which the negro’s history has record—a fact sometimes obscured by the remonstrance against injustice and oppression.” For Pickens, flattering influential whites and critiquing the purported failures of black self-government in Haiti thus became a convenient means of validating his own success while making a case for the inclusion of African Americans in U.S. politics and public life.[4]

To be sure, the shortcomings of this attempt to prove the “Americanness” of African Americans were apparent to some of his peers. John Edward Bruce was one of the countless Americans who learned of Pickens’s essay as it became the subject of newspaper headlines and gossip throughout the entire United States. He was less than pleased with it. In a column appearing in an April 1903 edition of The Colored American, the activist editor better known as Bruce Grit argued that the Yale student mistook “the temper of the Haitians” when he assumed that they “ought to submit to a benevolent assimilation.” The testimony of Haitians proved his point. Bruce quoted at length a Haitian resident of New York who was “greatly astonished” that an African American would vilify a country that had “maintained a Negro government . . . without the aid or consent of any outside nation” for a century. “I am very sorry,” the Haitian confidant told Bruce, “to see that Hayti is a subject of criticism even by the Negroes of this country, seeing that they have so much of their own trouble to mind.” How could a child of former slaves—a product of the Jim Crow South—not see that “in putting down our people he has equally spoken against the people of his own race in this country?”[5]

The salient question raised by Bruce and his Haitian friend was explicit. But their greatest concerns were more indirect. As the 58th United States Congress debated a resolution to annex Haiti, the two men expressed bewilderment over why Pickens would treat his subject with such callous indifference. How could he contribute to prevailing discourses about black inferiority? How could he not realize that white Americans were waiting for an excuse to take control of Haitian political, social, and economic life? How could he fail to see that U.S. imperialism in Haiti would have the same effect as Jim Crow in the United States? In sum, how could Pickens treat occupation as an academic question when it was a looming reality for those Haitians who foreigners disregarded as incapable of self-government?

Next month: “Ten Million Black People . . . are Watching:” Ambivalence at the Outset of the U.S. Occupation

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The “Black Republic:” The Meaning of Haitian Independence before the Occupation

Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had "avenged America" after securing Haitian independence.

Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had “avenged America” after securing Haitian independence.

This is the second entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The introduction to this series can be found here.

On January 1, 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines and his fellow generals met at Gonaïves to declare formally their independence from France. The Haitian Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the first republic governed by men of African descent in the Western Hemisphere stunned whites and blacks in the United States. White planters and their sympathizers denounced Haiti, inventing the phrase “the horrors of Saint-Domingue” to describe the violent process by which an enslaved people had risen up, overthrown their masters, and fulfilled the worst fears of a slaveholding nation.[1] African Americans, however, articulated a much different interpretation of the Haitian Revolution. For some, the act of self-emancipation in Haiti stirred their own hopes for freedom. For others, the creation of a “Black Republic” was a radical assertion of racial equality, an unprecedented opportunity for blacks in the Western Hemisphere to demonstrate their ability to prosper as citizens and leaders of a modern nation. For many, then, Haiti had a special mission—a mission endorsed by its own political leaders—to the entire world. 

Enslaved blacks in the antebellum South were quick to embrace Haiti as an emblem of black freedom. In his biography of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington noted that enslaved men and women knew “of the Haytian struggle for liberty” even if they were ignorant of everything except [their] master and the plantation.”[2] This was certainly true in the region of Douglass’s birth. One bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1821 recalled “old people speaking about persons going to Hayti” during his childhood. In particular, he remembered hearing a song about an enslaved youth who, “on account of bad treatment,” fled to Philadelphia before boarding a ship bound for Haiti. It went:

Poor Moses, poor Moses,

Sailing on the ocean.

Bless the Lord,

I am on the way,

Farewell to Georgia.

Moses is gone to Hayti.[3]

Moses, like some thirteen thousand other African Americans in the antebellum era, chose to leave the United States for Haiti. The United States was all slavery and “ill-treatment.” Haiti was freedom.

Free blacks in Philadelphia and other northern cities were no less enamored with Haiti. While some promoted emigration to that country, a greater number urged the United States to extend diplomatic recognition to it. In 1849, escaped slave and New York-based abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward lambasted white politicians who “refuse to acknowledge the independence of a Republic, the majority of whose citizens are black men, lest such an acknowledgement should offend negro haters in Washington.”[4] In Ward’s estimation, Haiti was not only a site where blacks could experience unparalleled freedom. Instead, it was a country that could prove wrong those who claimed that African Americans were unfit for citizenship because they could not claim a “legitimate” external nationality.[5] Consequently, Ward demanded that the United States finally acknowledge the sovereignty of a “Republic half a century old . . . that has done more to prove its capacity for self-government . . . than the United States.”[6]

The ideas about Haiti expressed by African Americans corresponded to the self-image held by Haitian elites. Believing that a mass influx of industrious African Americans would strengthen the economy of Haiti and help it win diplomatic recognition from the United States, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer, a veteran of the Haitian Revolution, promoted emigration in U.S. newspapers. In doing so, he assured African Americans that Haiti’s “wise constitution . . . insures a free country to Africans and their descendants.” Moreover, he guaranteed that “Providence has destined Hayti for a land of promise, a sacred asylum, where our unfortunate brethren will, in the end, see their wound healed by the balm of equality, and their tears wiped away by the protecting hand of liberty.”[7] Such bold claims emboldened African Americans, leading individuals like Moses to equate Haiti with black freedom and others including Ward to link Haiti to elusive rights of citizenship.

They also set Haitians and African Americans up for disappointment. By romanticizing Haiti, elite Haitians and their African American counterparts recognized an indisputable fact: a nation birthed in slave insurrection and governed by black people would always possess a unique standing in global affairs. But they also placed an unfair set of expectations upon Haiti and those citizens who would bear the burden of ensuring that their country existed not only in reality but also in symbol; that it would embody everything an idealized “Black Republic” could and should be. Given the political and cultural confines of the nineteenth-century West, such lofty expectations would prove hard (perhaps even impossible) to meet.

Next month: “Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

[1] White Americans, particularly white southerners’, reaction to the Haitian Revolution receives a more extended treatment in Alfred Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 107-147.

[2] Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Company, 1907), 144.

[3] Alexander Walker Wayman, My Recollections of African M.E. Ministers, or Forty Years’ Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Rooms, 1881), 4.

[4] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[5] My fellow AAIHS blogger, Patrick Rael, has, of course, captured these nationalist sentiments in his Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[6] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[7] Niles’ Weekly Register, July 1, 1820. For further reading on the African American emigration movement to Haiti, I recommend Sara Fanning, Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

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