Text on Haiti by W.E.B. Du Bois

From TLP
Jump to: navigation, search
Photo of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918.
The Negro a book by W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963), published in 1915, contains the following passages on Haiti. Du Bois, in his long career, was an African-American civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian and wrote and lectured extensively.


The French encouraged settlements in the West Indies in the seventeenth century, but at last, finding that French immigrants would not come, they began about 1642 to import Negroes. Owing to wars with England, slaves were supplied by the Dutch and Portuguese, although the Royal Senegal Company held the coveted Asiento from 1701 to 1713.

It was in the island of Hayti, however, that French slavery centered. Pirates from many nations, but chiefly French, began to frequent the island, and in 1663 the French annexed the eastern part, thus dividing the island between France and Spain. By 1680 there were so many slaves and mulattoes that Louis XIV issued his celebrated Code Noir, which was notable in compelling bachelor masters, fathers of slave children, to marry their concubines. Children followed the condition of the mother as to slavery or freedom; they could have no property; harsh punishments were provided for, but families could not be separated by sale except in the case of grown children; emancipation with full civil rights was made possible for any slave twenty years of age or more. When Louisiana was settled and the Alabama coast, slaves were introduced there. Louisiana was transferred to Spain in 1762, against the resistance of both settlers and slaves, but Spain took possession in 1769 and introduced more Negroes.

Later, in Hayti, a more liberal policy encouraged trade; war was over and capital and slaves poured in. Sugar, coffee, chocolate, indigo, dyes, and spices were raised. There were large numbers of mulattoes, many of whom were educated in France, and many masters married Negro women who had inherited large properties, just as in the United States to-day white men are marrying eagerly the landed Indian women in the West. When white immigration increased in 1749, however, prejudice arose against these mulattoes and severe laws were passed depriving them of civil rights, entrance into the professions, and the right to hold office; severe edicts were enforced as to clothing, names, and social intercourse. Finally, after 1777, mulattoes were forbidden to come to France.

When the French Revolution broke out, the Haytians managed to send two delegates to Paris. Nevertheless the planters maintained the upper hand, and one of the colored delegates, Oge, on returning, started a small rebellion. He and his companions were killed with great brutality. This led the French government to grant full civil rights to free Negroes, Immediately planters and free Negroes flew to arms against each other and then, suddenly, August 22, 1791, the black slaves, of whom there were four hundred and fifty-two thousand, arose in revolt to help the free Negroes.

For many years runaway slaves had hidden in the mountains under their own chiefs. One of the earliest of these chiefs was Polydor, in 1724, who was succeeded by Macandal. The great chief of these runaways or "Maroons" at the time of the slave revolt was Jean François, who was soon succeeded by Biassou.

Pierre Dominic Toussaint, known as Toussaint L'Ouverture, joined these Maroon bands, where he was called "the doctor of the armies of the king," and soon became chief aid to Jean François and Biassou. Upon their deaths Toussaint rose to the chief command. He acquired complete control over the blacks, not only in military matters, but in politics and social organization; "the soldiers regarded him as a superior being, and the farmers prostrated themselves before him. All his generals trembled before him (Dessalines did not dare to look in his face), and all the world trembled before his generals."1[82]

The revolt once started, blacks and mulattoes murdered whites without mercy and the whites retaliated. Commissioners were sent from France, who asked simply civil rights for freedmen, and not emancipation. Indeed that was all that Toussaint himself had as yet demanded. The planters intrigued with the British and this, together with the beheading of the king (an impious act in the eyes of Negroes), induced Toussaint to join the Spaniards. In 1793 British troops were landed and the French commissioners in desperation declared the slaves emancipated. This at once won back Toussaint from the Spaniards. He became supreme in the north, while Rigaud, leader of the mulattoes, held the south and the west. By 1798 the British, having lost most of their forces by yellow fever, surrendered Mole St. Nicholas to Toussaint and departed. Rigaud finally left for France, and Toussaint in 1800 was master of Hayti. He promulgated a constitution under which Hayti was to be a self-governing colony; all men were equal before the law, and trade was practically free. Toussaint was to be president for life, with the power to name his successor.

Napoleon Bonaparte, master of France, had at this time dreams of a great American empire, and replied to Toussaint's new government by sending twenty-five thousand men under his brother-in-law to subdue the presumptuous Negroes, as a preliminary step to his occupation and development of the Mississippi valley. Fierce fighting and yellow fever decimated the French, but matters went hard with the Negroes too, and Toussaint finally offered to yield. He was courteously received with military honors and then, as soon as possible, treacherously seized, bound, and sent to France. He was imprisoned at Fort Joux and died, perhaps of poison, after studied humiliations, April 7, 1803.

Thus perished the greatest of American Negroes and one of the great men of all time, at the age of fifty-six. A French planter said, "God in his terrestrial globe did not commune with a purer spirit."2 [83] Wendell Phillips said, "Some doubt the courage of the Negro. Go to Hayti and stand on those fifty thousand graves of the best soldiers France ever had and ask them what they think of the Negro's sword. I would call him Napoleon, but Napoleon made his way to empire over broken oaths and through a sea of blood. This man never broke his word. I would call him Cromwell, but Cromwell was only a soldier, and the state he founded went down with him into his grave. I would call him Washington, but the great Virginian held slaves. This man risked his empire rather than permit the slave trade in the humblest village of his dominions. You think me a fanatic, for you read history, not with your eyes, but with your prejudices. But fifty years hence, when Truth gets a hearing, the Muse of history will put Phocion for the Greek, Brutus for the Roman, Hampden for the English, La Fayette for France, choose Washington as the bright, consummate flower of our earlier civilization, then, dipping her pen in the sunlight, will write in the clear blue, above them all, the name of the soldier, the statesman, the martyr, Toussaint L'Ouverture." [see: 'Toussaint L'Ouverture' A lecture by Wendell Phillips (1861).

The treacherous killing of Toussaint did not conquer Hayti. In 1802 and 1803 some forty thousand French soldiers died of war and fever. A new colored leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines|Dessalines]], arose and all the eight thousand remaining French surrendered to the blockading British fleet.

The effect of all this was far-reaching. Napoleon gave up his dream of American empire and sold Louisiana for a song. "Thus, all of Indian Territory, all of Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa and Wyoming and Montana and the Dakotas, and most of Colorado and Minnesota, and all of Washington and Oregon states, came to us as the indirect work of a despised Negro. Praise, if you will, the work of a Robert Livingstone or a Jefferson, but to-day let us not forget our debt to Toussaint L'Ouverture, who was indirectly the means of America's expansion by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803." 3 [84]

With the freedom of Hayti in 1801 came a century of struggle to fit the people for the freedom they had won. They were yet slaves, crushed by a cruel servitude, without education or religious instruction. The Haytian leaders united upon Dessalines to maintain the independence of the republic. Dessalines, like Toussaint and his lieutenant Christophe, was noted in slavery days for his severity toward his fellows and the discipline which he insisted on. He had other characteristics of African chieftains. "There were seasons when he broke through his natural sullenness and showed himself open, affable, and even generous. His vanity was excessive and manifested itself in singular perversities."4 [85] He was a man of great personal bravery and succeeded in maintaining the independence of Hayti, which had already cost the Frenchmen fifty thousand lives.

On January 1, 1804, at the place whence Toussaint had been treacherously seized and sent to France, the independence of Hayti was declared by the military leaders. Dessalines was made governor-general for life and afterward proclaimed himself emperor. This was not an act of grandiloquence and mimicry. "It is truer to say that in it both Dessalines and later Christophe were actuated by a clear insight into the social history and peculiarities of their people. There was nothing in the constitution which did not have its companion in Africa, where the organization of society was despotic, with elective hereditary chiefs, royal families, polygamic marriages, councils, and regencies."5 [86]

The population was divided into soldiers and laborers. The territory was parceled out to chiefs, and the laborers were bound to the soil and worked under rigorous inspection; part of the products were reserved for their support, and the rest went to the chiefs, the king, the general government, and the army. The army was under stern discipline and military service was compulsory. Women did much of the agricultural labor. Under Toussaint the administration of this system was committed to Dessalines, who carried it out with rigor; it was afterward followed by Christophe. The latter even imported four thousand Negroes from Africa, from whom he formed a national guard for patrolling the land. These regulations brought back for a time a large part of the former prosperity of the island.

The severity with which Dessalines enforced the laws soon began to turn many against him. The educated mulattoes especially objected to submission to the savage African mores. Dessalines started to suppress their revolt, but was killed in ambush in October, 1806.

Great Britain now began to intrigue for a protectorate over the island and the Spanish end of the island threatened attack. These difficulties were overcome, but at a cost of great internal strain. After the death of Dessalines it seemed that Hayti was about to dissolve into a number of petty subdivisions. At one time Christophe was ruling as king in the north, Petion as president at Port au Prince, Rigaud in the south, and a semi-brigand, Goman, in the extreme southwest. Very soon, however, the rivalry narrowed down to Petion and Christophe. Petion was a man of considerable ability and did much, not simply for Hayti, but for South America. Already as early as 1779, before the revolution in Hayti, the Haytian Negroes had helped the United States. The British had captured Savannah in 1778. The French fleet appeared on the coast of Georgia late that year and was ordered to recruit men in Hayti. Eight hundred young freedmen, blacks and mulattoes, offered to take part in the expedition, and they fought valiantly in the siege and covered themselves with glory. It was this legion that made the charge on the British and saved the retreating American army. Among the men who fought there was Christophe.

When Simon Bolivar, Commodore Aury, and many Venezuelan families were driven from their country in 1815, they and their ships took temporary refuge in Hayti. Notwithstanding the embarrassed condition of the republic, Petion received them and gave them four thousand rifles with ammunition, provisions, and last and best a printing press. He also settled some international quarrels among members of the groups, and Bolivar expressed himself afterward as being "overwhelmed with magnanimous favors."6 [87]

Petion died in 1818 and was succeeded by his friend Boyer. Christophe committed suicide the following year and Boyer became not simply ruler of western Hayti, but also, by arrangement with the eastern end of the island, gained the mastery there, where they were afraid of Spanish aggression. Thus from 1822 to 1843 Boyer, a man of much ability, ruled the whole of the island and gained the recognition of Haytian independence from France and other nations.

France, under Charles X, demanded an indemnity of thirty million dollars to reimburse the planters for confiscated lands and property. This Hayti tried to pay, but the annual installment was a tremendous burden to the impoverished country. Further negotiations were entered into. Finally in 1838 France recognized the independence of the republic and the indemnity was reduced to twelve million dollars. Even this was a large burden for Hayti, and the payment of it for years crippled the island.

The United States and Great Britain in 1825-26 recognized the independence of Hayti. A concordat was arranged with the Pope for governing the church in Hayti, and finally in 1860 the church placed under the French hierarchy. Thus Boyer did unusually well; but his necessary concessions to France weakened his influence at home, and finally an earthquake, which destroyed several towns in 1842, raised the superstitious of the populace against him. He resigned in 1843, leaving the treasury well filled; but with his withdrawal the Spanish portion of the island was lost to Hayti.

The subsequent history of Hayti since 1843 has been the struggle of a small divided country to maintain political independence. The rich resources of the country called for foreign capital, but outside capital meant political influence from abroad, which the little nation rightly feared. Within, the old antagonism between the freedman and the slave settled into a color line between the mulatto and the black, which for a time meant the difference between educated liberalism and reactionary ignorance. This difference has largely disappeared, but some vestiges of the color line remain. The result has been reaction and savagery under Soulouque, Dominique, and Nord Alexis, and decided advance under presidents like Nissage-Saget, Solomon, Legitime, and Hyppolite.

In political life Hayti is still in the sixteenth century; but in economic life she has succeeded in placing on their own little farms the happiest and most contented peasantry in the world, after raising them from a veritable hell of slavery. If modern capitalistic greed can be restrained from interference until the best elements of Hayti secure permanent political leadership the triumph of the revolution will be complete.

Note 1: [82] La Croix: Mémoires sur la Révolution, I, 253, 408.

Note 2: [83] Marquis d'Hermonas. Cf. Johnston: Negro in the New World, p. 158.

Note 3: [84] DeWitt Talmage, in Christian Herald, November 28, 1906.

Note 4: [85] Aimes: African Institutions in America (reprinted from Journal of American Folk Lore), p. 25.

Note 5: [86] Brown: History of San Domingo, II, 158-159.

Note 6: [87] See Leger: Hayti, Chap. XI.

See also

External links=