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A Giant Step for Mankind Made in Haïti

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A Giant Step for Mankind Made in Haïti

The Bwa Kay Iman uprising against slavery by Jean Saint-Vil,
Ezili's HLLN's Haitian Perspectives,
August 11, 2009


There was a time, not so long ago, when popes, kings and queens enriched themselves and built vast empires on the profits made with the sweat and blood of kidnapped men, women and children loaded on ships, stacked like sardines and reduced to slavery on plantations of coffee, sugar, cotton, cocoa, all over the Americas [1]. From the 1444 Portuguese attacks against the coast of Africa, followed by the 1452 papal bull of pope Nicholas V [2] which invited Christians to attack and enslave non-Christians, to the faithful year of 1791, millions of human beings had already been kidnapped, terrorized, thrown to sharks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Immediately upon arrival on the islands or the mainland, they were worked to death, tortured, eaten alive by dogs that were especially trained to feed on African flesh or they were blown to pieces with ignited gun powder shoved into their sexual parts by British, Spanish, French and Portuguese colonizers.
It has been estimated that the population of Africa in the mid 19th century would have been 50 million instead of 25 million had this catastrophe known as the MAAFA not taken place [3].

It is within such an atmosphere of unparalleled terrorism and human decadence that a remarkable gathering of men and women took place on the small Caribbean island of Haiti, the evening of August 14-15, 1791. Known as the Bwa Kay Iman Ceremony [4], it is said that this revolutionary meeting brought together representatives of twenty-one displaced African nations who vowed to revolt against the powers that had unleashed against their people such a relentless campaign of terror; a genocide that was expertly conceived and implemented, state-sponsored and financed, justified with numerous literary works and blessed by the most powerful and influential religious institutions of the day [5] .

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The Bwa Kay Iman uprising of 1791 was not the first major revolt against racial slavery in the Americas. Rather, it was the culmination of years of organized struggle. Singular only in its successful conclusion, Bwa Kay Iman counts among its main leaders a lady named Cecile Fatiman [6] and a gentleman called Boukman [7]. The lady, herself a former slave and a Vodou Priest, was said to be born of an African mother and a European father (a Corsican Prince). Boukman, also a Vodou Priest, was said to have been formerly enslaved on the island of Jamaica, before being sold to a plantation in Haiti. The following prayer has been attributed to Boukman officiating at the Bwa Kay Iman ceremony: "The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts."[8]

Honoring their Bwa Kay Iman pledge, the Africans of Haiti launched an all out war against the armies of France, Britain and Spain which they would eventually defeat, thanks to the military savvy of the maroons and the apt leadership of Generals Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Pe'tion and Henry Christophe. The revolted Africans also counted among them fierce women warriors like Sanite Be'lair, Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière and the aged Toya Mantou, aunt of General Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

Twelve years after the Bwa Kay Iman uprising, General Dessalines would outwit French Generals Leclerc (Napoleon Bonaparte's brother-in-law ) and his particularly unscrupulous successor Donatien Rochambeau [9]. Dessalines would successfully chase the last European slave makers out of the island, on November 18, 1803. The resounding victory achieved by the revolted Africans would force Napoleon to abandon his dream of building a French empire (fueled by racial slavery) in the Americas. It is no coincidence that in the very year Haiti defeated Napoleon's army, the United States of America was able to acquire Louisiana from the French, thus doubling its territory, for merely 81 million Francs. Three years later, fearing slave uprisings on its American colonies, the British would pass an act declaring it illegal to transport more kidnapped Africans into the Americas [10].

During a 2003 interview offered to the author of this article, esteemed American physician and author Paul Farmer commented that, more certainly so than for the 1969 moon landing, he considers the Haitian Revolution to be "a giant step for mankind". Indeed, the grave consequences that were to follow the climatic conclusion of Bwa Kay Iman, were not lost to the world at the beginning of the 19th century. Barely days after the creation of the Republic of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines published a decree in which he announced his intention to devote part of the nation's meager post-war budget to securing the emancipation of formerly enslaved human beings. Many American slave ship captains collected the 40 dollars payment Dessalines had reserved for the release of each formerly enslaved person who sets foot on Haitian soil [11]. Meanwhile, in 1805, French foreign minister Prince Charles Talleyrand wrote to U.S Secretary of State James Madison: "the existence of a Negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal acts, is a horrible spectacle for all white nations." The United States responded by banning trade with Haiti in 1806. The embargo was renewed in 1807 and 1809. Later, in 1825, with the help of other white powers of the time, France began extorting a ransom which would eventually amount to 90 million gold francs from the young Black Republic. [12] To justify the exorbitant Charles X Ransom, the French offered the same "logic" the British would use to justify compensating former White slave makers who were dispossessed of "their human property" following the emancipation proclamation. [13]

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The Haitian Revolution gave impetus for African uprisings all over the Americas. Gabriel Posser, Nataniel Turner, Denmark Vessey, were all Haiti-inspired revolutionaries who sent cold shivers to the spine of American slave makers [14]\. Yet, for several years, racial slavery would persist everywhere in the Americas, save Haiti.

When she provided shelter and assistance to Miranda (1806) and Bolivar (1815, 1816), Haiti's sole request was that all enslaved Africans be freed wherever the South-American revolutionaries would be victorious. Haitians were often accused of fueling anti-slavery rebellion in the Americas. Routinely, European powers would send warships to intimidate and collect ransom from them, on account of suspected Haitian complicity in uprisings happening in the region [15]. Despite the collective punishment through repetitive acts of extortion (dubbed "gunboat diplomacy") that the crippled Black Republic suffered at the hands of its historical enemies, late into the 19th century, Haiti was still making notable, albeit suicidal, contributions to human dignity and freedom. Few people know for instance that Jose' Marti, founder of the Cuban State, was provided a Haitian passport to facilitate his revolutionary travels. It is believed that, in fact, Marti died a Haitian citizen [16].

Eventually, it became financially and politically unprofitable for the Europeans to maintain the system of racial slavery in the Americas. By 1833, the British had abolished slavery on their colonies, including Canada. Then, the French followed suite in 1848, the United States of North-America in 1862 and eventually the Spanish and the Portuguese in 1886 and 1888.

When, on a hot July 20, 1969 day, U.S. astronaut Alvin Aldrin dubbed Neil Armstrong's moon landing "a giant step for mankind", his enthusiasm was understood and, to a great extent, shared by all those who had the opportunity to hear his words. The vast majority of humans alive at the time had no logical reason to believe they or their descendants would ever have an opportunity to follow in Alvin Aldrin or Neil Armstrong's footsteps. It was, nonetheless, understood that what had just transpired had forever changed the range of opportunities opened up to mankind, especially as pertains to further exploration of the universe.

As with the extraordinary 1969 moon landing, the 1791 step (to uproot racial slavery) was taken in Haiti, not by human giants but by regular men and women. In fact, they were deemed to be "the wretched of the earth". A people who, despite being subjected to hundreds of years of systematic torture aimed at breaking the human spirit, had stoically risen up to rescue itself from the jaws of genocide. By so doing, they elevated us all to higher spiritual grounds and offered to our heart's eyes yet unforeseen human possibilities. Besides the shear physical terror, religion and the falsification of history top the list of powerful tools that were used to try to crush the human (African) spirit on the slave plantation. The damage caused to the African psyche by the recurring sermons of priests such as Father Labbat and Father Fauque de Cayenne are described in Jean Fouchard's "Les marrons de la liberte'"[17]. The tragic case of Scipio Africanus is illustrative of the disastrous damage that Christian brainwashing was indeed inflicting to enslaved Africans, some of whom would end up accepting racial slavery as their God-ordained fate, due to the very fact of being African [18]. Professor Ron Karenga describes the collective loss suffered by the Human race as a result of the MAAFA when he notes how "the destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among peoples"

The 1791 uprising in Haiti forced the world to take a giant step upward. Within the span of these twelve years of revolution, we sprang up from the pits of inhumanity were we had stagnated since the 15th century to the - yet unattained but now foreseeable ""possibilities of genuine human brotherhood and sisterhood [19]. 218 years later, it is evident that this giant jump upward remains insufficient to catapult us where we aught to be as a highly intelligent species. Thus, it is important that we commemorate Bwa Kay Iman and allow ourselves to be inspired to build "" together- the better world to which we all aspire. So, we are not there yet!

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But, what have we done with the possibilities we've been offered since 1791? It would be short-sighted to think this question ought to be pondered only by the sons and daughters of Boukman. We all need the inspiration of 1791 to garner courage: the courage to fight barbarism and triumph over terrorism; the courage to face history, learn its tough lessons pertaining to the price of freedom and the value of justice. We need courage to recognize and capture the possibilities offered to make amend where amend is due and to enact, real, positive change in our world, today.

In the first days of September 2001, the nations of the world were convened to Africa and offered a golden opportunity to take yet another giant step for mankind. Unfortunately, among those who led the world at the time of the 2001 Durban Conference, there were no Boukman, no Cecile Fatiman, no John Brown, no Dessalines. Our Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth II, Georges Bush, Jacques Chirac, Jean Chre'tien, Thabo Mbeki, Jean-Bertrand Aristide needed not be giants themselves in order to step up to their responsibilities at Durban. They required regular human courage coupled with wisdom; the wisdom to realize that the time had, for a while now, come to start long overdue reparations to the native peoples of Africa and of the Americas. At that strategic moment, when the slavery-built empires of our times had record budget surpluses which would have made possible the crucial step toward redemption and restorative justice that was so eagerly anticipated at the Durban Conference of September 2001, the world witnessed instead a missed opportunity of gigantic proportions. Few seem to have noted how this important opportunity quickly dissolved into nothingness over the noisy and smoky shadows of the September 11, 2001 collapse of the World Trade Centre towers in New-York City. [20]

The world was said to have forever changed on September 11, 2001. Terrorism was declared to be a "new monster". It is as if, instantly, the world population was invited to engage in an exercise of collective amnesia, the sort of which was unimaginable prior to that tragic morning. Global Terrorism is a new phenomenon menacing humanity, they claimed? Millions of First Nations peoples all over the Globe could not believe their ears! What about all the horrendous crimes against humanity of which we were just speaking at Durban, a couple of days ago? What about the MAAFA? How did our bold plans to finally repair the damage caused manage to suddenly evaporate, just so? Yes, just so, the modern champions of "Liberte', Égalite', Fraternite'" cowered away from the opportunity offered by Durnban. There was no giant step forward in September 2001. Instead, one time too many, the First Nations of Africa and of the Americas were told by their European brethren to simply "get over it"[21].

After 2001, came 2004, the 200th anniversary of the creation of the abolitionist Republic of Haiti. Apparently, neither the British, nor the French, the Spanish nor their descendants were in a mood to celebrate freedom and human dignity with the descendants of Boukman and Grann Iman. Instead, Haiti's Head of State who had a few months earlier uttered the words REPARATIONS and RESTITUTION was violently taken away from his residence by white foreign soldiers and sent to forced exile in Africa, were he remains to this day. Certain self-described "serious" people say it is improper to call what transpired on that ignominious night of February 29, 2004 a "coup d'e'tat" - that is a violent and criminal violation to the "Democratic Charter of the Americas" - you see![22]. Suffice to say, we missed yet another opportunity in 2004.

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Human Rights Lawyer, Ezili Danto is dedicated to correcting the media lies and colonial narratives about Haiti. An award winning playwright, a performance poet, author and lawyer, Ezili Danto is founder of the Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, (more...)
 

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