March 2, 2010

Haiti – The History, The Hate and The Earthquake

In February 2005  I went on a surfing trip to the Caribbean. Since I speak English rather than French I went to Barbados rather than Haiti, and made a pilgrimage to Bathsheba on the east coast. According to Kelly Slater, the "Tiger Woods" of surfing, and 9 times world champion:

I’ve been going for over 20 years, and I’d put Soup Bowl as one of the top three waves in the world.

I didn't discover this until later, but I arrived just after Kelly had left, and as luck would have it Soup Bowl was still firing on all cylinders. According to photographer Dustin Humphrey (usually abbreviated to D. Hump), quoted in an interview in Transworld Surf magazine about his  Sipping Jetstreams project:

In the Caribbean, we shot Kelly's all-time best sessions ever.

Whilst in Barbados I read some local papers and visited an art gallery or two, but I didn't go to the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. The Principal there is Sir Hilary Beckles, who in 1980 received a PhD in Economic History from Hull University here in the UK. Sir Hilary recently wrote an article in the Barbados Nation News about the history of Haiti and the devastating earthquake that took place there on January 12th. He entitled it "The Hate and The Quake". According to Sir Hilary:

For too long there has been a popular perception that somehow the Haitian nation-building project, launched on January 1, 1804, has failed on account of mismanagement, ineptitude, corruption.

The Haitians fought for their freedom and won, as did the Americans fifty years earlier. The Americans declared their independence and crafted an extraordinary constitution that set out a clear message about the value of humanity and the right to freedom, justice, and liberty.

In the midst of this brilliant discourse, they chose to retain slavery as the basis of the new nation state. The founding fathers therefore could not see beyond race, as the free state was built on a slavery foundation.

The water was poisoned in the well; the Americans went back to the battlefield a century later to resolve the fact that slavery and freedom could not comfortably co-exist in the same place.

The French, also, declared freedom, fraternity and equality as the new philosophies of their national transformation and gave the modern world a tremendous progressive boost by so doing.

They abolished slavery, but Napoleon Bonaparte could not imagine the republic without slavery and targeted the Haitians for a new, more intense regime of slavery. The British agreed, as did the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.

All were linked in communion over the 500 000 Blacks in Haiti, the most populous and prosperous Caribbean colony.

As the jewel of the Caribbean, they all wanted to get their hands on it. With a massive slave base, the English, French and Dutch salivated over owning it – and the people.

The people won a ten-year war, the bloodiest in modern history, and declared their independence. Every other country in the Americas was based on slavery.

Haiti was freedom, and proceeded to place in its 1805 Independence Constitution that any person of African descent who arrived on its shores would be declared free, and a citizen of the republic.

For the first time since slavery had commenced, Blacks were the subjects of mass freedom and citizenship in a nation.

I urge you to read Sir Hilary's article in full, as well as the long list (currently 147) of comments it has attracted, if you would like to better understand how Haiti came to be in it's present predicament. As another eminent scholar Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, once put it:

We might very well be speaking French in the United States had not the Haitian slaves been successful.

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