The Endless Battle for Sovereignty
“As the French sailed from the island, they saw the tops of the mountains lighted up. It was not a blaze kindled for war, but for freedom. Every heart for liberty, and every voice shouted for joy. From the ocean to the mountains, and from town to town, the cry was, Freedom! Freedom!”
Such was the vivid scenery painted by abolitionist and former slave William Wells Brown in his biography, “The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements.” Triumphant cries of freedom filled the air of the first black republic of the world, unprecedented actions that benchmarked the beginning of the end for monstrous imperialism and its evil enforcers. The Haitian Founding Fathers were ahead of their time. Their heroism, though not without major consequences, inspired liberation and abolitionist movements across the globe many centuries after that solemn day, Nov. 18, 1803 when, “Rochambeau, surrounded on all sides, drew his army together for defense, rather than aggression,” as Brown recounted. “Reduced to the last extremity by starvation, the French general sued for peace, and promised that he would immediately leave the island.”
The stage was set for the brave children of slaves to conquer the mastery of their own destiny, giving birth to generations of men born free and equal. Drowning in humiliation, witnessing a proud, new republic rise from the flames and ashes through solemn cries: Freedom… Freedom, “The French embarked in their vessels of war, and the standard of the standard of the blacks once more waved over Cape City, the capital of St. Domingo,” wrote Brown.
Vertieres, undoubtedly a great contribution to humanity, deterred expansionists’ ideals and bankrupt their motivation because losing St Domingue meant a 60 percent reduction in revenue for Napoleon Bonaparte, the reigning French Emperor. Therefore, if France could no longer enjoy its huge profit margin, sucking every drop of blood of slavery, neither should inferior, arrogant slaves who handed them their worse and most humiliating defeat; hence the vindictive isolationist policies it pursued so aggressively.
Nov. 18, 2011, 208 years after the epic Battle of Vertieres, history paints a grim picture of Haiti, still struggling for its sovereignty. While blame indexes never lack, Haitians remain the sole proprietaries of their failures or successes. Since the assassination of Emperor Jean-jacques Dessalines, every group or president that subsequently came to power impose its own idea of progress, framing it as something new and modern. Nevertheless, one need not look beyond the countries own history to observe striking similarities between past administrations that failed the nation miserably and more recent ones. For instance, Historians portrayed former President Sylvain Salnave as a political outsider with little formal training and no political agenda when he came to power. Similarly, President Pierre Nord Alexis, also known as Tonton Nord, was notoriously indifferent with a laissez-faire attitude, according to history’s account. Many people often used these same characterizations to describe the attitudes and behaviors of current or recent Haitian presidents, proving that our leaders have not evolved.
This cyclical behavior on the part of Haitian politicians amounted to one of the country’s biggest failures. An administration would sweep into office on unrealistic populist promises, then would pursue, persecute and/or execute former political opponents, solidify its power base only to end up dead, exiled, isolated or hated. Ironically, Haitians always look retroactively to realize how much better past administrations were, in spite of the unforgivable scars still-hunting their every dream.
Just as some opposition conspired and killed the first Emperor at the detriment of the nation, many self-proclaimed patriots continue this practice even today simply because they disagree with one policy decision or stand to lose a few dollars. Meanwhile, generations of potential leaders lose their way, seeking to inflict maximums damages on those who persecuted their parents or favorite leaders; thus sending the country into a downward spiral.
Sadly, such is the legacy of Vertieres, a practice that persists even today where Haitian leaders sell their souls to foreigners or a socially irresponsible élite for the sake of power and personal gains. Those traitors have not only traded their own souls, but also the symbolism of Vertiere, the fate of all future generations with it. Even more egregious, their destructive, egotistical policies will breed next vindictive leaders who will carry on their legacy, avenging their forebears, and so goes the cycle.
Brown wrote about Toussaint L’Ouverture like no other:
“No one can look back upon his career without feeling that Toussaint was a remarkable man. Without being bred to the science of arms, he became a valiant soldier, and baffled the skill of the most experienced generals that had followed Napoleon. Without military knowledge he fought like one born in the camp. Without means he carried on the war. He beat his enemies in battle, and turned their own weapons against them. He laid the foundation for the emancipation of his race and the independence of the island. From ignorance he became educated by his own exertions. From a slave he rose to be a soldier, a general, and a governor, and might have been king of St. Domingo. He possessed splendid traits of genius, which was developed in the private circle, in the council chamber, and on the field of battle. His very name became a tower of strength to his friends and a terror to his foes. Toussaint’s career as a Christian, a statesman, and a general, will lose nothing by a comparison with that of Washington. Each was the leader of an oppressed and outraged people, each had a powerful enemy to contend with, and each succeeded in founding a government in the new world. Toussaint’s government made liberty its watchword, incorporated it in its constitution, abolished the slave trade, and made freedom universal amongst the people. Washington’s government incorporated slavery and the slave trade, and enacted laws by which chains were fastened upon the limbs of millions of people. Toussaint liberated his countrymen; Washington enslaved a portion of his. When impartial history shall do justice to the St. Domingo revolution, the name of Toussaint L’Ouverture will be placed high upon the roll of fame.”
As we reflect on the Battle of Vertieres today, it proves impossible to find such an eloquent and revered body of literature about any of Haiti’s contemporary leaders: intellectual or otherwise; yet, we live in a postmodern world. Even when the world look upon Haiti with disdain and a grin on its face, Vertiere will forever stain its legacy, something it can never take away from Haiti, its heroes or its people.
The Black Man, His Antecedents,
His Genius, and His Achievements:
William Wells Brown, 1814?-1884
Call number E185.96 .B86 1863 (Rare Book Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)