Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Who Really Abolished Slavery in Haiti?

Who really abolished slavery?

Sunday June 3, 2007
Myrtha Dèsulmè, Contributer, Jamaica Gleaner

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who has stood out like a towering lighthouse amongst world leaders when it comes to paying homage to Haiti's unparalleled revolutionary accomplishments, and historical influence, has not missed the opportunity afforded by the celebrations for the abolition of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans, to once again step forward and remind the world of Haiti's contributions.

On April 13, in his weekly "Letter from the President" to the South African people, Mbeki drew our attention to Haiti's pioneering 1804 defeat of slavery and colonialism. He noted that it is unfortunate that the global celebrations in 2004, to mark the bicentenary of this historic event, were much more subdued than the present celebrations to mark the bicentennial of the adoption in 1807, by the British Parliament, of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, which did not prohibit slavery, but only made it illegal for British subjects and institutions to participate in the transportation of slaves. He, nevertheless, deemed it important that the international community should commemorate this bicentenary, as part of its response to the challenge to address the massive legacy of slavery, and the contemporary forms of its manifestation.

The act signed into law at noon on March 25, 1807 by King George III, stopped all slave ships from leaving the world's major slave-trading nation after May 1, 1807, and "banned British subjects, shipyards, outfitters, and insurers from participating in the slave trade to the colonies of France and its allies".

France was Britain's nemesis, and the fierce competition between the imperialist powers in the Caribbean was one of the driving forces behind the British Abolition movement. The continued importation of African slaves was enabling the French, who ran their sugar colonies more profitably than the British, to undercut them in the imperialist sugar markets.

The British capitalists were also primarily concerned with the losses in their revenues and profits resulting from the unremitting resistance of the African captives, which took place at every stage of enslavement, from the struggles on the African coast, to the Middle Passage rebellions, and the escapes or uprisings at the end of the voyage, in the Americas and the Caribbean.

To cap it all off, the historic 1803 victory of the massive, self-determined, and militarily organised slave revolution of Haiti, made it difficult for the political and economic elites in neighbouring countries and metropolitan Europe, to continue the complacent status quo of the mid-18th century.

The Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution, started in 1791, involved a bewildering array of warring factions, including metropolitan and colonial Frenchmen, slaves, free persons of colour, and invading Spanish and English troops. After 1793, however, under Toussaint Louverture's exceptional military leadership and political astuteness, the tide of war turned inexorably, ensuring that power, which had been slowly gravitating to the overwhelming majority of the population, was firmly grasped by the former slaves, who refused to settle for anything less than full freedom.

With the French displaced, the British, who had supported the French Abolitionists, as well as the Haitian revolutionaries, in order to undermine France, were now desperate to take over the lucrative colony. Their attempt to do so resulted in one of the greatest military disasters in British history.

Undeterred, Napoleon sent a mammoth expedition force in a last ditch effort to crush the rebellion, and reclaim France's economic engine. Within the first six months alone, the French lost 10,000 men.

On June 7, 1802, the beleaguered French generals offered Toussaint a treaty, if he would appear in person to discuss it. Toussaint obliged, and was treacherously captured, ultimately dying in a dungeon in the freezing Jura mountains of France.

To the astonishment of the French, the slave army continued to fight. When it became clear to the Haitian revolutionaries that their emancipation could not be sustained within the colonial political system, they took the only logical step to secure it: They drove the French from the island, renamed Saint Domingue, Haiti, and in 1804, created an independent state, the spectre of which would eventually precipitate the collapse of the regional system of slavery.

The Spectre of Haiti

Haiti cast an inevitable shadow over all slave societies. Anti-slavery movements grew stronger and bolder, and Caribbean slaves became increasingly restless. Most importantly, Caribbean planters lost the confidence to maintain the slave system indefinitely. The example of an independent black state as a viabl to the isolated pockets of Maroon settlements, complicated their domestic relations.

British planters lived in constant fear of the rebellions and raids mounted by slaves and Maroons. Rebellions, whether successful or not, could lead to their deaths, and the loss of their lands. Abolition ideas started to gain momentum, as any further importation of slaves would only reinforce the battalions of Maroon communities, and the rebels on the plantations.

The process of rapid industrialisation, which Britain was undergoing, rendered the transition from an agricultural economy, relying on slave labour, to an industrial economy, depending on low-paid workers, increasingly attractive, as a means of acquiring a long-term competitive advantage over other imperialist nations. The British capitalists realised that giving slaves the illusion of freedom, and some buying power, through the paying of nominal wages, could generate greater stability, and tremendous profits in the long run.

Class structure

Finally convinced by Jamaica's 1831 Sam Sharpe rebellion, that the system of slavery carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, in 1833 Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act. The act set aside a whopping 20 million in compensation for slave owners, estimated to be roughly equivalent to 50 billion in today's currency. There was no compensation, however, for the ex-slaves who found themselves having to pay rent to their landlords for the miserable huts they occupied, on top of paying taxes to the Government. Most of them had little choice but to continue working in the sugar cane fields. The class structure of the West Indian islands did not change one iota, and the islands remained under the dominion of the British Crown.

Haiti, by contrast, represented the most thorough case of revolutionary change anywhere in the history of the modern world. In 13 years of sustained internal and international warfare, a colony populated predominantly by coerced and exploited slaves, had successfully liberated itself, radically and permanently transforming things. It had overthrown both the country's colonial status and its economic system, established a new political state, and achieved a complete metamorphosis in its social, political, intellectual and economic life. Slaves, the lowest order of the society, had become equal, free and independent citizens, with some ex-slaves even constituting the new political authority.

The toll, however, was catastrophic. No Princess Margaret, in designer dress, tiara and elbow-length gloves, had handed over the constitutional documents to a newly-formed Parliament, while a jubilant nation danced in streets overflowing with newly-designed flags, bunting, treats, commemorative plates, jonkonnu, bonfires, float parades with beauty queens, and maypoles in town squares.

The soil of Haiti was drenched, from the rivers of blood whichhad flowed, and burnt up, from the scorched earth resistance to the invading forces. The death toll was cataclysmic. The British alone had lost 80,000 men. African losses could not even be quantified.

Though it may be fair to assess that world military, political and economic forces all contributed to overwhelm the institution of slavery, many still contend, that were it not for Haiti, millions might today, still be walking around in shackles.

Myrtha Dèsulmè is president of the Haiti-Jamaica Society.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/ This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.