By George Michel
Translated by Douglas Henry Daniels
Kendall and Hunt Publishing, Co., Dubuque, IA., 1996
ISBN # 0-7872- 1984-3. $21.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
"Dead at thirty three years of age, betrayed like Christ, Exposed nude under his flag, crucified;
As one day he had dared to promise it to us,
And for our Nation he sacrificed himself.
Confronting the American, and alone to shout: 'Halt':
Let's bare our head before Charlemagne Peralte!"
(On his marble gravestone at the Cap Haitien cemetery. Poem is by Christian Werleigh)
With the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February of 1986, Charlemagne Peralte emerged as a model and hero of the Haitian people in an extraordinary manner. Coins were minted with his image, stamps we printed, and Peralte was hailed everywhere in the country as one of the greatest heroes of the Republic, even compared and often preferred to Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
1985 was the centennial of Peralte's birth. The slim volume under review was actually a series of newspaper articles written by George Michel for the daily newspaper, Le Matin. From the arrangement of this volume it appears there were 18 articles in all. These 18 articles account for only 50 pages of this book and we are told over and over, by the author, translator, and introducer that this is a "modest" volume. That overused word substitutes for "short."
Despite the paucity of text, the story is well told, and certainly is the most detailed telling of the story of Charlemagne Peralte in the English language.
There is not much analysis. It is mainly a chronology of Peralte's life with special emphasis on his very short career as a Caco (guerrilla fighter) from September 1918 until he was assassinated on October 31, 1919. However, those 14 months were enough to ensure his place in Haitian history as one of the bravest and most honored heroes of the Republic.
For those who have read of the Cacos War mainly in U.S. sources we often learn that the U.S. officials and troops always referred to the Cacos as "bandits." Yet little I've read in English explains what a distinguished person Peralte actually was. Educated, member of the rural (Hinche area) bourgeoisie, experienced politician who had held several elected and appointed positions, and general in the National Army at the time of the invasion, Peralte was certainly not a country bumpkin or bandit. (Michel cites a U.S. document which officially banned the term "Cacos" On July 18, 1919, "...The general headquarters of the gendarmerie orders that in the official reports, the cacos no longer be called 'cacos,' but bandits." Such a move made it easier to explain to the American people what was going on in Haiti!
After the short story of Peralte's life there is an appendix which includes a 7 page chronology of the Cacos War with special emphasis on Peralte's place in it. This is an excellent and useful chronology. Four other pieces in the appendix are noteworthy:
Michel's book, while most welcomed, is merely a taste. This particular war, this man Charlemagne Peralte, this occupation are not well studied and reported in the English language works on Haiti. But, one would hope for works in greater depth and greater scholarship. These essays after all, were part of a centennial commemoration in a newspaper. They are light and suffer the weakness of any literature of hagiography. Peralte is too good, too heroic, his accomplishments blown up beyond the believable. After all, the war was lost, brutally suppressed and the enemy which suffered very few casualties in the entire process.
Nonetheless, this book points the way that seems to me is desperately needed in the English speaking world. We need translations. Many, many translations. There are countless decent works by Haitian scholars in French. Just a week ago I reviewed a most welcomed translation of the novel, THE VORTEX FAMILY by Jean Metellus. There are probably a dozen or so novels which have been translated including some classics by such people as Jacques Roumain, the Marcelin brothers, Rene Depestre and others. But there are too few non-fiction works available.
Thus Michel's book is welcomed and I, for one, look forward with hope and expectation to see more non-fiction and more scholarly works translated into English.
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