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#5020: This Week in Haiti 18:23 8/23/00 (fwd)

From: "K. M. Ives" <kives@gateway.net>

"This Week in Haiti" is the English section of HAITI PROGRES
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and Creole, please contact us (tel) 718-434-8100,
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                           HAITI PROGRES
              "Le journal qui offre une alternative"

                      * THIS WEEK IN HAITI *

                       August 23 - 29, 2000
                          Vol. 18, No. 23


(The second of three parts)

We continue this week with extracts from C.L.R. James’ “The Black
Jacobins,” the monumental account of the Haitian revolution. Last
week, our selected passages detailed how the slaves of the French
colony of Saint Domingue (called San Domingo by James) lived.
This week, we continue with a portrait of the French colonists
from the chapter entitled “The Owners.”


Of the three, San Domingo planters, British bourgeoisie, and
French bourgeoisie, the first and most important were the
planters of San Domingo.

On such a soil as San Domingo slavery, only a vicious society
would flourish. Nor were the incidental circumstances such as to
mitigate the demoralization inherent in such a method of

San Domingo is an island of mountain ranges rising in places to
6,000 feet above sea-level. From these flow innumerable streams
coalescing into rivers which water the valleys and not
inconsiderable plains lying between the hills. Its distance from
the equator gives an unusual lusciousness and variety to the
natural exuberance of the tropics, and the artificial vegetation
was not inferior to the natural. Field upon field, the light
green sugar-cane, low and continually rippled in the breeze,
enclosed the factory and the dwelling houses like a sea; a few
feet above the cane-stalks waved the five-foot leaves of the
banana-trees; near the dwelling-houses, the branches of the palm,
crowning a perfectly rounded and leafless column of 60 or 70
feet, gave forth, like huge feathers, a continuous soothing
murmur; while groups of them in the distance, always visible in
the unclouded tropical air, looked like clusters of giant
umbrellas waiting for the parched and sun-baked traveller.

In the season, mango and orange trees, solitary or in groves,
were a mass of green leaves and red or golden fruit. Thousands of
small, scrupulously tidy coffee-trees rose on the slopes of the
hills, and the abrupt and precipitous mountain-sides were covered
to the summits with the luxuriant tropical undergrowth and
precious hardwood forests of San Domingo. The traveller from
Europe was enchanted at his first glimpse of this paradise, in
which the ordered beauty of agriculture and the prodigality of
Nature competed equally for his surprise and admiration.

But it was monotonous. Year in year out, day after day, it was
the same, a little greener in the wet season, a little browner in
the dry. The wilder scenery was constantly magnificent, but in
the colonist who had seen the same domestic landscape from his
earliest hour, it awakened little response. To the emigrant who
was at first charmed and exhilarated, monotony bred indifference,
which could develop into active dislike, and longing for the
seasons returning with the year.

The climate was harsh, and for the Europeans of the eighteenth
century, without modern knowledge of tropical hygiene, almost
intolerable. The burning sun and humid atmosphere took a heavy
toll on all newcomers, European and African alike. The African
died, but the European ailments were dreaded by the planters
whose knowledge and habits were powerless to combat them. Fever
and dysentery in the hot season; cold, rheumatism, nasal catarrhs
and diarrhoea in the wet; at all times a disinclination for
sustained labor, fostered by the gluttony and lasciviousness bred
by abundance and scores of slaves waiting to perform any duty,
from pulling off shoes to spending the night.

Indulgence had the white colonial in its grip from childhood. "I
want an egg", said a colonial child. "There are none". "Then I
want two". This notorious anecdote was characteristic. To the
unhealthiness of the climate and the indulgence of every wish
were added the open licentiousness and habitual ferocity of his
parents, the degradation of human life which surrounded the child
on every side.

The ignorance inherent in rural life prior to the industrial
revolution was reinforced by the irascibility and the conceit of
isolation allied to undisputed domination over hundreds of human
beings. The plantations were often miles apart and, in those days
of horse-traffic and few or bad roads in a mountainous country,
communication with neighbors was difficult and rare. The planters
hated the life and sought only to make enough money to retire to
France or at least spend a few months in Paris, luxuriating in
the amenities of civilization. With so much to eat and drink,
there was a lavish hospitality which has remained a tradition,
but the majority of the great houses, contrary to the legend,
were poorly furnished, and their owner looked on them as rest-
houses in the intervals of trips to Paris. Seeking to overcome
their abundant leisure and boredom with food, drink, dice and
black women, they had long before 1789 lost the simplicity of
life and rude energy of those nameless men who laid the
foundation of the colony. A manager and an overseer, and the more
intelligent of their slaves, were more than sufficient to run
their plantations. As soon as they could afford it, they left the
island, if possible never to return, though they never formed in
France so rich and powerful a social and political force as the
West Indian interest in England.

The women were subjected to the same evil influences. In the
early years of the colony they had been imported like slaves and
machinery. Most of the first arrivals were the sweepings of the
Paris gutter, bringing to the island "bodies as corrupt as their
manners and serving only to infect the colony." (De Vaissière,
pp. 77-79). Another official, asking for women, begged the
authorities not to send the "ugliest they could find in the
hospitals." As late as 1743, official San Domingo was complaining
that France still sent girls whose "aptitude for generation was
for the most part destroyed by too great usage." Projects for
some educational system never came to fruition. With increasing
wealth the daughters of the richer planters went to Paris where,
after a year or two at a finishing-school, they made
distinguished matches with the impoverished French nobility. But
in the colony they passed their time attiring themselves, singing
stupid songs, and listening to the gossip and adulation of their
slave attendants. Passion was their chief occupation, stimulated
by the over-feeding, idleness, and an undying jealousy of the
black and mulatto women who competed so successfully for the
favours of theirs husbands and lovers.

To the men of diverse races, classes and types who formed the
early population of San Domingo had been added as the years
passed a more unified and cohesive element, the offshoots of the
French aristocracy. Deprived of political power by Richelieu and
converted by Louis XIV into a decorative and administrative
appendage of the absolute monarchy, the younger sons of French
noblemen found in San Domingo some opportunity to rebuild their
shattered fortunes and live the life of the country magnate now
denied  them in France. They came as officers of the army and
officials, and stayed to found fortunes and families. They
commanded the militia, administered a rude justice. Arrogant and
spendthrift, yet they were a valuable section of white San
Domingo society and knit together more firmly a society composed
of such diverse and disintegrating elements. But even their
education, traditions, and pride were not proof against the
prevailing corruption, and one could see a "relation of the de
Vaudreils, a Châteauneuf, or Boucicault, last descendant of the
famous marshal of France, passing his life between a bowl of rum
and a Negro concubine." (De Vaissière, pp. 217) (...)

Such culture as there was centered in [the] towns. In Le Cap,
there were various masonic and other societies, the most famous
of which was the Philadelphia Circle, a body devoting itself to
politics, philosophy and literature. But the chief reading of the
population consisted of lascivious novels. For amusement there
were theatres, not only in Le Cap and Port-au-Prince, but in such
small towns as Léogane and St. Marc, where the melodramas and the
thrillers of the day were played to packed houses. In 1787 there
were three companies in Port-au-Prince alone.

What the towns lacked in intellectual fare, they made up for in
opportunities of debauchery – gambling-dens (for everyone in San
Domingo played and great fortunes were won and lost in a few
days), dance-halls, and private brothels whereby the mulatto
women lived in such comfort and luxury that in 1789, of 7,000
mulatto women in San Domingo, 5,000 were either prostitutes or
the kept mistresses of white men. (...)

In the towns the great merchants and the wealthy agents of the
maritime bourgeoisie were included with the planters as big
whites. On the plantations the managers and the stewards were
either agents of the absentee owner, or were under the eye of the
planter himself and, therefore, subordinate to him. This in the
country, and in the towns the small lawyers, the notaries, the
clerks, the artisans, the grocers, were known as the small
whites. Included among the small whites was a crowd of city
vagabonds, fugitives from justice, escaped galley slaves, debtors
unable to pay their bills, adventurers seeking adventure or quick
fortunes, men of all crimes and all nationalities. From the
underworld of two continents they came, Frenchmen and Spaniards,
Maltese, Italians, Portuguese and Americans. For whatever a man’s
origin, record or character, here his white skin made him a
person of quality and rejected or failures in their own country
flocked to San Domingo, where consideration was achieved at so
cheap a price, money flowed and opportunities of debauchery

No small white was a servant, no white man did any work that he
could get a Negro to do for him. A barber summoned to attend to a
customer appeared in silk attire, hat under his arm, sword at his
side, cane under his elbow, followed by four Negroes. One of them
combed the hair, another dressed it, a third curled it, and the
fourth finished. While they worked the employer presided over the
various operations. At the slightest slackness, at the slightest
mistake, he boxed the cheek of the unfortunate slave so hard that
often he knocked him over. The slave picked himself up without
any sign of resentment, and resumed. The same hand which had
knocked over the slave closed on an enormous fee, and the barber
took his exit with the same insolence and elegance as before.

This was the type for whom race prejudice was more important than
even the possession of slaves, of which they held few. The
distinction between a white man and a man of color was for them
fundamental. It was their all. In defense of it, they would bring
down the whole of their world.

(Next week, “The San Domingo Masses Begin”)

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