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#5021: This Week in Haiti 18:24 8/30/00 (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 30 - September 5, 2000
                          Vol. 18, No. 24


(The last of three parts)

In our final installment of selections from “The Black Jacobins,”
the history of the Haitian revolution by C.L.R. James, we present
his account of the 1791 slave uprising signaled by the famous
vaudou ceremony at Bois Caïman, on the outskirts of today’s Cap
Haïtien. In our first two installments, the reader glimpsed the
realities of the slaves and slave-owners in the French colony of
Saint-Domingue, or San Domingo, as James called it. With the
uprising of Aug. 1791, the French colony, which was already in
turmoil after the French Revolution of 1789, began years of
revolution led by slaves like Toussaint Bréda, who later became
Toussaint Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The struggle
resulted in Haiti’s declaration of independence on Jan. 1, 1804.
This extract comes from the chapter entitled “The San Domingo
Masses Begin.”


The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants
everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors.
But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge
sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer
to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at
the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared
and organized mass movement. By hard experience, they had learned
that isolated efforts were doomed to failure, and in the early
months of 1791 in and around Le Cap, they were organizing for

Voodou was the medium of the conspiracy. In spite of all
prohibitions, the slaves travelled miles to sing and dance and
practice the rites and talk; and now, since the revolution [of
1789 in France], to hear the political news and make their plans.
Boukman, a Papaloi or High Priest, a gigantic Negro, was the
leader. He was headman of a plantation and followed the political
situation both among the whites and among the mulattoes. By the
end of July 1791, the blacks in and around Le Cap were ready and
waiting. The plan was conceived on a massive scale, and they
aimed at exterminating the whites and taking the colony for
themselves. They were perhaps 12,000 slaves in Le Cap, 6,000 of
them men. One night the slaves in the suburbs and outskirts of Le
Cap were to fire the plantations. At this signal the slaves in
the town would massacre the whites and the slaves on the plain
would complete the destruction. They had travelled a long, long
way since the grandiose poisoning schemes of Mackandal.

The plan did not succeed in its entirety. But it very nearly did,
and the scope and organization of this revolt shows Boukman to be
the first of that line of great leaders whom the slaves were to
throw up in such profusion and rapidity during the years which
followed. That so vast a conspiracy was not discovered until it
had actually broken out is a testimony to their solidarity. In
early August the slaves of Limbé, then and to the end of the
revolution one of the storm-centers, rose prematurely and were
crushed. This Limbé rising showed that it was dangerous to delay.
Three days after, representatives from parishes all over the
plain assembled to fix the day. Deputies on their way to Le Cap
for the first session of the Colonial Assembly, to begin on
August 25th, met throngs of slaves on the road who abused and
even attacked them. On August 21st, some prisoners were taken and
de Blanchelande, the Governor, examined them himself the next
day. He did not get much from them, but he understood vaguely
that there was to be some sort of rising. He took precautions to
safeguard the city from the slaves within and he ordered patrols
to cover the outskirts. But these whites despised the slaves too
much to believe them capable of organizing a mass movement on a
grand scale. They could not get from the prisoners the names of
the leaders, and what precautions could they take against the
thousands of slaves on the hundreds of plantations? Some of the
white rabble in Le Cap, always ready for loot and pillage, were
revealed as being connected with a plot of some sort. De
Blanchelande was more concerned about these than about the

On the night of the 22nd, a tropical storm raged, with lighting
and gusts of wind and heavy showers of rain. Carrying torches to
light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space
in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountain overlooking
Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after
Voodou incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig,
he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole, which,
like so much spoken on such occasions, has remained. "The god who
created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and
rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He
sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man
inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good
works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs.
He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the
god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen
to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all."

The symbol of the god of the whites was the cross which, as
Catholics, they wore around their necks.

That very night they began. The slaves of the Gallifet plantation
were so well treated that "happy as the Negroes of Gallifet" was
a slave proverb. Yet by a phenomenon noticed in all revolutions,
it was they who led the way. Each slave-gang murdered its masters
and burned the plantation to the ground. The precautions that de
Blanchelande had taken saved Le Cap, but the preparation [of the
uprising] otherwise had been thorough and complete, and in a few
days one-half of the famous North Plain was a flaming ruin. From
Le Cap the whole horizon was a wall of fire. From this wall
continually rose thick black volumes of smoke, through which came
tongues of flame leaping to the very sky. For nearly three weeks
the people of Le Cap could barely distinguish day from night,
while a rain of burning cane straw, driven before the wind like
flakes of snow, flew over the city and the shipping in the
harbor, threatening both with destruction.

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the
Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their
salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they
knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed
much, it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as
long as these plantations stood, their lot would be to labor on
them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From
their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and, at
the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two
centuries the higher civilization had shown them that power was
used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now
that they held power, they did as they had been taught. In the
frenzy of the first encounters they killed all, yet they spared
the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind
to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations,
violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the
bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers.
"Vengeance! Vengeance!" was their war-cry, and one of them
carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far
more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them.
They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The
cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious
than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at
perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary
passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory, they
spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised
on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained
merciless. They tore out their flesh with red-hot pincers, they
roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of
his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no
single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up
to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract
insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the
thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected.
Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood,
what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the
ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave
prisoners who fell into their hands.

As usual, the strength of the mass movement dragged in its wake
revolutionary sections of those classes nearest to it. Free
blacks joined them. A planter of Port Margot had taught his black
foreman to read and write, had made him free, had left him in his
will 10,000 francs, had given to the foreman's mother land on
which she had made a coffee plantation. But this black raised the
slaves on the plantations of his master and his own mother, set
them on fire, and joined the revolution, which gave him a high

The mulattoes hated the black slaves because they were slaves and
because they were black. But when they actually saw the slaves
taking action on such a grand scale, numbers of young mulattoes
from Le Cap and round about rushed to join the hitherto despised
blacks and fight against the common enemy.

They were fortunate in that the troops in Le Cap were few, and de
Blanchelande, afraid of the slaves and the white rabble in the
town, preferred to act on the defensive. One attack was made by
the regulars, who drove the slaves before them, but de
Blanchelande, yielding to the nervous fears awakened in the city,
recalled the detachment. This left the revolution master of the
countryside. Gaining courage, the blacks extended their
destruction over the plain. If they had had the slightest
material interest in the plantations, they would not have
destroyed so wantonly. But they had none. After a few weeks they
stopped for a moment to organize themselves. It is at this
period, one month after the revolt had begun, that Toussaint
Bréda joined them, and made an unobtrusive entrance into history.

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