BATTLE OF VERTIÈRES: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN THE LIBERATION STRUGGLE OF THE CARIBBEAN AND AFRICA

PANEL DISCUSSION organized by the Dominica National Reparations Committee in association with the International Office for Migration (IOM/Dominica)

Dorbrene E. O’Marde
Chair / Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission

Madame Moderator…Mrs Sonia Akpa…I bring fraternal greetings from the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission to you and Hon Edward Registe, Minister of State in the Dominica Government; Ms Benita Salomon, Representative of the Association of Haitians Integrated in Dominica; Ms Natasha Greaves, Head of Office of the IOM, Dominica; feature speaker Ms Ezili Danto; the members of the Dominica National Reparations Committee ably led by my CARICOM Reparations Commission colleague, Dr. Damien Dublin who has stationed me on this hot seat – and importantly to your television and facebook audiences.

The panel discussion is entitled ‘Battle of Vertières: Its significance in the liberation struggle of the Caribbean and Africa’.

Madame Moderator, I hope you forgive me for widening the discussion in at least two ways….first I see the Battle of Vertières as a high point of a struggle for freedom that started since the first African was kidnapped from the shores of West Africa, enchained and subsequently enslaved on Haitian shores.

Secondly…I would like to assess in brief the contribution of that struggle in Haiti to the Americas – all three of them. There is evidence of the participation in the North America Independence wars – that predated the Battle of Vertieres – of a battalion of ‘more than 500 Haitian gens de couleur libre (free men of color) which joined American colonists and French troops’ . This is clearly an indication to me that the quest for freedom from enslavement and the colonial yoke was vibrant enough in Haiti even before the revolution that it could be exported to other colonies where it could both find common ground and ferment revolution. The leaders of the three largest subsequent so-called slave revolts in North America – Gabriel Prosser (1800), Nat Turner (1822) and Denmark Vessey (1831) were inspired by the success of the Haitian revolution.

The Haitian major contributions – physical, human and ideological to the wars of Independence that took place in Central and South America between 1808 and 1826 where Spain lost all her colonies in the Americas except Cuba and Puerto Rico – is remarkable.

Venezuela perhaps is the most obvious case. General Andre Pétion, the President of the Republic of Haiti (1807-1818) is revered as the father of the Pan American movement . His support for the liberator Simon Bolivar through the provision of weapons, ammunitions and Haitian freedom fighters required two conditions that were demonstrative of his and the Haitian government’s rigid anti-slavery positions in the hemisphere. They were that – i) Bolívar agrees to abolish slavery in independent Venezuela, as well as any of the future liberated countries in South America and ii) that any slaves seized by privateers be sent to Haiti to be freed. Critical note must be taken of Article 44 of the 1805 Haitian Independence constitution that asserted ‘that any black person or indigenous native who arrived on the shores of Haiti would be immediately declare free and a citizen of the republic’. Captains of slave ships were offered the purchase of their ‘cargo’ – to be freed. Records will show that thousands of Africans reached the shores of Haiti from slave ships, from the USA, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Historian Ada Ferrer notes , Pétion’s aid to Bolívar and to the founding of another country free from slavery, show the Haitian leader’s desire to “extend the geographic space of liberty” not only into South America, but into Caribbean and Atlantic waters. Bolivar went forward to defeat the Spanish Imperial Army and proclaim independence for Colombia (1819) and then Venezuela (1821) and then Ecuador (1822) and onwards to Peru .

The referenced period of the Haitian revolution essentially started in 1791 when the enslaved waged a major war against enslavement – a war for freedom and liberty – torching plantations and massacring plantocrats and enslavers they could get hold of. Three years later the supposed revolutionary French government abolished slavery throughout its empire.

I think it is important for us to note that the struggle for freedom from enslavement did not happen only in Haiti although the Christmas Day rebellion of 1522 is among the first recorded revolt of the enslaved in our region.

A quick review of the record will show rebellions in Brazil, Panama and Colombia. There was a major one in the small island of St. John in 1733, in what was then the Danish West Indies. This rebellion is one of the earliest and longest lasting slave rebellions in the Americas – where enslaved held the island for about six months before a combination of Danish and French forces routed them. Our history of rebellion against enslavement includes the Maroon wars in Jamaica in the 1730s and the Tacky war of 1760. Here in Antigua we record the rebellion led by national hero King Court of 1736. In Dominica there was the Colihault Uprising; In Saint Lucia, the Bush War; In the Saint Vincent islands the Second Carib War broke out; In Grenada there was the Fedon Rebellion; Curaçao had a slave revolt in 1795. National hero Cuffy led the Berbice slave revolt in Guyana in 1763. There were constant guerrilla wars in Suriname between 1765 and 1793.

The point I make is that the quest for freedom, the quest for repatriation and reparations was never abandoned by African people enslaved here in the region and elsewhere. This is particularly important for us in the reparations movement as we counter the claim of the descendants of European enslavers who invoke the legal doctrine of laches which claims that ‘equity aids the vigilant, not those who slumber on their rights.’ – suggesting that there has been a long delay in making a legal claim for reparations and that this delay is prejudicial to our CARICOM claim. On the contrary we in the CRC hold that every challenge by our ancestors to overthrow the burden of transatlantic slavery was an attempt to win reparations, to win the right to return to the Africa homeland, to reassume their historical place in the human race. I hope I get an opportunity on this panel to enter more in the discussion of reparations.

The Battle of Vertières ended on November 18 1803. It was the final engagement between Haiti’s revolutionaries led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion and Napoleon’s French forces led by the butcher General Rochambeau. It took place south of Le Cap where the Haitians ultimately defeated the French troops. It marked the first time in the history of mankind that an army of the enslaved led a successful revolution for their freedom. Before going further, it is important that we understand the motivation of those who waged war against the Haitians.

Napoleon Bonaparte is considered by many as a son of the European Enlightenment that precipitated the French Revolution of 1789 and which promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen – a major advance in human rights recognition at the time. Let’s hear him – Napoleon – on his dispatch of troops to fight the battle: ‘My decision to destroy the authority of Haiti is not so much based on considerations of commerce or money, as on the need to block forever the march of Blacks in the world’ – revealing the inherent genocidal nature of this enlightened European, that of the transatlantic slave trade and specifically the genocidal intentions of the French republic.

We must remember that in 1802 the same Napoleon re-established slavery in France’s colonies of Martinique, Tobago, and Sainte-Lucie and his word that the horrible institution would not be re-established in Haiti was not believed. He had made a similar promise to Martinique. Here we can identify the major importance of the Battle of Vertieres and the fears that drove Africans to defeat one considered as one of the finest generals of war produced by Europe.

Nothing about the physical battle surprises me – not the superior warfare tactics of the freedom fighters, not their knowledge of the physical environment and not the power of the human spirit for freedom, liberty and independence. What surprised me however were the details of the peace treaty signed between Haiti and representatives of the supposed enlightened republic of France – led by one General Rochambeau, Commander-in-Chief of the French army, described as ‘a hard-hearted slaveholder, who treated the coloured men as the worst of barbarians and wild beasts…subjecting them to the most excruciating tortures and the most horrible deaths’

Yet the Treaty includes the enlightenment of the value of freedom and human life – even that of your most ferocious enemy.
• All the ships of war and other vessels which shall be judged necessary by General Rochambeau for the removal of the troops and inhabitants, and for the evacuation of the place, shall be free to depart on the day appointed.
• All the officers, military and civil, and the troops composing the garrison of the Cape, shall leave the town with all the honors of war, carrying with them their arms and all the private property belonging to their demi-brigades.
• The sick and wounded who shall not be in a condition to embark shall be taken care of in the hospitals until their recovery. They are specially recommended to the humanity of General Dessalines.

Victory allowed the proclamation of INDEPENDENCE on January 1 1804 making Haiti the first postcolonial sovereign state in Latin America and the first to stage a successful revolution against a European empire. It stopped the furtherance of the envisaged genocide and expansion of French colonialism not only in the Caribbean but in the USA. France immediately sold Louisiana and although it happened decades later the uprisings of the enslaved and the strength of the anti-slavery campaign forced a second emancipation in the newly re-enslaved French territories in 1848.

The success of the Haitian Revolution triggered important changes in the colonial slave-owning Europe. A UNESCO Report of 1978 assets ‘The Haitian Revolution spread terror in the slave-trading colonies and metropolitan countries and slaves regarded it as symbolic’ . It might not necessarily be the only contributing factor but it served as an example for many other national liberation movements, especially those in Latin America. Three years later in 1807 the European Trade in Enslaved Africans was abolished and thirty years after in 1834, the Enslavement of Africans in the British colonies was ended – with qualifications such as apprenticeship and the continuation of colonial rule.

In summary I quote from Theophilus G. Steward’s ‘The Message of San Domingo to the African Race’: “The mention of that name, San Domingo calls up the recollection of one of the finest colonies, of one of the noblest struggles for liberty, of one of the grandest men, and of one of the foulest deeds in the history of revolutionary France. The great Frederick Douglass said in 1894: ‘I can speak of her, not only words of admiration, but words of gratitude as well. She has grandly served the cause of universal human liberty. We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons, of Haiti ninety years ago. When they struck for freedom, they builded better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world’.

I would like to leap to the end of the nineteenth century and resume the analysis of the contributions of Haiti that took place thereafter. The country – after 1804 – was preoccupied with the aggression of France, its European Allies and the USA. I will revisit this scenario later but will mention here that one of the internal challenges facing what was essentially a military government was the difficulty of moulding fourteen groups of descendants from the mother country – each with peculiar socio-economic histories – into ‘a people’.

CLR James suggests that in addition – the leadership of Haiti intelligentsia ‘tried for nearly a hundred years to build a model of French civilization and culture in the West Indies’ . Admittedly CLR suggests – they failed to do so and ‘they then turned back home’. What they found and built up was the African heritage which the Haitian peasant more than all others in the West Indies had preserved’ . There was no systematic concentration and focus on Africa before this reversal of thinking and direction

The movement ’to turn back home’ was led by Haitian Jean Price-Mars, a physician, a world class sociologist, a member of the diplomatic corps who on study in Paris rubbed shoulders with Léopold Senghor, who became the first president of Senegal and with Martiniquan poet Aime Cesaire and initiated the concepts of Negritude which along with those of Pan Africanism eventually brought the continent of Africa back to the world stage in the twentieth century. The major contributors to this re-centering of Africa include Edward Wilmot Blyden born in St. Thomas/Virgin Islands, Jamaican Marcus Garvey and George Padmore, Trinidadian born. The first Pan African Congress held in 1901 was organized by Henry Sylvester Williams who had in 1897 formed the African Association ‘to challenge paternalism, racism and imperialism and to ‘promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent…’

CLR alerts us to the profoundly remarkable fact and I quote again ‘the recognition of Africanism, the agitation for the recognition of Africa, the literary creation of an African ideology, one powerful sphere of African Independence – all were directly the creation of West Indians’ and Haitian Jean Price-Mars can be labelled as one of the fathers of this movement.

That first Pan African Congress brought together about fifty delegates and observers from Africa, the West Indies, the US and the UK and issued an appeal to European leaders ‘to struggle against racism, to grant colonies in Africa and the West Indies the right to self-government’.

The movement was furthered by our novelists George Lamming, Sam Selvon and Vidia Naipaul and later by Derek Walcott who all found in the region and expounded on the wisdom of the Caribbean peasant and ordinary man. Lamming in his ‘Pleasures of Exile’ asserts that ‘the West Indian novel had restored the West Indian peasant to his original status of personality’ . This concentration of the Caribbean African knowledge of western thought, expression and organization at home and on the continent Africa contributed in no small way to the independence struggles here and there and eventually on the liberation struggles that ensued.

Madame Moderator, I am unsure of my time but permit to end with a brief look at the reparations claim from Haiti to France that is fully supported by the CARICOM Reparations Commission.

Subsequent to its declaration of independence, Haiti was seized upon by France and its allies – especially the United States. They never recognized her independence, did not accept emissaries and embassies and essentially barred her from participation in internationally beneficial routine activities. In 1825, what must be deemed as extortion, France demanded reparations payments from Haiti – not only payment for its supposedly ‘seized’ property, to include the enslaved – but to establish immunity from military invasion and/or blockade and as relief from the economic and political isolation. The demand was for one hundred and fifty (150) million gold francs, the equivalent of France’s annual budget at the time, valued today as twenty-one billion US dollars.

Professor Hilary Beckles, as usual is abundantly clear: ‘The French government bled the nation and rendered it a failed State’. It was a merciless exploitation that was designed and guaranteed to collapse the Haitian economy and society….During the long 19th century, the payment to France amounted up to 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Haiti was crushed by this debt payment. It descended into financial and social chaos. Haitian governments borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate in order to repay the French government…Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth’ .

In 2003, Jean Bertrand Aristide, then President of Haiti called an international conference to relook the illegal extortion of France on his country and formalize a restitution claim. A month later he was kidnapped by a combination of USA and French efforts in a criminal enterprise dubbed ‘Operation Bonaparte-Operation Rochambeau’ in honour in the butchers who had planned African genocide and exiled in Gabon.

His actions have offered the Governments of CARICOM an example of the dos-and-don’ts in their own pursuit of reparations from the enslaver nations. They have issued instructions in their 10 Point Plan for Reparatory Justice for the CARICOM Reparations Commission to ‘assume the responsibility for the preparation and presentation of the legal case for Reparations and highlight the special case of Reparations for Haiti’.

I give Frederick Douglass the last say ‘…with all her faults, you and I and all of us have reason to respect Haiti for her services to the cause of liberty and human equality throughout the world, and for the noble qualities she exhibited in all the trying conditions of her early history’. That has not changed.

Madame Chairperson, I thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts with your audience.

Dorbrene E. O’Marde
Chair/Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission
Vice-chair. CARICOM Reparations Commission
November 18th 2020

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