FROM THE JAMAICA GLEANER
published: Thursday | July 12, 2007
On July 14, 1789, the commoners of Paris, rebelling against the oppression of royal power, stormed the Bastille, launching the French Revolution. This Saturday marks the 218th anniversary.
Shortly after the storming of the Bastille, feudalism was abolished on August 4, and on August 26, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, some 500,000 humans languished in slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue.
The French Revolution helped to inspire the Haitian which started only three years later in 1791. After 13 years of complicated fighting, a black and free Haitian Republic was established on January 1, 1804.
The Haitian Revolution had tremendous impact on the quest for freedom in the Caribbean and across the Americas. White slaveholding power everywhere feared it; black slaves were inspired by it. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson the principal architect of the Declaration of Independence, which had helped to inspire the French Revolution, refused to support the Haitian Revolution.
Timothy Pickering, who served in the Cabinets of both George Washington and John Adams, wrote to Jefferson enquiring how could he praise the French Revolution and refuse support for the rebels on Saint-Domingue because they were ‘guilty’ of having a “skin not coloured like our own”?
In a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson speculated in trepidation that the insurrectionary violence on Saint-Domingue probably forecast the future in the United States. Too much contact, he feared, might advance that day.
Fight to restore slavery
The British, too, feared the impact of the Haitian Revolution particularly on their neighbouring colony of Jamaica and, in fact, joined in the fight to destroy the Haitian Revolution and to restore slavery there.
Independent Haiti provided a safe haven for slaves escaping within its borders. Under the Haitian Consti-tution, Article 44, all people who were black that step foot onto Haitian soil were considered Haitian and therefore protected by the constitution.
One famous case involving Jamaican slaves occurred in 1817. In January 1817 James M’Kewan took a group of his slaves on an expedition to the east end of the island where they would supply other vessels with goods.
The black crew was separated from the owner during the task and when the owner signalled to three of the slaves to fetch a boat so that he could get on board, they ignored his signal and sailed to Haiti leaving the owner stranded.
M’Kewan went to Haiti in search of his slaves, and when he could not find the slaves, he went to President Petion to personally demand the restitution of his property. Petion rebuffed the request pointing out, that under Haitian law, the slaves were no longer slaves but were citizens of Haiti.
English law, in fact, had an article quite similar to article 44 in the Haitian Constitution. On April 10, 1817, a note was written to the admiralty in Jamaica stating that “the laws of Hayti [sic] much resemble those of Great-Britain, so far as not to permit persons, who have once landed in that island, to be considered or treated as slaves”. The arrival of the Haitian boat people here takes on such poignant significance in light of this bit of history.
The success of Haitian blacks played a significant part in the movement for independence in the Spanish colonies of South America. The successful Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela had Haitian support. Not only were the Venezuela revolutionaries inspired by the Haitian Revolution, but Haiti supplied troops and financial support despite its own economic distresses from the Revolution, much as Cuba would do in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa a century and a half later. Bolivar found sanctuary in Haiti [as he did in Jamaica].
Martin Henry is a communication consultant.