John Maxwell, who writes a column for the Jamaica Observer called “Common Sense,” has a way of hitting nails directly on the head. He reminds us of things we should never forget. He leads us down paths we might never choose. He reveals connections we thought didn’t exist. Most of all, for me, he NEVER forgets Ayiti.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Christmas in Jamaica is bad enough. One good thing about Christmas Day is that it means the end of weeks of aural assaults by mindless rhymesters perverting songs of worship to paeans of praise for hucksters of all kinds, from shopkeepers to banks, from auto-parts dealers to purveyors of cheap, non-returnable, eminently breakable, non-biodegradable trash tricked out in plastic, tinsel and lead paint to lure innocent children and entrap their parents.
And, as a bonus, there are the sound-system parties, which allow you to dance in your own home to music played two miles away.
AN ALTERNATIVE SCENARIO
If you think this is bad, consider another scenario.
Consider that you are a citizen of another land, one steeped in history – a history of resistance to oppression, a history that includes the first proclamation on earth that all people were equal, including women and children.
This land, which for convenience we’ll call Ayiti, was introduced to Christianity by a bunch of marauding savages bearing swords and caparisoned in the fierce colours of their leader, a Genoese adventurer named Cristobal Colon, aka Christopher Columbus. This character had induced Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the monarchs of two Spanish kingdoms – Aragon and Castile – to bet their farms on the discovery of a new route to China, then as now, the fabulous land of magical herbs, spices and other goods, which would make life bearable for the inhabitants of Europe, just emerging from the Dark Ages.
Our hero had managed to convince Ferdinand and Isabella, on the basis of a map obtained from an African who claimed to know the way to China aka Cipangu. If the Spanish got to Cipangu before their European cousins, great wealth and power would be theirs; all the tea in China would be theirs for the asking, in addition to carpets, silks and luxuries only dreamt of in Europe.
When Columbus’ “doom-burdened caravels” hove to in Ayiti, the million or so people who welcomed him could never have guessed that they would soon be history.
Within 30 years, the populations of the West Indies had been so reduced that in the four larger islands, now re-christened the Greater Antilles, less than a thousand remained alive in 1519. This is according to the testimony of Bartolomeo de las Casas, a Spanish monk who came with the conquistadors and was an eyewitness to the conquest. Another historian, Gonzalo Oviedo, estimated that of the one million Indians on Ayiti when the Spaniards arrived, less than 500 remained half a century later- the “natives and . the progeny and lineage ” of those who first occupied the land.
‘They died in heaps, like bedbugs .’
In the Caribbean and in Mexico, Peru and Colombia, smallpox and other diseases introduced by the Spaniards killed the ‘Indians’ by the million. Relatively small Spanish expeditions were able to conquer huge empires because the native populations were swept away by diseases, to which they had never been exposed and for which they had no immunity.
Toribio Motolina, another Spanish priest, wrote that in most provinces in Mexico “more than one-half the population died; in others the proportion was a little less; they died in heaps, like bedbugs.”
More than 100 years after Motolina, a German missionary writing in 1699, said the so-called Indians “die so easily that the bare look and smell of a Spaniard causes them to give up the ghost.”
The destruction of the ‘American Indian’ populations and cultures has meant an incalculable loss to human ethnic and cultural diversity. It was they who gave us words like barbecue, canoe, hammock, and hurricane, and crops like corn, potatoes, cassava, and tomatoes.
The people of ancient Egypt, the pyramid builders seem very far away in time; the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, and Incas, who also built pyramids and played games very much like basketball, soccer and Jai alai, seem much closer.
To Jamaicans and people of the Caribbean, the sense of loss is almost palpable in relation to the lost civilisations of Africa, destroyed by the slave trade, which, like globalisation, set brother against brother, tribe against tribe and nation against nation.
Africa was targeted because the Europeans knew that their own people could not survive for long in the hot, humid, mosquito-ridden Indies and that sugar, replacing gold as the commodity most likely to make men rich, was too hard a work for them.
Turning to Africa meant the devastation of many ancient civilisations – many disappearing almost without trace, further impoverishing mankind’s cultural diversity and robbing Africa of the populations and skills it needed for its own development.
Although the Europeans found large quantities of gold, silver and copper in the ‘New World’, gold was never as lucrative as sugar and the cotton and rubber extracted from the plantations of the Americas. And nothing was as lucrative as the slave trade.
As Sybille Fischer remarks in her book Modernity Disavowed: “Colonialism in the Caribbean had produced societies where brutality combined with licentiousness in ways unknown in Europe.
The sugar plantations in the New World were expanding rapidly and had an apparently limitless hunger for slaves.”
‘A WRETCH LIKE ME!’
One of the modern Jamaicans’ favourite hymns at funerals is Amazing Grace penned by a slave trader after he retired from the trade, rich and comfortable. It was his way of atoning for his crimes, and perhaps, of saying thanks to God.
Nothing can atone for the misery and degradation imposed on the 25 million or more people transported into slavery or the millions more slaughtered when they fought to avoid capture. Nothing can atone for 500 years of racist victimisation, nor the 500 years of brutality and dangerous behaviours, beaten, inculcated and burned into the psyches of the enslaved and their descendants.
The inhabitants of Ayiti, now almost all African, like the people of all the enslaved islands and lands of the Americas, were engaged in an unending struggle to destroy slavery.
In Suriname, in Barbados, and Grenada, in the United States of America, in Nicaragua and in the Caribbean the slaves rose time after time to break their chains.
In Jamaica, they had some success. The Maroons fought the much better armed British to a standstill and wrested from them a treaty of non-aggression and non-interference in 1739. It was a treaty soon broken by the British.
Desperation and the will to be free fuelled the Tacky rebellion of 1760. This rebellion dwarfed the Maroon Wars and was an islandwide conspiracy, which lasted six months. The aims of the leaders included driving out the white population, and partitioning Jamaica into principalities in the tradition of the Akan-speaking Koromanti who were at the heart of the rebellion.
One of them, a man called Bouckman, fled to Ayiti when the rebellion was finally crushed. There, in Ayiti, he ignited a struggle for freedom, which ended with the expulsion of the last foreign soldiers from Ayisien soil.
In 1804, after 10 years of warfare, the rebel slaves and their free allies defeated the armies of Napoleon (twice), and of Britain and Spain. Dessalines declared Ayiti independent and free and declared the country a refuge from slavery anywhere.
He also pronounced the first known declaration of universal human rights, giving legal equality to all human beings, men, women, and children.
It was 144 years later, in 1948, that the world caught up with Ayiti in producing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Next December 10, almost exactly a year from now, the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations proclamation of the Universal Declaration.
The preamble to the Declaration is not very well known. It goes like this:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts, which have outraged the conscience of mankind;
And the advent of a world, in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realisation of this pledge,
“Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”
The declaration then proceeds to list the basic principles of the declaration beginning with Article 1, which says that:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
And it continues to explain in Article 2 that
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty”.
The declaration is intended to be universal, as was Dessalines’ declaration in 1804. Unfortunately, for us there are billions of people in this world including many in this country, who do not enjoy all the benefits of this universal declaration.
But some are much worse off than others. Among those are the people of Iraq, of Palestine, and right next door to us, the people of Ayiti, that imaginary place where slavery was abolished by the slaves themselves.
In Ayiti, aka Haiti, these rights, and the Universal Declaration do not apply.
Rather like the captured Islamists in neighbouring Guantanamo Bay, a little to their northwest, the Haitians, all 8 million of them, live in a concentration camp.
The Haitian version is designed to stifle their freedoms and liberties and engineered to prevent them from being led by leaders of their own choice.
Nearly four years after US Marines landed there for the third time in 100 years, the freely elected president of Ayiti is an exile in South Africa.
He was kidnapped from the presidential palace by US Marines led by the US Ambassador to Haiti and transported, as “cargo” with his family to the Central African Republic – the American idea of hell on earth. From there he was rescued in a mission led by the black US congresswoman Maxine Waters and TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson.
They chartered a plane and headed off to the Central African Republic themselves to bring President Aristide and his wife Mildred and their two daughters back to the Caribbean. It took them hours of negotiating with the country’s dictator to get him to release the Aristides.
President Aristide came to Jamaica where the government felt constrained by tradition and popular sentiment, to welcome him, but found itself unable to resist US pressure to get him out of the Caribbean.
Aristide’s sin was to want to fulfil the mission of his ancestors, to build a paradise on the dungheap left behind by Haiti’s colonisers and exploiters.
Nearly four years later a Haitian president is in office, but Aristide’s and his people’s enemies are in power.
The country is ruled by the US Ambassador, and is policed by a so-called United Nations force – MINUSTAH whose second commander, a Brazilian general, killed himself after a friendly chat with leaders of the Haitian elite.
MINUSTAH’s only distinctions are killing a large number of women and children in their pursuit of so-called bandits who seem to be mainly pro-Aristide youth, and the rape and other sexual abuse of young Haitian children, some as young as ten.
A DREAD OF BLACK FREEDOM
From the earliest days as an independent nation, the Americans have feared and dreaded Haiti. As an asylum for escaped slaves, it threatened the slave system in the American south. And after France extorted billions of dollars in gold from Haiti in ‘compensation’ for the loss of capital (slaves) and land, in Haiti, the US lent money to the Haitians to pay the debt and ruined them with the interest.
As I have said before: while arms never subdued Haiti, it was defeated by the power of financiers in a sinister preview of the modern tactics of the IMF and the World Bank.
Despite all the harassment, the 10,000 murders of activists and leaders, the Haitian people, united in the Fanmi Lavalas, have continued to support their leaders and their culture. A few months ago, one of their leaders, Dr Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, was kidnapped after a meeting with some Americans. He has not been heard from since. A few weeks later another leader, Dr Marlyse Narcisse, was kidnapped but released when there was a tremendous howl of Haitian and international outrage that apparently embarrassed the powers that rule Haiti. And so, the Haitians survive, without rights, at the mercy of a United Nations corrupted and intimidated by the power of the United States, Canada, and France acting in concert.
The United States, Canada, France, and Haiti all signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
They all agreed that “. disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts, which have outraged the conscience of mankind”, and they promised to make the world a more civilised place.
The spectacle of these three self-styled democracies combining to crush the rights and hopes of eight million poor people is obscene, but perhaps not as revolting as the fact that Haiti’s relatives and friends in the Caribbean, Jamaica and the others, but especially Jamaica, can sit and watch the Haitians’ sojourn in hell as if they were watching a Disney fantasia or a Christmas pantomime.
Copyright©2007 John Maxwell