A thousand years ago, Great Britain, France, and Germany were not nation-states as such, but rather they were territories where various barbarian tribes roamed. Monarchies emerged in England and in France, and these monarchies began to wage wars against each other. The monarchies consisted of kings, supported by so-called nobles and high-ranking bishops and clerics.
England and France are separated by a mere twenty-six miles of the English Channel, and although both the English and the French peoples paid religious allegiance to the Pope of Rome until things changed in the sixteenth century, these were the two peoples whose wars against each other were for the centuries before that the most important conflicts in the European sphere of things.
In both the world wars of the twentieth century, however, the British and the French were allies against the Germans. When it was exactly that the twentieth century Germany we saw had emerged out of their collection of barbarian tribes, I cannot say.
As a “British subject” attending high school and sixth form in British Honduras, I was taught mostly British, and some European, history. The traditional enemies of the British, who were my colonial masters, were first the French, and then, beginning in the sixteenth century, the Spanish.
Creole students in Belize in my time did not appreciate the huge importance of foreign language studies. As the majority of the population back then in an English-speaking territory, most of us Creoles considered it a bother when we were compelled to learn Spanish in high school. The Spanish language having become much more functionally important in Belize today, I assume the attitude of Creole students has become less negative where the learning of Spanish is concerned.
In any case, when you are seeking a first degree in American universities, it is mandatory to satisfy what they call a “foreign language requirement.” In the United States, my impression was that most of their university students do French, as opposed to Spanish, to satisfy their foreign language requirement. French is big in the American university system because it is considered the “language of diplomacy,” and perhaps also because the French were the most important allies of the early Americans when they declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and waged war against the British to confirm and consolidate that independence.
Before I proceed, let me say that I satisfied my personal foreign language requirement in America by continuing the study of the Spanish I had begun learning in high school and sixth form between 1959 and 1965. I never learned any French. For that reason, I will immediately concede that I consider the lady Sandra Coye my academic superior: Sandra is fabulously proficient in both Spanish and French. I envy her.
For me, the most important event ever in Europe’s history was the French Revolution, which began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 – 225 years ago. For me, again, the most important event in Caribbean history was the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791 and would not have taken place had it not been for the French Revolution two years before.
As a British subject, my first glimpse of the French Revolution was through the eyes of the famous English novelist, Charles Dickens. I suppose I would have read his classic, A tale of two cities, while in high school here. As time went on, I would have read Dickens’ classic again, and I would have seen movies made from the book (Dirk Bogarde was always one of my favorite actors). But, it would only have been over a period of decades that I would have gotten, through various essays, articles and books, a solid sense of the French Revolution. I never sat in a classroom and learned about the French Revolution. I’d never studied the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, who emerged as the French emperor out of the French Revolution and whose absolute dominance of Europe resulted in mighty Spain’s losing control of her colonial possessions in Central and South America at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
On July 14, 1789, the downtrodden masses of the French people in Paris stormed the Bastille, a fortress which served as a prison for all the king’s prisoners, murdered the guards and soldiers and freed all the prisoners. They imprisoned the king and his queen, declaring their adherence to certain principles we now hold to be democratic – “liberty, equality and fraternity.” They established popular assemblies to govern France. Years of instability followed, during which the king and his queen and thousands of their nobles were guillotined. Napoleon Bonaparte, a corporal in the French Army, began becoming a force in the latter part of the 1790s.
When Napoleon became the strongman of France, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former Haitian slave, had already defeated French, Spanish and British armies and had become the most powerful man in the Caribbean. Haiti, known to its French rulers as “San Domingue,” was the richest colony in the world because of sugar cane cultivation and processing. A mulatto class existed in Haiti which sought increased rights in the popular assemblies in France after “liberty, equality, and fraternity” were declared. The agitation by the Haitian mulattos and their violent disputes with the white French in Haiti provided the opportunity for the black Haitian slaves to begin their rebellion in 1791. Out of that rebellion, the brilliant Toussaint entered history. But, if you were a British subject in Belize, like myself, you would live and die and never know anything about Toussaint.
Napoleon Bonaparte took power in revolutionary French through a coup d’état in 1799. It did not matter to him that Toussaint revered the French people and cherished the ideals of the French Revolution. In Napoleon’s racist eyes, Toussaint was a black man who had gotten too big and had to be humbled. In 1802, Napoleon sent a French army, led by his brother-in-law, to read Toussaint the riot act. Toussaint really didn’t want to fight the French again, because he believed Haiti would have suffered irreparable damage. In his hesitation, Toussaint lost the support of the 500,000 black Haitians who had fought to be free from slavery. The French imprisoned Toussaint and sent him back to France to die in chains. Black Haitians found comfort in the “total war” leadership of Dessalines: they did not care what happened afterwards. All they knew was that they wanted to continue being free. And, so they did, defeating the French and consolidating the only successful slave rebellion in history.
Incidentally, in 1798 when a Spanish force tried to invade Belize, there were a group of Haitian soldiers and their families living in a village called San Fernando Aké near the northern coast of the Yucatán. These were Haitians who had sided with the Spanish, on the eastern side of Hispaniola, in the Spanish fight against the triumphant Toussaint. In 1797, the Spanish king sent his Haitian loyalists to live in exile in various parts of his dominions, including Spain itself, Florida, and the aforementioned Yucatán. The likelihood is pretty high, I think, that San Fernando Aké Haitians would have been recruited by Arturo O’Neil in Mérida for his unsuccessful 1798 maritime invasion of the settlement of Belize.