I would argue that in your incarceration, in the imprisonment of a man who believed in the Revolution and in preserving a civilization link with France, lay a seed – a nebulous but poignant seed – of the theatre of the absurd which was to become one of the main literary movements in the French and European imagination. One may say, I would argue, that the theatre of the absurd has its uncertain roots in the consequences of the debacle of the French Revolution as much as in the consequences of the debacle of the Russian Revolution. Napoleon played his absurd, heroic/anti-heroic role that inspired Dostoevsky to create a Raskolnikov. The assassinated Trotsky played his role. So did the Emperor Dessalines who was assassinated in the wake of Haitian Independence. White and black players in the theatre of the absurd!
– pg. 416, GREAT BLACK LEADERS: ancient and modern, edited by Ivan Van Sertima: (An Open Letter to Toussaint L’Ouverture of the San Domingo Revolution, by Wilson Harris)
For the last 48 years at Kremandala we have been stewards of a process which has sought to enlighten the Belizean people about important and relevant issues. We did not think that 48 years after the establishment of this newspaper, the education system of this country would be as backward and repressive as it is. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, with minority support from the Belizean people, Kremandala has sustained a process which allows for the airing and discussion of, yes, important and relevant issues.
In the two twentieth century world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), the British and the French were allies, but for all the nine centuries before that, leading up to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British and the French were, most often, blood enemies. A mere twenty six miles of the English Channel separated the British island from the French European mainland, but those twenty six miles probably saved Britain from Napoleon’s France.
In the English language which is official in Belize because we were “British subjects” for much of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, we often refer to an unfortunate setback as a case of someone “meeting his Waterloo.” Well, Napoleon Bonaparte was such a military colossus bestriding Europe between 1796 and 1815 that when he was finally beaten in a decisive manner at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, the result of this battle was so important it became a permanent part of the English language. Napoleon, we say, met his Waterloo.
Napoleon had been beaten before Waterloo, and two of those defeats changed history. In 1802, he had sent his brother-in-law to take back Haiti from Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian Revolution, and as a result of France’s failure in Haiti, Napoleon resolved to sell his nation’s largest Western Hemisphere possession, the so-called Louisiana Territory, to the then fledgling United States of America, which had been born in 1776 with help from the pre-revolutionary France in a fight for independence from, yes, the British. The Louisiana Territory, 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River sold by Napoleon to Thomas Jefferson in 1803, constitutes two fifths of the continental United States. In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, and the Russian winter taught him a horrible lesson from which Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, did not learn. In 1941, Hitler famously repeated Napoleon’s great mistake of 1812.
Who was Napoleon Bonaparte and from whence did he originate? As British subjects, we were never taught anything much about Napoleon, as we were never taught anything much about the French Revolution. This Friday, July 14, 2017 marks the 228th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris by the French masses. This was the beginning of the French Revolution, which led to years of murderous bloodshed in France during which the oppressed French masses took revenge on the upper classes which had crushed and reviled them. In a symbolic sense, the murderous bloodshed culminated with the guillotining of the French king, Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, in 1793, but the violent instability in France continued until a Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, emerged as a French military hero in 1796 and a French military strongman in 1799. He crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804.
By the time Napoleon rose to military prominence in France in 1796, Toussaint L’Ouverture, who is sometimes referred to as “The Black Napoleon,” already was the military powerhouse in Haiti. He had led the Haitian slaves to freedom in the only successful slave revolt in history. The Haitian Revolution began in 1791 as an unintended, indirect consequence of the French Revolution two years earlier. When the French masses stormed the Bastille in 1789, they declared “Liberty, equality, and fraternity.” But France owned a slave colony they called San Domingue (Haiti), the richest possession in their empire. The revolution in metropolitan France sparked agitation on the part of Haitian mulattos for the said “liberty, equality, and fraternity” for themselves. That agitation created socio-political conditions in Haiti which provided the opportunity for the uprising by Haiti’s slaves.
England, arguably, had never been as decadent as France had become under the Bourbon kings in the eighteenth century. Perhaps Oliver Cromwell had put a stop to England’s slide to decadence when he beheaded Charles I in 1649. Whatever the case, the French monarchy and nobility against which the masses rose in 1789 had been riding roughshod over a society in which the oppressed French masses had no rights as human beings. The Church in France collaborated fully with the scornful, decadent monarchy and noble class.
When one compares the French Revolution of 1789 with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949, even with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, one is struck by the relative spontaneity and ferocity of the storming of the Bastille. Charles Dickens’ TALE OF TWO CITIES, one of the greatest novels ever written, gives one a sense of the instability and terror in the streets of Paris in the months and years after the Bastille. There is an Arab proverb which says that sixty years of tyranny are preferable to one day of anarchy. In France, a kind of anarchy followed the storming of the Bastille, and eventually that anarchy allowed the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who ended up consolidating his own brand of French tyranny.
On this 228th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, it would be good for Belizeans to learn what we can of what happened in Paris that day, not only because the story of the Bastille is historic in and of itself, but because it has a connection with the Haitian Revolution.
We have said to you in these pages over many years that it is impossible to cast the Battle of St. George’s Caye as any kind of liberation narrative where the African and Mayan masses of the Belizean people are concerned. You want to have a party in connection with Centenary? Fine. But, no revolution, no real change took place in the settlement of Belize in September of 1798. Many, many years after the Battle of St. George’s Caye, there were people here who used the Battle narrative to encourage a pro-colonial atmosphere. We Belizeans have to move past that. The Guatemalan threat to our national existence demands a more revolutionary kind of thinking.
In September of 1798, incidentally, the most powerful man in this Caribbean region was a black man – Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti. But, in those days of sailing ships, Haiti was several weeks away from Belize. Haiti was in another world. Today, in this age of instant communication and jet travel, Haiti may be even more distant from Belize than it was in 1798. We speak in a metaphysical, or metaphorical, sense. Belize has a black government which holds African history in contempt. More than that, we Belizeans hold Haitian history in contempt. This is because we have not been properly educated. What this newspaper began saying in 1969, we continue to say today:
Power to the people.