When C. L. R. James wrote his masterpiece, THE BLACK JACOBINS, back in 1938, the book being a history of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), he made no mention of what happened after the Haitian slaves won their freedom from French slave owners through violent revolution and declared their freedom and republican status in 1804.
We who are of any kind of African ancestry have always had Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, thrown in our faces as an example of how incompetent we are — unable to govern ourselves and achieve any kind of basic prosperity. Well, there is more shame for us this week after the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moise, was murdered Wednesday night in his private residence in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. His wife was shot in the attack and flown to Miami for treatment. Her condition is described as stable but critical.
When CNN describes the late President Moise’s residence as “private,” I assume that also means “official,” and I point this out to say that a head-of-state’s “official” residence is supposed to be the safest place he can possibly be.
But my column is not about Haiti and its situation presently. This is the age of the computer, and if you consider yourself black or African in any kind of way, you owe it to yourself and to the Haitian people to do some research here.
Still, the most important thing you can find out about Haiti is that France, a decade or two after Haiti declared its independence in 1804, surrounded the black republic with warships and demanded payment for all the French slave owners who had been “deprived” of their human property by the slave revolution. Haiti was intimidated into paying French slave owners the equivalent of 21 billion U.S. dollars in 2021 currency. The French were assisted in this extortion by an American bank, Citibank, and the Haitians did not finish paying off the “debt” until 1947. Do the research, Belizean youth.
I am an old man, and what is worse, I am old-fashioned. The modern world of communication is ruled by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I am not in this world because I can’t “post” material for publicity or whatever on a giveaway basis, because I am a professional writer: this is how I make my living.
In any case, I thought of this Facebook and social media situation because the best way I can describe today’s column is as a “post.” I am putting information out here for you to consider and digest. I will say this: if you don’t read Adam Hochschild’s KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, you are not really an educated person. I am on my second reading, so I will do some “posting” today. The following is from pages 71 and 72 of KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST:
“Meanwhile, Leopold II had hired an Oxford scholar, Sir Travers Twiss, to provide a learned legal opinion backing the right of private companies to act as if they were sovereign countries when making treaties with native chiefs. Stanley was under instructions to lead his well-armed forces up and down the Congo River and do just that. ‘The treaties must be as brief as possible,’ Leopold ordered, ‘and in a couple of articles must grant us everything.’
”They did. By the time Stanley and his officers were done, the blue flag with the gold star fluttered over the villages and territories, Stanley claimed, of more than 450 Congo basin chiefs. The texts varied, but many of the treaties gave the king a complete trading monopoly, even as he placated European and American questioners by insisting that he was opening up Africa to free trade. More important, chiefs signed over their land to Leopold, and they did so for almost nothing. At Isangila, near the big rapids, Stanley recorded, he was able to buy land for a station by paying some chiefs with ‘an ample supply of fine clothes, flunkey coats, and tinsel-braided uniforms, with a rich assortment of divers marketable wares … not omitting a couple of bottles of gin.’ The conquerors of Africa, like those of the American West, were finding alcohol as efficient as the machine gun.
“The very word TREATY is a euphemism, for many chiefs had no idea what they were signing. Few had seen the written word before, and they were being asked to mark their X’s to documents in a foreign language and in legalese. The idea of a treaty of friendship between two clans or villages was familiar; the idea of signing over one’s land to someone on the other side of the ocean was inconceivable. Did the chiefs of Ngomba and Mafela, for example, have any idea of what they agreed to on April 1, 1884? In return for ‘one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand,’ they promised to ‘freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever … give up to the said Association the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories … and to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories … All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining, and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association.’
“BY LABOUR OR OTHERWISE. Stanley’s pieces of cloth bought not only land, but manpower. It was an even worse trade than the Indians made for Manhattan.”