Checking out Haiti (September 2023)

Last week I spoke to you about Alexander Hamilton and his claim that the world was going to know his name. I pointed out that you had 7700 hours left of your school career. 168 of those have slipped by since I spoke to you – have you used them well, or were you putting off your reformations? That might be an idea for me to come back to, but first I owe you some more history because I mentioned Toussaint Louverture without telling you anything about him. Actually, I was hoping that some of you would recognise the name and pluck some content from your memory, but if you did, then you didn’t tell me about it, so perhaps I need to give you more of a clue. Perhaps some of you will recognise these words:

Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Toussaint L'Ouverture
no dem never tell me bout dat

a slave
with vision
lick back
and first Black
Republic born
Toussaint de thorn
to de French
Toussaint de beacon
of de Haitian Revolution

That’s one stanza from John Agard’s poem “Checkin out me history” in which he complains that what he was taught in school was not enough – that the curated content that ended up on exams didn’t provide him with the depth of understanding of his own identity that he wanted.

Well, I wouldn’t want you to have the same complaint, so let’s find out a little about Toussaint Louverture (Agard spells his surname with an apostrophe, by the way, Louverture didn’t and you’d expect him to know– but Agard’s spelling is in general better than Louverture so I’m not sure what you end up with). Louverture’s parents were born in what is now Benin. We don’t know very much about their origins, don’t even know what names they grew up with, but we do know that they were enslaved by the forces of the Kingdom of Dahomey which invaded their lands as part of its imperialist expansion. They were sold to a French trader who took them to the colony of Saint Domingue in the Caribbean. They were baptised as Catholics, given new names (Hyppolite and Pauline) and this is where Toussaint was born. He grew up, gained his freedom (it’s not clear how) and became one of a number of fairly wealthy black and mixed race people in the colony – he seems even to have owned slaves himself.

The origins of the Haitian revolution were in this group of plantation owners who had money but didn’t have the same legal rights as white settlers. The early rebellion was put down and the leaders gruesomely executed, but whilst France was full of revolutionary fervour, with the rights of all men to be treated equally fought for and the old elites being deposed, the inhabitants of Saint Domingue saw their opportunity and a group of slaves and black and mixed-race freedmen rebelled.

The story of the next few years is extremely complicated with not just France, but Britain and Spain being interested in the fortunes of this wealthy colony and Toussaint Louverture leading the rebellion, but also fighting for France against Spain, for Catholicism against Vodou, and for the rights of those who already had enough money to own slaves to continue having that much money. He’s the father of Haiti, a thorn to the European imperialists, but, let’s say there’s ethical complexity. Haiti, the new name for what was Saint Domingue, became free after the only successful slave rebellion in history. It then, in order to stop future historians leaping to any simple conclusions, reintroduced slavery on the grounds that plantation, an agricultural economy relying on free labour, was the only way for it to find prosperity. In fact, Haiti never really got rid of slavery and it’s estimated there are still about 240,000 enslaved persons in Haiti, the most of any country in the world except for Mauritania in Africa. Toussaint Louverture himself was betrayed by one of his comrades – Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who may have once been one of Louverture’s slaves and after ordering a genocide of Europeans, became the first emperor of Haiti. Louverture was taken to prison in France where he died of illness brought on by the poor conditions.

It's a story that raises as many questions as it answers, where simply wanting to know more about an Afro-Caribbean hero ends up in a murky tale of complex motivations and relationships – which, really, is what all history is. Nothing is simple, there’s always more to find out, always deeper you can delve. But where does this take us, fortunate to live separated from the Haitian revolution by many years and even more miles? Does it matter?

I don’t suppose it does, terribly much – although some of you may have Haitian or Beninese ancestry and might be interested in doing what Agard calls “checking out me history, carving out me identity.” If you do want to find out more about Haiti then I’m afraid I’m not the best person to advise you – my expertise lies in Maths and the adventures of the Antilles are simply a hobby. I have found out that Wyclef Jean is from Haiti – he’s the most famous Haitian I know of. You might know of him as a rapper in his own right, or for being part of the Fugees, or for his contribution to Shakira’s remarkable polemic on the veracity of her pelvis. Haiti has itself got a rich musical history – but I only know that by looking on Wikipedia and googling, I’m going to need to spend some time listening before I can recommend any of it to you. What I can recommend is the writing of Isabelle Allende – she’s a Chilean novelist with a real gift for storytelling – and the reason that this is relevant is that her book Island beneath the Sea is set during the Haitian revolution. I’ve not read it, I confess, although I have read two of her other novels, and have a third awaiting my attention. If you get there before me please let me know what you think.

And I hope that some of you will get there before me because there are a couple of hundred of you and only one of me, and one of the most important things you can do with the 7532 hours that you have left is to add to the depth and breadth and complexity of your learning. If all you end up knowing is what you’re taught in class, what you’ll be asked questions on in the exams, what appears in the syllabus then you’ll not get to carve out your own identity – there’s no way that we can provide everything that each one of you would find relevant, interesting or helpful. Agard rails about only having been taught about Dick Whittington’s cat, but then he goes and finds out for himself about Toussaint Louverture and Nanny de Maroon, about Shaka Zulu and Mary Seacole.

Perhaps more than that, because I don’t think that your identity is limited to or by your history, if you stick only to what you learn in class you’ll have nothing to make you stand out from the thousands of others who have the same qualifications as you. Your grades will get you an interview, they’ll get you through the door, but they won’t land you a job – to get one of those (or to have as wide a choice as possible) you need to have something more to offer – interests and knowledge that make you stand out.

For some of you, this might be the 19th century history of the Caribbean, for some of you it might be the issue of modern slavery, for others the literature of South America, but for others it will be programming in python, or the coloured salts of transition metals, or the mathematics of infinity. The subjects you study in class are huge and fascinating, and the bits you get your hands on if that’s the only study you do are small and, in some ways, disappointing. Last week I asked why don’t you write like you’re running out of time – this week I’m really asking why don’t you read like you’re running out of time – why don’t you have a book in your bag, and one by your bed, and a third conveniently located for when you misplace the other two? There are so many things in this world to know more about that every minute spent doing anything else is sixty seconds sat on your backside rather than distance run.

These two questions are the thinking behind the Read/Write session that you have each week – it’s 20 minutes of opportunity to get better at reading and writing. It’s not enough time – it never could be – you’ll need to carve more out of your week yourself, but it’s a start and it’s a symbol and it’s an opportunity to practice. Benjamin Franklin, another figure from the American revolution said “How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults or resolution enough to mend them,” – if reading to broaden your knowledge is something you’ve not done before then this courage term I encourage you to make that resolution, to mend that gap, to accept that it’s a fault and do something about it. Not only will knowing more set you apart, but so, according to Franklin, will having the courage and resolution required to make the effort. So, when you get home tonight, stick some Wyclef Jean or Shakira on your hi-fi, pick up a book, and carve out your identity, your future.


1. The Hamilton Assembly referenced here is Running out of Time

2. More about the Antilles can be found in Memories of Dominica and Start Here

3. John Agard's poem is also quoted in A Contested Space