Saturday, March 7, 2009

Égalité for All: Toussaint l’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I searched through the back files and ran a show I’d recorded from PBS in January, Égalité for All: Toussaint l’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, a fascinating if somewhat tackily produced hour-long rush through the main issues of the slave insurrection that eventually wrested Haiti from French control. I was bemused by the fact that all Charles had to do was see one shot — a contemporary painting of a Black man in the full-dress uniform of a French officer in the late 18th and early 19th century — and he correctly guessed the subject of the documentary.

L’Ouverture comes across as an unusual (to say the least!) historical figure, a slave whose relatively liberal owner allowed him to learn to read and write, gave him a relatively privileged job assignment as a coachman and ultimately set him free, and who given his druthers would have anticipated Gandhi and Mandela in seeking his people’s freedom non-violently but instead found himself leading what had begun basically as a cross-country riot against the sugar and coffee planters (and for all the shots of half-naked Black men cutting sugar cane — which to me were a bit too lubricious to work as visual depictions of horrific exploitation — the film actually did a pretty good job of showing just how rotten this work can be, especially since cane sugar plants come with sharp leaves that can easily cut the skin and cause misery when mixed with the salt in perspiration, while at the bases of the canes there are colonies of viciously biting ants; this is not the sort of job people take when alternatives are available, which is precisely why the French had to import a slave population to do it!) which had been beaten back in four months by the superior military equipment and tactics of the whites.

The film managed despite its brief running time to delve into the side issues of the “colored,” or racially mixed, population, which generally sided with the whites after they’d obtained a surprising degree of social recognition (as was true in the French colonies generally — which is why there has always been an out-and-proud mixed-race population in Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular, and why, until the segregation laws of the 1890’s classified the mixed-race Creoles as “Black,” the racial politics of Louisiana were totally different from those of any other southern U.S. state), and how the shifting fortunes of the French Revolution affected events in Haiti — the slave rebellion was largely inspired in the first place by accounts of the Revolution in the mother country and how the revolutionaries were challenging aristocratic and royal privileges there (the execution of Louis XVI was a galvanic event in Haiti, where even people who couldn’t read learned of the news from sailors when their ships landed); when British and Spanish forces invaded Haiti hoping to win it for their empires, the Revolutionary government of France issued an emancipation proclamation in 1794 that (like Lincoln’s 69 years later) was specifically designed to get the slaves to fight on the French side by giving them some skin in the game; and eventually Napoleon’s government issued a proclamation that sought to re-establish slavery and led the Black Haitian leaders (which by then didn’t include l’Ouverture because by then he’d been arrested and sent to France, where he died in prison in 1803) to their final declaration of independence.

At the same time l’Ouverture becomes a prototype of Lenin, equally ruthless towards his internal opposition (everyone who went up against him, including the abolitionist commissioner sent by the revolutionary French, was either executed or banished) and the author of a constitution that made him “governor for life” and allowed him to pick his own successor. The authors of this program say that was the first step towards the succession of military dictators that have ruled Haiti for most of its 207 years as an independent nation, though it’s not all that different from what Alexander Hamilton proposed at the U.S. Constitutional Convention — and it’s a fascinating thought experiment to ponder how American history would have been different if Hamilton had won that battle and the U.S. President were elected for life.