I continue to think a lot about Haiti these days. In many ways, I think it is a microcosm of the best and worst of the world that came to be with the rise of capitalism. The history of oppression, of profits over people, of rapacious violence brought to bear upon human beings seeking little more than freedom and their own bit of land to cultivate, is absolutely appalling. The history of resistance to that oppression, the refusal to give in to Death — despite the extent and severity of the violence — the constant uprisings of Life, Life that will not be killed, Life that will not remain dead, is astounding.
Every now and then I try to talk about this with some of my sensitive bourgeois white friends, many of whom are Christians (as is Aristide, as were the French slave traders). I say things like, “The only successful slave revolt in history!” and “I wonder how all of this might provide insight into our own context!” What is the universal response I receive from these kind-hearted people? “Yeah, but what happened? Once they got free, didn’t the leaders just turn on their own people? Didn’t they just end up replicating similar power imbalances – isn’t there now a small percentage of elite, wealthy Haitians oppressing a large number of poor Haitians? It didn’t really work, did it?”
What is really being said here? Something like this: “Look, black people are just as bad as white people, slaves are just as bad as slave traders, the poor are just as evil as the rich, and, sure I may be compromised and complicit in some of the evil of my day, but nobody out there is any better than I am! Really, it’s just a question of opportunity. All this talk about race and imperialism and wealth and poverty is kind of misplaced, really we need to be looking at the hearts of men and women and addressing the universal internal drives towards greed and selfishness.” So it goes with all these sensitive, white, bourgeois Christians.
Christians have a long history in Haiti. What Bartolomé de Las Cases wrote about Haiti fifty years after Columbus landed remains true to this day:
The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day [and to our day, only the means have changed and now it is more the Canadians and French and Americans and transnational capitalists who have taken the place of the Spanish], and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly…
They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive thirteen at a time, in honour of our Saviour and the twelve Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it…
But, wait, you may object, I’m not Spanish! I’m nothing like those people. Are you so sure? Can you tell me the difference between the Arawak and the Tsleil-Waututh, the Anishinaabe and the Mi’kmaq? The Navajo and the Boethuk? These people lived much further apart than the Spanish and the Dutch and the Scottish and the German – if you can’t clearly distinguish the cultures and languages and beliefs and histories of these people – if they’re all just “natives” or “First Nations peoples” or “Indigenous peoples” to you, what makes you think you’re so different from the Spanish? Aren’t we all just Europeans? Aren’t we all just Settlers colonizing a land that is foreign to us even if we have been here for five generations? And when my kind-hearted, bourgeois white, Christian friends say the things they say to me about the history of Haiti, I think: “we have more in common with those Spanish soldiers than we do with any of the peaceful people they were slaughtering.”
More from Las Casas. After a fellow from Haiti fled to Cuba, the Christians followed shortly thereafter. As they began to pillage, murder, enslave, and rape everyone, everywhere, some of the Cuban people had the following conversation with the Haitian man, who asks them:
“Does any of you know why it that they behave this way?” And when they answered him: “No, unless it be that they are innately cruel and evil,” he replied: “It is not simply that. They have a God whom they worship and adore, and it is in order to get that God from us so that they can worship Him that they conquer us and kill us.” He had beside him, as he spoke, a basket filled with gold jewellery and he said: “Here is the God of the Christians. If you agree, we will do areitos (which is their word for certain kinds of traditional dance) in honour of this God and it may be that we shall please Him and He will order the Christians to leave us unharmed.” They all shouted: “So be it, so be it.”
So it goes with Christians. And if you don’t believe me, if you think, “I’m not like those people, they aren’t real Christians” or if you are more inclined to define yourself as a “follower of Jesus” instead of as a “Christian,” take stock of how many of the things you own are stained in the blood of others.
I heard similar responses about failure and compromise and the lack of real change, when I’ve tried to speak about the Cuban revolution, or the precursors to the Russian revolution, or the rich history of Indigenous resistance on Turtle Island, or various anarchist movements and collectives, or really any kind of uprising or effort to formulate life together in a way that is more Life-giving and less Death-dealing, especially those that bring about a dramatic or violent confrontation with the established Powers of the status quo. Really, it’s a defeatist attitude. One that assumes in advance that change – deep change, meaningful change, amazing change (amazing grace?) – isn’t really possible. It wants to rush to write off revolutionary moments, generations of resistance, the fruit of struggle, because it has chosen to be resigned to things.
“I didn’t choose to be resigned… it’s a conclusion I came to grudgingly, kicking and screaming.”
Maybe, but know this: context matters when it comes to resignation. If you are a slave and, for whatever combination of reasons, you resign yourself to the idea that slavery is going to be around forever and so you, in some way, accept the suffering it imposes upon you, that is one thing. If you are a slave-trader and you resign yourself to the idea that no amount of struggle is going to rid the world of slavery and so you decide not to struggle against slavery but accept it (and all the luxury, profit, and comfort it brings you), that is something completely different. One cannot judge the oppressed if they resign themselves to not fight against the context of oppression (the oppressed are already besieged on all sides, who has the time and energy to fight?). One can, and should, judge the oppressors who choose to resign themselves to not fight against the context of oppression. It is one thing to make some kind of peace with your own sufferings. It is another thing to make some kind of peace with the sufferings you cause others.
Every now and again, Las Casas relates something like the following, regarding the genocide Europeans were actively pursuing in this or that part of the world:
And when, as happened on the odd occasion, the locals did kill a European, as, given the enormity of the crimes committed against them, they were in all justice fully entitled to, the Spanish came to an unofficial agreement among themselves that for every European killed one hundred natives would be executed.
Does anybody else think about contemporary “terror” attacks when reading this? I know I do. When we annihilate people, and when we live lives drenched in wealth and goods that come from profits based upon that annihilation, what exactly are people justly entitled to do do us?