Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Trinidadians today descend from Haitians both black and white who fled the bloody revolution in Haiti in the late 18th century.
The popular refrain goes: “Haiti, I’m sorry.” To try to grasp the heroism and the calamity of Haity in the 1780s is difficult in terms of personal heroism, the defining of one’s humanity despite other people’s realities, the willingness to fight for it while paying the price for it. This revolutionary period left several hundred thousand people dead in Haiti in a twenty-year period. Those who experienced human trauma on such a scale could only survive with the creation of profound new realities in truth.
Haiti’s trauma is universal, particularly in terms of calamities. The calamity of slavery on the whole from the 16th to the 19th century, the calamity of Adolf Hitler’s holocaust of the 1940s, of Joseph Stalin’s mass murder on an even greater scale than Hitler’s in the same period on the same continent - those took place in the living memory of a large percentage of the population of the world today.
Historian Philip Roshford once said to me: “Experience is not what happens to a person, it’s what a person does with what happens to him or her.” So before we feel sorry for Haiti, let us try and understand what happened when and to whom.
Charles Dickens’ ‘Tale of Two Cities’ commences with the words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,”, referring to the French Revolution of 1789, an event that changed the order of things in Europe and the western world forever. The divine right of kings, both as idea and ideal, lost its meaning the moment a Corsican gentleman soldier, Napoleon Bonaparte, declared himself emperor in 1804 and nominated his immediate family to European thrones, thrones that had previously traced their pedigrees back more than 2000 years to antique chieftains who were called names like Thorbald the Clatterer and Eystein the Fart. The world order in the western world had changed.
In the 18th century, France’s best money produced was the island of St. Domingue, Haiti. It was also where France lived out its most macabre ‘alter ego’. Millions of people from the African continent, varieties of tribes, peoples, religions and cultures, arrived at a place after a horrendous journey and proceeded to experience conditions so terrifying that to attempt to describe them would be distracting. The Africans took what happened to them and out of those experiences they produced their own cultural syncretisms, parodies of the dominant European culture in conjunction with their own common African past. Because of the importation of new slaves, this syncretism was always added to - Haiti was the first real melting pot in the Caribbean.
Life’s parameters in Haiti in those days were determined by skin colour, the command of wealth and the displays of barbarity and debauchery. To make it in Haiti you had to be rich, white and very weird in an 18th century style. As a slave island, it operated on a large scale: hundreds of thousands of acres were under sugar cultivation. To make sugar viable, this required a workforce of slaves shipped from Africa at the rate of thousands every decade. This system was bound to collapse; it could not be maintained forever.
The situation, driven by greed, produced a variety of racial types the world had never seen before. Laws were made to stop African slave women from being given property by French men in love with them. The thus deprived offspring of such relationships was excluded from both worlds, despising their mothers and wanting to be a part of their father’s society.
The Haitian plantocracy lived in fear in the midst of sumptuous wealth. The slaves, on the other hand, lived in fear, anger and hope of revenge.
In Europe’s rigid society, Haiti began as an oddity. In the 17th century, low-class adventurers left France for Haiti to be planters, pirates, opportunists and slavemasters. They soom became rich with big sugar estates. Their descendants at the time of the French Revolution were the rich and affected ‘petit blancs’. Elements of the provincial nobility also came to Haiti, bourgeois businessmen, administrators, soldiers, a whole system to organise and produce sugar. Three main classes emerged in the colony, each rigidly segregated, producing bitter divisions and laying down the conditions of what was to come. By the 1780s, the classes consisted of at the top the senior government and army from France, the planters and wealthy merchants; in the middle, the ‘petits blancs’, the non-whites, mulattoes, quadroons and freed blacks; and at the bottom, the great number os slaves. The first looked down upon the second, who in turn envied and resented the former, while both classes of European descendants considered themselves a world apart from all non-whites, not to mention the slaves.
Another spin was put on it by the ongoing marriages of impecunious nobility with rich petit blancs and the great-granddaughters of slaves who now looked like European women and lived in palatial plantation houses. During the years of the French Revolution from 1789 and the triumph of the slave population in 1803, several factions fought each other with unbelievable ferocity. There were horrific massacres of Europeans, 30,000 in Cap Francis alone, in revenge of the sad depredations of the Africans with medieval tortures hatched in a barbaric time.
At least three men gave themselves the name or Macandal Daaga. He was a poisoner, a science man, a loup garou. A wild man, he lived alone and perfected poisons. Wenda Parkinson in her book ‘This gilded African’ remarks that nobody will ever know how many people he killed, both black and white. The sheer name of Daaga spread terror into the hearts of Haitians. Eventually, the man was caught, tied to a stake and burnt alive. Miraculously, he escaped the flames, his body on fire. For a long time after, people said that Daaga could not die.
In 1789, a sailor boy jumped onto the jetty from a merchant ship and went into the town shouting: ‘Liberté, liberté! The bastide has fallen!” With the French Revolution having begun, Haiti fell into total anarchy. Similar to the situation in France, everybody who had hated everybody now started killing everybody.
In Paris, Maximiliene Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758 - 1794), the man who was running the revolution in France, was told of the destruction of property and of the colonists. Advised that he should intervene, Robespierre declared: “Perish the colonies rather than sacrifice on tenth of our principles”.
Out of the chaos and destruction of the whites, of their plantations and their economy, a strong man began to emerge. He fought the royalists, the mulattoes and even the blacks. He imposed order ... as best he could. Toussaint L’Ouverture, an African of princely descent, grew up on a huge estate owned by a count who had recognised in Toussaint’s father a remarkable intellect and strength of character. They could not become friends under the circumstances. Toussaint’s father was a slave, however, he had his house on the estate, was his master’s driver and traveling companion and most importantly of all, possessed a treasure beyond imagination: he was able to read. The boy Toussaint grew like a cobweb broom: reedy, bright-eyed, quick in both French and Patois. His manners were elegant. Years later, he surprised the bigots who had been sent to his country by his style, generosity and charm, and most of all the principles of the Englightenment and the rights of man he had ingrained. The count and his father had done a good job.
L’Ouverture, soldier, statesman, revolutionary, was a significant man of his times. To get the big picture, he has to be placed alongside George Washington and Simon Bolivar.
In Haiti, blood flowed and plantations burned. There are fantastic stories of heroism and of love by black people for the people who once owned them. Some people who live in Trinidad today, were saved by former Haitian slaves during the revolution. They have this story:
The house was on fire, blazing in the night, bright yellow behind the lace courtains. The old man was dead, his sons too. Their wives were already burning upstairs. The slaves are rioting outside. Down the frontsteps comes the Da, the black nanny. She has madam’s jewel box tight against her chest. A man, blood streaming down the arm that is holding a cutlass, rushes past, snatches the jewel case and runs screaming into the night. She walks fast into the ruined garden. The planter’s little boy and his sister are running too, stooping under their nanny’s wide skirts. She saves the children she has taken care of and breast-fed herself, puts them on a boat bound for Trinidad.
Similarly, the Count of Loppinot escaped inside of a wooden barrel into which some loyal slaves of his had put him, and many others who came to Trinidad. Many came with gold and jewellery, emeralds and rubies - they were once very rich. This is how they started back again in Trinidad.
Toussaint L’Ouverture himself knew that the Haitian economy was ultimately linked to France. The vested interest in France, the merchants, importers and exporters, sought inspite of Robespierre’s sentiment an accommodation between the two revolutions, one European and one Caribbean.
Philip Rose Roume de St. Laurent
During this period, a Grenada-born man named Philipe Rose Roume de St. Laurent had been appointed ordinator (judge) in Tobago under the administration of Arthur Count Dillon. Because of his experience in the West Indies, Roume de St. Laurent was one of three men chosen to be France’s commissioners to Haiti to facilitate affairs with all the parties concerned.
In Trinidad, he is remembered as the originator of the French Creole presence here. This memory was of no use to the British who took the island in 1797. He was written out of colonial history. At Trinidad’s independence, under the banner ‘Massa Day Done’ the French Creoles were put into approbrium by the political party that had come into power in Trinidad. Roume de St. Laurent was forgotten for a second time. In fact, however, he was a very significant Caribbean man. He is not obscure, and his descendants and perhaps hundreds of his immediate relatives live here in Trinidad.
Roume de St. Laurent was born on the 13th October, 1743. His mother was a de Gannes. Educated in Grenada, Philip was brought up as a gentleman. He was one of those people who had the ‘common touch’, but he was also able to talk to kings without being in awe. Slim, of medium height, a little too good-looking perhaps, he turned out to be possessed of vision. He understood the revolution and worked to serve the interestof French people in the Caribbean, which did not exclude mulattoes and free blacks.
Roume de St. Laurent arranged for these same people to come to Trinidad before the French Revolution. His foresight created the precedent of the Cedula of Population that was the legal framework for the French to keep coming even during the revolutions in Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, Dominica and Grenada. Black, white and coloured, free and enslaved, they came, were allotted the land and worked on their plantations: their descendants in their hundreds of thousands are Trinidadians now.
This is why both the British colonial and the post-independence educators swept him under the carpet: he might have stolen the thunder of British administrators and nation-building politicians. As a national figure, to evoke his memory would have put a stop to divisive politics by providing a hero in whom so many of us would have a vested interest, a common origin. And this is why history is so important: it informs choice.
Roume de St. Laurent made Caribbean politics his career. He brokered with the King of Spain for French-speaking people from all over the Caribbean to come here. He and his mother owned estates in Maraval, Ariapita and Diego Martin. He himself never lived here, however, his relatives did.
Serving the Bourbon kings both in France and in Spain, he made money from revolutionary politics. At that time, he added the aristocratic ‘de St. Laurent’ to his name. Michael Pocock in his authoritative essay on Roume did not think he was a nobleman, although his lineage was ancient. Pierre Gustave Louis Borde described him as a chevalier.
In Haiti, after his posting as judge in Tobago, he was once more just ‘Citizen Roume’. HIs tasks became more complicated with Napoleon becoming emperor. Roume’s role changed, evolving from monarchist to revolutionary to imperial commissioner. His situation was precarious in terms of life and teath. Both his bosses, Napoleon and Toussaint L’Ouverture, were dangerous men. By this time, various life crises had overtaken him and he divorced his English wife. She was the daughter of a general, and he was now looking for other alliances.
The revolution in the Caribbean was about slaves and people of African descent. Simon Bolivar in South America had the blod of slaves in his veins; Fedon in Grenada was a free coloured; Victor Hugues, the terror of the revolution in the Caribbean, was a mulatto; Toussaint L’Ouverture a ‘gilded African’.
Miriam Rochard is remembered by those of her sister’s descendants who still had the story and sho lived in Woodbrook up to a few years ago as a very goodlooking woman with red auburn hair and green eyes. She was the natural daughter of Thmas Danier Rochard Lepine and Genevieve ..., a free woman of colour. They lived both in Tobago and Grenada, and they had money. Roume de St. Laurent also lived with her in Tobago. He married Miriam in Port Republicain, now Port-au-Prince, in 1799 in the presence of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Louis Beauvais and Paul L’Ouverture. He was 56, she 38. They had a daughter. Citizen Roume put his European place in society where his mouth was - where he said his heart was. It was to cost him, however.
Roume worked with Toussaint. Other commissioners came and went; battles were fought, won and lost; treachery existed on every level and of course the inevitable ‘tropical rot’ that affects all imports, human or otherwise, set in.
In the end, they were compromised and lost everything. Toussaint died in the gaol; Roume died in poverty. Napoleon grudgingly gave Miriam a pittance of a pension - she was black, he said. And even the emperor himself died in obscurity on the island of St. Helena in the Atlantic.
Haiti became the first republic in the Caribbean. The country continued to experience terrible times and has never recovered to this day.