The Haitian masses' enduring struggle to reclaim 'the land beneath their feet'

April 13, 2020
Johnhenry Gonzalez has provided a great service with this new, minutely researched and fascinating book.

Maroon Nation, a history of revolutionary Haiti
By Johnhenry Gonzalez
Yale University Press, 2019, 302 pp., $62.00

The history of the Haitian slaves’ revolt, which started in 1891, has been well-documented by CLR James in The Black Jacobins, among other books, and information about more recent events is readily available. But the period in between has been largely left blank.

Johnhenry Gonzalez has done a great service in plugging this gap with this new, minutely researched and fascinating book. He depicts the Haitian masses not as passive victims of underdevelopment, but as engaged in an enduring struggle with treacherous local elites and rapacious imperialists to defend the most basic achievement of their revolution, their free ownership of the land,

He argues the Haitian Revolution “reflected a unique blend of West African political legacies, proto-anarchist patterns of armed insurrection, and a kind of rustic petty-bourgeois impulse to seek freedom through acquiring and clinging to a small piece of farmland.”

The Haitian slaves in their rebellion were not like the rural rioters and machinery breakers of early 1800s England. The Luddites and the Captain Swing rebels opposed the introduction of new technology and capitalist forms of production in the hope of protecting occupations that had been rendered obsolete.

“In Haiti,” Gonzalez writes, “the sugar industry did not develop atop centuries of continuous aristocratic rule, craft guilds, and local tradition. Rather than demanding to stay employed in the sugar industry or opposing some particular innovation within it, the former slaves were turning their backs on the plantations for good and even wiping them off the landscape.”

What resulted, Gonzalez argues, was an economic and social stalemate in which Haiti’s disputatious 19th century elites were repeatedly unable to constitute themselves as an effective ruling class. They were never able to compel the population to return to plantation labour, the form of production that had made French Saint-Domingue, the “pearl of the Antilles”, the most profitable colony in the world.

The population preferred autonomous, small-scale agriculture using highly productive subsistence farming techniques that would now be called permaculture. However, the masses could never take control of the port cities where the merchants and large-land owners congregated.

All the early rulers of independent Haiti attempted to recombine small farms into plantations, using various levels of military coercion to generate a workforce. The freed slaves simply ran away into the mountains and carved out small plots and created their own trading system without coinage.

To escape surveillance, they established gardens that blended in with the surrounding jungle. They inter-planted a wide variety of crops that each supported the growth of the others, requiring very little maintenance. These are what permaculturalists call “food forests”

Runaway slave communities were common in mountain fastnesses around the Caribbean. Such escapees were known as “maroons”, hence the title of this book. Essentially, Gonzalez’s thesis is that Haiti is a large-scale, continuing example of maroonism.

“Early Haitians favoured a variety of economic activities that enabled them to reject forced labour and early forms of wage labour or sharecropping,” he says. Their revolution “bolstered such decidedly precapitalist economic activities as foraging, barter, and production for use at the household level.”

The rulers, led by caudillos or strongmen, could never effectively gather enough capital to establish themselves as an independent bourgeoisie. They were stuck in the position of taxing merchant trade, the revenue from which was consistently undermined by popular smuggling and tax avoidance.

This situation became worse when, in 1825, the French government forced Haiti, at the barrel of a gun, to enter into “reparations” payments for the financial loss incurred when the slaves freed themselves. This river of gold flowing to France only ended in 1947.

The Haitian state demanded taxes from the people but could not provide any state services in return. From this, Gonzalez says, “the populace was never socialised to believe in the legitimacy of any official or elite institutions.”

By monopolising state revenues and denying the masses access to the nation’s wealth by any service provision, the elites lived an insecure comprador existence. They consumed lightly taxed imported luxuries and were served by cheaply paid domestic servants, but they were always unnerved by the restive, rebellious masses in the hinterland.

What capital the elites gathered they exported to foreign banks.

The ruling class, with its narrow social base, had no interest in educating the masses or establishing a professional bureaucracy to provide a stable political structure. The masses experienced no prospect of advancement or upward mobility and so further starved the state of resources for institutional development by tax avoidance.

When the fractious bourgeoisie fell to fighting among themselves, the masses would periodically join the rebellions, descend on the capital and install a new strongman.

“This cycle of kleptocracy, upheaval, ouster, and exile has been rinsed and repeated so often as to have extended well into the realm of farce,” Gonzalez says. He says the Haitian elite lives by the maxim “take the money and run”.

Between 1915 and 1935 the United States attempted to invade and dominate Haiti. Gonzalez says they “tried and failed to establish some kind of order so that they could generate in Haiti the kind of substantial profits that they had accrued from plantations in Cuba and Central America.”

During World War II, the US attempted to establish rubber and citronella plantations in Haiti to supply tropical commodities. Land hungry Haitians set fire to the plantations in an echo of tactics used against the French slaveowners.

Gonzales says the US failure to establish its domination “is arguably one of the most important elements in explaining how Haiti became poor and undercapitalised even by the standards of a poor, undercapitalised region.”

Besides his economic and political history Gonzales has an intriguing look at the role of secret voodoo societies in maintaining the Haitian masses’ anti-institutional counter-culture.

In the end, Gonzales is hopeful about Haiti. He says “as many times as the land has been burned, looted, and ravaged by earthquakes and hurricanes, the maroon nation has remained.”

The ethos of that maroon nation is very straightforward. Gonzales says “the Haitian people tightly hold on the principal form of maroon wealth and the historic wellspring of their freedom: the land beneath their feet”.

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