The alto saxophonist John Handy once said that playing with the legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus was like “walking around on eggshells.” Mingus, who wrote the 1957 “Haitian Fight Song” inspired by the Haitian Revolution liked to mix things up. Just as Handy — and many of Mingus’ other sidemen — fell into a groove during a solo, Mingus would shift rhythm, forcing his soloists to adjust without warning. Though Handy and his co-musician were talented, for a moment there is always chaos.
Haiti, as many have noted, has long been forced to walk “on eggshells,” — perpetually on the verge of collapse. According to many, the earthquake of Jan.12 just happened to be the event needed to push the dysfunctional country into chaos.
But when I think of Haiti, I think less of its status as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and history of corruption and crumbling infrastructure, than the fact that Haiti is a country with strong traditions and an ability to withstand even the most terrible events and tumultuous upheavals.
This history begins in 1492, when Christopher Columbus arrived on Hispaniola. Shortly thereafter, nearly all of the native Arawak and Taino population was destroyed by the disease European settlers brought. By 1700, slaves — brought in by the shipload to grow sugar, indigo and cotton — make up most of the then-French colony’s population. From the beginning, it was difficult for Haiti to fall into a groove.
But the stories of Haiti in the 18th century are ones of rebellion and an ability to withstand even the most brutal conditions — the one about the one-armed slave, Mackandal, who escaped to the mountains or the priest who managed not only to escape but stage raids of French plantations. As the 18th century came to an end, Toussaint L’Ouverture entered and with him, a revolution.
For a brief time, the chaos subsides and slavery ends. L’Ouverture restores the economy in the colony and signs trade agreements with the British and Americans. But then the landscape shifts: Napoleon sends his Charles Leclerc to the island, the hero L’Ouverture is captured and the land is sold the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Still, despite the best efforts of the French, the Haitians evade another round of enslavement. And in 1804 Haiti becomes the first nation to win independence through a slave revolt.
But though it is ostensibly free, the yoke that binds Haito to the imperial powers remains. The burgeoning nation is forced to pay 125 million francs (equivalent to roughly $21 billion dollars today) in reparations — a debt it will not fully pay off until 1947. The country — which was also occupied by the United States from 1915-1934 — never quite got on its feet.
Haiti’s list of contemporary woes is long. Citizens suffered through the brutal regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, supported by a Cold-War U.S. His guard, the Tonton Macoutes, is responsible for the killings of roughly 30,000 Haitians. Duvalier’s son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, crushed the country’s tourist industry and drove many away. But the Haitian Diaspora contributed greatly to the development of post-imperial Africa as Haitian expatriates served in prominent roles in newly independent states.
In recent decades Haiti has been plagued by political coups (former president Jean Aristide has been in exile since 2004), and Haiti was hit by four earthquakes in 2008. Haiti’s misery seems endless, and it is easy to write it off as a failed nation. However, Mackandal, the Vodou priest and L’Ouverture are not the victims of a failed state. Nor are the survivors of this month’s earthquake. Haitians have sustained a proud revolutionary tradition across generations. And like Mingus’ sidemen, they always recover. Now, Haiti has been dismantled. But its people, like Mingus’ chorus of voices, will unite and rebuild.
Kristen Wright is a sophomore in Davenport College.