The Haitian Response to the John Brown Tragedy

Article excerpt

While growing up in Port-au-Prince in the sixties, I would travel quite often on the Avenue John Brown which runs in the middle of the city. It was a hard thing back then to pronounce the name of the avenue and understandably, I knew nothing about its significance. I had never even questioned the reason people gave the street such a name.

Only after I migrated to the United States did I discover that everyone associated John Brown's name with the struggle of the people of the United States-the land of the free and the home of the brave-to remove the hideous stain of slavery from the face of America.

It was something of a surprise to discover that John Brown was born in 1800, the very year Toussaint L'Ouverture was winning decisive battles in his war against the French slaveholders. But my most exciting discovery was that John Brown, when he began his own crusade to liberate all of the slaves in the United States, turned to Toussaint L'Ouverture for guidance. David Reynolds, his biographer, explained: "The society of blacks that was by far the greatest inspiration for John Brown was the one created in Haiti by Toussaint L'Ouverture."1

This should not be surprising for what Toussaint and his followers demonstrated to John Brown-and the test of the world-was that people of African descent in Haiti not only could work together to break the chains of slavery, but that they possessed the ability, the discipline, and the skills to win their freedom on the battlefield. Even Napoleon's 60,000 troops dispatched to Haiti in 1802 were no match for the tenacity and military prowess of Toussaint's soldiers.

Despairing over their inability to achieve a military victory, the French resorted to despicable, shameless trickery to defeat Toussaint. Their heinous plan was to promise him absolute and total safety if he would meet with them to discuss terms for peace. Unfortunately, Toussaint trusted them. When he appeared to discuss ways of ending the conflict, the treacherous French put him in chains, shipped him to a dungeon in France and kept him there until he died in 1803.

When William Wordsworth, England's famous poet, learned of Toussaint's death, he glorified his life with these words:

There is not a breathing of the common wind

that will forget this, thou hast great allies;

thy friends are exultations, agonies, and love

and man's unconquerable mind.2

Outraged over France's duplicity the Haitian soldiers mercilessly drove all of their troops from Haiti.

Soon after, in 1804, the Haitians issued their declaration of independence and drew up a political framework for what would be the world's first Black Republic. When John Brown began his crusade to emancipate America's slaves, this period in Haitian history did indeed inspire him.

Yet, unlike other nineteenth century abolitionists who used moral persuasion to win converts to their cause, John Brown chose the path of direct action. A strong supporter of the Underground Railroad, he assisted slaves to escape to Canada by directing a way-station in Pennsylvania for them. In the Kansas territory he led the brutal attack against proslavery supporters who settled there. Many saw John Brown to be an enigmatic figure who perceived himself to have a divine mission to end the vicious, inhumane institution of slavery .

Since John Brown's plan for the emancipation of slaves envisioned the creation of a separate colony in the southern region of Appalachian mountains, he convened in May of 1858 a convention to meet in Chatham, a small town in Canada not far from Detroit, Michigan, to draw up a provisional constitution. Its Prelude enunciated the reasons for this action:

...slavery throughout its entire existence in the United Sates, is none other than the most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion, the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination, in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set fourth in our Declaration of Independence. …