Cuba, Haiti and John Brown – To Rebel Is Justified
Why is the main boulevard in Port-au-Prince named for John Brown?
Revolutionary ideas carry across vast miles and through centuries. Those resisting brutal oppression draw inspiration both from living struggles and from historic examples.
Just as Cuba is today considered liberated territory by so many of the world's peoples, who live in societies of enormous racism and repression, Haiti in the 19th century shone as an example and a beacon of hope. It was the only liberated territory -- in a region where chattel slavery was still the dominant social relation.
Today, although Cuba lacks rich natural resources or great military capability, its very existence continues to be seen as a threat to U.S. imperialism. The blockade and the threats have continued through Republican and Democratic administrations. Cuba's survival for 43 years is a challenge to total U.S. domination of Latin America and of the globe. Two hundred years ago this is how revolutionary Haiti was viewed.
The many U.S. efforts to overthrow the Cuban revolution through economic sabotage, blockade, sanctions, and encirclement, military aid for invasions, efforts to capture or assassinate Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders are well documented.
All of these same tactics were used against the Haitian revolution in an age when Haiti had no allies and survived in extreme isolation. The slave-owning President Thomas Jefferson imposed sanctions on Haiti in 1804 that lasted until 1862. These decades of sanctions cut Haiti off from the world and even from the rest of the Caribbean. Every ship that docked from a European country or from the U.S. could be an invasion or carry new demands for onerous concessions. Without normal trade or economic relations the Haitian economy contracted and withered. But the very fact that Haiti survived was a challenge and the nightmare of every slave master – especially in the U.S. slave South.
In this epoch Cuba at great sacrifice has politically and often materially aided the struggle for liberation by giving safe haven to political prisoners and resistance fighters while providing thousands of doctors, technicians and soldiers throughout Africa and Latin America.
Haiti, although ravaged by years of war and sanctions, played a vital role in the liberation of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule. Ships, soldiers, guns and provisions from their meager supplies were provided to the Great Liberator -- Simón Bolívar in the hour of his most desperate need.
Brutal class rule survives by ensuring that there is no alternative. The ruling class of every age well understands that ideas and example are enormously powerful. Nothing is more dangerous than success. It is their doom – staring at them.
A living example of how connected revolutionary Haiti was to the abolitionist movement in the U.S. and how Haitians viewed the struggle against slavery in the U.S. can be seen in how the raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and the execution of John Brown and his co-conspirators was viewed in Haiti.
The bold attempt of John Brown to seize the arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry was not much different in planning or in its disastrous outcome than Fidel Castro's bold attack on the Moncada armory 50 years ago. Both leaders had hoped that their action would trigger an insurrection. Both defiantly used their trial as a public forum to put the system itself on trial.
While the slave owners branded John Brown a lunatic and a madman for the armed raid of the Federal Armory, the bold effort to end slavery through armed resistance and through Black and white participation had impassioned interest in Haiti.
The Haitian French language newspapers, Le Progrès and Feuille de Commerce, were filled with commentary on Harpers Ferry and on the trial and execution of John Brown and the other participants in the raid at Harpers Ferry, reflecting the interconnection between the struggle of enslaved people for freedom in Haiti and in the United States.1
The slave master of the U.S. had reason to fear the revolutionary example of Haiti. Haiti was not an isolated uprising of slaves. It was a living reality whenever there was opportunity and capacity. Constant armed slave rebellions were attempted in the slave states of the U.S. south. Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831), led rebellions involving thousands of slaves. An entire military machine of militias, patrols, guards, slave catchers using the most brutal forms of torture was created in an effort to stop the conspiracies, uprisings and escapes.2
The fervor to abolish slavery before 1860 was a surging political movement. Abolitionists in New England organized huge rallies of tens of thousands and held international conferences. They built an underground network to give escaping slaves safe passage. Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself, led more than 300 enslaved people to freedom. Hundreds of safe houses were maintained. Black and white abolitionists broke into jails and attacked federal marshals to free escaped slaves to prevent their forced return south.
The debates that swirled through the abolitionist movement, in its meetings, in its many tabloids and in the entire literature of the day revolved around how could the Southern slavocracy be defeated. Would moral persuasion or political maneuvers in Congress even restrain its expansion westward? Could laws and treaties restricting the international trade in human beings end slavery? Would condemnation, outrage and religious resolutions be successful?
Within the national and the international movement to abolish slavery Haiti was seen and often referred to as a living example of a successful armed rebellion of slaves.
The great Black leader, orator, author and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, wrote of the debate on the role of the armed struggle to end slavery in his description of his meeting with John Brown. "Captain Brown denounced slavery in look and language fierce and bitter, thought that slave holders had forfeited their right to live, that the slaves had the right to gain their liberty in any way they could, did not believe that moral suasion would ever liberate the slave, or that political action would abolish the system." This discussion had a profound impact on Douglass. He wrote, "While I continue to write and speak against slavery, I become all the same less hopeful of its peaceful abolition."3
This is what he had to say about Haiti, in a speech that is included in this book: "While slavery existed amongst us, her example was a sharp thorn in our side and a source of alarm and terror. She came into the sisterhood of nations through blood. She was described at the time of her advent, as a very hell of horrors. Her very name was pronounced with a shudder. She was a startling and frightful surprise and a threat to all slave-holders throughout the world, and the slave-holding world has had its questioning eye upon her career ever since."
Fifty years after the Haitian Revolution, slavery in the U.S. had not only survived but it was growing and expanding.
Two legal decisions passed in the 1850s reinforced slavery throughout the whole U.S. The Fugitive Slave Act allowed gangs and bounty hunters to pursue escaped slaves into the "free states" of the North. The Dred Scott decision declared even in the North freed Black people could not become U.S. citizens. The decision held that even free Black people had no rights that white people were bound to respect.
In 1854, as slavery grew stronger and extended its reach, there arose within the abolitionist movement the immediate issue of how to stop the slave South from becoming the majority in Congress through the expansion of slavery west into new states. Thousands of abolitionists uprooted their homes and moved to Kansas for the express purpose of preventing Kansas from entering the Union as a slave state. Powerful slave owners paid for hired guns to invade Kansas to burn these small farmers out and open the region for slave plantations. The whole antislavery effort seemed doomed. John Brown organized an armed resistance to the invasion of slave owners. Kansas erupted into civil war; it was called Bloody Kansas. It finally entered the Union a "free" state in 1861.
After the success of armed abolitionists in Kansas and the first military defeat of slave holders in the United States, Brown spent three years studying military tactics along with all that he could find regarding past slave revolts. He made maps of fugitive slave routes. He was especially interested in the history and experiences of the Haitian Revolution.4
The only Black survivor of the October 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, Osborne Anderson, a freeman and a printer, wrote a small book about the reason for the failure of the military action. Anderson wrote to encourage future armed actions and to rebut the lies of the slavocracy that the action failed because slaves were unwilling to take up arms against their masters. He explained that the raid failed for tactical reasons, but that overwhelmingly the slaves joined the attack at the first possibility.5
For Haiti the struggle convulsing the slave-owning super power next door was of enormous importance. The existence and the continual expansion of chattel slavery just a few hundred miles from isolated Haiti meant that the survival of Haiti was a precarious gamble.
Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, along with four co-conspirators. Two of the conspirators, Shields Green and John Copeland, were Black. Of great note was that Black and white participants went to their deaths unrepentant and defiant -- just as the great heroes of the Haitian Revolution had done.
The trial of John Brown was covered in enormous detail in the newspapers of the day – in the "free" states and in the slave states, in Europe and Haiti. But only in Haiti were there days of national mourning for John Brown's execution. Haitians collected twenty thousand dollars for Brown's family. Twenty thousand dollars was an enormous sum in 1859, especially in such a poor and blockaded country.6
After the execution of John Brown in December 1859 flags in Port-au-Prince were flown at half mast. A solemn mass was held in the cathedral where the President Fabre Nicholas Geffard attended and spoke.7
The main boulevard of Port-au-Prince was named John Brown Boulevard. It survives to this day.
As Frederick Douglass said, "If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did, at least, begin the war that ended slavery. … Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy, and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. ... The clash of arms was at hand."8
John Brown was a deeply religious man. He saw the struggle against slavery in biblical terms. But as he was led to his death a minister offered to pray with him. Brown refused, saying that no justifier of slavery could pray for him. His last words were: "It is easy to hang me, but this question – this slave question – that remains to be settled."
It was settled in blood. It took four years of a wrenching civil war and more than half a million deaths. But centuries of chattel slavery remain deeply imbedded in wage slavery. Racism permeates every aspect of life in the U.S. today.
The same class – North and South -- who built their fortunes and accumulated vast capital through the slave trade remains in power in the U.S. today. Their rage at the Haitian revolution continues in the sanctions, military interventions and deportations of Haitians today.
The Cuban Revolution, although blockaded and under siege, has shown the next step. It will take a second, more thoroughgoing revolution that seeks to transform all capitalist property relations to begin to truly root out the heritage of slavery in the United States.
1. Elizabeth Rauth Bethel, "Images of Hayti: the Construction of An Afro-American, Lieu De Memoire" Callaloo, Vol. 15, No 3, Haitian Literature and culture, Part 2 (summer 1992), p. 839.
2. Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, International Publishers, NY, New Edition, 1974.
3. W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, International Publishers, NY, Fourth Printing, 1972.
4. Ibid, p. 97.
5. Osborne P. Anderson, A Voice from Harpers Ferry, World View Forum, NY, 2000, p. 123.
6. Ibid. Images of Hayti: p. 839.
7. David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour & National Independence In Haiti, Rutgers University Press, 1996, p. 85.
8. Ibid, John Brown, W.E.B. Du Bois, p. 353.
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