Friday, November 18, 2011

Batay Vètyè, or, why we had the day off

It doesn’t make any sense to me why the Haitian Revolution has not been made into an epic Braveheart-type movie—the kind that stirs your soul (even if you’re borderline pacifist, like me) and makes you simultaneously cry and want to charge forward with the troops yelling “Freedom!”  That’s the kind of history that Haiti has. 

Settled by the French shortly after Columbus’s 1492 journey, the island became the biggest supplier of the world’s sugar by the 1740s, along with Jamaica.  The production of sugar was brutal and labor-intensive, and massive numbers of slaves were imported from Africa to power the lucrative agribusiness.  The violence of the masters and the hardship of the labor were indescribably harsh—most slaves didn’t survive more than a few years after landing on the island in shackles.  Some slaves managed to escape and started to organize themselves and their compatriots who were still in bondage.  They were led by a handful of charismatic leaders who were both gifted strategists and highly trained in the art of war.  In 1791, the slaves rose up in rebellion, and started the Haitian Revolution that would rage for the next 12 years.

Today is the celebration of Batay Vètyè, the last battle of the revolution, fought on November 18, 1803.  For the first time in history, a slave army successfully rebelled against their masters to win their freedom and form a sovereign country.  The account of the battle below is from the 1907 work by J.N. Leger, “Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors.”  Every time I read it, I can’t help but imagine the movie version.  At this point in the movie, audience already knows and loves the heroic Haitian leaders—Dessalines and Capois, and has a seething distrust of the French general, Rochambeau.  Dessalines has just given a rallying speech to the troops, who raise their fists in fervor for freedom.  The climactic battle scene starts with the charge of 16,000 men in 4 columns.  The tympani beats with the rich orchestral soundtrack in harmony with the raging battle cries.  The shot pans across the slow motion heaving of thousands of limbs, united for a single-minded dream.  The camera cuts in for a close-up of glistening black skin—shining with blood, sweat, and pouring rain.  All motion heaves to a stop when the Haitian general’s horse goes down with a cannonball and the general falls to the ground.  Silence.  All is still.  No one breathes.  Is the battle lost?  And then the impossible.  His arm moves.  Then a leg.  Powered by the sheer will of a warrior he stands.  He fixes his eyes on the enemy.  He rushes back to the front lines to continue the fight.  The shot cuts to the enemy lines—shock, disbelief, fear.  Stunned and impressed, the French call a ceasefire to congratulate him for his glory in battle.  (And maybe to take a breath.)  The fight rages on.  The light grows dim as lightning and thunder crash on the battlefield.  Torrential rain pours down without mercy and mixes with the blood on the field.  The French withdraw their men.  The Haitians cry out baritone cheers from the very bottom of their lungs.  The battle ends.  The oppressors are defeated.  The slaves are free.  A country is born.  Epic.  Seriously, where is Hollywood when you need them?

“On the morning of November 18 the columns moved forward, seemingly unmindful of the bullets and cannon shots which were mowing down their ranks.  Rochambeau [the French general] in person, surrounded by his guard of honor consisting of artillery and infantry, was in command at Vertieres; he was, in consequence, exposed to the fierce attacks of Capois.  Both sides fought with desperate bravery.  The native [Haitian] generals, incited by Dessalines’ presence [the Haitian revolutionary leader] and also by the goal they wished to reach, were often seen during the bloody struggle fighting gun in hand side by side with their soldiers.  As to Capois [a Haitian general], he compelled the applause even of Rochambeau; driven off by the relentless fire of the enemy, his army unceasingly returned to the charge, stimulated by the audacity with which is leader was defying death.  Horse and rider rolled on the ground as a cannon ball hit the General’s charger; but with lightning rapidity Capois extricated himself, and sword in hand he once more rushed back to his place at the head of his soldiers.  Amidst the hurrahs of the French troops Rochambeau gave order for the firing to cease, and a cavalryman proceeded toward the amazed natives [Haitians].  ‘Captain-General Rochambeau,’ said he, ‘congratulates the General who has just covered himself with so much glory.’

“The messenger withdrew and the fight was resumed, until in the afternoon a torrential rain put an end to the battle.  Both sides lost heavily.  But the consequences of this encounter were of the greatest importance to the natives: they acquired possession of a country. . .On the same night, November 18, [Rochambeau] sent a flag of truce to Dessalines. . .

“Saint-Domingue was thus entirely lost to France.  After a year of heroic efforts the natives were at last masters of a land literally soaked with their own blood.  The bicolored flag, the emblem of liberty, now floated over the whole French portion of the island.”

Like I was saying, epic.

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