Slavery: The Toll that Still Rings

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainThe narrative that proclaims that slavery is a thing of the past and therefore must be forgotten or silenced, is a dangerous and a counter-productive account that is useful only to its benefactors. Likewise, the narrative that claims that Haitians won the war of independence and curtailed the course of slavery is also counter-productive.

The truth is that the institutional mechanisms that once enabled slavery and its associated principles are an entrenched part of the Haitian reality and are codified in the letters of the law.

New World slavery was the primary institution responsible for the establishment and sustenance of Western capital growth in the New World. Its effects have been far-reaching and well-maintained over time. Even today, former slave holding colonies are often so severely indebted to their former colonial masters and other nations that the relationships bear the semblance of a new form of indentured servitude.

However, the after-effects of slavery are not limited to governmental and institutional modes; they persist at the individual level, creating cross-national systems of exploitation that have perpetuated not only the economy of servitude, but also the culture. For example, many Haitians currently toil under slave-like conditions in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. Despite Haiti’s successful revolution against imperial France, the country continues, in 2011, to be a source of cheap labor.

Haiti was once France’s Pearl of the Antilles. However, little has been done to correctly assess the discarded shell that once encased the pearl. The slaves and their descendents, a collective symbol of the discarded shell, are the legacy of a tumultuous past that has yet to rectify itself.

At the height of the slave trade, multitudes of Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves. Haiti was the first slave colony in the New World and soon became a cornerstone of social death. The super-exploited bodies of black Africans (Aradas, Ashantis, Congos, Dahomeys, Igbos, Mandingoes, etc.) fueled the economy of Europe, while on the plantations of self-proclaimed democratic and enlightened countries, a systemic deprivation of resources led to the generational impoverishment of black people and black countries. Slavery in and of itself was a systematically and tightly controlled institution that was economic, political, legal and cultural in nature.

Rational basis for the trafficking of human cargo was provided in part by religion. Both Christians and Muslims viewed black Africans as descendants of Ham, and therefore cursed. Prince Henry of Portugal, in the 1440s, bought slaves from Lagos claiming his supreme desire to Christianize the impious. Some Haitians, even today, view the black race as a cursed race and relegate themselves to a fate that is rooted in the legacy of enslavement.

While the European monarchy was the supreme architect of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, let us not forget that several African royal families such as the rulers of Benin, Ashanti, and Dahomey also benefited from the sale of black bodies. It is arguable that this betrayal has left an indelible mark on our collective psyche, as we are in many ways disconnected from our roots and are a fragmented nation.

According to Eric Williams, “The reason [for slavery] was economic, not racial; it had to do not with color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. As compared with Indian and white labor, Negro slavery was eminently superior.”

Under slavery, black Haitians were unmercifully driven to assume obedience similar to that of a plough-ox. Slaves became machines of production. Many historians reported that black men had superior endurance and therefore a better labor capacity. Such labor capacity advantage became a catastrophic disadvantage for generations that saw their families, tribes and nations completely torn apart for the material benefits of others.

Unfortunately, the devalued human quality of blacks that was assigned during slavery has spilled over into modern society. Haiti, the first place to have fostered the systematic exploitation of black slave labor, was also the first place to have violently revolted against it. For many, the issue of slavery remains taboo, yet it must be addressed, as the remnants of slavery persist. We are still paying the price.

Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University.