Slavery and Revolution in the Americas

Slavery and Revolution in the Americas

Researching slavery in American History is eye-opening as I realized it was not taught outright but only glossed over when I was a student. And now there is conservative backlash that seeks to teach Creationism as Science and the speeches of Ronald Reagan while outlawing “unpatriotic” issues, such as worker’s rights, union-busting, the slavery of African-Americans and the genocide of Native Americans.

In 1803 France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, we all know the story, but it could’ve turned out very differently for the U.S. and Native Nations. The American, French and Haitian Revolutions inspired many other uprisings but Haiti (the first modern successful slave revolt and the first establishment of a nation by former slaves) frightened the European Colonial Powers and the newly formed United States. The Haitian rebels defeated the French Army as well as British forces who attempted to intervene. The first U.S. Presidents had different attitudes but basically tried to isolate Haiti to keep the rebellion away from its southern states. Haiti also gave refuge to Simon Bolivar who went on to liberate Spanish American colonies (along with Jose San Martin). The Haitian Revolution was an important event ignored in history by white Americans and Europeans, but it was a complicated affair with classes of slaves, freedmen, mulattoes, plantation owners and merchants.

Napoleon’s 20,000 man army did capture Touissant L’Ouverture but his protege General Dessalines defeated the French army when it became known that slavery would be reintroduced. His execution of white French citizens in the aftermath did not help their cause. Thomas Jefferson was upset with the possibility of slave revolts spreading here and to his own plantation, even to consider “murdering their own children”, calling Haitian rebels “cannibals”. Jefferson was a hyprocrite when it came to slavery (he owned 175 slaves at Monticello and only freed 5) but he secretly aided Haiti to counter Napoleon so that the French army could not garrison New Orleans. He was also prepared to ally with England against the French, now that Napoleon was a geo-political danger. Jefferson said black and white could not share the same country and contemplated deporting all blacks to Haiti. He also conjectured that slavery could go west into the new territories, or not, depending on the politics of each new state. Still, he was far from the worst, as successive South Carolina Senators thought that slavery should be made permanent and the rebellions proved their point that blacks should not be given any freedoms, which only encourage them to rise up “and kill us all”. These Senators did not blame the institution of slavery but the anti-slavery abolitionists. This rhetoric sounds all too familiar today.

The Mother Emanuel Church where the AME 9 massacre happened this past June 17, was also the site of an alleged slave uprising exactly 193 years earlier in June 1822. Dylann Roof’s own “research” apparently targeted the Mother Emanuel Church. Folklore alleges a huge conspiracy but recent research points to hysteria, as laws were passed limiting blacks to gather even in churches, the church was raided several times leading up to the arrest, secret trial and hanging of this same AME Church co-founder Denmark Vesey, and co-conspirators. It was called a secret trial because its proceedings were silenced even until very recent times. Vesey was from Haiti and was inspired by events there. His alleged plot called for thousands to rise up at once, and these numbers were lowered to hundreds by authorities so as not to frighten whites that were outnumbered by blacks. This AME Church founded in 1816 was burned by white supremacists after the events in 1822; all Black churches were shuttered by law in the 1830’s as congregations met in secret; it was ruined by the 1886 earthquake and rebuilt many years later at the present site. Now the FBI is investigating at least 6 fires as suspected arson in historic Black Churches in southern states.

Charleston was founded by English traders from Bermuda, and exported American Indian slaves from 1670-1715 at numbers estimated to run from 25,000 to 50,000. More traders came from Barbados to develop highly profitable rice plantations with slave labor; this work was terrible for the workers who suffered from malaria among other depredations. South Carolina had a preference in black slaves from Ghana, then Angola, then Niger. 40% to 60% of all slaves in the English American colonies came through South Carolina. There was a Slave Market on Magazine Street, the sight became offensive to whites and was moved to Chalmers Street. There was also Sullivan Island, where disembarked slaves lived in “Pest Houses” before being allowed onto the mainland; and again the “sight of this proved offensive” so James Island became the new site for arrivals. “The Old Slave Mart” is a historic building that was eventually turned into an African-American history museum. Malcolm X’s great grandfather passed through Charleston in 1815 as a slave.

“White men did the work before slaves…” was an interesting reference about the rice fields of South Carolina. It is trendy to say race, black and white, are social and political constructs. Irish and Italians immigrants were not viewed as white, but over time they became “white”, and filled the niche required to become the Police that enforced society’s racialist laws and keep blacks, the permanent slave class, in their place. This is all rather theoretical, yet it fits perfectly. At the beginnings of this country, poor people of all races could work as indentured servants and eventually pay off their servitude to become freemen and women. They were then “encouraged” to move west onto “newly acquired Indian Lands”.

The Pope and the Catholic Church, who divided the New World between the Spanish and Portuguese declared that non-Christian heathens could be subjugated as a permanent class of slaves. It was then argued these heathens could be saved if they were baptized and became practicing Christians. Slave owners on plantations found that this would cost them their “investments” in labor (they could pay $10 to $20,000 for a handpicked slave), so the rules of the game were changed to keep a permanent slave class and the white/black social construction became more or less a reality.

There is ethnic cleansing going on right where Columbus landed 500 years ago and the slave trade started in the Americas. The Dominican Republic is in deep denial of their own African heritage as they kick out Haitian migrant workers, and these 200,000 people become stateless and homeless. The DR also refers to their own dark-skinned underclass as “Indio”, a historical lie. The record states by 1552 these Arawak/Taino people were gone; the Native bloodline of these tribal people dispersed into the Dominican population. In Haiti an equivalent might be the runaway slaves called Maroons. Again the dominant merchant class appropriates this cultural legend for its own ends, declaring it part of their mythos or in repressing its poor, minority or working classes.

Another disgusting part of Colonial American history is that Haiti was forced to pay an indemnity to France for the loss of plantations and slave labor, that figure is now worth $21 billion in reverse-reparations that Haiti has levied on France. French warships were sent to collect gold in 1825 from Haiti in return for “political recognition”, these “reparations” ended in 1947. To pay off this onerous “debt” Haiti initiated “The Rural Code” which instituted class racism with lighter skinned merchants in the ports and cities and black Haitians in the countryside. Haiti has never been the same and has practically become a failed state. Haiti is now “enslaved” to a global corporate economy and its people are among the poorest in the world. Now the Dominican Republic “deports Haitian migrant workers”, some who no longer have ties there and are effectively Dominican. It is “ethnic cleansing” and a human rights crime. The UN should condemn the DR and the US should boycott tourist travel there.

In the book “500 Nations”, the first story on Native Americans fighting back against their slave masters was Enrique who led the first American revolt fighting the Spanish to a stand-still with guerilla tactics as he led the remnants of his Arawak people into the Bahoruca Mountains. The Spanish called all Indians who resisted “Taino”. I imagine that Enrique survives as the myth, the man in the mountains, who fought for and won freedom for his people, right there 500 years ago where colonial racism still plays out its ugly parlor tricks. Dominican historians romanticize Enrique (or Enriquillo) and no doubt his legend is the basis for the sobriquet “Indio” in use, yet it has always been an epithet in the southern Americas designating the lowest of classes…meaning, Indians. The Dominican minister of the interior and police said recently, “We don’t respond to pressure, this is a legendary and heroic people, of struggles.” He is probably referring to the stolen legacy of Enrique, the man in the mountains, the original “Indio”.

Enrique’s real name was Guarocuya, a young boy, he survived the massacre of his village, last of the chief/cacique line of “Queen” Anacaona and “King” Caonabo. He was baptized, raised by missionaries, and tried to abide by Spanish laws but a cruel fop named Valenzuela made it difficult. Enrique went over his head to report his cruelties, by law, but on his return Valenzuela beat him, tied him up and made him watch the rape of his wife, Dona Lucia. Enrique became The Rebel, and led a guerilla war that eventually led his 4000 Arawak people to a settlement at the base of the Cibao Mountains, all negotiated by Bartolome de Las Casas. The first Native Revolt in the mainland of Turtle Island was the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, led by Pope’ (Popay) who led a coordinated attack on the Spanish colonizers in Santa Fe chasing them and their Indian allies to El Paso. Pueblo communities still celebrate these events every August, holding health-initiated runs to commemorate the Pueblo Revolt.