In the middle of downtown Port au Prince sit quite a few monuments to Haiti’s early history: statues commemorating founders of the nation such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe; an unfinished tower which was meant to commemorate the country’s liberation from slavery at the 200th anniversary of the nation’s founding (1804); the marble-fronted three-sided column with texts from Haiti’s first constitution, drafted in 1801 by Toussaint Louverture, who is my personal most-want-to-meet person from history, along with Queen Elizabeth the first.
Also in the heart of town is the MUPANAH, musee du pantheon national d’Haiti. (It’s the building with the tiled mosaic features – the museum is underneath those unique skylights.) This fantastic site is both a truly interesting museum with displays on Haiti’s history from the native-American era to the present — and also a symbolic pantheon (guides tell us the actual earthly remains aren’t there, more sort of symbols or something – I haven’t asked for specifics) to four of the most important early leaders and founders: Tousaint, Dessalines, and Christophe, along with Alexandre Petion. Which bring us to the numbers game.
On a wall at the end are photos or paintings of nearly all the heads of state in Haiti’s history. Having now led groups of
international staff on downtown tours several times, always ending at the museum, I’m digging into more of the details. Last time, I read all the details under some of the presidents’ photos, such as when the Palais Nationale was built — the 1880s if I recall right. (That’s the president’s palace, which was badly damaged in 2010 and not yet functional again.) I also did some counting, looking for other ways to frame this nation’s complex, impressive and at times rather depressing history. How many elected presidents has Haiti had? 41. How many unelected heads of state and interim government councils or military juntas or councils of ministers has it had? 26.
Toussaint’s constitution was the first, in 1801. I’m sure it’s unique in human history as the very first time any constitution stated that slavery shall not exist. After all, Napoleon’s reaction when Toussaint sent him the draft for approval was to send hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of soldiers. Not hard to understand that the 400,000 or so self-liberated slaves here pretty much reacted to that with a “fuck you very much.” How many other constitutions? The total number of constitutions this country has known, starting with that 1801 version, is 23.
Most Haitians I’ve spoken with will explain that the US has invaded twice. The first was in 1915, an invasion which lasted until 1934. Like the more-recent US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Haiti continued to have presidents and a government formally its own…but with a bunch of American soldiers toting guns around, you can imagine how empowered that government and its citizens felt, eh? (And let’s be honest about white American soldiers occupying a black republic in 1915 and how respectful they likely were?) In the 48 years prior to that first invasion, Haiti saw 22 heads of state. The second US invasion was 1994, when the marines marched in to restore an elected president (Bertrand Aristide) to power and remove a military government. In the years between 1986 and 1994, Haiti had seen 10 heads of state and provisional ruling councils. Progress is hard to build and continue, when governance can’t be stable and transition reliably, and when outside powers and groups wield such influence, or invade at will.
Obviously the nation, its people and its history are more than numbers. Obviously there are human families, individual human stories of success and frustration, failure and achievement woven into the 225 years since the only successful slave revolt in human history rose and burned down the first colonial plantations on the Plaine du Nord in 1791. The numbers are but one way in – an invitation for those wanting to explore more deeply to do so. At this time, in these weeks and months to come following Matthew’s unwelcome visit, I for one am trying to remember this.