Silencing the Past

From Silencing the Past – Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, p 25:
“For what history is changes with time and place or, better said, history reveals itself only through the production of specific narratives. What matters most are the process and conditions of production of such narratives. Only a focus on that process can uncover the ways in which the two sides of historicity intertwine in a particular context. Only through that overlap can we discover the differential exercise of power that makes some narratives possible and silences others.”

Trouillot is describing a theory of history much like the philosophy of art. In art, one learns that the negative spaces have value; what is left out describes the ultimate image as much as the impressions that the artist leaves. Trouillot is arguing that the same holds for historical silences, and that if we can understand the reasons such silences show up in a particular historical narrative, we’ll gain insight into the complete history. Indeed, he seems to be saying that one cannot consider history without considering the silences also.

On page 26, Trouillot writes:
“Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).”
Continue reading Silencing the Past

After the flood…

Just finished reading all 250 posts to the Haiti newsgroup since I joined at the beginning of the year. Whew!

My brain is on overload right now and I’m still sifting through my thoughts, but here are a few observations:

1. It is striking how different reports of the same event can vary so widely. Of course, this is rather obvious, but I think this is the first time I’ve read about the same event – the Haitian Independence celebration of jan 1, in this case – covered by so many sources. From AP wire stories to personal accounts to government propaganda, descriptions of particular events vary so widely that it’s impossible for me to know what the truth is. I can’t tell if Haitians love Aristide or hate him. Is the Group of 184 a spontaneous and legitimate dissenting voice, or was it manufactured here in the US? How many people really have been killed in protests during the last month.

I find this all especially interesting now that I’m reading Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. Given our unprecedented access to information in this age, if it’s impossible to know right now what truth is, how can historians hope to make any sense of it?

To that point, Louise turned me on to the New Yorker article Theatres of War by Daniel Mendelsohn. In it, the author describes Thucydides’ History of the fall of Athens, and current authors’ attempts to deconstruct it and use it for their own purposes. The significant discovery for me in the article, though, is that Thucydides wrote a sort of interpreted history. He wrote the dialog of the players involved, sometimes as if an entire people was speaking with one voice. He used the device of dialog to try to capture the sense of the debate, the flow of ideas that was taking place at the time. Perhaps this is what history can do: capture a flavor, an essence.

2. Haitians, most of them, are poor. Really, mind-bogglingly poor. When you read descriptions of people eating mud just to survive, it’s hard to fathom that kind of reality. Toussaint must be weeping to see what’s become of his country.

3. It seems that all Haitians agree that things need to improve – many of them are desperate for change, for a better life – yet none seem to have any hope that things will really ever be different. There is outrage and agitation aplenty, but few talk of an actual plan for how things are going to improve.

For my part, my armchair observer’s two cents says that Haiti needs stability. Aristede needs to serve out his term, even if he spends too much on cars and has goon squads running amok. The man that Haiti elected needs to finish a term, and elections for the next president need to be held and that person needs to finish HIS term. Democracy must be seen to be working, and without the further intervention of outside forces. When Haitians see that they have a voice in the voting booth, they may start to speak with more confidence and authority.

Of course, without money, even a stable governmental body may not make much difference. Desperate people are driven to desperate measures. (You see? You see how easy it is to lose hope for Haiti?) If the international community would simply release the money that has already been allocated for use in Haiti, and if it could somehow be distributed rationally – perhaps along the lines of the cash infusion that Ireland has seen in recent years – then it’s hard to see how there wouldn’t be some improvement. Of course there will be abuses, but the current practice of withholding funds is certainly contributing nothing positive.

Combien c’est Louisiana?

I’m reading from Henry Adams’ “The history of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison.” Zounds! In this he declares that the Spaniard Godoy, by refusing to relinquish the Louisiana Territory upon discovering he had been duped, had as much influence as the revolt in Haiti on Napoleon’s decision to sell the territory. The details in Adam’s book are sketchy but tantalizing.

The question of Louverture and Haiti’s role in US history is key as I move forward with this project. I suspect that my grandfather made a little much of the revolution’s importance on Napoleon’s decision to sell the LA Territory. If events in Haiti can be established as having had a profound impact on that transaction, then the focus of whatever story emerges should rightly focus on that fact. If not, then I’ll be able to keep the story in Haiti and not have to explain French and American history in addition to Haitian.

[Just noticed this from the General Editor’s Preface to Adams: “The books in this series were designed for reading, not research. All documentation has, therefore, been eliminated.” Then, from the book editor’s introduction: “Only a few of the high points of the History could be represented here…” This is an abridged edition. Time to find a new volume of Adams.]
Continue reading Combien c’est Louisiana?

A couple of things to kick off 2004

Happy New Year!

I just came across this article on What You Can’t Say by way of Slashdot. I find myself wishing the author would find more evidence for his viewpoint, yet the topic of moral fashions is an intriguing one. Herman Hesse said, “We should remember that it is easy and foolish to sneer at the mistakes or barbarities of remote ages.” To impose today’s moral fashions on other generations is as silly as dressing them in our clothes would be. This is an important concept to remember as I read about Toussaint Louverture.

Secondly, a big congratulations to the team at JPL for a successful landing of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. Louise and I watched the coverage on Nasa TV last night. It was so exciting to see the years of hard work pay off so handsomely. Best of luck, you guys, and continued success!

The story is about land (?)

This is an intriguing idea – that the meta-meaning of the revolution was less about freedom than about land. According to Carolyn Fick, freedom to the slaves in Haiti was meaningless without land ownership. Ironic, then, that the Louisiana purchase opened up just that possibility for millions of American citizens.

Read more of Corbett’s site today. The guy has done an amazing amount of research on Haiti. Came across some good books (including the Fick book). May purchase some from him.

First thing to do, though, is to evaluate Boswell, StickyBrain, and CircusPonies. I need something to help me organize as I go off on all these tangents. It may be that nothing will work any better than the blog, but we’ll see.

Toussint’s flaws; Napoleon’s designs

Toussaint made a fatal error in not confiding his plans in his generals. His weaknesses seem to include love of white culture and breeding, disdain for uneducated blacks, and isolation. Had he taken Moyse and Dessalines, for instance, into his confidence, had he educated them about the reasons behind his policies, they might have been loyal allies instead of undermining his policies.

It seems that Toussaint fell victim to the same sort of inertia that ensnares the greatest of men: the belief that what got you here will get you there. Toussaint�s habits of plotting and scheming in virtual isolation stood him in good stead while he worked to gather his forces. However, there came a time when he needed to draw on the resources of others in the country. He needed to address the fact that attachment to the old system still existed. He needed to address the economic incentives that Moyse and Dessalines found in the plantation system. He needed generals that understood the long term vision, the greater good. Not reaching out, not letting go of control, believing that he could do everything alone � this was Toussaint�s fatal flaw.

Korngold p. 232 � �[Napoleon] was to say: �I have to reproach myself the attack upon this colony. I should have contented myself with ruling the island through the intermediary of Toussaint.��

� The invasions of St. Domingo, Spain and Russia were Napoleon�s three capital blunders. From the historical perspective the invasion of St. Domingo surpasses the two others in importance. The setback to the Grand Army in Spain, its virtual destruction on the steppes of Russia, had important repercussions on the history of that time and hastened Napoleon�s downfall. But had Spain and Russia not been invaded, Europoe would still have emerged from the Napoleonic adventure the Europe of the Congress of Vienna. The invasion of St. Domingo, however, was responsible for the loss by France of its richest colony, and, as a result of that loss, for the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The sale of the Territory affected the future of the American Continent and of the world to an extent that cannot be overestimated.

� The Grand Army�s losses in St. Domingo were almost as serious as those it suffered in Spain � 70,000 were lost in Spain, 63,000 in St. Domingo. �

Compare the second paragraph here with what Professor Corbett says. Corbett makes the claim that Napoleon never had designs on the Louisiana territory, or rather that he only had such designs as would restore Haiti to its former economic importance (i.e., using New Orleans as a supply depot for St. Domingue). Either way, it seems that Haiti�s fate at the least hastened America�s acquisition of the Western territory

Would Napoleon eventually have sold or released the land to the US at some point if things in Haiti had gone otherwise? It’s hard to see why he would have, though given the disastrous campaigns in Russian and Spain, I’m not sure what use Napoleon could have made of the land. If, though, he had managed to secure Haiti and restore its economic importance, he may not have needed to sell the Louisiana Territories when he did. The land might have eventually been settled by the French, or ceded to the US or back to Spain.

[In this chapter, Korngold also lays out his theory of Napoleon�s thirst for world domination.]

Also � p. 233 � �Before the French Revolution two thirds of the French import and export trade had been with St. Domingo.� Two thirds! The loss of that trade is significant for both sides. No wonder Napoleon wanted it back. And no wonder Toussaint turned to Spain, Britain and especially the United States to make up the gap. He was covering his butt, economically speaking.

Surfing the waves of change.

Sometimes I can hardly believe that Toussaint accomplished what he did. His growth as a leader is nothing short of extraordinary. Once the Negroes had begun their revolt, once they had been armed and given hope, returning them to slavery would have been impossible. Toussaint must have seen that halting the revolution was impossible. He was like a surfer on a wave of change, clever and bold enough to stay just a few steps ahead and win important military and economic victories. Never mind that he was black, that he managed to establish himself as an almost universally loved leader of his country was miraculous. That he also maintained the highest moral and ethical standards throughout his campaign is a singular achievement.

I have seen references disparaging TL’s shifting alliances from France to Spain to Britain and the US. I see, though, why he did what he did. Haiti was at the mercy of other countries for their economic prosperity. When France tried to squeeze the island, Toussaint looked elsewhere for trade opportunities. When the Code Noir was under attack in France, Toussaint took the necessary steps to preserve the progress blacks had made.

Toussaint plays

Stumbled across references to a couple of Toussaint-related productions. Danny Glover starred as TL in a production at Carnegie Hall on May 23rd of this year. Also, I had been aware of the play For Love of Freedom, produced in 2001 at the Robey theatre in LA, but not that it was a trilogy! Apparently, “FOR THE LOVE OF FREEDOM;TOUSSAINT THE SOUL part I in the year 2001. Part 2 if the Haitian trilogy, DESSALINE; THE HEART, was produced in 2002, and part three is slated for 2004.”

Finally, Paul Robeson’s one-act about Toussaint, Lion in Captivity, was the subject of a casting call on October 29th.

RK for Sunday

Korngold p 101 – Speculates on Toussaint’s reason for choosing the name Louverture. I would prefer to avoid speculation on such things. Who knows whether Toussaint himself consciously knew the reason? Sometimes our psyches assimilate circumstances for us. Perhaps, though, Toussaint did see himself as a savior. Perhaps he was aware of himself as uniquely positioned to deliver emancipation.

P 110 – Toussaint claims to have spent 640,00 Francs of his own money. Korngold speculates this was given to Toussaint at the beginning of the revolution.

TL’s success in battle is often credited to the speed with which his army moved. Compare this with the successes of other great generals – including Napoleon – and to the OODA loop and the theories proposed by John Boyd.

P 112 – “The statesman Toussaint realized that surrounded as were the Negroes of St. Domingo by slaveowning powers, they could not hope to maintain liberty without building an economically powerful state able to supply them with modern weapons of warfare. To do this the cooperation of the whites was indispensable.”

Toussaint’s significant contributions to the liberation of Haiti included arming the Negroes and bending over backwards to treat whites humanely and without a trace of vindictiveness. By showing himself to be fair and just, he gained the cooperation of blacks AND whites.

Toussaint in from the beginning?

I got my new PowerBook today, so I can hardly concentrate, but here goes…

Korngold makes the astonishing claim that Toussaint was in on the revolution from the beginning in 1791! I’m stunned. I never heard this part before. According to Citizen Toussaint, the then-Governor of St. Domingue was convinced that the best way to quell any talk of independence among the plantation owners was to stage a slave revolt. The governor visited the Breda plantation, where Toussaint either volunteered or was suggested as a suitable candidate to organize the mock rebellion. Toussaint then set the wheels in motion for the events of 1791.

As I originally heard the story, Toussaint joined the rebellion at the age of 47 as a doctor, then rose to the ranks of General. This did in fact happen, but TL was involved long before that point.