Category Archives: Peter Hallward

Haitian inspiration: On the bicentenary of Haiti’s independence

Originally posted in Radical Philosophy Issue 123, January/February 2004.

Two hundred years ago this month (January 2004), the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola became the independent nation of Haiti. Few transformations in world history have been more momentous, few required more sacri?ce or promised more hope. And few have been more thoroughly forgotten by those who would have us believe that this history has since come to a desirable end with the eclipse of struggles for socialism, national liberation and meaningful independence in the developing world.

Of the three great revolutions that began in the ?nal decades of the eighteenth century – American, French and Haitian – only the third forced the unconditional application of the principle that inspired each one: af?rmation of the natural, inalienable rights of all human
beings. Only in Haiti was the declaration of human freedom universally consistent. Only in Haiti was this declaration sustained at all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and economic logic of the day. Only in Haiti were the consequences of this declaration – the end of slavery, of colonialism, of racial inequality – upheld in terms that directly embraced the world as a whole. And of these three revolutions, it is Haiti’s that has the most to teach those seeking to uphold these consequences in the world today.

Recognized as a French territory from the late seventeenth century, by the 1780s Saint-Domingue had become far and away the most pro?table colony in the world, the jewel in the French imperial crown and the basis for much of the new prosperity of its growing commercial bourgeoisie. ‘On the eve of the American Revolution’, Paul Farmer notes, ‘Saint-Domingue – roughly the size of the modern state of Maryland – generated more revenue than all thirteen North American colonies combined’; on the eve of the French Revolution it had become the world’s single largest producer of coffee and the source for around 75 per cent of its sugar.(1) This exceptional productivity was the result of an exceptionally cruel plantation economy, one built on the labour of slaves who were worked to death so quickly that even rapid expansion of the slave trade over these same years was unable to keep up with demand. Mortality levels were such that during the 1780s the colony absorbed around 40,000 new slaves a year. By 1789, Eric Williams suggests, this ‘pearl of the Caribbean’ had become, for the vast majority of its inhabitants, ‘the worst hell on earth’.(2)

Rapid growth put signi?cant strains on the colony’s social structure. Coercive power was divided between three increasingly antagonistic groups – the white plantation-owning elite, the representatives of French imperial power on the island, and an ever more prosperous but politically powerless group of mulattos and former slaves. With the outbreak of the French Revolution tensions between these factions of the colonial ruling class broke out in open con?ict, and when a massive slave rebellion began in August 1791 the regime was unable to cope. Sent to restore order, the French commissioner Sonthonax was soon confronted by a rebellion of the white planters seeking greater independence from republican France and withdrawal of the civic rights recently granted to the island’s mulattos. Sonthonax only managed to suppress this rebellion by offering permanent freedom to the slave armies who still controlled the countryside, in exchange for their support. Over the next few years, the army of emancipated slaves led by Toussaint L’Ouverture slowly gained control of the colony. In a series of brilliant military campaigns, Toussaint defeated the planters, the Spanish, the British and his own rivals among the black and mulatto armies. By the turn of the century he had become the effective ruler of Saint-Domingue. Unwilling to break with France itself, however, Toussaint allowed himself to be taken prisoner by the expeditionary force that Napoleon sent in 1801 to restore colonial slavery. Napoleon’s troops were successful in Guadeloupe but failed in Saint-Domingue. Toussaint’s army reassembled under Jean-Jacques Dessalines and by the time the war of independence was over Napoleon, like Pitt before him, had lost 50,000 troops. The last of the French were expelled in November 1803.

Apart from the extraordinary impact of the historical sequence itself, why should anyone with an interest in radical philosophy take an interest, today, in the making of Haitian independence? Haiti is invariably described as the ‘poorest country in the Western hemisphere’. It routinely features as an object lesson in failed economic development and un?nished ‘modernization’, as deprived of the bene?ts associated with representative democracy, modern civil society and stable foreign investment. Almost as regularly, it is presented as the referent of explicitly racist hogwash about Voodoo or AIDS. Why take an interest in the revolution which led to the creation of such a country? Here are some of the more obvious reasons.

1. If the French Revolution stands as the great political event of modern times, the Haitian revolution must ?gure as the single most decisive sequence of this event. The French colonies were the one place in which the ‘universal’ principles of liberty and equality af?rmed by 1789 were truly tested: they were that exceptional place in which these principles might fail to apply. No question served to clarify political differences within the Revolutionary Assemblies as sharply as the colonial question, and, as Florence Gauthier has shown, no question played a more important role in the reactionary transition from the Jacobin prescription of natural rights to the Thermidorian af?rmation of social rights – the prescriptions of order, property and prosperity. The Haitian revolution continued, moreover, where the French Revolution left off: just before Napoleon tried to restore slavery in the western half of Hispaniola, Toussaint abolished it in the eastern half. And in so far as our political present retains an essentially Thermidorian con?guration, the logic used by the French colonial lobby to justify the preservation of slavery says something about the logic at issue in today’s global division of labour as well. Pierre Victor Malouet, speaking on behalf of the planters in the Assembly’s 1791 debate, knew that the universal declaration of human rights was incompatible with the existence of colonies, and so urged his patriotic countrymen to preserve the exceptional status of their colonies. ‘It’s not a matter of pondering whether the institution of slavery can be defended in terms of principle and right’, said Malouet; ‘no man endowed with sense and morality would profess such a doctrine. It’s a matter, instead, of knowing whether it is possible to change this institution in our colonies, without a terrifying accumulation of crimes and calamities.’(3) The basic principle persists to this day. The rules that apply to ‘us’ cannot reasonably be made to apply to ‘them’ without jeopardizing the stability of our investments, without risking global recession, terror or worse.

2. The achievement of Haitian independence reminds us that politics need not always proceed as ‘the art of the possible’. Haitian independence brought to an end one of the most profoundly improbable sequences in all of world history. Contemporary observers were uniformly astounded. As Robin Blackburn observes, Toussaint’s forces broke the chain of colonial slavery at ‘what had been, in 1789, its strongest link’.(4) They overcame the most crushing form of ideological prejudice ever faced by a resistance movement and defeated in turn the armies of the most powerful imperialist nations on earth. Their example further provided perhaps the single greatest inspiration for subsequent African and Latin American liberation movements: Haiti provided crucial support to (a notably ungrateful) Simón Bolívar in his struggle against Spain, and in the ?rst decades of the nineteenth century helped motivate rebellions against slavery in Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil and the USA, just as it would later inspire those working for an end to colonialism in Africa.

3. The Haitian revolution is a particularly dramatic example of the way in which historical ‘necessity’ emerges only retrospectively. Those who refrain from action until the full strategic import of the moment becomes clear will never act. With hindsight, it is obvious that in the circumstances of the late eighteenth century only the achievement of national independence could ever guarantee the lasting abolition of slavery in Haiti. Nevertheless, it took Dessalines ten years to reach this conclusion, and it is one that Toussaint himself was apparently never willing to accept. Toussaint’s eventual determination to placate the French, to preserve the essential structure of the plantation economy, to accommodate the white planters, cost him much of his popular support in the ?nal campaign against France: the man who did most to achieve liberation of the slaves was unable to do what was required to preserve this achievement. Similarly, although the slave uprising that sparked the whole sequence was carefully planned and thoroughly prepared by the structural conditions of the plantation
economy itself, its full consequences remained obscure long after the event. None of the leaders involved in the uprising deliberately set out to achieve the abolition of slavery. Pursuit of abolition was virtually imposed upon them by the planters’ refusal to accept anything other than the quasi-suicidal surrender of their armies. The actual decision to abolish slavery was then forced on a reluctant Sonthonax as a result of intractable divisions among the Saint-Domingue elite.

4. Although the process was contingent and unpredictable, the achievement of Haitian freedom and independence was forced through direct action, without mediation of ‘recognition’, ‘negotiation’ or ‘communication’. Enlightened arguments against slavery were hardly uncommon in the eighteenth century. Montesquieu poured scorn on its racial and religious ‘justi?cations’, the Encyclopédie labelled the colonial slave trade a crime against humanity, Rousseau identi?ed slavery with a denial of humanity pure and simple. The mostly Girondin Société des Amis des Noirs supported a ‘carefully prepared freedom for the slaves’ within a reformed colonial system. There’s a world of difference, however, between the assertion of such ?ne principles and active solidarity with an actual slave uprising. Brissot, founder of the Société, called for the repression of the slaves’ uprising as soon as it began. As C.L.R. James points out, impassioned moral outbursts about the evils of exploitation ‘neither then nor now have carried weight’, for when the basis of their authority is in question those in power yield only to irresistible pressure.(5) The moderates who worked to improve conditions in Saint-Domingue through of?cial legislative channels achieved virtually nothing during three years of indecisive wrangling, and the Jacobins’ eventual acceptance of an end to slavery came a full two and a half years after the 1791 revolt. Unlike the slaves, who lacked any of?cial representation, the island’s mulattos were weakened as much by their futile efforts to solicit recognition from France as they were by their reckless determination to pursue their claims in isolation, without black support. (As for Tocqueville, the darling of those reactionary historians of the French Revolution who have recently gone to some trouble to erase the question of slavery and the colonies from this history altogether (6) – for all his well-known aversion to slavery, he was to echo the colonial lobby almost to the letter when in the 1830s and 1840s he came to advocate the ‘total domination’ of Algeria through ‘devastation of the country’ and the enforcement of apartheid-style forms of social control.) Among the French philosophers, only Diderot and Raynal, after Mercier, were willing to tell the nations of Europe, in words that may have inspired Toussaint himself, that ‘your slaves are not in need of your generosity or of your councils, in order to break the sacrilegious yoke which oppresses them.… A courageous chief only is wanted [who] will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty.’

5. The Haitian revolution is a powerful illustration of the way in which any actively universal prescription is simultaneously an exceptional and divisive revaluation of a hitherto unrepresentable or ‘untouchable’ aspect of its situation. Every truly universal principle, as Alain Badiou suggests, ‘appears at ?rst as the decision of an undecidable or the valorization of something without value’ and its consequent application will ensure that the group or capacity that has so far been ‘minimally existent’ in the situation comes to acquire a maximal intensity.(7) On the eve of 1791, what virtually all the participants in the debate over slavery accepted, including the future slave leaders themselves, was the impossibility of an independent nation peopled by free citizens of African descent. The achievement of this independence must stand as one of the most categorical blows against racism that has ever been struck. Rarely has race been so clearly understood for what it is – in no sense a source of con?ict or difference, but merely an empty signi?er harnessed to an economy of plunder and exploitation. Early Haitian writers understood perfectly well the point made more recently by Wallerstein and Balibar, among others, that theories of racial inequality were concocted by white colonists so as to legitimate slavery and the pursuit of European interests. The ?rst constitution of Haiti (1805) broke abruptly with the whole question of race by identifying all Haitians, regardless of the colour of their skin, as black – a characterization that included, among others, a substantial number of German and Polish troops who had joined in the ?ght against Napoleon. David Nicholls demonstrates that throughout the nineteenth century, though they showed little interest in the contemporary state of African culture per se, ‘Haitian writers, mulatto and black, conservative and Marxist, were practically unanimous in portraying Haiti as a symbol of African regeneration and of racial equality. Mulatto intellectuals from the elite, who in appearance could well have been taken for Europeans, proudly regarded themselves as Africans, as members of the black race.’8 And, as Nicholls goes on to show, nothing has undercut Haitian independence in the post-revolutionary period more than the resurgence of colour prejudice and the re-differentiation of Haitians in terms of either coloured or black.

6. Haiti’s revolution is a reminder that such divisive universality can only be sustained by a revolutionary subject. Haitian independence was the conclusion of the only successful slave uprising that has ever taken place. It isn’t dif?cult to list the various conjunctural reasons for this success, including the large numbers and concentration of slaves in the colony, the economic and cultural factors which tied them together, the brutality with which most of them were treated, the relative freedom of movement enjoyed by the slaves’ ‘managerial’ elite, the intensity of economic and political divisions among the ruling class, rivalries among the imperialist powers, the inspiration provided by the revolutions in America and France, the quality of Toussaint’s leadership, and so on. One factor above all, however, accounts for the outcome of what became one of the ?rst modern instances of total war: the people’s determination to resist a return to slavery under any circumstances. This is the great constant of the entire revolutionary sequence, and it is this that lends an overall direction to the otherwise convoluted series of its leaders’ tactical manoeuvrings. As Carolyn Fick has established, when Dessalines, Christophe and the other black generals ?nally broke with the French in 1802, it was the constancy of their troops that enabled their eventual decision. ‘The masses had resisted the French from the very beginning, in spite of, and not because of, their leadership. They had shouldered the whole burden and paid the price of resistance all along, and it was they who had now made possible the political and military reintegration of the leaders in the collective struggle.’ (9) Haiti’s revolutionaries thereby refused today’s logic of ‘democratic intervention’ avant la lettre. The recent introduction of democracy to Iraq is only the latest of a long sequence of international attempts to impose self-serving political arrangements upon a people whose participation in the process is only tolerable if it remains utterly passive and obedient; the people of Haiti, by contrast, were determined to remain the subjects rather than the objects of their own liberation. And by doing so, they likewise challenged that category of absolute passivity, that quasi-human ‘remainder’ revived, in a certain sense, by Giorgio Agamben’s recent work on bare life and the Muselmänner. Whereas ‘before the revolution many a slave had to be whipped before he could be got to move from where he sat’, James notes, these same ‘subhumans’ then went on to ?ght ‘one of the greatest revolutionary battles in history’. (10)

7. In stark contrast to today’s democratic consensus, Haitian history from Toussaint and Dessalines to Préval and Aristide features the consistent articulation of popular political mobilization and authoritarian leadership. Needless to say, the fortunes of the former have often suffered from the excesses of the latter. It is no less obvious, however, that arguments in favour of ‘democratic reform’ and a judicious ‘separation of powers’ have very largely been made by members of Haiti’s tiny propertied elite, along with their international sponsors. Precisely these kinds of argument have served to paralyse Aristide’s presidency from the moment he ?rst took of?ce. The basic pattern was already set with the reaction to Dessalines’ own brief rule: in his several years as (an undeniably bloodthirsty and autocratic) emperor, Dessalines introduced taxes on trade that were unpopular with the elite, took steps to dissolve prejudice between coloureds and blacks, and began to move towards a more equitable distribution of land. ‘Negroes and mulattos’, he announced, ‘we have all fought against the whites; the properties which we have conquered by the spilling of our blood belong to us all; I intend that they be divided with equity.’ (11) Soon afterwards, in October 1806, the mulatto elite had Dessalines assassinated, and were subsequently careful to protect their commercial privileges by imposing strict limits on presidential power. Dessalines’ true successor, as James implies, is Fidel Castro. On the other hand, repeated attempts (begun by Toussaint himself) to restore the old plantation economy by authoritarian means foundered on the resolve of the emancipated slaves never to return to their former life. The main goal of most participants in the war of independence was direct control over their own livelihood and land. Haiti’s ?rst constitution was careful to block foreign ownership of Haitian property, and by the 1820s many of Haiti’s ex-slaves had succeeded in becoming peasant proprietors. The ongoing effort to retain at least some degree of economic autonomy is one of several factors that help explain the exceptionally aggressive economic policies subsequently imposed on the island, ?rst by American occupation (1915–34) and later by the IMF-brokered structural adjustment plans which have effectively continued that occupation by other means. Much of the power of James’s celebrated account of the Haitian revolution stems from the fact that it is oriented squarely towards what were, for him, the ongoing struggles for African liberation and global socialism. Today, things may not seem quite so clear-cut. Today’s variants on slavery are somewhat less stark than those of 1788, and their justi?cation usually involves arguments more subtle than reference to the colour of one’s skin. Some things haven’t changed, however. Haiti’s revolution proceeded in direct opposition to the great colonial powers of the day, and when after Thermidor even revolutionary France returned to the colonial fold, Haiti alone carried on the struggle to af?rm the rights of universal humanity against the predatory imperatives of property. Aristide’s greatest crime in the eyes of the ‘international community’ was surely to have continued this struggle. Thermidorians of every age have tried to present an orderly, paci?ed picture of historical change as the consolidation of property, prosperity and security. Haiti’s revolution testi?es to the power of another conception of history and the possibility of a different political future.

Notes
1. Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti, Common Courage Press, Monroe ME, 1994, p. 63.
2. Eric Williams, em>From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492–1969, André Deutsch, London, 1970, p. 245. The standard account of the Haitian revolution remains, with good reason, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Penguin, London, 2001; originally published 1938.
3. Florence Gauthier, Triomphe et mort du droit naturel en Révolution 1789–1795–1802, PUF, Paris, 2000, pp. 174–7.
4. Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, Verso, London, 1989, p. 258.
5. James, The Black Jacobins, p. 19.
6. Saint-Domingue isn’t even mentioned in Simon Schama’s bestselling Citizens (Knopf, 1989) or Keith Baker’s Inventing the French Revolution(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990), while François Furet and Mona Ozouf were unable to ?nd room in their 1,100-page Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution(Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1989) for an entry on Toussaint L’Ouverture; the entry on ‘Slavery’ in their index refers only to America’s revolution, not Haiti’s.
7. Alain Badiou, ‘Huit Thèses sur l’universel’, in Jelica Sumic, ed., Universel, singulier, sujet, Kimé, Paris, 2000, pp. 14–15; Badiou, La Commune de Paris: Une déclaration politique sur la politique,Les Conférences du Rouge-Gorge, Paris, 2003, pp. 27–8.
8. Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1996, p. 5. As Nicholls points out, the term blanc in Haitian creole connotes a foreigner of any colour, and can be applied to black Haitians themselves if they look and sound like people from France.
9. Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1990, p. 228.
10. James, ‘Revolution and the Negro’ (1939), in Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc, eds, C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James 1939–1949, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands NJ, 1994, p. 79.
11. Dessalines, quoted in Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier, p. 38.I am grateful to Bob Corbett for his trenchant response to an earlier version of this article.

If Stones Could Float: The British Press and the Turks and Caicos Boat Disaster

The Ota Bengas of today are people all over the planet treated as less than human by a system built on greed, profit, and violence. What follows is an example. The story was reposted from HaitiAnalysis.Com.

Updated on 6 September 2007[1]

Every now and then something happens which helps to shed a little light on the way our newspapers distinguish between what counts as news and what doesn’t. Consider how the British press handled two very different disappearances, the nights of 3 and 4 May 2007.

In early May two British doctors, Kate and Gerry McCann, were on holiday in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz. On the night of 3 May 2007 they went out to dinner at a tapas bar near their hotel, leaving their three-year old daughter Madeleine behind with their two other young children. At some point that evening, Madeleine left or was abducted from their unlocked apartment, and she hasn’t been seen since.

Nobody who lived within reach of the British or indeed European media in the spring of 2007 is likely to forget its extraordinary response to this event. Madeleine McCann’s disappearance remained one of the lead stories in most of the British papers for a full week, and immediately became the object of obsessive national attention. The phrase ‘Madeleine McCann’ appears in no less than 164 articles published by the Guardian newspaper between 4 May and 13 July ? an average of two or three articles per day. Tabloid papers like News of the World and The Sun still strive to outdo each other in their commitment to ‘leave no stone unturned’, to use the slogan adopted by the official website of ‘Madeleine’s Fund’ (a site that apparently received 58 million hits and 16,000 messages of support within 48 hours of its launch on 16 May). Author J.K. Rowling and her publishers recently instructed every shop in the world that wants to sell the latest Harry Potter book to put up posters of Madeleine asking ‘Have you seen this child?’

The night after the world’s most visible missing person vanished, early on 4 May 2007, at least 80 other people disappeared when a boat sank in the Caribbean. This time British authorities were directly involved in the disaster, and there is good reason to suspect that the deaths may have been the result of criminal negligence, if not of deliberate police violence. Some of the dead may have been eaten by sharks; many were women and children. A UK government enquiry is currently underway and the publication of its final report is due in August.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how the media might have reacted if the victims of such a calamity had themselves been British. The disappearance of even a single white yachtsman is always guaranteed a certain amount of press coverage. But what if the dead are poor and black? What if they come from a place like Haiti? How many stones might we expect newspapers like the Guardian or Independent to overturn in their coverage of such a story?

Before answering this question it may be worth remembering what actually happened the night of 3-4 May.

Early on Tuesday 1 May, a 30-foot sloop set out from the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haïtien, headed for the neighbouring Turks and Caicos Islands. US and UK officials estimate that it was crammed with around 160 people. These were people who had finally decided to abandon the certainty of crippling destitution at home in exchange for a one-in-a-million shot at precarious low-wage employment abroad. They were people who lived on the edge of starvation, people whose children had little prospect of ever going to school or getting a job. Haiti is a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population ‘lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% ? four and a half million people ? live on less than $1 per day.’[2] Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

Every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) ‘from absolute misery to a dignified poverty’ has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and its allies in the international community. As a result, in a normal year, an average of around a thousand of Haiti’s most desperate or most reckless citizens try to escape this misery by sea. Most of them first need to sell whatever few possessions they and their families might have accumulated in order to pay the hundreds of dollars that traffickers charge for passage on a boat to the US or to another Caribbean island. The story of one of these passengers, 36-year-old Jean-Baptiste Metellus, sounds fairly typical. Married and the father of two children, until the day he boarded the sloop on 1 May Metellus earned around three dollars a day selling lottery tickets in the aptly named town of Trou-du-Nord, a place where unemployment probably exceeds the national average of 70%. Metellus’ brother told the Associated Press that Jean-Baptiste boarded the boat in the hope of joining a godfather living in the Turks and Caicos islands.[3]

The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are a small British overseas territory, the sort of place that until 1981 went by the more accurate name of ‘Crown colony’. They are located north of Haiti and south-east of the Bahamas. London is responsible for their security, defence and foreign affairs. The TCI coast guard operates in conjunction with the United Kingdom Security Advisory Team and Maritime Training Unit (UKSAT MTU), an organisation whose stated purpose is to ‘protect the UK from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other international crime’, and to enhance the ‘security and good governance of the UK’s Overseas Territories.’[4] Among other things, UKSAT personnel in the British Caribbean offer training courses that focus ‘predominantly on maritime skill development and counter-narcotics operations.’ Legal TCI residents are full British citizens, although a large proportion of the local ‘belongers’ take advantage of their island’s much-hyped offshore status to avoid paying full rates of British tax. Per capita income in the TCI is around $10,000. Famous for its exclusive hotels and ‘breathtaking beaches’, according to online tourist brochures the TCI have become ‘one of the most popular destinations for Hollywood Stars’.

In recent years, the Turks and Caicos Islands have also become a popular destination for impoverished Haitian emigrants. In the TCI as in Florida or the Dominican Republic, it is legal and illegal Haitian workers who take on many of the poorly paid jobs in construction, street-cleaning and hotel maintenance. As the numbers of would-be migrants have risen in recent years, so has the violence of the local police response. Among other incidents, TCI ‘residents recall that back in 1998 another boatload of escaping Haitians died off the shore here, after the police fired at the boat.’[5]

The TCI first agreed to let the US Coast Guard use one of their beaches to ‘process’ Haitian refugees back in June 1994.[6] Both the US and UK governments have long treated Haitian migrants with exceptional severity. Whereas Clinton’s so-called ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy still facilitates the naturalisation of many Cuban emigrants, Haitian migrants to the US cannot even apply for the ‘temporary protected status’ occasionally enjoyed by the citizens of countries like Honduras or El Salvador when their homes are threatened by war or natural disaster. Almost without exception, the US Coast Guard immediately and automatically repatriates every Haitian migrant or asylum-seeker that it manages to intercept at sea. Back in February 2004, when the US helped to engineer the violent overthrow of Haiti’s most popular modern president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, it was careful to station three of its own Coast Guard cutters less than a mile off the shore of the capital Port-au-Prince. Around the same time, lest anyone forget where his government stood regarding its international obligations to grant asylum to refugees fleeing political persecution, president George Bush reminded reporters that ‘I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any [Haitian] refugee that attempts to reach our shore.’[7]

Around two in the morning of Friday 4 May 2007, the Cap-Haïtien sloop was intercepted by the TCI 50-foot police launch Sea Quest, about a mile south of Providenciales Island. What happened next is the subject of some controversy. A reporter from the Associated Press spoke to half a dozen of the survivors, finding that ‘they all gave the same story’.[8] The survivors say that the TCI launch rammed the boat, and then tried to tow it further out to sea. One of them described the sequence in some detail.

I was on the prow at the front of the boat and I was able to follow everything that occurred. It all happened as we left the channel to approach land. We were, in fact, approximately five minutes away from [the Turks and Caicos island of] Providenciales. At that moment, a coastguard ship appeared on the left side of our boat. Then it passed us on the right. It wanted to prevent us at all costs from reaching the shore. Everyone was getting their belongings together, and getting ready to disembark from the boat. When the coastguards realised that everyone was getting ready to disembark, they rammed our boat. Twice. [… Then] they tried to tow us out into the channel, out to open sea.[9]

Moments later the bow was dragged under and the sloop capsized. Many of its passengers were unable to swim. The luckiest survivors claim that TCI police left them waiting in the water for around fifteen minutes; others ‘alleged that police beat them with wooden batons when they tried to scramble aboard the patrol boat from the shark-filled waters.’[10] AP went on to note, on 8 May, that ‘reports about the alleged involvement of the Turks and Caicos boat [in the disaster] have taken days to come out because the survivors are locked in a jail-like detention centre and barred from speaking to the media.’[11]

As for the TCI police, they initially claimed that the boat had already capsized before they arrived on the scene. A little later they changed their story (after some gentle prompting from US Coast Guard personnel who assisted in the rescue operation), to acknowledge that the boat sank as they tried to tow it into port through ‘heavy seas’. Between them, the TCI and US coast guards then managed to pick up a total of 78 survivors. 60 dead bodies were also recovered at the same time, though the real death-toll was probably closer to 90 people. ‘Some of the recovered bodies were missing limbs,’ noted the Washington Post, ‘apparently from shark attacks.’[12]

It was the worst disaster to befall Haitian migrants in recent years.

In line with standard procedures, after spending almost a week in detention the survivors were forcibly transferred back to Cap-Haïtien on 10 May. The badly decomposed bodies of the dead followed them home ten days later. In a final insult the corpses were dumped into a mass grave before relatives had time to identify and reclaim them.[13] The body of Jean-Baptiste Metellus went into the trench with the others. In a country where life is so desperately cheap, many Haitians take funerals very seriously. After taking the bus to Cap-Haïtien in order to retrieve his remains, Metellus’ brothers had to return to his wife empty-handed. ‘We never would have wanted him to be buried this way,’ one of them told the AP. ‘Now he’s gone and he didn’t leave anything for his children.’[14]

A statement published by the Turks and Caicos government on 11 May expressed sympathy with relatives of the deceased but explained that ‘the boat was suspected of containing illegal migrants and, in line with standard practice, the police boat took the sloop in tow, in order to bring it in to South Dock, Providenciales.’ Pending the publication of their full report in August, investigators sent from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the UK’s Department of Transport ‘concluded that while the two vessels had touched, there was no evidence to support claims that the migrants’ boat had been rammed.’ Richard Mull, the lead British investigator, acknowledged that ‘the decision to tow the overcrowded sloop in stormy seas without giving the migrants life jackets also raised concerns, but [he] said Turks and Caicos police were following the standard operating procedure.’[15]

A government that refuses to contemplate prosecution of its police when they execute an innocent bystander like Jean Charles de Menezes (in July 2005) isn’t likely to worry too much about standard operating procedures that kill people who are plainly guilty of being both black and poor. Anyone with even a little experience of boats knows, however, that when you tow an unstable and heavily-laden vessel through heavy seas it’s virtually guaranteed to sink. ‘When it’s done that way’, a spokesman from the US Coast Guard admitted, ‘it takes almost nothing for a disaster to occur. A strong wind or a sea swell or people moving around can capsize a boat in an instant.’[16] In their initial report, the British MAIB investigators more or less admitted the same thing. ‘This type of sloop with this number of passengers is inherently unsafe’, the report notes, and such boats become especially unstable ‘when the majority of the passengers [come out] on deck. This movement of passengers starts as the sloops near their destinations, but is also triggered when they are intercepted by the authorities.’ Consequently, MAIB suggests, ‘the sloop would have suffered a major reduction in stability as the passengers moved from the hold onto the deck following the intercept.’ Had most of the passengers come out on deck, as is likely, this would have caused the sloop’s ‘stability to progressively diminish to almost zero. In this condition, it would have taken only the smallest of movements of the passengers towards one side, or another stimulus, to cause the vessel to capsize.’[17]

There may be some grounds for questioning a government that defends such a procedure as ‘standard’, especially one that is prepared to apply it to scores of terrified and exhausted people in shark-filled waters in the middle of the night, without first trying to off-load any of them onto another vessel and without providing them with life-preservers or assistance of any kind.

But what sort of questions have been raised about this incident in the British press? As far as I can tell neither the Daily Telegraph nor the Guardian nor the Sunday Times nor the Financial Times have ever yet mentioned the event. The Observer, the Sunday paper that belongs to the Guardian group, has so far devoted a grand total of 135 words to the story, clipped from a single Associated Press wire and published on 6 May 2007.[18] The Independent has likewise published just one short article about the disaster, a full week after the story broke.[19] The Times dispatched it in a single two-sentence snippet from the AP on 11 May 2007.

The full Times coverage of the TCI catastrophe reads as follows: ‘Survivors of a sunken boat carrying 160 Haitian migrants said that a Turks and Caicos coastal patrol rammed their vessel, towed it into deeper water and abandoned them. At least 61 people died.’ End of story. So far no British newspaper can be bothered to investigate the truth of such claims, let alone consider the implications of this indifference.

Post-script ? 6 September 2007

‘If Stones Could Float’ was written in the middle of July. Some readers may be curious to know a little more about the evolution over the past few weeks of British reactions to the May 4th calamity.

On 1 August 2007 the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) released, as announced, its final report on the ‘tragic accident’ of 4 May. It is available online. MAIB’s investigation produced a detailed and informative 50-page document, complete with an arresting set of photographs, maps, and some fairly technical information about the various boats and other ‘assets’ involved.

MAIB concludes that while there is no clear evidence to suggest that the Turks and Caicos launch Sea Quest deliberately rammed the Haitian sloop, it seems that the hulls ‘bumped as the two vessels came together’ in heavy seas (and that the Sea Quest’s ‘crew did not use fenders to cushion the interaction between the hulls, even though fenders were available onboard’). More importantly, MAIB’s investigation confirms that as a result of the circumstances in which it was intercepted, the Haitian sloop would have had ‘negligible stability’ and so even ‘the slightest of stimuli’ might have caused it to capsize. ‘Once sufficient numbers [of people] had moved onto the deck, capsize was almost inevitable.’

The MAIB report then proceeds to demonstrate, in diplomatic but perfectly damning terms, the rather startling failure of the TCI marine police (and by implication, of their UKSAT minders) to take even the most elementary steps to avoid this inevitability or to mitigate its consequences. MAIB points out that so long as ‘the sloop and passengers remained in the custody of the police, there was a duty upon them to take reasonable steps to ensure the passengers’ safety and right to life’, and suggests, discreetly, that this ‘implicit duty had not been fully appreciated.’ MAIB observes that although ‘over recent years there have been a number of cases of sloops capsizing, and reports of heavy rolling and near capsize’, nevertheless the TCI police had not even begun to formulate appropriate procedures for the safe interception of clandestine migrants. MAIB points out that ‘the problem of Haitian sloops with poor stability carrying migrants was well known in the region and among members of the TCI marine police unit (MPU). However, no instructions or operating procedures for mitigating the risk of capsize when interdicting these vessels had been issued to the police launch crews.’ Instead, the Sea Quest and other TCI coast guard vessels have simply been left to follow ‘common practice among the launch crews, derived from previous experience and passed on within the MPU.’ MAIB notes that whereas ‘other nations have developed ways of countering the stability problem’ (by off-loading passengers onto more stable boats, or by escorting rather than towing intercepted vessels into port), the Sea Quest has been operating for years without even estimating and testing its own ‘maximum permissible passenger carrying capacity.’

The MAIB investigators further demonstrate that a whole series of failings in seamanship, communications, logistics and planning severely hampered the subsequent search and rescue operation. As a result of these failings the last eleven survivors were left clinging to their sloop’s upturned hull for around three and a half hours. Even more damning is MAIB’s observation that, after disaster struck, the crew of the Sea Quest failed to use its 7-man life-raft to help save any of the sloop’s drowning passengers. Once the launch then returned to port (around 4am) with about half of the sloop’s passengers on board it was prevented from rejoining the rescue effort until 8am, because a rope had become entangled in one of its propellers.

In short, MAIB concludes that ‘the significant risk of a sloop capsizing, with the consequent need for a rescue operation, had not been considered by the TCI MPU. Although such an emergency could have been predicted had the inherent risks of towing vessels with unknown stability been assessed, no operating procedures were established to respond to marine emergencies on this scale.’

Or in other words: as far as the UK and its overseas territories are concerned, when handling large numbers of frightened Haitian people in an over-crowded boat the adoption of even the most basic and most obvious safety precautions isn’t worth the hassle. Why should it be, after all, when an incident that kills dozens of such people fails to arouse even the slightest ripple of interest from the media based in the country that is responsible for their safety?

Of course MAIB itself is careful to point out that its ‘recommendations shall in no case create a presumption of blame or liability.’ This precaution is hardly necessary. The UK government is no doubt entitled to take some comfort from the fact that Haitian relatives of the deceased, for reasons too obvious to mention, are in no position to press for any sort of meaningful compensation for their loss.

It is now September 6th. You might be wondering if the publication in London of MAIB’s incriminating report on August 1st finally managed to provoke at least some sort of minimal acknowledgement of the disaster in any of the UK’s famously even-handed newspapers. No, it didn’t. British press coverage of this story, such as it was, began and ended in mid-May 2007. If today you have the time to search the online editions of the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Financial Times or the Sunday Times and look for articles published over the last few months containing the words ‘Caicos’ or ‘Haiti’ or ‘Haitian’ then just about the only things you’ll find are some thoughtful tips about Caribbean holidays and reports of tourists worried by Hurricane Dean, along with a few appreciative (and as it happens, profoundly misleading) reviews of Asger Leth’s so-called ‘documentary’ film, The Ghosts of Cité Solely. This too is business as usual. It isn’t very hard to see why most foreign observers of Haiti seem to find fantasy more palatable than fact.

1 An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the journal Radical Philosophy, number 145 (September 2007), pages 53-55.

2 Pål Sletten and Willy Egset, Poverty in Haiti (Oslo: FAFO, 2004), http://www.fafo.no/pub/rapp/755/755.pdf.

3 ‘Haitian migrants killed on capsized boat buried’, Associated Press 21 May 2007.

4 Kim Howells (Minister for the Middle East), written statement in the House of Commons, Hansard 29 June 2005, http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm050629/wmstext/50629m02.htm.

5 Marc Lacey, ‘New routes and new risk to flee Haiti’, New York Times 19 May 2007.

6 Steven Greenhouse, ‘Islands to let U.S. process Haiti refugees’, New York Times 4 June 1994.

7 cited in Christopher Marquis, ‘France Seeks U.N. Force in Haiti’, New York Times 26 February 2004.

8 ‘Boat rammed, say Haiti survivors’, BBC 10 May 2007.

9 ‘Survivor of Turks & Caicos Islands boat disaster gives an eyewitness account,’ Haiti Support Group 6 June 2007, http://haitisupport.gn.apc.org/TCIeyewitness.html.

10 ‘Haitian migrants “angry and revolted” at alleged boat ramming off Turks and Caicos’, Associated Press 8 May 2007.

11 ‘Haitian migrants “angry and revolted”’, Associated Press 8 May 2007.

12 Manuel Roig-Franzia, ‘20 Haitian migrants die at sea’, Washington Post 5 May 2007.

13 ‘Haitian migrants killed on capsized boat buried’, Associated Press 21 May 2007.

14 ‘Haitian migrants killed on capsized boat buried’, Associated Press 21 May 2007.

15 ‘Haitian migrants “angry and revolted”’, Associated Press 8 May 2007.

16 Petty Officer Third Class Barry Bena, cited in ‘Boat Capsizes; Scores of Haitians Are Lost’, New York Times 5 May 2007.

17 MAIB Safety Bulletin 1/2007, ‘Capsize of Haitian sloop, while under tow by Turks and Caicos Islands’ Police Launch Sea Quest, 4 May 2007’, http://www.maib.gov.uk/cms_resources/Safety%20Bulletin%201-07.pdf.

18 ‘36 dead as migrants’ boat capsizes’, Observer 6 May 2007, http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,2073475,00.html.

19 Andrew Buncombe, ‘Patrol vessel blamed for collision which left 60 Haitian migrants dead’, Independent 12 May 2007, http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article2534050.ece.

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