By LENNOX FARRELL
Many people know of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his unique role in fanning a blaze against slavery into a national conflagration from which was forged the historic transformation of Haiti’s enslaved population into a Black self-governing people.
However, many do not know much about another heroic figure: “Dutty” Boukman. If they do, they might know he was a houngan or vodun priest. Or they might even know that it was his anti-slavery activism that sparked an initial revolt of slaves into a full-scale uprising.
In this, Boukman was the historical descendant of Nat Turner, the enslaved Black American who had also sparked a rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831. Prior to the American Civil War, this revolt resulted in the largest number of fatalities then to occur. Turner’s revolt, like Boukman’s, was met with death: Boukman beheaded; Turner lynched.
However, Turner’s courage also inspired the White abolitionist, John Brown, two decades later. In 1859, Brown tried unsuccessfully to seize the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry. His subsequent trial, conviction and hanging further increased inflammatory racial tensions. These led to Secession, which led to Civil War. One year after he was hung, former Black slaves marched into war singing, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldrin’ in the grave, but his soul goes marchin’ on…”
So, too, with Boukman. His death did not kill the chantuelles he had taught his followers; chants they sang, fearlessly running into the jaws of death: of cannon, grapeshot and musket fire. Ill-armed, barefoot, hungry, but organized and led by Toussaint, they defeated huge odds: Britain’s armada of 218 ships.
Even fewer people know that Boukman was not Haitian, but Jamaican. A Maroon. And possibly a Muslim. His name is probably derived from the nickname, “bookman”, a term used to describe slaves able to read the Quran.
Boukman had been a slave in Jamaica. There he had been caught, not only being able to read, but also teaching other slaves to read. The moniker, “Dutty” was not complimentary. It summed up how slave owners viewed slaves who were literate. Before being sold off from Jamaica to slave owners in Haiti, he was punished by lashes with thongs to his back.
As cruel as this punishment was, it was nonetheless mild, relative to what could have occurred had he been caught being able to read in Barbados. In the same way gunpowder was rammed into the mouth of a cannon before an attached fuse was lit, so was gunpowder and fuse rammed up the anus of literate slaves; a punishment called, “blowin away the arse of a n_ _ _ _r”.
But who was Boukman? And who, apart from being a Jamaican, a houngan, a Maroon and the slave who lit the fire that blazed into freeing Haiti of slavery, thus hastening the ending of slavery in this hemisphere from the Carolinas to the Cayman Islands; from the Blue Mountains to Cerro Aripo?
He was described as someone huge, imposing, with a volcanic temper, magnetic influence, vast leadership skills, and as courageous as he was fearsome. Bought and brought into Haiti, he had been made slave driver on a plantation. This position gave him room to create secret meetings with the slaves.
What Boukman sparked started at Alligator Swamp, or in Creole, Bois Caiman. What occurred there is now talismanic, epic, mythic. Something not unusual for details magnified when a single action results in such vast and irreversible consequences.
However, what is clear is who called the meeting of slaves, why, and what followed? Boukman demanded that each one present take a blood oath: “end slavery or die”. A date, set for beginning the uprising was moved up because some of the conspirators had been caught. In addition, there were other forces at play, ironically from within Republican France itself. The “metropole” created conditions which would ironically free “property” in the “hinterland”. The fervour of the slaves for freedom had been stirred in particular by the National Constituent Assembly of Republican France adopting “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, on August 26, 1789.
Like the earlier American Declaration of Independence, which stated “All men being created equal and endowed with rights,” the adoption of this Declaration as the fundamental document of the French Revolution had not included “slaves and free people of colour”.
However, as in the U.S., those left outside the widening circumference of freedom, stormed the diameter, ensuring that the centre would not hold. They seized their rightful place. Although today they are perceived as extraordinarily heroic, in their time they were among the wretched of the earth. They knew that while the meek will inherit the planet, they must also be prepared to fight and die for this right.