Mandela’s place in history


Mandela’s place in history

Toussaint and his generals went back to war. In 1801, he proclaimed a constitution, giving the island autonomy, calling for a sovereign state, and making himself governor for life. He nevertheless continued to seek talks with Napoleon, who had need for an agreement on his terms, of course, as he was under pressure to sell Louisiana at rock bottom prices to the new American state, to make up for his military losses in Haiti and finance his campaigns in Europe. In May 1802, ahead of one of the arranged talks with Napoleon’s representative on the island, Toussaint was kidnapped and like many subsequent African liberation leaders, imprisoned. He would die a few months later in captivity.

The Africans in Haiti reacted angrily to these betrayals, deciding that compromise was no longer possible. Toussaint’s replacement, the hard-line Jean-Jacques Dessalines, massacred many of the treacherous whites on the island on the way to establishing an independent and free-state Haiti in 1804. Dessalines was pitiless on this issue, and his secretary Boisrond-Tonnerre captured his thoughts when he stated:

“For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and bayonet for a pen.”

As defeat would have been, the consequences of this Haitian victory were catastrophic. Dessalines and his successors spent heavily on building fortifications against invasion, keeping society militarised. Although no power would invade Haiti, it was however blockaded, sanctioned, and surrounded by hostile powers, terrified of the “Haiti example” to their slave-holding concerns. This fear helped free others as it was a contributing factor to the British abolition of the African slave trade in 1807.

Meanwhile, Dessalines was unable to restructure the plantation economy and effectively drove many of the newly free Africans back to forced labour. The tensions produced led to his assassination, and over the next years to further political and economic instability. Skin colour would also prove problematic, with divisions between the mixed population and the rest. To end the isolation and sanctions, Haiti would eventually be forced into a humiliating agreement with the French in 1825 to pay reparations for its slaves’ freedom. In today’s terms it would amount to between $17-$25 billion. And French ships and goods entering and leaving Haiti received a 50 per cent tariff discount. By 1915, Haiti was effectively bankrupt, and the US invaded and occupied the country until President Franklin D. Roosevelt withdrew US marines and transferred power back to a Haitian authority in 1934.

Haitians at an event in Port-au-Prince commemorating the 208th anniversary of the death of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the founding father of Haitian independence

Haitians at an event in Port-au-Prince commemorating the 208th anniversary of the death of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the founding father of Haitian independence

Haiti paid a huge price for the manner in which it succeeded in opening the account for African liberation in the modern era. Just under two hundred years later, Mandela, and his generation, closing the chapter of constitutional racism and white dictatorship, would forgive the whites their atrocities.

The contrast with Toussaint and his generation is fruitful. There are, of course, huge differences – the Haitians won a military victory but faced a hostile world. Mandela and his comrades did not win outright and had to negotiate but were also able to benefit from a more benign international climate, with powerful supporters in Africa, the Western public and the state socialist world. They called for sanctions and used it as a powerful weapon. Also, the whites had learnt some lessons, not allowing Mandela, like Toussaint, to die in prison.

There is no doubt that the generation in Haiti were giants, given the means at their disposal, and the forces they faced. They won an important victory – but when we look at the state of Haiti, probably lost the war.

Mandela and his generation learned some important lessons from the mistakes made by the Haitian generation and the subsequent freedom fighters who won liberation. One question is, in removing white supremacy, how do you turn your conquerors into equal citizens? Another is, how do you replace the system of white supremacy with a system that ensures the economic inclusion of everyone? How do you create a productive economy after the many structural disfigurements of slavery or forced labour, without reproducing those patterns of exploitation?

Neither the generation of Toussaint/Dessalines or Mandela have found the answer to this final question. The challenge, of course, continues, as Mandela understood at the ending of his Carthage speech:

“We are certain that we will prevail over the currents that originate from the past, and ensure that the interregnum of humiliation symbolised by, among others, the destruction of Carthage, is indeed consigned to the past, never to return. God Bless Africa.” 


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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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