Monday, December 10, 2012

Polish descendants in Haiti.

200 years away from home
Polish descendants in Haiti

Mme and Monsieur Druillard. They live in Cazales alone, occasionally visited by children and grandchildren, scattered around Haiti and beyond. They are one of the last pale skin couples left.

When the French Revolution changes started to appear in St Domingue, (former name of Haiti, at that time French colony) , in 1792, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was sent to the colony by the French Legislative Assembly as part of the Revolutionary Commission. His main goal was to maintain French control of Saint-Domingue, stabilize the colony, and enforce the social equality recently granted to free people of color by the National Convention of France.
On August 29, 1793, Sonthonax took the radical step of proclaiming the freedom of the slaves in the north province (with severe limits on their freedom). In September and October, emancipation was extended throughout the colony. On February 4, 1794 the French National Convention ratified this act, applying it to all French colonies.

However, not only white plantation owners but also mixed mulattoes and free men of colour, that were to build future elites of independent state, were opposed to abolition of slavery and fought the French force. Finally, slaves under Toussaint L'Ouverture managed to take control of the whole Hispaniola island and slavery was abolished in 1801.

In the meantime continental France was already ruled by Napoleon, and in 1802 he sent a massive invasion force under his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc in order to take over the island and restore slavery when possible.

The contingent was around 40000 strong and included Polish Legion, army created according to the wishful thinking of Polish soldiers that by helping Napoleon in his wars, freedom will be won for Poland. The slogan of the time was "For yours and our freedom". However, when the Legionnaires realized that the campaign has very little to do with liberating and is actually about enslaving people fighting for their rights, they refused, deserted and in many cases joined the slave army.

The invading army perished anyway due to yellow fever and malaria, and at the same time war resumed between France and Britain, so Napoleon was forced to sell his overseas possessions to USA in Louisiana Purchase.

On January 1, 1804 independent Haiti was declared, remaining colonizers who didn't manage to flee were slaughtered and white people prohibited from possessing property in Haitian soil.

One exception were Polish soldiers, in gratitude for their actions during the war of independence they were allowed to stay and were spared the fate of other whites, which some of them choose , settling in places like Fond des Blanc or Cazales. In isolation for a long time, memory of old traditions and language started to die out, but there is still awareness of their heritage, of being different. This is portrait of Cazales, biggest of those villages, name , as locals believe , originating from popular Polish name Zalewski and creole word Kay. The home of Zalewski, the home of the Polish descendants.

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Piel Dolis is supporting Brasil, but as many Haitians from this village is living in Caracas, Venezuela, working for himself and the family left behind in Cazales. This is last day of his holiday, tomorrow he is going to Port Au Prince to catch a plane to Caracas.

Straight hair, light skin, moustache and machete replacing a sabre are reminding of old Polish soldiers from Napoleonic times.

Delice Joseph Merlo. Carpenter by trade, working occasionally once 3-4 months. 6 daughters, his wife now in the last month of next pregnancy. They are all living in 3 tiny rooms in the house he built himself. During part of our stay in Cazales he was our host and guide. Sharing life of this family for a few days we had a chance to see time expanding like a bubble gum. There is absolutely nothing significant happening, people wake up, drink some coffee, wash clothes in the river, sit on old bench, talk , sleep , walk, sit down again, go to see their neighbours, come back, play dominoes, go to have a swim in the river, work in the garden perhaps an hour a day. Eternal holidays with no alternative, no ideas what to do with time, no initiative, just waiting for the day to end. This is how large part of Haitian men in the countryside live, and it strangely reminds of rural , post-communist Poland with same kind of attitudes.

Saintelo Desmisslan ( born 1950) and Florvil Inome in the background. Saintelo is a farmer who spends most of his time between some of his fields and various village corners, where he sits shirtless and counts time going by. The way in he asked us for money any time he saw us made me more tolerant for constant Haitian "give me dollar" I heard travelling in this country. After all, in other cases it was just a skin colour that separates them from ordinary village bum one can meet in rural Poland, asking money for cheap wine. In case of Saintelo even colour was the same.

Sylvain Benoit. He is one of very few rich citizens of Cazales. Having lived years in the USA he now owns huge garden , but even if it brings considerable income, his main source of cash is still pension from America. The garden is very well fenced and protected by aggressive dogs, Sylvain is also one of few car owners in the village. His daughter was in Poland once, from where she brought an icon of Black Madonna from Czestochowa as a gift for local catholic priest. She was also a former wife of Haitian president Preval and is said to have misappropriated most of 5 million USD that was donated for infrastructure in this "Polish" village by foreign donors. For this money only tin roof over local market was erected and small place near the village catholic church renovated and named John Paul II square.

Polish-Haitian Connection Part 2: Voodoo, Erzulie Dantor and the Black Madonna
Black Madonna of Częstochowa
The chromolithograph is commonly used in Haiti to depict the Loa Erzulie Dantor
 Haitian Voodoo is mostly derived from a religious system of deity and ancestor veneration widely practiced in western Africa at the time of the Atlantic slave trade. Haitian Voodoo has extra ("New World") spirits which do not exist in African voodoo. People who ended up as slaves on the Caribbean islands controlled by the Kingdom of France were forbidden (at first on an ad-hoc basis, later by the Code Noir) from practicing any religion other than Catholicism.

In light of all this a process of syncretisation took place on Haiti (or Saint-Domingue as the territory was then called) where some voodoo loa (spirits) became identified with Catholic saints and some Catholic saints became loa in their own right. It's a fascinating subject, an introduction to which should be related by those more talented than I. BoB particularly recommends Webster University professor Bob Corbett's site in this regard.

A particular syncretisation spurred me into writing about Voodoo - that between the Black Madonna of Czestochowa (Polish: Czarna Madonna Częstochowska) and the New World loa Erzulie Dantor. This is the loa of single mothers, homosexuals, justice and independence. Dantor was present at a famous voodoo ritual in 1791, where she took over the body of one of the worshippers and urged Haitians to "kill the stranger" - this precipitated the revolution which culminated in independence for the island in 1804 and the massacre of every Frenchman on the island.

For her part the Black Madonna has a special place in Polish national myth. The painting is housed in Poland's holiest monastery at Jasna Góra. Legend has it that the icon was painted by St. Luke on a tabletop belonging to Mary and Joseph and eventually brought to Poland. Her distinctive facial scars are said to have miraculously reappeared after they had been painted over following a pagan attack, an indication that the Black Madonna wanted to share in the nation's fate.

Revolutionary Haitians were not to know all of these details. The back story to the painting in Voodoo lore is of a mother fiercely protective of the daughter she carries (actually Jesus in the Catholic interpretation). She loves knives and received the facial scars fighting with her sister Erzulie Freda. The scars are a sign of Dantor's strength - she is wounded but keeps going.

It is hard to say why this particular religious painting became a popular focus for syncretisation with a "New World" spirit of Haitian Voodoo. Her black skin may have made the painting more acceptable to a black population than other white-skinned versions, much as images of saints with explicitly Black African features are popular in Africa. It is also possible that there were many more copies of this particular painting on the island than others, following the landing of 5000 Polish legionaries on the island in 1802. Many Poles to this day keep depictions of the Black Madonna in their homes, cars and wallets.

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