Friday, December 5, 2008

The portrayal of the Submissive African

From watching "Western" mass media day in and out, one could swear that there is no other image of the African, other than being that of the needy and submissive type. It's either that, or the needy or savage type that goes around killing fellow Africans. One form of imperialism and perhaps a stealthy one at that [with 'stealth' naturally accounting for success here], is psychological imperialism. Imperialists utilize it to keep the subjugated/victims at bay, by conditioning them to think lesser of themselves. Consistent broadcasting of a desired image of the African, from the "Western" imperialistic standpoint, is purposefully implemented to make it appear natural to the target audiences in the so-called West and elsewhere, that the African is as such, and at the same time, relieve "Western" audiences from any sense of guilt about "western" colonial and neocolonial legacy. What better way is there to do this, than to propagate negative stereotypes of the oppressed so often that the oppressed or victims of the disinformation campaign themselves come to believe it, along with other target audiences. So, what of the “the submissive African” image; was this really the case? Were even the post-World War "independence" movements that swept the continent themselves, not exemplary of the potential of Africans to be antonymous of the "submissive" type?

As with many important historical moments in Africa that are glossed over, it isn't exactly an astonishing aberration that in 'western' scholastic venues there is almost no mention or review of notable African resistance movements against invading forces, like say, the protracted Samore Toure-led armed conflict with the illegal French intruders, which took little over “ten” years or so before the French finally lucked out, or another that comes to mind, on the other side of the continent, led by whom came to be known to the British forces as the "Mad Mullah" in Somalia [which took over a decade]and not for nothing, not to leave out the humiliating 1896 Italian defeat in Ethiopia on their first attempt at subjugating Ethiopians. Also, who could forget the famous Amistad revolt by the African captives on-board the ship, involving the famed Sengbe Pieh, or the drawn out protracted battles fought between Omar Mukhtar’s resistance fighters of Libya and the Italian intruders for about two decades, and that of the Isandlwana and the Hlobane battles between Zulu fighters and British invaders. As the Romans before him, British Governor-General Charles Gordon found out the hard way just how tough the Sudanese could be; he was to never leave the country aliveall that was left of him was a head placed on a tree branch.

Male-led armed counteraction were not the only ones to give intruding imperialists a run for their money. The strong-willed Nzingha Mbande of what would become modern day Angola kept the Portuguese militarily and psychologically preoccupied for well over 40 decades. It is often said in "western" venues that European imperialists often capitalizedif not foment them in many cases—on divisions among Africans and pitted them against one another; well, Queen Nzingha played her European enemies against one another, by capitalizing on and pitting the Dutch against the Portuguese. This theme of African figures playing their antagonistic European counterparts and pitting them against one another surfaces every now and then in history, as will be seen in the case of the liberation movements in Haiti. al-Kāhinat is another name that comes to mind, as a powerful female head-figure who managed to give her enemies a run for their money.

While many of the above mentioned examples appear to be largely defensive undertakings, since many of them involved Africans being visited upon in their own land and thereby defending those lands, in other occasions, Africans actually took offensive [military] courses in their dealings outside of mainland Africa. In other words, rather than the enemy bringing the battle to the Africans, the Africans took the battle to the enemy. The ancient Egyptians for example, put a defensive apparatus in place at certain times of the dynastic epoch, by going on the offensive outside Dynastic Egypt's borders. The colony in the Levant was not merely just resource driven, it was also a defensive move. It was also meant to act as a means to keep potential "southwest Asian" rivals at bay. After all, what better way to deal with a potential regional rival or threat, than by situating ready-to-act military bases or posts near them, in the region they reside? This strategy was buttressed with putting into place, military fortresses on the northern and southern borders of the ancient Egyptian state.

As noted here before, some time ca. 8th century BC, the Kushitic-manned forces were dispatched into the Levant to fight against Assyrian forces. It was during such campaigns that the Nile Valley under Kushitic leadership came to the aid of ancient Israelite peoples, in the face of harassments from the likes of Assyrians [see: The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance Between Hebrews and Africans in 701 B.C., by Henry T. Aubin (April 1, 2003)].

Kushites: a tough nut to crack?

Under the Roman sphere of influence in Egypt, shortly after Augustus took control in ca. 31 B, Kush undertook an offensive policy towards Egypt, which no doubt brought it head to head with the Romans. Though on the continent, and knowing fully well that the Romans were planning to expand their control beyond Egypt and to their territory, the Kushite state decided to take matters into its hand, and preemptively attack territories between them and the then Dynastic Egypt/Kemetian borders, and well into the area of Aswan against a non-African opponent, where they would attack the Roman legionaries stationed there. The Romans would find out just how tough an adversary the Kushites were in the course of their conflict, so much so, that they would eventually cede Qasr Ibrim [and areas north of Qasr Ibrim in the southern portion of the "Thiry-Mile Strip"] to the Kushites ca. 22BC , and sign a peace treaty with the latter in the Island of Samos ca. 21 BC [and follows an earlier attempt at peace negotiations ca. 24 BC], which would put it in writing that the Romans would stay clear of the said regions and absolve the Kusthite state of any responsibility of paying tribute to Rome...

Between 28-21 B.C.E., his administrators were confronted with disturbances in the Arabian peninsula directly across the Red Sea from Egypt. Wishing to address the situation as expeditiously as possible, the Romans decided to dispatch legions already stationed in Egypt to the troubled area. Once the legions had departed, the Nubians of Lower Egypt [probably a typo; "Nubia" might be what the author had in mind] appear to have revolted and stormed the frontier at Aswan, sacking the area and toppling official monuments, including recently erected statues of Augustus himself. The head of one of these bronze images of Augustus was severed from its body and carried off to Meroe, where it was intentionally buried beneath the threshold of one of the palaces so that each time the Meroites entered and exited, they would be symbolically trampling the head of their foe underfoot.
About 27-25 BC
From Meroe, Sudan
This head was once part of a statue of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC-AD 14). It was taken during a Kushite raid on Roman-occupied Egypt as a symbol of their defiance of Roman might. It was buried in front of the steps of a Kushite temple of Victory at Meroe in Upper Nubia and was probably placed there so as to be permanently underneath the feet of its captors. Height: 447 mm. - Courtesy the British Museum

The Classical authors credit a Candake as the leader of the Meroites. As one has seen earlier, they had mistaken the title, kdke, for the personal name of the female ruler of kingdom of Meroe. Her identity remains unknown, although there are attempts to identify her with the Queen Mother Amanirenas, who is suggested to have ruled during this period of time. She apparently shared power with the pqr, Akinidad. If one's reading of the monuments is correct, Akinidad continued to rule after her demise with another kdke, Amanishakheto by name. Akinidad exercised personal control over both Upper and Lower Nubia, as his titles attest. He is to date the only Meroite known to have held the office of pqr and pesato, "viceroy [of Lower Nubia]," simultaneously.

A number of Meroitic queens called Ka'andakes (Candaces) ruled Nubia-Kush just before the birth of Christ. Candace Amanirenas and her son Prince Akinidad along with the Meroitic Army kept the Romans out of Nubia-Kush. In this scene, they are witnessing the burning of the Roman Garrison in Aswan. Meroitic-Kush never became part of the Roman empire. The formidable leader greatly impressed classical writers, who mistook the royal title of Candace for a personal name. - Reference and photo from Splendors of the Past: Lost Cities of the Ancient World, National Geographic Society, 1981, page 171-173

In order to address this insurrection, the Romans dispatched new legions to the region in anticipation of a military confrontation and began their march into Lower Nubia. The Meroites, in an attempt to meet the Roman challenge, mustered their own forces and marched north. Both forces marched into the vicinity of Qasr Ibrim (Primis). A pitched battle was avoided when representatives from both sides agreed to discuss the matter. The Meroites indicated that their revolt against Rome was prompted by certain grievances that had not been remedied. The Roman geographer, Strabo, writing in Greek shortly after the actual events, is decidedly prejudiced in his account, incredulously posing a question to the Meroites inquiring as to their reason for not bringing their concerns to the emperor Augustus. As if to portray the Meroites as individuals ignorant of current affairs, Strabo records their reply by stating that the Meroites did not know where to find Augustus. In point of fact, the Meroites were correct because Augustus himself had been on the move as a result of his inspection tour of the East. 

It was then resolved that an embassy of the Meroites would be granted safe conduct to the Greek island of Samos, where Augustus was temporarily headquartered. This was perhaps the first recorded instance in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler independent of Egypt traveled to Europe to effect a diplomatic resolution. The Meroites and Romans signed a peace treaty that not only remitted their tax liability to Rome, but also established the Dodekaschoinos as a buffer zone. In order to gain the favor of the inhabitants of this region, Augustus directed his administrators to collaborate with the priesthoods of the region in the erection of a temple at Dendur. In its relief and inscriptions, Augustus himself appears as the chief celebrant of the local deities but there pays particular homage to two youths [brothers, Pahor and Pedese, who are believed to have been sons of a local Nubian elite ruler], whose deaths had elevated them to the status of divine intercessors. They are enrolled among the local deities in this temple and are the recipients of a cult. The temple of Dendur also served as their cenotaph. - Robert Steven Bianchi, Daily Life of Nubians, 2004.

Here's another look at the matter, by an unnamed author who seems to have at least used the above author as one of his/her references, though unstated [paying attention to the highlighted pieces immediately above and below]...

The war then entered an indecisive phase of stalemate, where massive Roman attacks into Kushite territory, and counterattacks by the Kushites northward into Roman held territory went back and forth. The Roman established forts at Qasr Ibrim, and the Kushites raided Roman garrisons in Egypt. Finally in 24 BC, in the fifth year the exasperating struggle, a massive Roman invasion pushed a large Kushite force southward to the city of Dakka. The fight was brutal and Strabo mentions that the Candace's son, the paqar [prince] Akinidad, was killed during this campaign. The ferocity and battering at Dakka caused the two sides to start again to negotiate peace. However, the negotiations failed, and the Romans then pushed their forces deeper into Kushite territory as far as Sara.

Sara proved to be the turning point of the war. The Kushites counterattacked and retook Sara, but didn’t stop there. They pushed the Romans back north and out of the encampments elsewhere. The Kushites overrun the Roman garrisons at Qasr Ibrim, Dakka, Pselchis, and other places in remorseless and continuous assaults. It seems that the Kushites had obtained reinforcement from the African interior, and that until that time they had not been able to mobilize their troops, and had been fighting a defensive war. After the death of Akinidad, and the Capture of Sara, the Kushite armies went on the attack.

As the forward units of the Kushite army, now numbering thousands of men, prepared to retake the largest and last major Roman garrison, Premnis, the Roman governor Gaius Petronius arrived from Alexandria with fresh Roman reinforcements, and “entering the fortress before the approach of the enemy, secured the place by many expedients”, according to one classical writer. But on realising that he could not hold Premnis any longer, Petronius sued for peace and sent envoys to the Candace to start negotiations.

The Kushite ambassadors at Premnis, during the negotiations with Petronius apparently told him in jest that they did not know who Caesar was, nor where to find him. Several of the Kushite officials could speak Latin, Aramaic, Greek and other languages, as some of the Kushite inscriptions were in Greek. Prior to this war and after, Kushites always maintained ambassadors in state abroad, and many foreigners also lived in Kushite cities, so that they would have had no problem communicating their intentions to Petronius. Petronius appointed persons to conduct the Kushite envoys to meet Caesar Augustus. Caesar received the Kushite envoys at a place on the island of Samos.

An amazing record exists in tradition and in stone, of the envoys discussions with Caesar. One of the Kushite envoys gallantly presented Caesar with a beautiful Kushite “fasces” [a bundle] of golden arrows and said the following words: “This gift is from the Candace. If you want peace, this is a token of her warmth and friendship. If you want war, keep the arrows because you are going to need them.” According to the classical writers, the Kushite ambassadors obtained all that they desired, and Caesar even remitted the tribute which he had imposed. Caesar capitulated and renounced the tribute exacted from the Kushites in Egypt, soften the Roman burden on Egyptians, and a border was demarcated between Roman Empire and the Empire of Kush.
It was then resolved that an embassy of the Meroites would be granted safe conduct to the Greek island of Samos, where Augustus was temporarily headquartered. This was perhaps the first recorded instance in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler independent of Egypt traveled to Europe to effect a diplomatic resolution. The Meroites and Romans signed a peace treaty that not only remitted their tax liability to Rome, but also established the Dodekaschoinos as a buffer zone. In order to gain the favor of the inhabitants of this region, Augustus directed his administrators to collaborate with the priesthoods of the region in the erection of a temple at Dendur. In its relief and inscriptions, Augustus himself appears as the chief celebrant of the local deities but there pays particular homage to two youths [brothers, Pahor and Pedese, who are believed to have been sons of a local Nubian elite ruler], whose deaths had elevated them to the status of divine intercessors. They are enrolled among the local deities in this temple and are the recipients of a cult. The temple of Dendur also served as their cenotaph.

To mark the end of the war, Candace Amanirena had monuments erected to honour the prince Akinidad and others who had served as commanders. The toll of the war on her personally had been great. Amanirena had also lost her consort-husband Teriteqas [also written Teriteqa or Teritega] during the war. Her elder son Kharapkhael, Akinidad’s elder “bother” had died before the war broke out. Amanirena probably had daughters as well, but they were not in the direct line of succession. Another member of the royal house, Princess Amanishakhete, was the designated crown princess, and as tradition required, she was “adopted” by Amanirena. However, Amanishakhete may have been a niece to Amanirena, or the grand niece of a past Candace. It is also possible that Amanishakhete was unrelated to the royal house and was a commoner who had been appointed and trained by the priesthood in preparation for her to become Candace.

Amanirena died in 10 BC, and was succeeded by Candace Amanishakhete. Although Amanishakhete’s rein was troubled by mutinies generated by the war, she nonetheless was able to repair most of the damage the Romans had caused, and to build new temples and forts. Her rein was opulent and spectacular, although rather short. It lasted only ten years. Amanishakhete was succeeded by the Candace Amanitore.


Had the Kushites destroyed the Roman army at Premnis it is probable that the Roman occupation of Egypt would have collapsed immediately, and shortly after it the Roman Empire itself would have ceased to exist. The roman troops massed in Egypt were the elite units of the empire, and controlled the most precious estate of the empire, Egypt. The war with Kush forced a number of decisions on the Romans, most notably the creation of a standing army to contain the Kushites, and also had the unfortunate effect of ending the Roman republic. Egypt was the bread basket of both the Kushites and the Romans. It was so valuable for Rome, that Augustus Caesar refused any ranking Roman from travelling to Egypt without his personal permission.

The most noteworthy effect of the war on Roman civilization was all of the grandeur we associate with Rome materialized and was made possible by the peace achieved at Samos. At the time of Augustus, Rome looked like a dusty village in comparison to any of the cities in Egypt or Kush. After the reign of August, Rome had become wealthy from access to Egyptian grain and Kushite gold, ivory and other products.

Given Augustus Caesar’s response to the Candace, and the record left by classical writers and observers such as Josephus, Petronius {her enemy], Strabo, Deo Cassius and others, even though biased for the most part, it is obvious that Augustus believed that the Kushites were quite capable of overruning and collapsing the Roman Empire. It is also clear that the Kushites were genuinely uninterested in going to war with anyone, and were merely defending themselves regardless of their capacity to defeat the Romans.

The effects on Kush were less benign. The Romans never really meant the end the war, and so continued to undermine Kush by fomenting rebellion in territories belonging to the Kushites. They stationed the Third Augustan Legion in Algeria, and used it to funnel funds to the Garamante, the Wangara, the Beja, and others in order to cause them to revolt against the Candaces. However, the Kushite Empire lasted another 400 years.

Much of what we consider African culture is a legacy of the Kushites under the Candaces. Take for example the fact that today Africans languages are classified under four language groups, all of which derive from an extinct language called Proto-Kordofanian, which is believed to have originated in southern Sudan, coincidentally the centre of the Kushite Empire. From Senegal to Ethiopia, from Egypt to South Africa, the common ties that bind Africans together are essentially components of a culture that dates back to the days of the Kushite Empire. - Courtesy AUFwebpage

Another major African offensive venture against a non-African opponent, is the well-known expansion of the Moorish empire into southwest Europe, in the Iberian peninsula. Although some writers start off the Moorish rule in Europe with that of the Almoravids, there were actually much earlier "Moorish" African conquest attempts in southwest Europe, which predate even those of the Arab rule [starting with the Umayyads], which some indiscriminately [and erroneously] use interchangeably with the term "Moorish" rule. The term "Moors" comes from Greco-Roman references to northwest Africans, as north Africa was largely the extent to which they came into contact with the continent; it was not a term coined for "Arabs", who were absent in Africa at the time.

172–175 A.D. The Moors from northern Africa invade Spain.

Under Roman control, the Iberian Peninsula prospers commercially and politically in the first and second centuries A.D., until the Moors attack from North Africa in the latter part of the second century.

711–718 An army of Arabs and Berbers, unified under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate in Damascus, lands on the Iberian Peninsula and, through diplomacy and warfare, brings the entire peninsula—except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north—under Islamic control. The Visigothic leadership is forced out of Toledo, but a large Christian population remains under Muslim rule. In 718, a Christian kingdom is formed in the Asturian region, the northern part of the peninsula beyond the Duero River. The new Muslim territories, called al-Andalus, are administered by a provincial government centered in Córdoba... - Courtesy

...and of course, thereafter, the Almoravids come to power in al-Andalus ca. 1085, marking the start of actual "Moorish" rule in the Iberian peninsula. Though not much is said about the outcome of the earlier Moorish attack in southwest Europe, it is clear from the timeline, that it well predates the 'Arab' rule under the Umayyads, which marks the beginning of actual 'Arab' rule in that region. At any rate, "Moorish" African rule would continue until at least under the Almohads. The Arab-Moorish African rule in the Iberian peninsula would go onto to have a profound effect on Europe, as noted earlier on this site, essentially bringing it out of the so-called "Dark Age", which is actually a red herring code word to account for the fact that Europe was mostly a non-player in the then preexisting international arena of geopolitics, where the Arab-speaking and Islamic world played a dominating role.

The Aksumite occupation in Southern Arabia provides yet another example of African offensive outside of the mainland of the continent...

At the kingdom's height, its rulers held sway over the Red Sea coast from Sawakin in present-day Sudan in the north to Berbera in present-day Somalia in the south, and inland as far as the Nile Valley in modern Sudan. On the Arabian side of the Red Sea, the Aksumite rulers at times controlled the coast and much of the interior of modern Yemen. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Aksumite state lost its possessions in southwest Arabia and much of its Red Sea coastline and gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward.

Inscriptions from Aksum and elsewhere date from as early as the end of the second century A.D. and reveal an Aksumite state that already had expanded at the expense of neighboring peoples. The Greek inscriptions of King Zoskales (who ruled at the end of the second century A.D.) claim that he conquered the lands to the south and southwest of what is now Tigray and controlled the Red Sea coast from Sawakin south to the present-day Djibouti and Berbera areas. The Aksumite state controlled parts of Southwest Arabia as well during this time, and subsequent Aksumite rulers continually involved themselves in the political and military affairs of Southwest Arabia, especially in what is now Yemen. Much of the impetus for foreign conquest lay in the desire to control the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India and adjoining lands. Indeed, King Zoskales is mentioned by name in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (the Latin term for the Red Sea is Mare Erythreum), a Greek shipping guide of the first to third centuries A.D., as promoting commerce with Rome, Arabia, and India. Among the African commodities that the Aksumites exported were gold, rhinoceros horn, ivory, incense, and obsidian; in return, they imported cloth, glass, iron, olive oil, and wine...

The growth of imperial traditions was concurrent with the expansion of foreign holdings, especially in Southwest Arabia in the late second century A.D. and later in areas west of the Ethiopian highlands, including the kingdom of Meroë...

Sometime around A.D. 300, Aksumite armies conquered Meroë or forced its abandonment. By the early fourth century A.D., King Ezana (reigned 325-60) controlled a domain extending from Southwest Arabia across the Red Sea west to Meroë and south from Sawakin to the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. As an indication of the type of political control he exercised, Ezana, like other Aksumite rulers, carried the title negusa nagast (king of kings), symbolic of his rule over numerous tribute-paying principalities and a title used by successive Ethiopian rulers into the mid-twentieth century...

Little is known about fifth-century Aksum, but early in the next century Aksumite rulers reasserted their control over Southwest Arabia, though only for a short time. Later in the sixth century, however, Sassanian Persians established themselves in Yemen, effectively ending any pretense of Aksumite control. Thereafter, the Sassanians attacked Byzantine Egypt, further disrupting Aksumite trade networks in the Red Sea area. - Courtesy

Even under captivity, Africans rose up violently against their captors, and at times getting the upper hand, as could be exemplified in the aforementioned Amistad mutiny, the Zanj rebellion in what is now Iraq, and even slave rebellions in the Americas, with the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 being one of the notable amongst these. Some of these major 'slave' rebellions may well have even wittingly or unwittingly capitalized on divisions within or between slave owners and/or the ruling authorities [and their external rivals], which to recap, was certainly the case in the Haitian Revolution [and even the Zanj, when one examines that rebellion in detail]; see below, for example...

the divisions among slave owners, the divisions among the whites, the divisions among colonial French and metropolitan French, the divisions among whites and free persons of color, all set the stage to make possible a more successful slave rebellion than had previously been possible...the entry of the slaves into the struggle is certainly an historic event. And the event is so colorful that not even Hollywood would have to improve upon history...

Furthermore, we will learn in the passages below, which will describe the details of divisions among the white oppressors and/or imperialists, Toussainta former slaveworked his way up to leadership of the liberation movement, whereupon he played his European enemies against one another; for example, he would expediently side with French at one point, on the grounds that the slaves would be freed thereupon, but then switched sides and went over to the Spanish side when the prospect of that freedom was suddenly looking to be questionable, so that his liberation movement associates would not only have access to armament supply from the Spanish but also man-power reinforcement from Spanish troops against the French. The French at this time, were facing looming military confrontation from both the British and Spanish, in addition to continued pressure from slave rebellions. This was of course, subsequently followed up with a reversal of alliance, with Toussaint and his troops switching sides, from the Spanish this time around and back to the French side once again, when it seemed that the Spanish were starting to loose military ground. As the reader will see, these actions pave way for military gains for Toussaint and his rebellion movement. Subsequent leaders of Haitian liberation movement would also expediently ally with one European imperialist against another European imperialist, reminiscent of that undertaken by Toussaint...

For several years the slaves had been deserting their plantations with increasing frequency. The numbers of maroons had swollen dramatically and all that was needed was some spark to ignite the pent up frustration, hatred and impulse toward independence.

This event was a Petwo Voodoo service. On the evening of August 14th Dutty Boukman, a houngan and practitioner of the Petwo Voodoo cult, held a service at Bois Caiman. A woman at the service was possessed by Ogoun, the Voodoo warrior spirit. She sacrificed a black pig, and speaking the voice of the spirit, named those who were to lead the slaves and maroons to revolt and seek a stark justice from their white oppressors. (Ironically, it was the whites and not the people of color who were the targets of the revolution, even though the people of color were often very harsh slave owners.)

The man named Boukman, Jean-Francois, Biassou and Jeannot as the leaders of the uprising. It was some time later before Toussaint, Henry Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Andre Rigaud took their places as the leading generals who brought The Haitian Revolution to its final triumph.

Word spread rapidly of this historic and prophetic religious service and the maroons and slaves readied themselves for a major assault on the whites. This uprising which would not ever be turned back, began on the evening of August 21st. The whole northern plain surrounding Cape Francois was in flames. Plantation owners were murdered, their women raped and killed, children slaughtered and their bodies mounted on poles to lead the slaves. It was an incredibly savage outburst, yet it still fell short of the treatment the slaves had received, and would still continue to receive, from the white planters.

The once rich colony was in smoldering ruins. More than a thousand whites had been killed. Slaves and maroons across the land were hurrying to the banner of the revolution. The masses of northern slaves laid siege to Cape Francois itself.

In the south and west the rebellion took on a different flavor. In Mirebalais there was a union of people of color and slaves, and they were menacing the whole region. A contingent of white soldiers marched out of Port-au-Prince, but were soundly defeated. 

Then the revolutionaries marched on Port-au-Prince. However, the free people of color did not want to defeat the whites, they wanted to join them. And, more importantly, they didn't want to see the slaves succeed and push for emancipation. Consequently, they offered a deal to the whites and joined forces with them, turning treacherously on their black comrades in arms.

This was a signal to the whites in Cape Francois of how to handle their difficult and deteriorating situation. On September 20, 1791 the Colonial Assembly recognized the Paris decree of May, and they even took it a step further. They recognized the citizenship of all free people of color, regardless of their property and birth status. Thus the battle lines were drawn with all the free people, regardless of color, on the one side, and the black slaves and maroons on the other.

Meanwhile, in France word of the uprising caused the General Assembly to re-think its position. The Assembly thought it had gone too far with the May Decree and had endangered the colonial status of Saint-Domingue. Consequently on September 23rd the May Decree was revoked. Then the Assembly named three commissioners to go to Saint-Domingue with 18,000 soldiers and restore order, slavery and French control.

When the commissioners arrived In December, 1791, their position was considerably weaker than the General Assembly had suggested. Instead of 18,000 troops they had 6,000. In the meantime the whites in the south and west had attempted to revoke the rights of free people of color, and broken the alliance. Not only did the free people of color break with the whites and set up their own struggle centered in Croix-des-Bouquets, but many whites, particularly the planters, joined them. Thus thus south and west were divided into three factions, and the whites in Port-au-Prince were in a most weakened position. 

In Cape Francois the Colonial Assembly did not move against the free people of color, but the slaves intensified their struggle and the whites were virtual prisoners in the town of Cape Francois. Most of the northern plain was in ruins.

Back in France it became apparent that the First Civil Commission with its 6,000 troops could not bring peace back to Saint-Domingue. When the authorities in France debated the issue it was clear to them that the problem was to bring unity between the free people of color and the whites against the rebelling slaves. Thus once again Paris reversed itself and with the historic and landmark Decree of April, 4, 1792, the free people of color were finally given full citizenship with the whites.

The Assembly in Paris prepared a Second Civil Commission to go to Saint- Domingue and enforce the April 4th decree... 

By early 1792 the slaves controlled most of the rich northern plain, and Cap Francois (modern Cap Haitien) was under constant siege. Hundreds of whites had been killed, the plantations were in ruins and the slaves were learning their military skills. Yet it was not the slaves whom the Assembly feared. It was the struggle between free persons of color and the white planters. Many of the planters openly favored independence. They were carrying on an illegal and profitable trade with the newly formed United States. Not only were they profiting economically, but the U.S.'s recent revolution against Britain was a model which the planters studied well...

It was the belief of the Assembly [which presided over the aforementioned Decree of April 4] that if the struggle between the white and black property owners (and slave owners) could end, and their loyalty be won back to France, then the "slave question" would be a simple issue. The rebellion would be quickly broken and the slaves returned to their plantations. There had been rebellions in the past, there would be rebellions in the future. But, reasoned the Assembly, slaves could be managed in the long run. 

But a decree announcing this citizenship was one thing; to enforce it another. On June 2, 1792 the French National Assembly appointed a three man Civil Commission to go to Saint-Domingue and insure the enforcement of the April 4th decree.

One of those commissioners was Leger Felicite Sonthonax. He arrived in Saint-Domingue on September 18, 1792. He immediately approached the free men of color and began to form and alliance, promising them that he was the king's representative who would insure their citizenship. In record time Sonthonax won over the free men of color, who united with loyal French troops to fight a dual battle: struggling to defeat the radical independence-minded whites, and to pacify the slaves. Within four months Sonthonax had achieved his three major goals:
  • He had pacified, or at least contained, the slave rebellion.
  • He had defeated the primary white resistance.
  • He had held the colony for France.
It seemed as if Sonthonax had achieved his mission and could soon return home to France in glory. Then came the devastating month of February, 1793. First, France declared war on Britain. This war radically changed Sonthonax' situation. Not only did the superior British navy cut off Sonthonax' supply line to France, but the British soon invaded Saint- Domingue, completely unraveling Sonthonax' three short-lived "achievements." Secondly, in that same month, Louis XVI was guillotined and France became a republic without a king. One immediate affect of this assassination was to provide a new grounds for resistance among some of the white planters. Many remained supporters of independence, and they welcomed the British invasion, but others, believing that the problem was the Revolution in France, became royalists, believing that if only a strong king could be put back in place, then everything could return to the old patterns and they would regain their positions of power and privilege in Saint-Domingue. It is interesting to note that this was exactly the aim of Napoleon when he invaded ten years later.

Toussaint Louverture and the Slave Rebellion

The primary black generals in the earliest days of the slave rebellion were Jean-Francois, Biassou and Jeannot. Jeannot was soon put to death by Jean-Francois and Biassou for excessive cruelty. Shortly after the 1791 uprising, Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who was over forty years old, joined the camp of the rebels as a medical officer. Toussaint practiced herbal and African healing, but unlike most such healers, he was not a Voodoo houngan. However, Toussaint did not remain a medical officer for long. His ability to organize, train and lead men became immediately apparent. Toussaint rose from his position of aide-de-camp to become a general, first fighting under Biassou, and then a general of his own troops. 

By January, 1793 Sonthonax had contained the slave revolt. Negotiations were going on to end the rebellion and for the officers to force their troops to return to their respective plantations. The deal was that some 300 officers would receive freedom and a pardon for their war crimes. The negotiations drug on, but seemed near completion when the execution of Louis XVI became known. After that event the slave officers, especially Toussaint, did not trust the French. They turned to the eastern portion of the island and made an alliance with Spain, who was also at war with France. As Toussaint told Sonthonax, "We cannot conform to the will of the Nation because from the beginning of the world we have executed the will of a King. We have lost the King of France, but we are esteemed by the King of Spain, who bestows rewards upon us and ceases not to give us succor. Consequently we are unable to acknowledge you, the Commissioners, before you have found a King."

February, 1793 was an extremely bad month for Sonthonax! From having seemingly defeated the independence-minded colonists and not only contained the slaves, but nearly arriving at an understanding which would have ended the rebellion completely, he suddenly had a much graver situation facing him.
  • The colonists, split into independence and royalist factions, now had foreign support, and re-opened their struggle against the April decree, and against Revolutionary France's jurisdiction.
  • The slaves had gone over to the Spanish and were being armed and supplied so that they could attack the French in Saint-Domingue.
  • Sonthonax was faced with invasion from British forces out of Jamaica and had to prepare the defense of the colony.
  • Yet, given the gravity of the situation facing France in Europe, and given the power of the British navy in the Caribbean, he could not count on any reinforcements or supplies from France. 
Truly, Sonthonax' world had come crashing down...

Sonthonax and the other commissioners realized the British would probably attack Saint-Domingue, as would the Spanish and their Saint-Domingue slave army. They began to prepare their defenses as best they could. However, they were immediately betrayed from within. General Galbaud, a Frenchman, had been left in charge of Cap Francois while Sonthonax joined the other commissioners to prepare the defenses of Port-au-Prince. Galbaud, himself a land owner, conspired with the planters to deport the commissioners and to work with the British to return the ancient regime, negating the citizenship of free men of color. Sonthonax learned of this and returned to Le Cap with a large force of free men of color. They surprised Galbaud and he seemingly agreed to return to France. However, he convinced 3000 sailors and French troops to fight with him and the battle was joined on June 20, 1793.

It looked as though Galbaud's forces would triumph. Sonthonax took the ultimate plunge -- he offered freedom and the rights of French citizenship to 15,000 slaves, part of the slave army encamped just outside Le Cap, if they would fight for France and the commissioners. They accepted and Galbaud was quickly defeated.

Sonthonax, now faced with 15,000 new citizens, had a problem. Most of these men had wives and children who were still slaves. Thus, in short order he also freed the entire families of the new French soldiers...

Sonthonax had long protested that he came to Saint-Domingue to defend the free persons of color. He had explicitly stated that he DID NOT intend to free the slaves. However, the Galbaud affair had forced him to free 30,000 to 40,000 people to protect his position.

Now he was in a major bind. The white planters and petit blancs were totally outraged. Even his allies, the free persons of color, were appalled. They were mainly slave holding property owners. They did not want any more slaves freed. Yet Sonthonax knew his time was running short. The British were preparing to invade, the Spanish were training, arming and supplying a large slave army in Santo Domingo.

Sonthonax' position was difficult. There was no hope of reinforcements or even supplies from France. The European war precluded that. How could he possibly save the colony for France? The slaves seemed his only hope. There were 500,000 of them. Toussaint, Jean-Francois and Biassou had a well-armed, well-trained army in Santo Domingo. Other slaves were not armed or trained, but their sheer numbers might provide some defense. Would they fight to defend France? Certainly not. Would they fight to defend their freedom? It was a gamble Sonthonax felt he had to take.

On August 29, 1793 Sonthonax unilaterally decreed the emancipation of slavery in Saint-Domingue. Robert Stein, Sonthonax' biographer, calls this "...the most radical step of the Haitian Revolution and perhaps even of the French Revolution." may well regard Sonthonax' freeing of the slaves as the most significant event of this period, nonetheless, the volte-face, the changing sides, of Toussaint Louverture, had the most immediate practical effect. Republican France's position in Saint-Domingue was pushed to the wall. The British held many port towns and the white planters were mainly in the British camp. The bulk of the slaves under arms were with the Spanish. However, France's enemies were not without their own problems. France was prohibited from supplying Sonthonax and the commissioners by the British fleet and the press of the war in Europe. But, that same war left the British without supplies and reinforcements too. The British army, suffering desperately from yellow fever, and seemingly ignored by London, was quickly being depleted and suffered from extremely poor morale. The Spanish were in grave difficulty in the European war, and were declining as a force to be reckoned with. Finally, the free persons of color, despising Sonthonax' freeing of the slaves, were nonetheless becoming convinced that neither the British nor Spanish were any real hope for them. More and more of the people of color were returning to the French banner.

The war in Saint-Domingue was going badly for the French, but, despite the British gains in the south, the situation was improving, though it was grave and dangerous.

Clearly the turning point in this war and in all Haitian history was the return to the French side of Toussaint Louverture and eventually all his black and mulatto forces. But when and why did Toussaint return? This is a very difficult question and scholars are not in agreement. I find myself persuaded by the arguments of David Geggus who fixes the date of the volte-face at around May 6, 1794. The reasons for the turn are not quite certain, but Geggus argues it was a collage of several factors:
  • Toussaint was sincerely fighting for general emancipation of slavery, and Sonthonax' emancipation weighed on him. By May 6th it is unlikely that Toussaint knew that the French National Assembly had already ratified Sonthonax' move on Feb. 4th. However, Toussaint had a close relationship with the French General Laveaux, and seems to have already been negotiating with him to come over to the French side. Laveaux may well have convinced him that France was sincere in the emancipation.
  • Toussaint was having serious problems with the Spanish. They did not trust him, perhaps knowing of his discussions with Laveaux.
  • Toussaint knew that the Spanish position in Europe was not strong and perhaps sensed that he was fighting for a loosing side.
  • Toussaint was having serious problems with both Jean-Francois and Biassou and wanted not only to break with them, but to become superior to them.
Whatever the full complement of reasons, Toussaint made his change and that made all the difference. His army fought a guerrilla war and he was known for his lightening attacks, covering territory at seemingly impossible speeds. He attacked both Jean-Francois and Biassou, his former associates and defeated them. He harassed the British, though he could not dislodge them from the coastal towns they held. One chronicler says: "He disappears--he has flown--as if by magic. Now he reappears again where he is least expected. He seems to be ubiquitous. One never knows where his army is, what it subsists on, how he manages his supplies and his treasury. He, on the other hand, seems perfectly informed concerning everything that goes on in the enemy camp."

The Spanish soon ended their war. The French defeated them in Europe and signed a peace treaty on July 22, 1795. A significant part of the treaty was that Spain ceded Santo Domingo to the French, though it was some time before Toussaint's army actually took over the eastern part of the island. The Spanish black armies were disbanded, though many came over to Toussaint. Jean-Francois retired to Spain and Biassou went to Florida...
With the turn of Toussaint Louverture and many former slaves, and the withdraw of the Spanish, the war took on lesser proportions. Britain, too, had developed grave difficulties of maintaining morale and troop strength. Then, when a serious rebellion broke out in Jamaica, the British ceased fighting an offensive war and settled in to trying to hold the main strongholds of it's coastal towns.

This left time for an internal power struggle to begin...

- by Bob Corbett of Webster University.

...and of course, Toussaint would eventually rise to power, having thrown "the British out of Saint- Domingue, overseen the retreat of the Spanish, ousted all genuine French authority and become commander in chief and governor general of the Saint- Domingue". In the course of all this, the strategy went from "initially fighting against the French and for the Spanish", and then "came back over to the French defeating not only the Spanish, but also driving the British out of Saint-Domingue." After encountering only "tentative resistance" and entering "the capital, Santo Domingo City on Jan. 26, 1801", he was able to "quickly consolidate his power and emerge as the governor-general of Hispaniola." This is what Bob Corbett of Webster University says of a later encounter with a renewed French attempt to consolidate power in Saint-Dominique, under Leclerc's lead...

"Leclerc's forces quickly took most of the coastal towns, though Haitians burned many of them before they retreated. Eventually a decisive moment came as Dessalines and his second in command, Lamartiniere, were asked to hold the small former British fort, Crete-a-Pierrot, an arsenal of the Haitians.

Both sides claimed victory. It sort of depends on what measure one uses. The French ended up with the fort, but they lost twice as many men as the Haitians, and were shocked to discover how well the blacks could fight in a pitched battle. The Haitians took great solace in their ability to hold off the French for so long. For the rest of the war they used Crete-a-Pierrot as a rallying cry. After abandoning the fort, the Haitians retreated into the Cahos mountains and fought a guerrilla war from then on..."

With Leclerc eventually succumbing to Yellow Fever, we are told that under Dessalines and Rochambeau,...

Each side was under the leadership of a capable and ruthless leader. Each side traded atrocity with atrocity, the particular description of which are sickening and defy credulity of even those used to human inhumanity to humans. Torture, rape, brutal murders, mass murders of non-combatants, mutilation, forcing families to watch the torture, rape and death of loved ones and on and on. The last year of the Haitian Revolution was as savage as any conflict one can read of in human history. Thomas Ott says this had become a war of racial extermination on both sides.

Despite the ravages of yellow fever and the increasing numbers of Haitians joining the revolution, Rochambeau's forces made considerable gains in early 1803. Napoleon, heartened by the return of slavery to Guadeloupe, sent a further reinforcement of 15,000 troops. Rochambeau seized the moment to launch a vigorous attack on the rebels.

A New European War Helps Shift the Balance

On May 18, 1803 Europe was again plunged into war, and Britain declared war on France. Dessalines was now a welcomed ally of Britain who provided arms and naval support. At the same time this European war announced the end of reinforcements and supplies for the French. The conditions were set for a reversal of the fortunes of the revolutionaries.

By the end of October the French were reduced to holding only Le Cap and were besieged and in danger of starvation. Finally on November 19, 1803 Rochambeau begged for a 10 day truce to allow the evacuation of Le Cap, thus giving Haiti to the Haitians.

Independence Day, January 1, 1804

After 13 years of revolutionary activity France was formally removed from the island and Haitian independence declared, only the second republic in the Americas. The country was in ruins, the masses mainly uneducated and struggling for survival. The western world's large and interested nations, the United States, Britain, Spain and, of course, France, were all skeptical and nervous about an all-black republic. After all, the large nations were all slave-owning states.

Born in dire straights and struggling, nonetheless the nation came to be through the efforts of the revolutionaries."

Other rebellions may not have been on the scale of the above mentioned examples, or may not have been as successful, but word of each such events did spread, and kept slave owners and ruling authorities of the slave society on their toes; examples that come to mind, include the devastating Mackandal rebellion of 1759 — which was eventually put down after a slave was tortured to "spill the beans", the Gabriel Posser revolt which ended in defeat because of a case of factionalism within, likewise that headed by Denmark Vesey — which also ended in defeat after his and his followers' plot were outed by a slave, and then there is that inspired by Nad Turner... 

All his disciples, seven of them, were fired by anger and religious passion. One, Will, had been so abused by his master that he was covered with scars. On the appointed night on Sunday, they left Turner's house and entered the house of his master where, with only one hatchet and one broadax between them, they executed all the members, including two teens, with the exception of an infant. They then moved from house to house throughout the night and executed every European-American they could find with the exception of a white family that owned no slaves; Will chopped up his master and his wife so passionately that Turner called him "Will the Executioner." As they went from house to house they gathered slaves and weapons. By Monday, they were approaching Jerusalem but were turned back by a regiment of European-Americans. Turner dug a cave and went into hiding, but when troops arrived they scoured the countryside and executed slaves by the hundred. Turner, however, was never caught for over two months; during all this time, Virginians were seized with panic. Hundred fled the county and many left the state for good. Turner, however, was eventually captured and hung. This was the last straw; from this point onwards, no slaveowner lived comfortably with slavery now that they understood the anger, the resistance, and the vengeance that boiled beneath the burden of slavery. - Courtesy wsu.ed

And on Amistad, from the same source above, well...

One more revolt, however, would seriously change the entire issue of slavery and slave revolts: the Amistad incident. In general, Amistad is overlooked by historians in favor of the more lurid and more deliberate revolts in Haiti and in the southern United States. The Amistad incident, however, dramatically changed the European-American idea of slave revolt and the moral constitution of slave revolts.

The year is 1839. Slave traffic is officially illegal in every country in the world. Despite this, a Cuban boat, the Amistad, is still trading in human lives kidnapped from Western Africa. On this trip, however, led by a powerful African, who speaks no European language, named Cinque, leads a revolt against the crew and kills everyone except the captain and first mate. He demands that the Africans be returned to Africa but instead the captain sails to New York. Claiming that the Africans are Cuban slaves rather than Africans, the United States put them on trial for murder and revolt. The result, however, was a stunning reversal in European ideas of slave revolts. Defended by no less than John Quincy Adams, the court declares the African revolutionaries to be justified in their murder of the crew. For the first time, Americans applied to slaves the same right to revolt as they believed they had. The southern revolts, from Haiti to Turner, suddenly shifted in the minds of many Americans as representing what they really were: freedom wars. To many Americans, it was becoming increasingly evident that the answer to slavery in the south had to be violent.

So-called "Cinque" above, led the mutiny

Now all these examples of differing situations and contexts together paint a picture that is quite different from the "Western" media-manufactured "submissive" or the "docile needy-type" African persona mentioned earlier, don't they?! And with regards to many of these issues, the perceptive reader will have also taken note of the "economic" question (the conflicting "economic" interests) underlying the conflicts described.


The Big Valley said...

Excellent work as usual. The more you dig into the history the more suprises come out. The Zulu example you mentioned and looking into it further, one finds that the Zulu army killed more British officers at Isandhlawana, than Napoleon killed at Waterloo.

But there are some names and events mentioned I had not heard of, like Kalydosos, and Muhktar in Libya, or the Ethiopian clash with the Romans. These topics definitely deserve further study.

jasminedearborn said...

Of interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at This film is the basis for a new feature (not with Danny Glover) that is in development.

Mystery Solver said...


Thanks for sharing the clip. It is something worth checking out.

- Mystery Solver