Haitian sovereignty is everywhere in a 1964 painting by the Haitian painter Pauleus Vital. Born in Jacmel in 1918 and active during the late 1960s through his death in the 1980s, Vital created a series of visually stunning portraits of everyday spots of Haitian life: markets in Jacmel, a fishing village along the coast, the mountainous countryside, Vodou ceremonies, weddings and funerals. Embedded in his layers of paint are subtle expressions of what Vital considers the essence of Haitian nationhood and independence. In one painting, Bees Attack Loner While Combit Workers Prepare the Fields, a group of men, driven by the sounds of two musicians playing vaksin, bamboo trumpets that are both blown and played percussively with sticks, are clearing a field through the collective work of a community, or, in Kreyòl, konbit. The loner in question in the title is not working there with the group. Instead, he’s off on his own, in the bottom left, and being punished by a swarm of bees, emanating from an underground nest, who seem to be there to maintain the moral economy of the Haitian countryside, where people are expected to help one another when needed through the konbit. It might be significant, too, that he seems a bit better dressed, perhaps slightly wealthier, than the group working together.
Other depictions of what Haitian historian Jean Casimir calls “the power and beauty of the sovereign people” come through in Vital’s scene. In the center of the painting, the earth opens up to reveal a few pieces of pottery, known as djar. This is likely a reference to traditions of historical narration that describe how, during the Haitian Revolution, plantation owners buried the fortunes they had made on the backs of the enslaved in such djar, hoping in that way to keep it for some future return to the plantation order. In some versions of the story—also known in the French Antilles, and the basis of a 1986 novel by Patrick Chamoiseau called Chronique des Sept Misères (Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows)—the planters forced one of the enslaved to dig the hole for the djar, and then killed them to make them into a kind of spiritual guard for the money, to make sure others wouldn’t get to it. Defeated and either killed or expelled for good, however, the enslavers were never able to return. Under the earth, then, the fortunes made from slavery still reside, a hidden foundation. But Vital juxtaposes the djar with another kind of foundation: a palm tree that grows up out of the ground, subtly occupying the very center of the painting. It is, in fact, precisely where the palm tree—which was sometimes planted as a “tree of liberty” during revolutionary period—is placed within the Haitian flag, as part of its coat of arms proclaiming “L’Union Fait la Force”—“Unity is Strength.”
Vital’s painting offers a kind of alternative flag of the country: not one of military colors, cannon, and proclamations of unity, but of the interwoven structures of community and cultural life that are the real foundations of Haitian sovereignty.
In recovering the history of Haiti’s counter-plantation, Casimir’s goal is to “discover the counterpower of the sufferers” and the way they “seized the opportunities” to remake their world.
Vital’s work captures the spirit of what Casimir has influentially called the “counter-plantation system,” which he sees as the true if largely unrecognized foundation for Haiti’s nationhood and sovereignty. That system was developed through resistance to enslavement and then the Haitian Revolution and rooted itself in the rural communities of post-independence Haiti. It brings together language, religion, kinship, and forms of land tenure, agriculture, and marketing networks that together seek to sustain autonomy, dignity, and freedom for the population. In The Haitians: A Decolonial History, Casimir builds on a lifetime of work seeking to understand and analyze this system in order to tell the story of Haitian independence from within. At the core of the work is an argument that Haitians developed their own forms and understandings of sovereignty.
The story of how they did so starts with how those Casimir pointedly calls “captives,” rather than enslaved, carried out revolutionary activity and built new worlds in the wake of independence, which in turn triggered a new “structuring of the universe.” Uncovering this alternative history of Haitian sovereignty requires, according to Casimir, recognizing that social and racial categories and forms of interpretation developed by the colonial process and sustained in Haitian national thought are an interpretive prison that makes it impossible to see the ways Haitians have constituted their own concepts, and their own daily reality, along different lines. We can only “rediscover the true contours of society” by understanding the categories of thought and norms of behavior developed in “other spaces” than that of the colonial and national state institutions. “I focus on the very practices the legal codes sought to destroy,” he writes, or the practices of resistance and reconstitution.
Haiti’s history has been shaped by what Casimir calls a “perennial conflict between two sovereignties.” On one side of the conflict has been the colonial administration and subsequently a Haitian state that maintained an essentially colonial relationship with the Haitian population. On the other side is a much less understood and recognized tradition of “communal sovereignty” created from within slavery, which formerly enslaved people articulated into a “distinct civil society” through the Haitian Revolution and the creation of a new cultural, political, and social order anchored in rural institutions. Michel-Rolph Trouillot interpreted this bifurcated dynamic of Haitian history as a never-ending conflict between “state” and “nation.”1
There are many inequalities that structure the contest between state and nation, which is essential to understanding Haiti’s past and present. One form of sovereignty has expressed itself through highly visible state institutions that tend to loudly share, in written form, their actions and perspectives. In both the 19th and the 20th centuries, they have pursued an economic system meant to produce agricultural or manufactured goods for export, a model that depends on either plantations or low-wage factories as its main structures. Politically, the state has sought to impose its model on a population that was pursuing other objectives, often turning to autocratic means in doing so. In the 20th century, Haiti’s regimes have consistently depended on support from outside actors, making their claims to represent the country’s sovereignty increasingly hollow. And throughout the country’s history, the pursuit of these goals has depended on arguments made both inside and outside the country that saw them as the only realistic models for economic progress in the country.
But there has always been a different tradition of sovereignty being articulated through the counter-plantation system that most of the Haitian population has been involved and invested in. This tradition has articulated itself powerfully through action and the formation of economic, social, cultural, and customary legal structures and practices spanning over two hundred years. It is a fundamentally different vision of what sovereignty should do for Haiti. Rather than seeking to create an economy primarily based on exports to wealthier countries, it seeks to create a system that fully provides for Haitians themselves, on their own terms. The agricultural goal is to produce what is needed to sustain the population locally, and that work is embedded within a broader set of institutions focused on maintaining a set of values focused on autonomy. Given the way the Haitian state has developed, the system has had to develop a wide range of forms of resistance, direct and indirect, to the projects oligarchies, often in alliance with foreign interests, have sought to impose on them.
Unlike that of the Haitian state, however, this vision of sovereignty has not for the most part articulated itself through written texts. Its visions are present in the concepts, terms, and proverbs of the Kreyòl language, and through the songs and symbols of the Vodou religion. And they are also made visible and articulated within the visual arts, which is a particularly important space of articulation for a different way of seeing the Haitian world and its possibilities. Paintings like those of Vital help us see the landscape of Haiti as one that is rooted in a particular environment and geography, as well as history, but nourished by the imagination and construction of structures that seek out a particular kind of sovereign future. We might see them as their own map to how a sovereign Haitian future might be imagined, and enacted.
In recovering the history of Haiti’s counter-plantation, Casimir’s goal is to “discover the counterpower of the sufferers” and the way they “seized the opportunities” to remake their world. To do so he examines the experience of the African-born individuals whom European slave traffickers forcibly transported to Saint-Domingue in massive numbers (about 40,000 per year) during the years before the Haitian Revolution. Casimir uses a historical term, bossale, to name this group, describing them as individuals who “lived the apocalypse” in their flesh. They were “absolutely vulnerable” on arrival, “stalked, terrorized,” and with no “recourse” to any kind of legal system or institution. “They had to experiment and invent for themselves everything that might help them survive, including the possibility of solidarity with the companions in misfortune they had just encountered.” They had to interpret, and survive within, a set of ordeals “which to them seemed a series of accidents, events that were painful but random and didn’t derive from any rational principle.” In this process, they did have one advantage over Indigenous societies in the Americas, which was that they had not seen their home worlds destroyed, and could still hold on to, “in their baggage, the memory that somewhere a family survived, that there was a lineage and a nation that they could dream was proud, strong, and even prosperous: the lwa of Ginen.” Following Kate Ramsey, Casimir suggests that these lwa, translated variously as saints, spirits, or gods, tied to Africa also represented a certain understanding of laws drawn from Africa, “laws where merchant slavery and its promised apocalypse have no place.”2
If Africa was a source of strength and a referent, the “bossales survived by creolizing themselves.” Carrying “a consciousness of the scope of their suffering,” they became experts at analyzing and understanding the structures that oppressed them, while also sustaining and building an alternative. “They became double-edged swords,” Casimir writes. The Bois-Caïman ceremony of August 1791, generally understood as the moment that launched the Haitian Revolution, condensed this broader process. It was a moment that set aside “mourning for vanquished civilizations and cultures, instead demonstrating an optimistic will in the face of what the future has to offer.” The ceremony, which mixed religious and political elements, was a way of presenting “operational cultural values: their gods (their laws or lwa) are alive, and victory is possible.”
Casimir sees this process as one in which true sovereignty was articulated in Haiti on behalf of those who had suffered in slavery. Having won their freedom and independence, they set about building a set of structures that would undo and surpass the plantation system, while also setting up a system of defense against the unending attempts they knew they would encounter to force them back into various forms of subjection. “The collective of the captives moved ahead in full autonomy,” and they didn’t place their struggle for independence within the “schema of modern and colonial social organization, that of the nation-state.” Through their experience of enslavement, they saw the plantation system and the colonial government structures that had created and sustained it as “the key to their oppression and exploitation,” and worked to “distance themselves as much as possible from this structure.” Instead, they created a new set of structures that are in fact the most shared institutions in Haiti. “Their struggle was inseparable from the invention of a new nation and an uncompromising defense of their right to have a nation.”
Casimir’s work, then, challenges us to think anew, and to see differently. It is an invitation to understand the landscape of Haiti’s sovereignty from within, understanding that it ultimately has to be built from the communities and landscapes that artists like Vital sought to represent and share. That project, today, seems both more difficult than ever, but it also is more necessary than ever.