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Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins

I just came across this paper I gave at the Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass conference, held in New Bedford, Mass. in June 2005. I suppose it has been waiting for me to turn it into something more substantial, but I doubt I ever will. So here it is, in its flawed, elliptical original state.

What follows is the summary of an experiment: a report of the results observed when two characters from Melville and Douglass are placed alongside each other. One day, perhaps, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins will have their own conference. Until then, they can briefly make an appearance in the shadow of their creators.

The ‘incomparable’ Jack Chase, I hardly need explain, is one of the more engaging figures in Melville’s White-Jacket (1850). You may recall him using his impressive powers of eloquence to persuade the captain to grant the crew of the Neversink a day’s liberty ashore in Rio de Janeiro. With a cool blend of flattery, entreaty, and some choice quotations from Shakespeare and Pope’s translation of the Odyssey, he succeeds in winning the concession, and the scene ends with his shipmates crying out, ‘Jack Chase forever!’ ‘Who can talk to commodores like our matchless Jack.’

In My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Douglass tells us how a group of slaves planning to escape north by canoe are arrested and suspicion falls on former co-conspirator Sandy Jenkins as their betrayer. Although he has little evidence, the literate Douglass singles out the dialect-speaking Jenkins who – the previous year – had persuaded Douglass to carry the root of a certain herb in order to protect himself from the cruelties of his master. This, and the fact that Jenkins had withdrawn from the plot following a dream in which he saw Douglass attacked by a swarm of angry birds, seems to confirm that he alone of the group remained in thrall to what he calls ‘slaveholding priestcraft’.

Both books draw on the familiar idiom of ante-bellum reform – condemning institutions (naval flogging, chattel slavery) with the objective of securing their abolition. We might even argue that this idiom helped to secure their popularity: they addressed a readership already receptive to such sentiments. But they also tell us a good deal about the strategies by which sailors and slaves negotiated the power relationships of men-of-war and plantations on a daily basis. After all, desertion and mutiny, flight and revolt were the last resort of a minority. Most of the time, sailors and slaves settled for less dramatic measures, that had the more limited objectives of making their lives more dignified and their hardships easier to bear.

If the institutions appear to be susceptible to a moral critique (giving us a stark choice between good and evil), the strategies seem to belong to the much less clear-cut world of everyday ethics (enjoining us to attend to the grey area between better and worse).

White-Jacket and My Bondage stand out from most contemporary nautical reminiscences and slave narratives, I would argue, because of the extent to which they introduce novelistic techniques to the non-fictional forms that they draw on. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which they create significant, complex secondary characters – apart from the first-person protagonists. How these characters choose to respond to their circumstances is a matter of some importance.

Melville and Douglass pay unusually close attention to the dynamics of what might be called ‘ethical authority’: in particular the rhetorical skills employed by individuals to manage or intimidate subordinates, to win concessions and respect from superiors, to provide comfort and support to their peers. In doing so, White-Jacket and My Bondage might be said to threaten or undermine antebellum programmes of reform by dwelling on the nuances of conduct that the moral condemnation of institutions insists are irrelevant distractions.

Very briefly, I would like to argue that these texts engage with ethical authority on two levels.

Firstly, they depict the rhetorical strategies used by sailors and slaves. Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins serve as models of admirable and misguided conduct respectively. The former is shown using his skill to win concessions not only for himself but for his shipmates. The latter cowardly withdraws from the runaway plot due to his backward belief in the supernatural and is assumed to have betrayed his fellow slaves. While the one sets an example of how to negotiate relations of power to common advantage, the other shows how a refusal to engage with them can leave one’s comrades exposed to danger.

Secondly, White-Jacket and My Bondage depict these strategies in such a way as to validate the strategies used by their own narrators, which are (in the case of Jack Chase) modelled on - or (in the case of Sandy Jenkins) in direct opposition to - those highlighted in the story they tell.

When they came to write their books, of course, Melville and Douglass were no longer sailor or slave (and were free to pass judgement on their former tormentors from the safety of the printed page). But, as authors struggling to make an impact in the literary marketplace, facing a potentially sceptical reading public as a worker might face a demanding, even unreasonable, perhaps tyrannical employer, they had to choose their words carefully. To the extent that White-Jacket was indeed (as Melville himself famously suggested) a ‘job’ written for money, then his preference for the popular form of the anti-flogging nautical reminiscence was a shrewd one. Douglass, too, followed his first, successful slave narrative, with another work in the same vein.

However, they knew their books were much more than the routine record of simple recollections, important as the empirical accuracy of their representations of ships and plantations were. Not only do they complicate the moralistic rhetoric of institutional reform with a more ambivalent - novelistic – ethics of individual character, they do so within complex symbolic and allegorical frames. The prefaces of both works betray a certain anxiety that the cost of such sophistication might be a loss of credibility. They are haunted by the spectre of readers who will refuse to accept that Melville or Douglass were once sailors or slaves at all.

In these circumstances, Jack Chase and Sandy Jenkins serve a very useful purpose.

If the conventional anti-flogging tale demanded a rather naïve narrator – not too clever or serious – the very title of White-Jacket already hints at different requirements. The jacket itself promises Carlylean probings of surface and depth, its patchwork character alluding to its unusual method of composition, its colour suggesting the presence of an allegory in which race plays an important role. To develop such propositions within a first-person account by a common sailor would strain credulity if it weren’t for the evidence of just that sort of erudition in one of the men on board the Neversink. Just as Chase uses his rhetorical skills to persuade the captain to give the crew ‘liberty’ ashore at Rio, so the narrator of White-Jacket (who – in the interval since the events he describes – appears to have modelled himself on his former shipmate) deploys a similar ‘off-hand, polished, and poetical style’ in order to win over potentially sceptical readers.

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass hints at the kind of slave narrative preferred by his former abolitionist mentors when he refers to the advice that his 1841 lectures should restrict themselves to the unvarnished facts and could benefit from ‘a little of the plantation manner of speech’. It was advice he very soon found difficult to follow, as he was by then already, as he says, ‘reading and thinking.’ If Douglass’ refusal to toe the line was already evident in his 1845 Narrative, it was more boldly set out ten years later in My Bondage, which ruffles feathers not only by denouncing slavery as well as describing it, but also denouncing prejudice and discrimination in the North. It seems entirely fitting that Sandy Jenkins – as a representative of the kind of narrator Douglass was expected to be but couldn’t - plays a correspondingly enlarged role in the later work. On almost every appearance – Jenkins is introduced as the ‘root man’ as if to make sure the reader understands that superstition, the vernacular, cowardice and betrayal are virtually synonymous. And by implication aligning the standard-English narrative voice with reason, bravery and integrity.

As an important closing qualification, I’d like to raise the the possibility that their respective narrators are perhaps a little too smitten by Jack Chase or a little too harsh on Sandy Jenkins. After all, Melville and Douglass – wittingly or not – give us enough to question their narrators’ assessment of these important characters.

On the one hand, Jack Chase is not quite as heroic as he seems. For instance, when his friend White-Jacket is ‘arraigned at the mast’, he is only bold enough to step forward and defend him, after Colbrook, the corporal of the marines, has done so first. And the one man to stand up to the captain’s ‘massacre of the beards’ is not Chase (for all his indignation and bravado when he submits to the barber’s shears) but ‘old Ushant’ – who is flogged and imprisoned for his resistance but who is rewarded with the ‘unsuppressible cheers of all hands’ when he disembarks in Richmond.

On the other, perhaps Sandy Jenkins is not quite the fool he is made out to be. If his offer of the ‘root’ is supposed to represent a response to slavery that is as backward and ineffectual as Douglass’ bold fight against Covey is modern and effective it still leaves open the possibility that it is actually the root that gives Douglass the confidence - if not the power - to win the fight, as he reports Jenkins later claiming.

If we take these apparent inconsistencies seriously, we might be forced to reconsider not only what kind of conduct Melville and Douglass are implicitly praising and condemning among sailors and slaves; but also what kind of voice, what form of address, works for them as writers.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Thu 2 Dec 2010 1:39 GMT+0000
 
 
 
 
 
 

Run This Way - 1

A young child - as parents will know - makes no strict distinction between walking and running. They do not - as adults do - compartmentalize them and see walking as the normal, default form of self-locomotion with running reserved for special occasions (proverbially, when you're late, pursuing someone - or being pursued, or doing it as a form of regular exercise or competitive sport).

Image adapted from Wikipedia

 
Small children constantly change their velocity - compared to the regular speed of an adult, they are often frustratingly slow (executing detours, pausing to examine something, or simply to stop and sulk) or worryingly fast (looping off to suddenly chase something or sprinting ahead, usually in the vicinity of a busy road junction). In both cases they force the adult to adjust to their pace and thus, as it were, become children again, if somewhat against their will.

I was thinking of this while reading Barbara Bodichon's American Diary1, in which the British feminist artist and journalist recorded her tour of the United States in the late 1850s.

It seemed to me that walking and running carry a certain rhetorical emphasis in her text . Early on she remarks that 'slavery makes all labor dishonourable and walking gets to be thought a labour, an exertion'2; in other words it is stigmatized by the privileged elite as something only black - or poor white - people would do.

For this reason then, at least in the South, her and her husband's fondness for talking walks - and long walks at that - would seem to carry a political charge, as if they were a form of discreet abolitionism. References to their walks appear frequently, although they gather added momentum in New England, starting with a 'lovely walk with Mr [Theodore Dwight] Weld' - compiler of the influential American Slavery As It Is (1839) - in New Jersey,3 a walk that becomes a distinctly abolitionist one in that it leads them to the grave of James G Birney.4

So much for walking. Running, though, has rather different associations. A Southern woman she meets tells her, 'If you teach them [slaves] to read they will run away'.5 And the image of the runaway slave recurs at several points in the diary, a figure to which Bodichon is drawn. Indeed at one point she writes, 'I hope to paint a picture of a runaway slave in these woods'.6

Running, you might think, is a dynamic contrast to the rather muted activity of walking. A suitable figure for immediate rather than gradual emancipation, perhaps, or an emblem of the black radical rather than the white abolitionist. And yet Bodichon's sentimental eclipsing of the slave's feelings by her own - to paint a runaway would seem to presuppose capturing him or her stalled in flight, perhaps even hiding from pursuers not far behind - allows even less agency to the runner than her Southern companion, who does at least, if somewhat ruefully, allow that they might actually get away. This would also seem to be the view of Marcus Wood, whose survey of 19th-century visual representations of the male runaway concludes:
In its literalisation of the concept of 'run-away' it is a negation of the slave's most radical anti-slavery gesture. The slave does not guilefully depart under shade of night, but stands out bold and supid on the bleak white background of the printed page. He does not steam on a boat .... or travel ... by train, or ride... on a horse. Comic, trivial, pathetic, and always the same, with his bundle of goods and one foot eternally raised, he proclaims his inadequacy for the task he has set himself. The very engraved lines which make up the the slave are running round in circles, running everywhere and nowhere. One arm and the legs form triangles | thrusting forward; the stick, bundle and other arm form another set of triangles hanging back. The net result is that the head - poised, straining, perfectly still - is itself a motionless O.7
If the antebellum South coded walking as a form of undignified labour, then running was an expression of cowardice. In Honor and Slavery (1996), Kenneth Greenberg argued that the 'man of honour' was expected to betray no fear of death and to be willing to be killed rather than lose face. And so if challenged to a duel he would confront his adversary rather than make himself scarce.8 What is interesting is that despite, for instance, Austin Steward's loud condemnation of the 'inhuman practice' of duelling and its 'barbarous code of honor' in Twenty-Two Years a Slave (1857), these values were espoused even by slaves themselves, however much they sought to distance themselves from them as adults once they had reinvented themselves as bourgeois Northerners.9

Steward himself relates the story of a fugitive slave, Doctor Davis, kidnapped on a boat bound for Buffalo. 'Give me liberty or death! Or death!' he repeated, with a shudder' before cutting his own throat with a razor.10 This motto - of Virginia patriot Patrick Henry11 - is quoted by both Douglass and Jacobs in the course of narrating their first escape attempts.12 Related to this are the episodes which permit the writer to express their admiration for a courageous - if ultimately suicidal - defiance of a fellow-slave, such as Big Harry and Ben in the narratives of James Williams and John Thompson.13

Thompson proclaims his own allegiance to this code when he refuses to flee from the company of a 'pretty young lady' as a band of patrollers catches up with him on a forbidden visit to a neighbouring plantation. He explains that 'no person is allowed to possess gentlemanly bravery and valor at the South who will run from the face of any man, or will not even courageously look death in the face, with all its terrors.'14 Similar considerations inform Josiah Henson's and William Parker's choice of the right time to escape. Parker finds that when an opportunity presents itself, he finds he 'did not like to go without first having a difficulty' with his master. 'Much as I disliked my condition, I was ignorant enough to think that something besides the fact that I was a slave was necessary to exonerate me from blame in running away.'15 Henson, notoriously, delays his departure many years, a 'sentiment of honor' preventing him from succumbing to the temptation of absconding as he escorts eighteen slaves across the free state of Ohio from Maryland to his master's brother's plantation in Kentucky; only much later, when he finds that neither his new master, nor his family, seem to be 'under any, the slightest, obligation' to him for saving his life, does he feel 'absolved' of his obligation to them, and determines to make his escape to Canada.16

The episode that comes closest to a duel is probably Douglass' celebrated fight with Edward Covey, after which the 'tyrant' never again laid on me the weight of his finger in anger.'17 Again, its significance is that it allows Douglass to condemn Covey as a 'coward', and to represent himself as one no longer; a slave now only in name, his 'spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence.'18 When he does escape, it can no longer be understood as running away; rather it is simply the taking possession of a freedom he has already won in a fair contest.

[To be continued.]


Notes

1. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, An American Diary 1857-8, edited from the manuscript by Joseph W Reed, Jr (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).

2. Ibid., p56.

3. Ibid., p142.

4. Ibid., p143. For further references to walks and walking, see pp67, 96-7, 111, 115, 122, 124, 135, 145, 146, 147, 152, 154, 160.

5. Ibid., p62.

6. Ibid., p77.

7. Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp93-4.

8. Kenneth S Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Death, Humanitarianism, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19960, esp. Chapter Four, 'Death.'

9. Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857), pp67, 47.

10. Ibid., p143.

11. In a speech to the Virginia Convention 1775. See William Wirt, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (Philadelphia: James Webster, 1817), p123.

12. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom [1855] with a new introduction by Philip S Foner (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), p. 284; Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [1861] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p99.

13. James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), pp53-59; John Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and his Providential Escape [1856] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p427.

14. John Thompson, op. cit., p444.

15. William Parker, The Freedman's Story [1866] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 2.: 1849-1866. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), p751. The 'ignorant' here is the Northern adult chastising the Southern child.

16. Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada [1849] in Yuval Taylor (ed), I Was Born a Slave - Volume 1: 1770-1847. An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives (Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999), pp734, 743-44.

17. Douglass, op. cit., p246.

18. Ibid., p247.


S

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Sun 21 Nov 2010 12:52 GMT+0000
 
 
 
 
 
 

International Diplomacy

Outside Haiti, the world's mainstream media rarely take notice of the country's elections. Even after the January, 2010 earthquake, the attitude pretty much stayed the same. They continued to repeat the standard line that it is a failed, corrupt state, kept afloat by foreign donations and NGOs. Whatever the result in November's poll, none of this would change.

But then their interest in the election was sparked once Wyclef Jean hinted that he would stand, a hint confirmed on 5 August. Along with 33 others, he waited for the decision of the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), Haiti's electoral council, for confirmation that they would be eligible to stand.

The decision was expected on Tuesday 17 August, but at the last minute it was postponed until the Friday. And when it came, the press were all aflutter: Wyclef had been disqualified - although 14 others had too, leaving only 19 candidates to appear on the ballot papers in November.

The next day, in the Miami Herald appeared a piece entitled Banned from ballot, Wyclef remains an inspiration by Edwidge Danticat. In it she admits to initially feeling excitement at the thought of his candidacy. Wyclef had helped to put Haiti back on the front pages again, and no doubt for some he was a refreshing outsider compared to the stuffy intellectual elite.

A cultural outsider maybe, but a political one? His subsequent criticisms of the CEP (subsequently expressed in song) were related to the rejection of his own candidacy, not that of others. And he certainly had nothing to say about its decision to exclude Haiti's largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas, from the Senate elections in April last year, a decision condemned in an open letter (pdf) to Jose Miguel Insulza of the Organisation of American States and Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations. The ban remains in force for this year's elections.

Of course, too stringent criticism of the CEP would undercut his own position in the unlikely event that they reverse their decision. If participating in the election in itself would not be an index of his support for the ruling elite, his notorious remarks in support of the armed rebels who helped overthrow the democratically-elected Aristide in 2004 (which he has not retracted) should leave us in no doubt. And indeed not one of the candidates is guiltless on that score, which is another reason why Haiti Liberté has called it a sham election.

Danticat remains silent on these matters. Perhaps she is too close to her friend to criticize him in public. I am reminded of another Caribbean woman writer seemingly losing courage when the opportunity to take a stand comes available. When Jamaica Kincaid visited Tel Aviv in January 2004, Haaretz reported her response when asked for her thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
'In my opinion, it would be rude to come as a guest into someone's home and tell him how to live,' she says. 'I have opinions, but I express them in private. I am only a guest here.'
The analogy between visiting a country and visiting someone's house is rather forced, to say the least. And in any case, if you discovered that your host was keeping someone prisoner in the basement, you might just think this warranted more than a raised eyebrow.

Reading between the lines, though, she perhaps betrays her opinions all the same. After all, if she wholeheartedly approved of the Occupation she wouldn't have to worry about telling her hosts 'how to live.' But if that is all we can take from this report of her visit, these are slim pickings indeed. One could hardly talk of an bold intervention here.

Danticat on the other hand hints at much more. Her piece indirectly points up a number of other reasons why Wyclef might not be perfect presidential candidate: his poor French, questions about the probity of his Yéle foundation, and indeed his problematic residency status. And yet by not making a meal of them, as a friend, her words may indeed carry weight, and she reminds him - in public and therefore in a way that would make it harder for him to - of his duties. He should bow to the decision gracefully, not to incite violence, and to concentrate on doing what he does best - being a musician and a roving ambassador for the country.

Still, the question remains whether Haitian intellectuals have been unduly reluctant to embrace the cause of popular democracy. The thinly disguised attacks on Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Lyonel Trouillot's novel Bicentenaire (2004) and Raoul Peck's film Moloch Tropical (2009) are perhaps the best-known examples (and taken to task by Le Monde du Sud/elsie-news and Kim Ives respectively).

Danticat's writings are politically much more ambiguous. Her memoir, Brother, I'm Dying (2007) sympathetically records her uncle's radicalism. He embraced Aristide in the late 1980s, seeing in him a version of Daniel Fignolé, ousted by François Duvalier in 1957. Fifteen years later, now an old man in poor health, he was eventually forced to leave Haiti when some of Aristide's supporters (wrongly) accused him of collaborating with UN forces and police. In her account, Danticat distances herself from the loaded term chimères, used to demonize Aristide's supporters, although her choice of nouns in her reference to anti-Aristide 'groups' and pro-Aristide 'gangs' arguably closes that distance.1

Similarly, perhaps, her narrative of events of 2004 in the essay 'Bicentennial' in Create Dangerously (2010) avoids celebrating Aristide's departure from office (and subsequent exile in South Africa) without actually describing it as a coup d'état.2

Given the prevailing balance of power, such apparent even-handedness cannot help but bring comfort to the forces that brought an end to Haiti's precarious decade-long experiment with democracy. It would be hard to think of such reticence among an older generation of Haitian writers, such as Jacques Roumain and Jacques-Stephen Alexis.

Part of the reason must be the legacy of thirty years of dictatorship, during which any form of political dissent within the country was practically impossible, and clearly forced writers and artists to express their resistance indirectly. And another factor must be that - as a dyaspora living in North America - writers like Danticat (as she clearly indicates in her latest book) are caught between the expectations of fellow Haitian-Americans (who frequently take issue when her characters aren't sufficiently 'representative') and the demands of those back home (who feel that as someone who has left the country she has no right to comment on its political scene).

In his book on Aristide and the Lavalas movement, Peter Hallward argued that 'the great majority of intellectuals and academics in Haiti are conservative as a matter of course,' 3. If that is true, then equivocation is hardly sufficient to tip the balance. As Chris Bongie observes (pdf), it seems, in the wake of a 'natural' catastrophe and a 'humanitarian' crisis, that 'taking sides' is entirely inappropriate. But it is precisely under such circumstances that dominant versions of 'historical truth' take hold, blocking the full range of possibilities – or electoral candidates – that lay claim to our consideration.

Notes

1. Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (New York: Vintage, 2008), pp177, 150-1.

2. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp97-105.

3. Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2007), p194.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Wed 25 Aug 2010 12:21 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Payback II

Responsibility for the spoof Bastille Day announcement promising the repayment of Haiti's 'independence debt' to France (covered in an earlier post) was claimed by a group called CRIME.

The original website at diplomatie.gov.fr was taken down by the authorities, but was quickly replaced by one at diplomatiegov.info and the video of the announcement can now be viewed here.

On 16 July, a message from the @DiplomatieFR twitter account stated:
« Le Comité pour le Remboursement Immédiat des Montants Envolés » d’Haïti (CRIME) takes credit for a hoax carried out on July 14.
The acronym works in English too, standing for the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti.

At a press conference in Montreal on 22 July the group promised more action according to this report in the Winnipeg Free Press. And then the issue seemed to disappear from the news.

But on 16 August an open letter to Nicolas Sarkozy was published in the French daily Liberation urging France 'to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.'

The letter was reprinted on CRIME's own website, both in French and English with a full list of signatories. The issue was also covered by BBC News, the Guardian, and the Toronto Star.

That the signatories included French scholars such as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière may have brought some comfort to Tontongi, the author of La France doit restituer à Haïti la rançon de l'indemnité (which seems to have been written before the letter was published), who noted the disappointing response of formerly progressive intellectuals such as Régis Debray and René Depestre to Aristide's renewal of the claim for restitution in 2003.

The substantial article draws on the detailed arguments made by Anthony D Phillips regarding Haiti's Independence Debt and Prospects for Restitution (pdf) which demonstrate the solid legal case behind Aristide's claim. In 1825 President Boyer 'agreed' to pay a 150 million franc indemnity to compensate French planters for the loss of land and slaves as a result of Haiti's independence.

The legality of this agreement could be challenged on several grounds: the fact that negotiations were shadowed by the threat of French military force; the dubious basis on which the amount of the indemnity was arrived at; and the already-established consensus among the colonial powers that slavery and the slave trade were morally wrong - as evidenced by the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and the United States in 1807, the commitment to extend abolition in the Treaties of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars; and even the (albeit short-lived) abolition of slavery by the French government itself in 1794.

Furthermore, when it became clear that Haiti could not make the scheduled repayments (it had to borrow the first two installments from French banks), in 1834 the government appointed a commission to review the arrangement. Although the Dalloz Report declared the original ordinance unlawful and argued that it was the responsibility of the French government to compensate the planters, a replacement treaty imposed a schedule that was scarcely less crippling.

Phillips examines the legal grounds for restitution in the light of successful 'unjust enrichment' claims made by Holocaust victims against Swiss banks, and by American states against tobacco corporations. He concludes:
In the recent movement toward addressing historical injustice through legal and political action, Haiti's Independence Debt makes a compelling case. The historical background presents a sympathetic story of profound tragedy and unfairness. The story well fits the traditional elements of a cognizable unjust enrichment claim and presents strong arguments against dismissal on procedural grounds. As part of a concerted, multi-disciplinary approach, a claim for the Independence Debt could realize some relief for the modern-day people of impoverished Haiti and perhaps deliver justice for one of history's most tragic wrongs.
The Christian Science Monitor reprted on 17 August that the French Foreign Ministry had dismissed the petition. But the article makes the following interesting observation:
French officials did not address the legitimacy of the debt, with analysts saying such an admission could open a flood-gate of former colonial claims. France, for its part, has steadily requested that Moscow recompense a group of French investors that prior to 1917 put vast sums into the Russian rail system. Lenin declared the debt void under Soviet rule. But recently Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin agreed to reopen negotiations.
According to a post on The dangers of sovereign debt default, the Soviet government settled with British holders of these so-called Czar Bonds in 1986 'because the Soviets wanted to get hold of large amounts of Czarist money frozen in 1917 that was still sitting in British banks.' And while the Yeltsin government compensated French bondholders to the tune of $400 million in 1996, many have argued that the amount should have been much larger. And the Association Fédérative Internationale des Porteurs d'Emprunts Russes (AFIPER) continue to press for what they argue is full restitution of the bondholders' investments. (See also this article in Le Figaro in July this year).

If the holders of Czar Bonds are as much victims of violent breaches of international law and custom as the Haitian government, then there is an embarrassing inconsistency in the French government's response to their claims for restitution. But even if the Haitian petition that the government ignores is based on arguments as strong, if not stronger, than those that led to Russian compensation in 1996, what makes such claims compelling is not the logic of their arguments but the relative standing of the two parties in the dispute. In some circumstances, France can compel Russia to bow to international pressure in ways that Haiti could never duplicate in her dealings with France.

But this is not something we are likely to hear the Foreign Ministry say in so many words.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Mon 23 Aug 2010 9:53 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 

Currently Reading

I'm normally reading two books at any one time. Sometimes three, and occasionally four if I have a collection of poetry on the go or a new issue of a journal I intend to read cover to cover. But right now, for a variety of reasons, I seem to be mid-way through more than a dozen. How did this happen?

 
Some of them go back to last year. Ian Baucom's Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (2007) was a recreational read - recreational in the sense that it was not directly related to anything I was currently writing. And I'm not sure what prompted me to buy it (although I'm glad I did). Possibly I thought it might help me think through some of the issues to do with representations of time in an essay on Moby-Dick I had set aside since giving a talk about it in 2004. The bookmark - a folded sheet of A4 scribbled with pencilled notes (such as 'IB's own reconstruc of the Zong case & its participants is an actuarial one - Qbp46') lies between pages 54 and 55, as it has done since December when I needed to begin work in earnest on several projects with looming deadlines.

First I had to make some final revisions to an article on a vodou chant in response to comments by the editors and the publisher's anonymous readers. One suggested I refer to Madison Smartt Bell's All Saints Rising (1995), the first volume of his trilogy on the Haitian revolution, because it quoted the chant in question. I knew of the book, and had been meaning to read it for years, so I now had the excuse I'd been waiting for. The chant did indeed appear on page 118, although I'm not sure there was anything unusual about it that would merit more than a passing mention in a footnote. I ploughed on for another twenty pages, according to the slip of paper, hardly scribbled on at all, for I don't take easily to historical novels. And this one seemed to take just a little too much pleasure in the depiction of violence and suffering, and robbed the story of the narrative impetus I was expecting. I found the non-fictional accounts of historians more gripping, even if C L R James' The Black Jacobins or Aimé Césaire's Toussaint Louverture only hint at the nitty-gritty detail of the day-to-day struggle.

Other things I wanted to revise in the paper included my translation of a passage from Frédéric Marcelin's Thémistocle Epaminondas Labasterre (1901). The scene, featuring the adolescent protagonist's encounter with young women washing clothes in a river, appears quite early on and I'd sped past, firmly intending to finish the novel at the time - two summers ago now - but, well I must have been sidetracked by something or other. It's a fascinating read, reminding me a little of Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale, and while I did tinker with my English version, I didn't have time to resume the narrative, and this will have to wait until later this summer.

With the vodou chant out of the way, two other obligations took their place. One was a paper on the 'Liberty or Death' motif in the Age of Revolution for the Caribbean Enlightenment conference at Glasgow University in April. I never got to deliver it in the end, as I was taken ill two days before and spent a week in hospital. I'd completed the reading I had set myself for this, except for Laurent Dubois' A Colony of Citizens (2004). I notice I was still several chapters short of the one entitled 'Vivre libre ou mourir!' when Haemophilus influenzae type b breached my defences. I'll return to this when I return to the draft in October and begin to work it into a more substantial piece, if I can.

Alongside my wanderings in the world of political slogans and the Hegelian dialectic, I had been converting a conference paper into a more substantial essay on the literary geography of a tropical hotel. For months I'd been pursuing various themes (the hotel in fiction, travel writing and cultural theory; the philosophies of space; acoustic geographies; heterotopia) like a pup licking bone. Now the full-length text has been emailed to the editors (to be returned for revisions in due course, no doubt), a few half-chewed morsels remain on the bedside table.

One is Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (1958), a classic that has some intriguing remarks on sounds that I never used: 'It is a salutary thing to naturalize the sound in order to make it less hostile,' he writes, thinking of the way the noises of Paris that keep him awake at night can be transformed into an 'ocean roar.' It is waiting to be resumed at page 38 at some point later this year.

Another is Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969): an enormously rich narrative that takes off from the arrival of a US-funded research team hoping to make a difference to an impoverished community on an island in the Caribbean. Project leader Saul, his wife Harriet, and assistant Allen take up residence in a guest-house run by the loquacious Merle, who straddles the racial divisions of the newly-independent country and serves as the ideal 'cultural broker' for the visitors.

I had read Marshall's first novel before, but the friend who recommended this was so on target. I'm only a third of the way through, but it is clear why the guest house should be such an appropriate setting for this Proustian anatomy of the postcolonial condition, this dissection of the souls of white folk. Each time I pick it up, I read less pages, not wanting it to end.

An ongoing project to outline an imaginary anthology of Haitian travel writing - travel writing by Haitian authors, that is, rather than writings about Haiti - has required me to read or re-read a number of fictional works in which the theme of exile and homecoming loom large. But I have also been trying to track down the motif of the everyday in Haitian literature, going back to the oral tradition of the lodyans, recently revived in Georges Anglade's Rire haïtien / Haitian Laughter (2006), a bilingual edition that combines several smaller collections of these mini stories in one volume.

It's a book that is best suited to dipping into now and again, which means it will be beside my bed for some time. With Dany Laferrière's Vers le sud (2006), my task is to compare it with his earlier work, La chair du maître (1997) of which this is a revised version, named after the film that was based on some of the stories in the first. At first glance Laferriere has removed ten chapters and added five, not to make it more like the movie, but rather to respond to it, in turn. A sequel, even.

I have read the first novel in Marie Chauvet's Love, Anger, Madness (1968) trilogy, now appearing in English translation for the first time, and now anxious to read the rest of it. But I'm not sure if I should really finish Rene Depestre's Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (1988) first. I'll decide once I reach the end of Marshall's masterpiece.

Joe Moran's On Roads (2009) I've nearly finished: a brilliant cultural history of the road in 20th-century Britain, especially the impact of the motorway in the 1960s. And quirky too, from its attention to things normally taken-for-granted, such as signage and road-numbering, to the discreet count-down symbols (used on motorways to mark the approach of junctions) that appear in the page-headers towards the end of chapters.

The poetry volume I have on the go - Sean Borodale's Notes for an Atlas (2003)- is prose rather than verse, but demanding enough that it can only be read slowly in short bursts. Described as a '370-page poem written whilst walking through London', it is divided into twenty-five sections, capturing the experience in a series of highly fragmentary impressions of things seen, read and overheard that could almost be absorbed in any order, for the pleasure of the text is in the changing rhythms and startling similes and metaphors that endow each moment with a fragile beauty.

Oh, and there are the latest issues of Studies in Travel Writing and Small Axe that I've only had time to flick through so far. I am particularly looking forward to the interview with Merle Collins.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Mon 19 Jul 2010 16:10 GMT+0100
 
 
 
 
 
 
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