Tag Archives: Halifax

Trudeau’s vacuous Haiti declaration ignores revolution, slavery

Justin Trudeau likes making high-minded sounding statements that make him seem progressive but change little. The Prime Minister’s declaration marking “Haiti’s Independence Day” was an attempt of the sort, which actually demonstrates incredible ignorance, even antipathy, towards the struggle against slavery.

In his statement commemorating 215 years of Haitian Independence, the Prime Minister failed to mention slavery, Haiti’s revolution and how that country was born of maybe the greatest example of liberation in the history of humanity. From the grips of the most barbaric form of plantation economy, the largely African-born slaves delivered a massive blow to slavery, colonialism and white supremacy.

Before the 1791 revolt the French colony of Saint Domingue was home to 450,000 people in bondage. At its peak in the 1750s the ‘Pearl of the Antilles’ provided as much as 50 per cent  of France’s GNP. Super profits were made from using African slaves to produce sugar, cocoa, coffee, cotton, tobacco, indigo and other commodities.

The slaves put a stop to that with a merciless struggle that took advantage of divisions between ‘big white’ land/slave owners, racially empowered though poorer ‘small whites’ and a substantial ‘mulatto’ land/slave owning class. The revolt rippled through the region and compelled the post-French Revolution government in Paris to abolish slavery in its Caribbean colonies. Between 1791 and 1804 ‘Haitians’ would defeat tens of thousands of French, British and Spanish troops (Washington backed France financially), leading to the world’s first and only successful large-scale slave revolution. The first nation of free people in the Americas, Haiti established a slave-free state 60 years before the USA’s emancipation proclamation. (It wasn’t until after this proclamation ending slavery that the US recognized Haiti’s independence.)

The Haitian Revolution’s geopolitical effects were immense. It stimulated the Louisiana Purchase and London’s 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The revolutionary state also provided important support to South American independence movements.

Canada’s rulers at the time opposed the slave revolt. In a bid to crush the ex-slaves before their example spread to the English colonies, British forces invaded Haiti in 1793. Halifax, which housed Britain’s primary naval base in North America, played its part in London’s efforts to capture one of the world’s richest colonies (for the slave owners). Much of the Halifax-based squadron arrived on the shores of the West Indies in 1793, and many of the ships that set sail to the Caribbean at this time were assembled in the town’s naval yard. Additionally, a dozen Nova Scotia privateers captured at least 57 enemy vessels in the West Indies between 1793 and 1805. “Essential tools of war until the rise of large steam navies”, the privateers also wanted to protect the British Atlantic colonies’ lucrative Caribbean market decimated by French privateers. For a half-century Nova Scotia and Newfoundland generated great wealth selling cheap, high-protein cod to keep millions of “enslaved people working 16 hours a day”.

A number of prominent Canadian-born (or based) individuals fought to capture and re-establish slavery in the French colonies. Dubbed the “Father of the Canadian Crown”, Prince Edward Duke of Kent departed for the West Indies aboard a Halifax gunboat in 1793. As a Major General, he led forces that captured Guadalupe, St. Lucia and Martinique. Today, many streets and monuments across the country honour a man understood to have first applied the term “Canadian” to both the English and French inhabitants of Upper and Lower Canada.

Other “Canadians” played a part in Britain’s effort to corner the lucrative Caribbean slave plantations. Born into a prominent Québec military family, Charles Michel Salaberry “was part  of successful invasions of Saint-Dominique [Haiti], Guadeloupe and Martinique.” A number of monuments commemorate Salaberry, including the city in Québec named Salaberry-de-Valleyfield.

To commemorate Haitian independence the Secretary General of the Caribbean Community, Irwin LaRocque, also released a statement. Unlike Trudeau, LaRocque “congratulated” Haiti and described the day as “a timely reminderof the historic importance of the Haitian Revolution and its continued significance as a symbol of triumph over adversity in the quest for liberty, equality and control of national destiny.”

Trudeau should have said something similar and acknowledged Canadians’ role in the slave trade and crimes against the free people of Haiti.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada in Haiti, Uncategorized

Nova Scotia’s connection to exploitation in Africa

Little has been written about the Nova Scotian cod industry and a Haligonian’s role in events partly responsible for the stark economic divide that sees most of Africans living on less than $2 a day and without electricity.

Between 1600 and 1850, more than 10 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic. European demand for human chattel abetted violence across Africa, exacerbating ethnic fragmentation and undermining state formation with long-term economic impacts.

Nova Scotia propped up the transatlantic slave trade. Africans were held in bondage in the city for 200 years, and during the 1791-1804 Haitian revolution, Halifax was used as a venue to release pressure on Jamaican slaveholders with over 500 maroons and their families expelled to the city in 1796.

Much of Britain’s Halifax-based squadron was deployed to the West Indies in a bid to crush the Haitian slave rebellion before it swept the region. Concurrently, a dozen Nova Scotia privateers captured at least 57 enemy vessels in the West Indies between 1793 and 1805. Licensed by the state to seize enemy boats during wartime, the privateers were also trying to protect a market decimated by French privateers.

For decades, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland generated great wealth selling cod and other goods to the Caribbean slave colonies. Unwilling to devote valuable sugar planting space to food crops, the plantation owners bought high-protein, salty cod to keep hundreds of thousands of “enslaved people working 16 hours a day.”

After destabilizing large swaths of Africa for three centuries, in the late 1800s, Europeans colonized most of the continent. Over the next seven or eight decades, African politics and economics were directly organized in the interests of European powers.

A number of Nova Scotians participated in British campaigns to conquer various parts of the continent. Most significantly, Halifax’s William Grant Stairs played an important role in two controversial expeditions to expand European influence over Central Africa. In 1887, Stairs joined the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, which was ostensibly designed to “rescue” the British-backed governor of Equatoria, the southern part of today’s South Sudan.

Read from a humanistic or internationalist perspective, the Royal Military College of Canada graduate’s diary of the three-year expedition is incredibly damning.

Stairs’ extensive diary makes it clear that locals regularly opposed the mission. He repeatedly admits to “ransacking the place” and Stairs led numerous raiding parties to gather “carriers,” which were slaves in all but name.

One diary entry notes: “It was most interesting, lying in the bush and watching the natives quietly at their day’s work; some women were pounding the bark of trees preparatory to making the coarse native cloth used all along this part of the river, others were making banana flower by pounding up dried bananas, men we could see building huts and engaged at other such work, boys and girls running about, singing, crying, others playing on a small instrument common all over Africa, a series of wooden strips, bent over a bridge and twanged with the thumb and forefinger. All was as it was every day until our discharge of bullets, when the usual uproar of screaming of women took place.”

Even with some criticizing the expedition in Britain, Stairs’ efforts were celebrated locally. An honouring committee established by the mayor of Halifax decided to give him a sword made in London of Nova Scotia steel and the city organized a reception attended by the lieutenant-governor with a military band playing “Here the Conquering Hero Comes.”

Within two years of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, Stairs helped Belgian King Leopold II conquer the resource-rich Katanga region of the Congo. He headed up a heavily armed mission that swelled to 2,000.

The goal of the expedition was to extend Leopold’s authority over the Katanga region and to get a piece of the copper, ivory and gold trade. Stairs’ specific objective was to get Msiri, the ruler of the region, “to submit to the authorities of the Congo Free State, either by persuasion or by force.”

The expedition accomplished its principal objective. Stairs had Msiri killed and threatened Msiri’s brothers with the same fate unless they accepted Leopold as sovereign.

While Stairs died during the expedition, his mission to Katanga added 150,000 square kilometres to Leopold’s massive Congo Free State. In a bid to extract rubber and other commodities from his personal colony, Leopold instituted a brutal system of forced labour that caused millions of deaths from direct violence, as well as starvation and disease, between 1891 in 1908.

While it may be discomforting to admit it, Halifax has contributed to African impoverishment.

This article first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

 

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