Haiti’s history is like a historical soap opera, a soap opera that historian and professor Laurent Dubois is more than happy to chronicle. First there was Avengers of the New World, his chronicle of the Haitian Revolution and its significance. Perhaps the dramatic aspects of the country’s history were more than titillating for Dubois who chose to revisit Haiti, this time for a full-pledged history, from the days of the racketeering buccaneers to the months following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
German influence started out as really intense in early 19TH Century Haiti. And now it’s virtually gone?
It is largely gone, although there are many families that have some German background. The rise of U.S. economic power, and particularly the period of occupation, essentially brought about the end of the economic presence of Germans. The Germans were in many cases replaced by Syrian merchants, who developed close ties with the U.S. and received support from the country during the late 19th and early 20th century.
The U.S. Marines came to Haiti in 1915 and remained for nearly three decades? Why didn’t Haiti turn out to be an English-speaking country?
The occupation was 19 years in total, and there were some attempts to institute English-language education. But many Haitians resisted that, and indeed celebrated their links with France and the French language precisely was a way to resist U.S. cultural influence. There is now a two-century long intellectual and literary history of writing in French in Haiti: even though French speakers have always been a small minority in the country, they have been incredibly prolific as thinkers, producing novels and poetry as well as a wide range of work on literature, anthropology, psychology, and other fields.
For years, historians have had this back and forth about whether some of the Tainos and Arawaks escaped to the mountains and have descendants, whereas others have said that they were annihilated.
There is no doubt that there were some who survived, though largely by mixing in with the Spanish settlements. And there is some evidence that indigenous people did remain the mountains and may have connected with early maroon communities, thus influencing aspects of Haitian culture, notably in the Vodou religion. But Haiti really developed as a colony only starting in the late 17th century – centuries after the decimation of the indigenous people in the early 1500s. Reports from the late 18th century, though, do make clear that there were lots of traces of the indigenous culture everywhere in colonial Saint-Domingue: some churches has old artifacts incorporated into their construction, and there were many stone “zemis,” representations of the indigenous gods, often incorporated as sacred objects into Vodou temples.
In The Aftershocks, you discuss the Kreyòl language a great deal. How has the language changed over the years?
The M.I.T. linguist Michel Degraff argues that Kreyòl emerged relatively early in Saint-Domingue’s colonial history, probably in the early 18th century, and by the 1750s there were already plays being written and performed in the language. The orthography of the language has of course varied since them – there are still some differences in terms of spelling and accents, though there is increasing consensus about that – and there have always been regional variations to the language too. But it’s crucial to understand that it’s a rich language with deep roots, having thrived for more than two centuries, and that it has essentially always been the major language of the Haitian people.
You’ve written books about Haiti before. While doing research for The Aftershocks, did you come across anything new, or anything that surprised you?
I certainly learned a lot in writing the book. I deepened my understanding of Haiti’s nineteenth century, which is not discussed enough and I think is often misrepresented, and enjoyed learning about the complexities of that period. I also learned many new details about the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, and was struck by how much about that period still resonates today. But my favorite part about writing the book was spending time reading and learning about some of Haiti’s great intellectuals and writers – particularly figures like Anténor Firmin, Jacques Roumain, and Marie-Vieux Chauvet – who accompanied me as I struggled to understand the country’s complex past. I knew about these figures before and had read some of their work, but I discovered much more about them in the process of writing this book. I’m hoping to spend more time exploring and teaching their work in the coming years, and have thought about writing a book just focusing on Roumain at some point. I’m also working with four other scholars (Nadève Ménard of the Université d’Etat d’Haïti, Millery Polyné of NYU, Chantalle Verna of Florida International University, and Kaiama Glover of Barnard University) on a book called The Haiti Reader whose goal will be to offer translations of excerpts from Haitian writers and thinkers to an English-language public. In trying to answer questions about Haiti’s past, I definitely came upon many new questions that still need to be explored. My ultimate hope is that the book can help spur on more research and writing about the country’s complex and fascinating past.