Matthew J. Smith
Of the many conditions pronounced that have been strongly featured in the Caribbean experience since the ending of slavery in the 19th century, exile ranks as one of the most profound. Its impact is far-reaching. The circumstances that encourage exile are well known and involve either a willful decision to leave one’s country as a result of political and economic distress or a forced departure sanctioned by the state in an effort to quash internal dissent. There is also the case of political exile of state leaders who fall from grace, a situation associated more with Haiti than with other countries in the Caribbean. Whatever the reasons, exiles and refugees—like other migrants from the Caribbean—brought the Caribbean experience to wider attention. People from the islands surrounded by the Caribbean Sea have since the first days of colonial rule made of that sea a highway for travel to other places, an escape and entry into the wider Atlantic.
The personal impact of exile is manifest in several domains, but most obviously in Caribbean culture. The Rastafari faith in Jamaica has as one of its fundamental beliefs that blacks in the Caribbean are in a state of displacement, taken by force to an oppressive Babylon. The Rastafari desire for repatriation to Africa as necessary to bring to an end centuries of exilic life in the Caribbean is not uncommon, nor is their spiritual and cultural preoccupation with exile. Caribbean writers have consistently written about exile and a yearning to return to an imagined home: Barbadian writer George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile, Martinican Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, Jamaican Thomas MacDermot’s poem “A Song for Exiles” (written under the name Tom Redcam), or Bob Marley’s Exodus document the exile experience from several perspectives. Common to all these examples is a melancholic sense of rootlessness and guilt that exile creates among those who have left. There is also a persistent theme of the Caribbean exile as wanderer, moving in and out of different locations across the Atlantic while searching for both a spiritual and physical home and a rationale for their condition. It is a perceived inability to settle completely in a foreign country that produces this guilt. Bob Marley captured this perfectly in “Running Away,” the most poignant of his songs recorded during his exile from Jamaica in 1977: “You must have done something wrong / Why you can’t find a place where you belong?” which is followed later by the rationalization of the decision to leave—“It is better to live on the house top than in a house full of confusion.”
The longing to return, whether to Africa, Europe, or Haiti, has been a constant theme in Haiti and the Caribbean, and it is linked to the long centuries of slavery. Metaphors of slavery and its associated sense of displacement are replete in the literature on exile not only in the 20th-century writings of Depestre, Dany Lafferière, Danticat, the art of Edouard Duval-Carrié, and the music of the Haitian diaspora, but also in references to the social conditions of the Caribbean’s populations during the period of slavery. If exile has been a persistent theme in Caribbean history, popping in and out of narratives of the nation at various points on a temporal map of the region, in Haiti it has been woven completely into the fabric of Haitian national history. Exile has always carried a powerful resonance in Haitian culture because it has been a pervasive aspect of Haitian political life. Twentieth-century cultural references to exile and displacement are numerous. In the decades since the coming to power of François Duvalier in 1957, which precipitated mass migration from the island, the theme of exile has been consistently and most powerfully articulated by Haitian writers and singers. From Réne Depestre’s famous poem “Exile,” in which he compared the country itself to a departure gate in an airport with people waiting to leave, to Edwidge Danticat’s novels, the theme is ever-present. Rodrigue Milien’s painful song of exile in the Duvalier years, “Nostalgie,” sung in both Creole and English, poignantly captured the loneliness of the Haitian exile: “When someone leaves his country far away and life is mistreating you and you want to kill yourself … take me back to Haiti, take me back to Haiti.”
This article considers the roots of exile in Haiti’s long 19th century, which Haitian scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has suggested began with independence in 1804 and ended with U.S. military occupation in 1915, through the personal experiences and writings of three prominent 19th-century exiles: Joseph Balthazar Inginac (Mémoires, 1843), Edmond Paul (Les causes de nos malheurs, 1882), and Anténor Firmin (Lettres de Saint-Thomas, 1910). None of these men were ever president of Haiti, but they all wielded political and intellectual influence. Common to all three was their forced departure from Haiti for political reasons. They each settled in locations across the Caribbean at different times. Notably, none of these writers settled in North America or Europe. From afar they wrote extensively on Haiti’s predicament and the impact of exile on Haiti and their personal lives. Through a reading of their experiences in exile it is possible to arrive at a fresh perspective of the place of exile in the unfolding of Haiti’s post-independence development.
The Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists) are a collective of sculptors based in downtown Port-au-Prince who have founded their own museum. The artists are best known for using found objects and wood to make politically charged works that draw on the imagery of Vodou. Since launching this artistic movement over a decade ago, co-founder André Eugène has referred to his home and atelier as Le Musée d’Art E Pluribus Unum. While art collectives are common in Haitian art, by designating themselves a “museum” the Atis Rezistans have incorporated aspects of conceptual art and installation art into their art movement. They describe the founding of this museum as a strategic appropriation of an institution that has historically belonged to the bourgeoisie. Conversations with Eugène, and other artists in the collective, reveal that they have carefully considered the power of museums: museums imbue certain objects with cultural capital and monetary value; present certain world views through the display of objects; and may offer visitors encounters with human remains. Becoming a museum has allowed Eugène and the other artists to access networks of art world mobility in ways that their artworks alone would not have. This essay offers context for understanding the Atis Rezistans as part of a tradition of art making among Haiti’s majority. It argues that due to their location, their class, and their overt use of Vodou imagery, scholars have overlooked conceptual elements of their movement, specifically how they play with the idea of the museum.
European empires would have not existed absent private enterprise both licit and illicit. Private traders, in the first instance, sustained colonies by conveying the labor and merchandise that planters required in exchange for the exports that colonies produced. Moreover, those colonies would not have existed in the first place absent private initiatives since European states in the 16th and 17th centuries customarily lacked the administrative and fiscal resources and often the inclination to oversee such projects. Individual or corporate adventurers, though, did possess such resources and inclination; legitimate operators secured government authority for their activities pursuant to charters that drew upon medieval forms and granted extraordinary powers to their recipients. Under the terms of these documents, grantees pursued public purposes—as they would be called today—that their activities entailed in conjunction with their pursuit of profit. The results of this practice included the establishment of colonies that spanned the Atlantic basin from the Madeira Islands to Newfoundland to Brazil; the emergence of colonial leaderships who pursued their own agendas while they ingratiated themselves into trans-Atlantic political cultures; and incessant conflict over territorial and commercial agendas that involved indigenous people as well as Europeans. Other operators did not bother with legitimacy as they pursued smuggling, piracy, and colonizing ventures that also contributed profoundly to imperial expansion. The domestic and international friction generated by these activities ultimately brought increased state involvement in overseas affairs and increased state ability to direct those affairs.
Richard Lee Turits
In the past, scholars of Latin America often assumed that Spanish colonists abandoned the Caribbean for the bullion riches of Mexico and Peru almost immediately after their conquest, while many Caribbeanists have imagined that Barbados, colonized by the British in the mid-1600s, was the “first black slave society.” Yet, in fact, more than a century earlier in the colony of Santo Domingo (then officially known as la Isla Española or simply la Española), European colonists built the first major American plantation economy and society made up mostly of enslaved people. Those held in chains on the island reached into the tens of thousands by the mid-1500s, and Santo Domingo became a pivotal crossroads in the early modern Atlantic. At first the enslaved population included thousands of people the Spanish called “Indians,” taken from other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, and even an occasional enslaved person of European (Orthodox Christian or Muslim) descent. But after the mid-1500s slavery in Santo Domingo became isolated to people of African descent. This contrasted with the preexisting demography of slavery in southern Europe, where the enslaved were of more diverse geographic origins. Santo Domingo thus initiated a trajectory of racial and plantation slavery whose contours would shape the course of history in the Americas overall. Santo Domingo’s slave-based economy would also, though, be the first to collapse, at the end of the 16th century, partly because of sustained resistance by the enslaved—their continual escape and rebellion—that was costly for planters. The enslaved had composed most of society in the prior century. Now the majority were escaped and, to a lesser extent, freed slaves, living with substantial autonomy as independent peasants dispersed across the countryside. These themes are illuminated through an exploration of one of the earliest freedom suits in the Americas. This suit was won on appeal in Santo Domingo in 1531 through remarkable transatlantic collaboration by family members and sailors as well as through the evident power of notarized documents in the Spanish Empire.
Small islands offer an unexplored vantage point from which the Caribbean can be interpreted anew. The small western Caribbean island of San Andrés can be a privileged site to launch this reinterpretation that shifts attention away from the dominant narrative of Caribbean history that centers on the establishment, development, destruction, and legacies of plantation societies. Comparing and connecting San Andrés with other small and historiographically neglected Caribbean islands makes possible an interpretation that highlights three ways in which these islands played a central role in Caribbean history: as dynamic commercial hubs, as pirates’ nests, and as imperial laboratories.
The Swedish colony of Saint Barthélemy was not large enough to be able to support a plantation economy but managed to gain significant income through neutral trade during the turn of the 19th century. As merchants and mariners migrated to the island from across the Atlantic World and slaves were brought to the colony to work as manual laborers and household servants, Sweden introduced legal and political concepts from other European empires to manage their new colonial venture. The nationality of naturalized Swedish merchants was questioned, especially by the British, who frequently captured ships from St. Barthélemy. Still, St. Barthélemy periodically saw immense amounts of trade, especially in the period following the War of 1812. Yet as war between major Atlantic powers ceased after 1815, the economy of the island dwindled and it was returned to France in 1878. Research on this aspect of Swedish colonialism has been infrequent, yet new access to French colonial archives breathes new life into this seldom-discussed part of Caribbean history.
Forming and encouraging families in Jamaica was a struggle from the very beginning of English colonization there, making Caribbean households transatlantic in nature. The explosion of plantation slavery in the 17th century prioritized economic expansion over white family cultivation. Likewise, planters were more concerned with profits than they were with enslaved families. Constant migration from Europe and Africa was therefore needed to keep populations stable for the whole history of slavery in Jamaica. The island’s demographic and political security was always tenuous as a result of this, and officials attempted numerous strategies to encourage family growth, among both the free and enslaved communities. As the island transitioned to freedom, regulating the definition of “proper” families became a weapon from which English authorities wielded imperial power. Racist sentimental toward Caribbean households created social tension when thousands of black Jamaicans emigrated to Britain after the Second World War. Their arrival produced new British households that challenged some British conceptions of domestic family life. Throughout this whole history, migration defined the growth and character of families in the Jamaican-British Atlantic World.
U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in the 19th century initially focused on excluding or limiting the military and economic influence of European powers, territorial expansion, and encouraging American commerce. These objectives were expressed in the No Transfer Principle (1811) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). American policy was unilateralist (not isolationist); it gradually became more aggressive and interventionist as the idea of Manifest Destiny contributed to wars and military conflicts against indigenous peoples, France, Britain, Spain, and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. Expansionist sentiments and U.S. domestic politics inspired annexationist impulses and filibuster expeditions to Mexico, Cuba, and parts of Central America. Civil war in the United States put a temporary halt to interventionism and imperial dreams in Latin America. From the 1870s until the end of the century, U.S. policy intensified efforts to establish political and military hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, including periodic naval interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, reaching even to Brazil in the 1890s. By the end of the century Secretary of State Richard Olney added the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (“Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition . . .”), and President Theodore Roosevelt contributed his own corollary in 1904 (“in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to exercise an international police power”). American policy toward Latin America, at the turn of the century, explicitly justified unilateral intervention, military occupation, and transformation of sovereign states into political and economic protectorates in order to defend U.S. economic interests and an expanding concept of national security.