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  • The Cry of History:Juste Chanlatte and the Unsettling (Presence) of Race in Early Haitian Literature
  • Chris Bongie (bio)

I. 1804–1811. Phoenix Rising: Remembering Juste Chanlatte Otherwise

One of the first texts published in independent Haiti, Juste Chanlatte’s six-page pamphlet from early 1804 entitled À mes concitoyens begins with its author looking back on “the great event that has just transpired in this country”: the recent expulsion of the French from their former colony of Saint-Domingue, when “our tormentors melted away in the face of the Indigenous Phalanxes, like an impure vapour vanishing with the rays of the sun” (1).1 After detailing “the barbarous oppression of the French whites” and the victorious struggle against those “who believe they can get away with anything by calling us negroes” (4; “se croyent tout permis en nous traitant de nègres”), Chanlatte then looks forward to the unheralded future of this newly united nation—“a People of brothers” who have drowned “all seeds of discord and hate” in the blood of their oppressors (5)—and concludes this exhortatory address to his fellow citizens with a redemptive vision of “the Island of Hayti” as “similar to the Phoenix, which, after having had its entrails torn apart by its own children and having been consumed [End Page 807] by the flames, will be reborn from its ashes, and emerge from its ruins all the more beautiful and glorious” (6).

For the thirty-eight-year-old Chanlatte, Haitian independence offered the chance of not just national but personal rebirth. The French-educated Chanlatte had emerged in 1791 as one of the military and political leaders of the “free-coloreds” (hommes de couleur libres) in the Western Province of Saint-Domingue. The famous slave revolt that broke out in the North on 22 August 1791 did not spread immediately to other parts of Saint-Domingue, and in the rest of the colony it was “the vexed relationship between free-coloreds and whites [that] took center stage” at this time (Dubois 119). Intent on asserting the civil rights granted (some of) them in the National Assembly’s decree of 15 May 1791, the hommes de couleur pursued an intermittently radical and conservative strategy with regard to the political status quo, on occasion raising gangs of slaves against whites, and on others signing agreements with the latter (Chanlatte would be signatory to one such concordat in October that year). After this initial prominence as both a military leader and an organic intellectual for the free-coloreds, however, Chanlatte’s trail becomes increasingly hard to follow for the remainder of the revolutionary era, and what little is “known” about this period in his life often points in a problematic direction: he is rumored, for instance, to have been “in the service” of the (pro-slavery) British during their 1793–98 invasion of Saint-Domingue, and to have taken refuge in the United States near the end of Britain’s failed occupation of the colony (Saint-Rémy 4.26). The archival labor required to sort through the rumors and gather the facts about Chanlatte’s activities between 1791 and 1804 would be daunting, to say the least.2 All sources, however, seem to agree that Chanlatte returned to Haiti from the United States at some point in the weeks following upon the declaration of independence (see, e.g., Ardouin 6.50, 190), beneficiary of a January 14 decree providing financial rewards to the captain of any American vessel that returned Haitians, both “native-born blacks and men of color” [“de noirs et d’hommes de couleur, indigènes”], to their homeland (for the decree, see Linstant 7-8). [End Page 808]

Upon his return to Haiti, Chanlatte quickly joined forces with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, “the treasured, intrepid leader decreed for us by destiny” (À mes concitoyens 5). As one of Dessalines’s principal secretaries, he undersigned the leader’s famous “I have avenged America” speech of 28 April 1804, which justified the massacres of much of the remaining French population on the island in the months following upon independence and which, as nineteenth-century Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin points out, incorporates some of the same language and...


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