To Toussaint L’Ouverture
by William Wordsworth
Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.
I am currently reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway. It is a moving fictional account of what the human spirit will endure to achieve freedom. Whitehead is a brilliant writer; his poetic prose, steeps you in the moral corruption of the South, the barbaric cruelty that powered the wealth that came from indigo, cotton and sugar production. It is a legacy of the ruthlessness of fellow human beings that casts a shadow all the way to today over the United States. How do we address the history of atrocities that paved the way for the economic foundation that allowed for the United States to become the world’s wealthiest country? I tire of the willful ignorance, the pretension that American prosperity was built solely upon ingenuity and self determination, without acknowledging that prosperity also came with a legacy of genocide and the immorality of slavery that still bears a responsibility of recognition and forgiveness.
Touissant L’Ouverture is not a historical figure with whom many in the United States are familiar. Touuissant was one of the leaders of a rebellion that parallels our own revolution, when the slaves of then Hispaniola and Saint-Dominique, modern day Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, fought back and won their freedom. The ideas of independence which spawned the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man in 1789, made the hypocrisy of slavery in French colonies unsustainable and its overthrow inevitable. The idea that all men had unassailable rights that extended beyond skin color was an idea that threw gasoline on what was already an inferno of madness in slavery. Although Haiti is an impoverished nation today, it as a direct result of a conspiracy of economic retribution by Europe and the United States, a continuation of the tyranny, that was overcome. Haiti (Saint-Dominique) was the richest of all European colonies 250 years ago, with over sixty percent of the coffee imported and forty percent of the sugar consumed in Europe produced there. This immense wealth only made possible by the cruelty of slave labor.
L’Ouverture was a talented provocateur, orator and military general, who would defeat the armies of France, Great Britain and the United States successfully over a 12 year period, with military casualties in excess of 50,000 men combined from those three nations, before being betrayed by his own lieutenants who thirsted for greater power themselves after the imperialist landowners were overthrown. L’Ouverture was captured, chained and returned to France, tried in court and sentenced to a remote prison to die, not realizing for himself the very freedom he had helped win for an entire nation.
For more information on Touissant L’Ouverture see the link for a documentary below.
The two sonnets I have included span a period of 200 years in their creation. Each poet, inspired by L’Ouverture’s life. Wordsworth, although not an abolitionist, recognized the courage and moral right of L’Ouverture and Agard, who envisioned a response that is neither rebuttal, nor concurrence with Wordsworth, but a tribute to the humanity of both of men.
How come I didn’t learn about the history of Haiti in high school, when it’s very history is borne of the same noble ideas of equality for all that is the foundation of the American revolution? Is it because we still bear responsibility for a collective failure to reconcile both the heroic and monstrous aspects of United States history.
Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or had a close-up view of daffodils.
My childhood’s roots are the Haitian hills
where runaway slaves made a freedom pledge
and scarlet poincianas flaunt their scent.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.
Poem © John Agard, Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems with Live DVD (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)