Wed | Mar 22, 2023

Anthony Wilson's predatory state of nature

Published:Sunday | February 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Cecil Gutzmore, Contributor

IF ANTHONY Wilson's 'Blame Haiti's Politicians' piece (Trinidad Guardian January 24, 2010) was solely a sharp attack on Sir Hilary Beckles, I would be inclined to remain silent - in the assurance that the historian can look after himself.

However, Mr Wilson's piece is of considerable concern to me as founder-facilitator of the new and internationally developing Reparations: Haiti First! Haiti Now! Campaign! He calls for debate. I wish to contribute, not for its own sake, but for the majority of Haitian and Caribbean people.

Mr Wilson does not challenge the facts of what France did to Haiti in and after 1825. Those facts are not the original discovery of Professor Beckles. They are published in the Charles Arthur and Michael Dash-edited collection,
Liberté: A Haiti Anthology,
and as a lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, I passed them on to literally thousands of students over roughly a decade.

What Mr Wilson attacks is interpreting them as a case of French extortion - by blockade (
cordon sanitaire
) and armed threat of territorial reoccupation) - of 150 million gold francs - now worth in excess of US$20 billion and growing rapidly - from post-revolutionary Haiti. He appears outraged by the use of those facts as the basis of the claim for reparations from France for Haiti. That claim happens to be the
raison d'etre
of the above-mentioned campaign and is the welcome centrepiece of Sir Hilary's passionate and welcome article from which many - including Mr Wilson's elder brother - are learning them for the first time.

It is one of the ironies of the human condition that our systems of thought and action are always moral orders for their practitioners and adherents. It follows that Mr Wilson's attack on the reparations claim is not immoral in any absolute sense. The question to be asked and answered is: What moral universe does his act of vaunting intellectual self-exposure reveal the editor of the Trinidad
to inhabit?

He has set himself up as the grand guru proclaiming the good while challenging the bad: the deliberately "provocative, [the] populist, [the] simplistic. [the] propagandistic and [the] sophomoric" as well as adherence to the "victimology syndrome." By his own admission, the historical base from which the editor fights is no broader, or more secure, than the long-out-of-date
istory of the Caribbean
by J. H. Parry - a substantial British empirical historian in his day - and Philip Sherlock. He strengthens this by mobilising a certain view of the international order. It is seen as a system of nation states run on the basis of amoral realpolitik. It is a view long - and still - taught by 'experts' in traditional schools of international relations, one of which reinforced Mr Wilson's self-assurance. On this view, power and its exercise are/create their own legitimacy. The weak exist merely to suffer blows from power, one of which comes as the blame for their victimhood.

Can it be unfair to point to the fact that the surprising evidence of his piece shows Mr Wilson's morality to be entirely pro two forms of forced labour: one practised by Caribbean slave masters and the other - later - by Henri Christophe? Mr Wilson is comfortable with the latter's management of his brutal forced-labour regime being called a
tour de force
(no pun intended, I suppose.). Mr Wilson quotes approvingly material literally lauding slavery as the preservation of the "economic machine." On his moral planet it is possible to regret the disappearance of slavery and the rise of the peasantry as "the destruction of the sugar-cane plantations". This points to the unquestioned higher values of the moral universe Mr Wilson occupies. Fortunately, both the Haitian Revolution (triumphantly) contested the plantation while the post-Emancipation Caribbean peasantry remained in protracted struggle against the institutional arrangements that embody that morality.

Do Mr Wilson's evidence and argument not reveal him to be in favour of monetary compensation for planters/ex-slave masters and for them to obtain this by any available means, no matter how objectively brutal? Incidentally, is he not neutral - and accordingly silent - on the matter of the complete absence of compensation alike for enslaved and ex-enslaved (at Emancipation)?

Acknowledging the problem

Does Mr Wilson offer a single word of acknowledgement of the problem of the total failure of the French state effectively to discharge its duty to protect the real and to hold on to the human property of its citizens in Haitian slave society? When that human 'property' (the enslaved) rose in revolution and destroyed the real property (the plantations and pens), one agency of the French state (Grand armies) failed utterly to secure the status quo. The breach thus opened up should have been filled by another French state agency (the Treasury)? Instead of focusing on this, Mr Wilson makes himself comfortably the advocate of the alternative, and totally shameless solution adopted by the French. France had recourse to the use of raw power (its own and that of its allies) to dredge compensation for the former slave masters out of a newly organised system of oppression of the legitimately self-liberated African-Haitians. Realpolitik was only morality in this operation. In Mr Wilson's moral universe, "non-sophomoric" adults are those who accept that 'strong' France, as a powerful nation state, had 'interests' it was fully ethically entitled to pursue against 'weak' Haiti and in the precise manner that 'strength' permitted.

Does Mr Wilson's pseudo intellectual war on behalf of raw French power not place him firmly in the "blame the victim" moral camp? Is he not riding shotgun for the forces represented by (and is he not alongside?) such live white men as
New York Times
opinion writer David Brooks (the gallant discoverer of a "progress-resistant culture" in earthquake-shattered Haiti), and born-again Christian leader Pat Robertson (who has had the vision to unearth a Haitian "pact with the devil" for which an Old Testament-type Jehovah has wreaked vengeance through that seven-point-plus magnitude event)? A single-old-book-non-historian Mr Wilson may be, but he confidently refuses to allow this to stop him searching out historical facts supportive of his confident "blame the victim" morality.

Might it be that history does not support Editor Wilson's moral tale of Haiti as a member - like France, Britain, Spain, the USA - of the international concert of nation states? He presents Haiti as possessing real choices that its President Boyer - in office in 1825 when Haiti's Western-supported/leaning leadership capitulated to the white world's two-decade-old cordon - its politicians and even its peasantry exercised poorly. In supposedly so doing, they made themselves the chief authors of their own terrible misfortune. Importantly, Haiti had no such status. Boyer was not signing up to Mr Wilson's imagined "agreement between ... two sovereign, independent nations". How is Mr Wilson to know that the French Royal Proclamation of April 1825 specifically referred to Haiti simply as the "French part of the island of Hispaniola", and that no other European nation state regarded Haiti otherwise. True, some recently self-liberated South American states would have gratefully thought differently of Haiti. But they were impotent recent ex-colonies to whose freedom gallant Haiti had contributed materially.

New regime of exploitation

The racist European system required that the upstart blacks of Haiti be forced back into line. It engineered the establishment of a new regime of exploitation of the ex-enslaved African-Haitians. It was to be run by internal agents: they had existed in their caste and class embryo condition since the revolution and were accorded every support externally. Is this not the moral order that Mr Wilson embraces, persuading himself that the victims - among whom he included those clearly identifiable as the internal black junior partners of this French-devised white supremacist arrangement - must bear all the blame? I say "all" because, on Mr Wilson's account, no blame whatsoever attaches to France and its allies. He sees them as simply doing what the powerful are morally entitled to do in pursuit of their "interest!"

France's project was one of brute force, of blockade and the serious threat to re-occupy part of Haiti's national territory. It was designed to achieve the patently abnormal, the simply shocking outcome of making those who worked for centuries without pay, and who had won their freedom with a further shedding of their blood, provide the money to compensate their former slave masters for the 'loss' of their property. The African-Haitian blood shed during the Haitian Revolution poured out on top of that of the more than 300,000 Africans imported into that slave society whose natural reproduction the system prevented and whose descendants were not in Haiti when the revolution came. The stunning ethical achievement of Mr Wilson is to deploy his prose in such a manner as to make all this seem as normal as the transaction by which I once obtained a mortgage from a British building society that charged me a somewhat higher interest rate owing to my age at the time.

Absolving France

There is one point in Editor Wilson's article where he manages to speak much better than he knows. He does so only because in his single-minded determination to absolve France of its moral and monetary responsibility for its wicked behaviour, he acknowledges, in passing, the extent to which the forces modern world power and wealth deal in "agreements ... struck between unequal parties" - "agreements" that operate entirely in the interest of the powerful. It is in this context that he notes without disapproval that the ruling circle in Jamaica is about to burden the Jamaican masses with a further debt of US$1.3 billion through the International Monitary Fund. He is not, of course, the kind of man who would notice that this is being done at precisely the moment when objectively and morally what should happen - for the benefit the mass of African-Jamaicans - is the total repudiation of Jamaica's currently existing, and already terminally destructive, sovereign debt.

Wilson's piece could easily have been written by the very Queen Victoria who advised those suffering from the planter-imposed "ordeal of free labour" to abandon their quest for independence through land ownership. She further advised them to cease fighting regressive taxation and vestry-based oppression. Queen Victoria urged them to embrace instead the only "civilised" option available: that of labouring for the literally starvation wages on offer from the notoriously tender-hearted post-Emancipation planter class.

Given Mr Wilson's admission that he has not studied the Haitian Revolution in 25 years, it is no wonder that he remains a denizen of the moral universe in which Haiti is said to have been "ruined" by the triumph of peasant over plantation agriculture, with the former having nothing to sell to the world market. Something close to the opposite has been demonstrated to be true in Jamaica and Haiti.

The moral case for reparations from France and the USA to Haiti is in fact extraordinarily powerful. Unfortunately, the editor of the Trinidad
occupies a moral universe that makes it impossible for him to appreciate or acknowledge this. It even drove him into print to try to deny and undermine this truth to himself, to his admiring older brother, to his readers and the wider world. Poor man!

Cecil Gutzmore is a research student and lecturer at the University of the West Indies.