Land and Seas of Migration and Refuge, Past and Present
Abstract and Keywords
The epilogue considers the depths of a Haitian literary eco-archive by putting it into contact with the historical archive. It brings together Dalembert’s fictional representation of Haiti as a place of asylum for Jewish refugees during World War Two in his novel, Avant que les ombres s’effacent, and Ada Ferrer’s historical excavation, in her study Freedom’s Mirror, of the Haitian government’s application of the constitutional principle of “free soil” to detain slave ships and grant freedom to the enslaved during the early 19th century. In this way, both the novelist and the historian revive stories of Haitian lands and seas as sites of refuge; they reclaim its soil as a place of freedom and justice that transformed the lives of the enslaved and persecuted migrants. The conclusion of the book argues that Dalembert and Ferrer offer archival views of Haiti that historicize the apparently unprecedented movement of migrants and refugees in the present.
… Ces nègres polychromes avaient décrété que tout individu persécuté à cause de son ethnie ou de sa foi peut trouver refuge sur le territoire sacré de la nation. Et il devient ipso facto haïtien, c’est-à-dire placé sous la protection des esprits vaudou. Une promesse que les générations successives prendraient très au sérieux.
In the prologue to Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent, a historical novel that retraces the migration of a European Jewish refugee to Haiti during the Second World War, the narrator recalls Article 14 of Dessalines’s Constitution of 1805. Along with Articles 12 and 13, it inaugurated a radical reconception of race and citizenship in the Atlantic world: “All distinctions of color will by necessity disappear among the children of one and the same family, where the Head of State is the father; Haitians will henceforth be known by the generic denomination of blacks.”1 Sibylle Fischer has underscored the many tensions that held together the early Haitian constitutions, among others, between universal and particular claims, between provisions for asylum and declarations of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and between their national and transnational aspirations.2 Dalembert’s (p.219) narrator is less interested in historiographical nuance than in the legacy of freedom on Haitian soil passed down since the country’s founding. As the narrator puts it, “Premier pays de l’Histoire contemporaine à avoir aboli les armes à la main l’esclavage sur son sol, le tout jeune État avait décidé lors, pour en finir une bonne fois avec la notion ridicule de race, que les êtres humains étaient tous des nègres, foutre!” (Avant que les ombres s’effacent, 11). It might very well have been a “foundational fiction,” more dream than reality, but the narrator does not give a damn.3 These constitutions were radical because they abolished slavery and established racial equality. For the narrator, this is the promise that future generations would take seriously.
The novel’s prologue is meant to provide context for the remarkable, transnational journey of its protagonist, Dr. Ruben Schwarzberg, who is born in Lödz, Poland, flees with his family to Berlin, survives temporary internment in Buchenwald, is welcomed by the Haitian community in Paris, and eventually finds safe haven in Port-au-Prince in the fall of 1939. Earlier that spring, Haitian president Sténio Vincent had signed a decree-law granting naturalized citizenship – “sans grate tèt,” the narrator points out – to all Jewish refugees willing and able to make the voyage.4 As the narrator recounts, if this act was no doubt a political attempt to extend Haiti’s “influence dans le monde” (12), it was also part and parcel of a longer history of providing refuge to the oppressed. Ruben suffered a great deal over the course of a long life, but his journey ends on an uplifting note.
The 1939 decree also harked back to the 1816 constitution of the Republic of Haiti, then under the leadership of its first president, Alexandre Pétion. Although this constitution removed Article 14, it included a number of articles that shaped rights and restrictions on residency and citizenship, and provided asylum for nonwhites, a groundbreaking precedent that Dalembert’s narrator might also have cited. For these less well-known stories, we can turn to Ada Ferrer. In her article “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic,” and
(p.220) Freedom’s Mirror, the larger study that followed, Ferrer demonstrates that the Haitian revolution not only influenced antislavery movements in the Americas but also led to the reinforcement of slavery in Cuba. In particular, Ferrer calls attention to Pétion’s strategic and revolutionary interpretation of the principle of “free soil,” or the legal right to freedom and citizenship for all “Africans and Indians” on Haitian lands. As Ferrer points out, the history of “free soil,” “free city,” and the Catholic notion of sanctuary predates its application in Haiti. According to Ferrer, “Pétion’s version of free soil, however, was significantly more radical than any British or French precedent” (“Haiti, Free Soil,” 50). While Article 1 remained unchanged from previous constitutions (“There can be no slaves on the territory of the Republic; slavery is forever abolished”), Article 44 was a new provision that extended asylum:
All Africans and Indians, and the descendants of their blood, born in the colonies or in foreign countries, who come to reside in the Republic will be recognized as Haitians, but will enjoy the right of citizenship only after one year of residence.
(Article 44, Haitian Constitution of 1816, cited in Ferrer “Haiti, Free Soil,” 43)
Pétion published the new constitution in late September. As Ferrer relates, two incidents that took place in the following year would reveal the powerful transnational reach of Haitian laws on universal freedom. First, in January 1817, seven enslaved Jamaican men and boys commandeered the schooner Deep Nine, after their master, James McKowen, had disembarked in order to restock the ship. The slaves managed to escape to Haiti’s southern republic, and, Ferrer continues, when McKowen arrived to reclaim his property, Pétion informed him that they were, “recognized to be Haitians by the 44th Article of the Constitution of the Republic from the moment they set foot on its territory” (“Haiti, Free Soil,” 45). By refusing to return the men to McKowen, Pétion fulfilled the promise of the constitution because he recognized their right to freedom and set them on a path to citizenship. As Fischer argues, Pétion’s bold act is evidence that Article 44 empowered the “idea of transnational liberation [which] itself becomes part of a nationalist rhetoric” (Modernity Disavowed, 241).
Ferrer uncovers a second act of liberation that extended the “free soil” principle into international waters. In late December 1817, the Spanish slave ship Dos Unidos left Cádiz on a triangular route to Havana by way of West Africa. In mid-June, as it entered the Caribbean and neared Les Cayes, Haiti, the Wilberforce, a Haitian ship, fired at the (p.221) Dos Unidos. The Haitian captain had orders from the new president in the southern Republic of Haiti, Jean-Pierre Boyer, to “detain and seize any vessels carrying shipments of slaves” (Freedom’s Mirror, 330). Once again, the slave owners protested, and once again Haitian authority prevailed by invoking not only Article 44 but also Article 3 (the sacred right to asylum); and, when the Spanish captain demanded indemnity for his lost property, the Haitian government asserted Article 2, which established that “any debt contracted for the acquisition of men is forever canceled.” On the surface, none of the articles explicitly allowed for Haitian authorities to intercept foreign vessels beyond Haitian territorial borders. And yet, as Ferrer shows, this is precisely what happened on multiple occasions. She writes,
Haitian law elevated the new nation as a potent example of freedom and citizenship for any black person – no matter his or her location or status – who could make it to Haitian territory. The state’s flexibility in defining the limits of that territory, its apparent willingness to offer that asylum and freedom to men and women on slaving vessels headed elsewhere, stretched the reach of Haitian antislavery even further.
The almost celebratory tone makes it appear as if Ferrer will close on a positive note. Yet she brings the reader back to the problem of insubstantial archives. Unlike the trove of documents on cases of European free soil, no such body of evidence exists for Haiti’s admiralty courts. “There is no cache of petitions and legal decisions,” Ferrer laments, “to illuminate the thinking either of the political class or of the men and women who sought freedom from slavery by its means” (“Haiti, Free Soil,” 66). In the absence of records, or when sources are scattered around Europe and the Caribbean, many in private hands, the historian loses the trace of her historical protagonists and is left to imagine their fate.
In Avant que les ombres s’effacent, Dalembert picks up the trail of Haitian asylum. Reading the novel alongside Freedom’s Mirror – or, for that matter, the historical research on Jewish families in Haiti that informed Dalembert’s writing – is to put the historical archive into contact with the literary eco-archive. Weaving together the historical and imaginary threads of Article 14 of the 1805 Constitution, Article 44 of 1816, and the decree of 1939, we can grasp how the historian and novelist revive stories of the land and seas of refuge, and of the soil of freedom and justice that transformed the lives of the enslaved and (p.222) persecuted migrants. The intervention of the Wilberforce and other Haitian ships that took the principle of “free soil” into Caribbean and Atlantic waters provides a stunning historical contrast with President Reagan’s interdiction policy, more than 160 years later, that commanded the Coast Guard to extend the territorial boundary of the U.S. The former enacted a radical projection of antislavery and freedom, while the latter was a pre-emptive attempt to erect a barrier against refuge. One welcomed the enslaved and honored their humanity, while the other kept migrants in perpetual flight or returned them to an uncertain fate under the guise of “repatriation”; one took national pride in the revalorization of race, while the other mobilized a rescue that effectively masked a racist immigration policy. In different ways, Dalembert and Ferrer offer views of Haitian land and seas that historicize the movement of migrants and refugees in the present. Ferrer takes the pulse of the archives to craft a story about emboldened Haitian presidents, international merchants and diplomats, and the ships that trafficked in human cargo. Dalembert channels the epistemic anxieties produced in the margins of histories of the Second World War into an imaginative form that projects a Haitian future. In the texts of Dalembert and Ferrer, Haitian pasts are “re-read in the light of the present and future,” in the words of Stuart Hall. Belonging to this “living archive,” their stories are unfinished because they remain vital to a more complex understanding of Haiti today. Multiple images of Haiti appear over the course of Ruben’s journey, from the early/mid-twentieth century all the way up to the early twenty-first, as Dalembert’s novel closes with a glimpse of the generations that inherited the legacy of Ruben’s safe passage.
In this way, one might read Avant que les ombres s’effacent as the kind of centrifugal story that Rob Nixon called attention to in his address to the Modern Language Association. Ruben’s itinerary across Europe and the Atlantic traces a personal and social movement within and away from centripetal powers. His journey highlights the sacrifices made to escape violence and oppression and offers an alternative vision of Haiti as a refuge from European pogroms and concentration camps. The novel’s attention to the impact of war on vulnerable populations contrasts sharply with the tendency of dominant narratives of the Anthropocene to generalize and de-historicize local and global views of the present. And yet, the distinction between centripetal and centrifugal narratives feels too neat for the often messy, multi-directional social movements and multi-layered environments depicted in the corpus examined in this book. Moreover, studies that focus on the flight of migrants are not (p.223) immune to sweeping claims. In The Figure of the Migrant, Thomas Nail begins, “The twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant” (1). At first glance, the reader could reasonably infer that Nail is inspired by the opening paragraph of W. E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. “[F]or the problem of the Twentieth Century,” Dubois famously wrote, “is the problem of the color-line.” Yet, if Nail meant to invoke Dubois, which would be quite logical given the latter’s writings on the “Great Migration” of former slaves during Reconstruction in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Dubois is nowhere to be found in Nail’s otherwise exhaustive history and theory of migration. To be fair, Nail’s stated critical purview is the history of counter-movements coming out of Western Europe, including their political and philosophical origins in Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet the historical and geographical scope of European incursions into the “New World” would seem to require more than the three pages that Nail allocates to the Atlantic slave trade.
These lacunae notwithstanding, two additional problems come to the fore. First, by emphasizing the twenty-first century, Nail risks a distorted history of migration that is disconnected, curiously enough, from the very past that he analyzes in such detail. Just as the “problem of the color-line” neither began nor ended in the twentieth century, the same can be said for migration. To be sure, the extensive transhistorical and interdisciplinary analyses and the rich intertextual references that inform Nail’s political philosophy of “kinopolitics,” or a politics of social movement, have the effect of moderating the rather dramatic opening. Indeed, one of Nail’s great insights is to theorize migration outside state-sanctioned social formations in order to move beyond the idea of the migrant as a failed citizen. Nail tracks the “continuous oscillation” of migrant figures, especially the proletarian, across centuries (137). Moreover, he argues that previous ages of migration are essential to grasp the complexity of contemporary forms. “The history of the migrant traced so far is not simply a history of the past,” he writes, “it is also a history of the present in which all of the historical conditions and figures of the migrant return and mix together” (180). Yet Nail also asserts that migration has reached a tipping point in the twentieth-first century. By insisting on a political crisis, he arguably arrests the various social movements and flows across time that animate his kinopolitics. Tempted by the idea of a new, pervasive era of global migration, Nail employs language that has much in common with the dominant narrative of the Anthropocene. In looking to the future of migration (“The twenty-first century will be the century of the migrant”), Nail adopts a (p.224) prophetic language that compels him to speak in universal terms, which is the second problem of his theoretical approach. “In other ways,” he continues in the following paragraph, “we are all becoming migrants” (1). The collective “we” remains ambiguous through to the end of the book: “The migrant is the political figure of our time,” Nail proclaims (235). This conclusion soars to a view of the globe from on high, like the satellite’s perspective that illuminates Serres’s vision of the Earth’s “immense human plates.” The spatial distance gives the illusion of a common humanity that blurs the fault lines between the universal and the particular that can be read in the Haitian constitutions and, later, in Lahens’s reflections on the earthquake in Haiti as a global problem.
The Figure of the Migrant begins with a grand vision of migration as the great problem of the present and future and ends with an urgent appeal to a shared humanity. Nail situates the migrant first as the figure of the more expansive twenty-first century and finally in the ambiguous “our time.” In both phrases, it is impossible to locate the “migrant figure” with any precision. Yet the long histories of social movement at the heart of his book make it a compelling intervention into the question of migration and refuge. It also reframes a number of questions with which I began this book, especially the stakes of future-oriented politics and neoliberal conceptions of human value for social and environmental justice. Migrants and refugees are without question ubiquitous political figures today, but it is imperative to hold on to the tension between particular experiences and their implications for wider, varying flows of people in search of refuge. To universalize these different movements is to look for solutions in the short term that either forget or deny what has happened in the past. This is, of course, the lesson imparted by Lahens in Failles, a text that makes a vital contribution to the Haitian eco-archive. This body of literature, from the fall of Duvalier to post-earthquake Haiti, attests to and imagines histories of migratory and displaced people amidst inequality and precarity. The “high pressure” of the Caribbean zone, as Charles put it, is the space where centripetal and centrifugal forces have a long history of conflict. Haitian writers past and present have shed light on the pain of the “stalled present.” But they have also drawn inspiration from their surroundings to envision spaces of refuge, among the whispering trees of Philoctète’s borderland and under the protective glow of Lahens’s moonlight.
(2) See Fischer, Modernity Disavowed, 232–241. For additional scholarship on the early Haitian constitutions, see Claude Moïse, Constitutions et luttes de pouvoir en Haiti (1804–1987), 2 vols. (Montreal: Éditions du CIDIHCA, 1988–1990); and Julia Gaffield, “Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801–1807.” Journal of Social History 41.1 (Fall 2007): 81–103.
(3) Fischer’s chapter on the constitutions is titled “Foundational Fictions.”
(4) See Joseph Bernard, Jr., Histoire juive d’Haiti (Port-au-Prince: Editions Henri Deschamps, 2013).