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A Beautiful Tree and a Great Book (With a Haitian Connection) to Read Underneath

Tree of life Haitian metal art

The shade of a beautiful tree is the perfect place to relax with book. Tree of Life by Wilson Etienne.

A beautiful tree and here’s a suggestion for the book to read underneath: “Black Count” by Tom Reiss. A page-turning biography, Reiss says he likes to think of the central figure as history’s greatest underdog. His book introduces readers to General Alex Dumas, the man that inspired so many fictional heroes of 19th century French literature, among them Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan, of “The Three Musketeers,” and most closely, Edmund Dantes of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”  These characters of derring-do sprung from the creative mind of the real son of the real “Black Count,” novelist Alexandre Dumas.

“Alex Dumas was a black man, sold into slavery in Haiti as a child, who eventually rose higher than any black man ever rose in a white society before our own time,” Reiss asserted in an NPR interview in 2012. “He became a four-star general 200 years ago, at the height of slavery.”  This achievement almost defies comprehension, given that slaves in the French Caribbean colonies were appallingly mistreated and had an average survival expectancy of only 10 years.


Reading "Black Count," by Tom Reiss under a tree

To read under your tree, may I suggest The Black Count.  Art and literature, two of life’s great pleasures! 

The product of a union between the ne’er-do-well son of a white French marquis and a black slave woman, little Alex grew up on a small coffee plantation that his father had purchased in southern Haiti.  He lived rather ordinarily, much as any boy of the colony would, playing in the jungles, fishing and exploring until about the age of 12 when his father abruptly sold him into slavery.  Alex’ grandfather in France had just died, and his terminally cash-strapped father need money to pay for his own passage to France, where he could claim his title, inheritance, and lands.

Interestingly, once Alex’ father’s inheritance was secured, he sent for the boy through a repurchase agreement with the owner.  After 2 years of enslavement, Alex sailed for France, the passenger docket listing him simply as, “the slave, Alexandre.”  The timing was perfect.  With the rallying cry in France growing ever louder, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!” young Alex was welcomed into French society and provided with the best educational opportunities.  He also learned war-craft, becoming an excellent marksman, swordsman, and equestrian. As an adult, Alex embraced the ideals of the dawning Revolution and took up its cause.  His rise coincided with that of another young general of considerable talent:  Napoleon Bonaparte.

General Bonaparte was more than aware of Dumas’ capable leadership, physical presence, and bravery in battle, and quickly came to regard him with adversarial jealousy. During the French army’s Egyptian campaign, Dumas and Napoleon’s rivalry intensified and the two clashed in a very public ideological disagreement. At that point, Napoleon’s jealousy evolved to a dangerous and vengeful hatred. On their way back to France, Dumas’ ship was diverted in a storm.  He was kidnapped under mysterious circumstances and held for ransom, which Napoleon conveniently ignored. Dumas was eventually thrown into a fortress dungeon and forgotten.

Does it get more swash-buckling than that?  Want to know what happens next?  I’ve got two words for you:  Read it!


Contributed by Linda for It’s Cactus

The Battle of Vertieres

The Battle of Vertieres is celebrated in Haiti today with parades and speeches by prominent public figures.  This sculpture by Julio Balan, called "Dancing in the Street" illustrates the joy and patriotic pride of the holiday.

The Battle of Vertieres is celebrated in Haiti today with parades and speeches by prominent public figures. This sculpture by Julio Balan, called “Dancing in the Street” illustrates the joy and patriotic pride of the holiday.

Today from coast to coast, Americans are observing Thanksgiving, in memory of our early history and a time when colonists and the native population worked together in friendship to insure the prosperity of all.  Their feast of celebration acknowledged the good fortune and security of a bountiful harvest and now, following the tradition of centuries, we commemorate that event with feasting, family, friendship, and collective reflection.

Ten days earlier, Haitians celebrated a national holiday of no less significance in terms of the mark of history upon their country.  The Battle of Vertieres was fought on November 18, 1803 and marked the beginning of the end of French tyranny on the island colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti and Dominican Republic, and the birth of the first free black republic in the New World.

General Francois Capois, along with General Jean-Jacques Dessaline, lead the momentous final assault near Cape Haitien on the northeast coast.  In a remarkable act of courage,  Capois rode into a fearsome barrage of French fire, head held high and colors flying.  His horse was killed and fell from beneath him, but the general kept up his charge, drawing his sword and urging his troops onward, crying, “Forward, forward!”  The opposing general, impressed with the unflinching bravery of his adversary, called a momentary cease-fire and sent a messenger, who told Capois, “General Compte de Rochambeau sends his compliments to the general who has covered himself in such glory.”  The messenger saluted Capois, turned on his heel, retreated to his position, and the battle thereupon resumed.

Despite the superior numbers of the 30,000-strong French Expeditionary Force sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Haitians gained the upper hand and forced the French to abandon the fight.    This defeat was a major blow to the French empire, having been cut off from its biggest source of income: the profits of plantation slave labor in Saint-Domingue. Immediately following the Haitian victory, Generals Petion, Dessalines, and Clarvaux met at Fort Liberte and laid out the foundations of the republic’s newly won independence.

Today the occasion is marked in Haiti with parades and speeches by public luminaries. View photos of the 2011 celebration as recorded by Adam Bacher in Cap Haitien here: http://portraitsofhaiti.com/category/cape-haitian/


Contributed by Linda for Beyond Borders/It’s Cactus

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