Tuesday, November 29, 2005
This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit Cap Haitian, located on the Northern coast of Haiti, an historic city for both Haiti and the world. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed near Cap Haitian and established the first colonial settlement in the Americas. He found a land populated with native Taino and Arawak peoples, who numbered from one to several million. Just a few decades later, slavery, war, and disease had nearly obliterated the population. One of the only lasting remnants of Haiti’s native peoples is the country’s name; after gaining independence, the former colony of Saint Domingue was renamed after the Taino word for ‘mountainous land,’ Ayiti.
It was in 1670 that Cap Francois (as it was then known) became the administrative center of the French-controlled part of Hispaniola. As Saint Domingue grew into the most productive colony of the 18th century, providing much of Europe with sugar and cocoa, Cap Francois became known as the “Paris of the Antilles.” In Haitian history, the area is most significant as the site of the Vodou ceremony in 1791 that launched the Haitian revolution. In a clearing called Bois Caiman, slave leader Boukman called upon the Vodou lwa (spirits) and his fellow slaves alike to rise up against colonial oppression. Thirteen years later at Vertières, also in the North, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines fought the last great battle of the Haitian Revolution, finally repelling Napoleon’s forces for good.
Dessalines became the Emperor of Haiti in 1804, but he was killed just two years later. At that time the country was split in two, with General Alexendre Pétion ruling the South and General Henri Christophe taking over the North. Christophe rebuilt the re-named Cap Haitian, which became his capital, to some of its former glory. His most impressive achievements were his castle, the Palais Sans Souci, which is said to have rivaled Versailles in its day, and the behemoth Citadelle, a fort built with the labor of 20,000 men high atop a mountain to protect against a return of the French.
Sadly, today Cap Haitian is an over-crowded city with a crumbling infrastructure that the government shows no interest in improving. As is usually the case, it is up to the local peasants and non-governmental organizations to find a way to confront the problems of the area. One organization that is taking an innovative approach is Veterimed, a Haitian NGO founded in 1999 in the nearby town of Limonade. UNIF has two students doing internships there this semester (Moussanto Dantil and Charles Edner), working mostly with a program that gives seminars to peasant groups about how to care for their animals and increase production. Veterimed also runs a business called Let a go-go (A lot of milk) that buys milk from peasants and turns it into various products like bottled milk and yogurt. The program has gone nation-wide, and I can personally vouch for the great taste of their chocolate milk! Cap Haitian may not regain its former glory anytime soon, but providing a decent income for peasants and producing a nutritious product is a good place to start.