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Melville in Port au Prince

By April 4, 2014 3 Comments

The image I won’t soon forget from Haiti’s National Museum is a elaborately rigged ball and chain from the nation’s horrific dark ages, the days of slavery, an immense, jerry-rigged iron contraption some human being created for another human being to wear, hard as that is to believe.  It’s a frame of iron you had to step into to get over your shoulders, a piece of atrocity so unthinkable that even imagining it hung on the shoulders of a human being is nearly impossible. The museum guide wouldn’t let me snap a picture. I wish I could have because I can’t describe it really, just as I can’t describe so much of Haiti.

When you see shackles like that, when you stand there beside them, in front of them, when they loom over you, it’s easier to understand John Brown’s murderous passion, easier to understand why radical abolitionists were so hated by so many Americans, easier to understand the blood in “Bloody Kansas,” easier to understand Huck Finn’s perfectly innocent declaration that he’d go to hell rather than haul Jim back into slavery. 

My people immigrated to this country and stayed in Michigan and Wisconsin and Iowa because, in the late 1840s, they’d have no part of slavery. But then no one is innocent; the Dutch were famously successful slave traders when, for a century or more, they owned the high seas. Slavery was an institution, as much a part of the way we lived as church attendance. And it’s not over. Somewhere, even as I write, someone works is a slave.

But a million shackles are gone or left in museum displays, where, thank goodness, we can stand and stare and wonder, shake our heads at what once was.

There’s more to the Haitian story than its birth in slavery. There’s the story of the Spanish slaughter of the island’s aboriginals. Those Natives they didn’t slay with the sword, they did with plagues. There are no indigenous people in Haiti today–or very, very few.  They’re gone.  Like the slaves, white people didn’t think they were people.  They were dogs.  Well, worse.

First came Columbus, then sugar cane, then slaves. The fort Columbus left when he returned to Spain–and all its inhabitants–was destroyed by the time he returned to what we often call “the new world,” its remnant crew hacked to death. Island history is mess for years, when Spanish, Dutch, French, and English fought with each other in 17th century colonialist fashion, vying for seeming control.

It was the French who succeeded and began to use the island’s fertile region for tobacco, indigo, cotton, and cacoa–and yes, you read that right, cacoa, the raw material of chocolate. Slavery began. 

For years, slaves were brought at the rate of 40,000 a year so that soon enough the African population overwhelmed the whites in numbers–but not power. They came from hundreds of tribes and stayed strong because so many were literally worked to death. Replacements were needed constantly, so new slaves were shipped in, keeping the enslaved people strong enough, ironically, to rebel. 

Which they did. Thousands escaped into the mountains where they formed communities of of maroons. Then, already in the early 1790s, a full-fledged revolution began in the mountains with a voodoo ceremony, the religion the Africans brought with them and never really abandoned. For several years, political leadership moved back and forth between battling factions, but Toussaint Louverteur, the man whose name is on the airport, brought in troops and thereby earned the title of “Father of His Country.”

The question the whole story raises, of course, is ancient–of what importance is history to character? how does the past shape us? are we victims of what once was or is every generation responsible for its own destiny?  

I visited a high school class, an English class, in an English-speaking school, where the teacher wanted me to talk about the American literature she’d been teaching for the last year. Great kids, by the way, energetic, lively learners.  But when we were talking, I was stunned to hear her say that she’d made these kids (for many of them English isn’t their first language) read an obscure and really long story by Herman Melville.

The story is “Benito Cereno,” a story I’d required for a quarter-century in a college American Lit class, required, I should say, with greatly limited success.  Melville turned cagey and cynical late in his life, became himself a kind of confidence man; he’s cagey. Besides, his sentences can feel far more Shakespearean than, say, Hemingway-ish. “Benito Cereno” shed student readers in droves once they decided that wading through its density wasn’t going to be worth the sweat.

Just blew me away when this first-year teacher said she’d made these kids, these Haitian high-school kids from middle and upper-class families, read that looooooooooong, difficult Melville story.

I’m standing up there in front of the class, and we’re having a great time talking about American lit when it suddenly struck my lily-white consciousness how perfectly right it was for her to assign that beast, because “Benito Cereno” is actually a dirty, wink-and-a nod trick. Melville knows his white readers will be as hoodwinked as Amasa Delano, captain of the whaler Bachelor’s Delight, who is totally incapable of reading what’s happening on board a decrepit slave ship they chance to meet one day, the San Dominick.  

Here’s the almost cruel joke of this sprawling sea tale: slaves have taken over and created an act Delano simply can’t see through because it never occurs to them that slaves are smart enough to pull off this bit of high seas theater–they’re not smart enough because they are black, because they’re slaves.  

When Major Reno saw a mountain of dust rise from the spot on the plains where Custer and his men died at the hands of Crazy Horse, it never occurred to him to go to Custer’s aid, never occurred to him that Custer might be in trouble because he could not imagine Indians could beat up the U. S. Cavalry. What had actually happened simply couldn’t have.

In “Benito Cereno,” Melville tricks lily-white readers out of their sheer stupidity and racism. Because Amasa Delano simply can’t imagine that slaves have triumphed, neither can we.  

Until, like Delano, we suddenly see our own blindness.

There I stood in front of all those Haitian kids thinking it was some kind of cruelty to make them read “Benito Cereno.” It took forever for me to put the pieces together.  I’m a white guy, just like Delano, captain of Bachelor’s Delight.

It was a kind of epiphany right there in a high school class. All of a sudden it hit me: “Benito Cereno” is a perfect story for Haitian kids, complicated sentence structure or not. Perfect because it’s their story.  It reads a whole lot more powerfully in Port au Prince than it does in northwest Iowa.

But then, there are no slave shackles in the museum down the street in Orange City.  

Maybe there should be.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Harriette says:

    What you wrote about Haiti hits home because of my recent experiences in neighbouring Dominican Republic, that is intimately intertwined with the history of Haiti and, sadly, racism. I vaguely recall reading Benito Cereno for an English literature seminar focused on Melville and Hawthorne (who both were raised as Calvinists) way back. I think it deserves a re-read. Thank you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Marvelous, Schaap. Reminds me of my Prayerbook reading for yesterday, Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who hoodwink Pharaoh by suggesting that Hebrew women are like dumb cattle who just give birth in the fields, unlike the pampered Egyptian nobility whose women do need the help of midwives. Pharaoh thinks, O, right, and the midwives get away with it. As do Miriam and Jochebed in the case of Moses. But still, a horrible story, the slaves. Have you ever taught Toni Morrison's Beloved?

  • Jim says:

    Great new book out on the historical incident upon which Melville based his tale: The Empire of Necessity, by Greg Gandin.

    BTW Harriette, Melville and Hawthorne were arguably as Unitarian as Calvinist in their childhood ambience.

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