Our debt to Haiti

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS - Hi­lary Beck­les is vice-chan­cel­lor of the UWI. Email feed­back to col­umns@ glean­erjm.com.

ALL OF us in Ja­maica, more than any other peo­ple, owe the great­est po­lit­i­cal and civic debt to Haiti. For this rea­son, I join with the pres­i­dent of our Se­nate, Tom Tavares-Fin­son, QC, in urg­ing ci­ti­zens here and within the re­gion to sup­port the United Na­tions ef­fort in fund­ing, to the best of our ca­pac­ity, the postMatthew re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. I give but one ex­am­ple – as spec­tac­u­lar as it is rel­e­vant.

This year is the 200th an­niver­sary of the grand, epic land­ing of ‘sail-away’ Ja­maicans in Haiti – the first black Ja­maicans to be de­clared free and ci­ti­zens of Haiti by the per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion of a pres­i­dent. This mem­o­rable episode in Ja­maica’s his­tory has gone un­no­ticed but should be cel­e­brated and used as an ed­u­ca­tional and po­lit­i­cal event as we pay trib­ute and re­pay our debt to ‘Mother Haiti’.

This is what hap­pened ex­actly 200 years ago. Ja­maica is burst­ing at the seams with 300,000 en­slaved Africans. Haiti is the A child car­ries a con­tainer of wa­ter as he walks past homes de­stroyed by Hur­ri­cane Matthew in Jérémie, Haiti, on Mon­day, Oc­to­ber 10. A week af­ter Matthew’s as­sault, power is still out, and wa­ter and food are scarce.

only true land of the free and the brave, hav­ing de­feated in bat­tle the en­slavers of France, Bri­tain, and Spain be­fore be­com­ing, in 1804, the first free state in the Western world.

Pres­i­dent Des­salines en­shrined within the 1805 na­tional con­sti­tu­tion the most hu­mane and po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful pro­vi­sion: any en­slaved per­son of African de­scent who ar­rives on the

shores of Haiti is au­to­mat­i­cally freed and a ci­ti­zen of Haiti.

For the 300,000 en­slaved Ja­maicans, this le­gal of­fer was like dan­gling Trelawny yam be­fore Usain Bolt. They made a run for it and tested the re­solve of the Haitian govern­ment. The 170 miles be­tween the two coun­tries be­came known as the ‘free­dom pas­sage’ as Ja­maican boat peo­ple fled to free­dom. I present here the de­tails of one such Ja­maican free­dom voy­age.


In Novem­ber 1816, a Ja­maican slave owner, James M’Ke­wan of Port Royal, docked his cargo boat hav­ing ar­rived from Span­ish Town har­bour. On board his boat, Deep Nine, were 15 en­slaved Ja­maican men. As M’Ke­wan stepped ashore to com­plete the pa­per­work, his 15 en­slaved Ja­maicans took con­trol of the boat and sailed away to free­dom in Haiti. They ar­rived at Troubon-bon and be­came Haitian ci­ti­zens un­der law.

M’Ke­wan pur­sued them and found his empty boat nicely docked at the pier. He pe­ti­tioned lo­cal of­fi­cials for the re­turn of his ‘prop­erty’. He was told to take his boat and leave the place. He re­turned with Deep Nine to Ja­maica, and, over the Xmas pe­riod, pre­pared a case for repa­ra­tion to the Ja­maican Govern­ment for the fi­nan­cial loss of the 15 en­slaved men.

In the New Year, M’Ke­wan re­turned to Haiti and lob­bied the Haitian govern­ment for the re­turn of his hu­man prop­erty. Pres­i­dent Pe­tion did not grant him an au­di­ence, but in­formed him that the per­sons in ques­tion were free and ci­ti­zens of the repub­lic. His let­ter to M’Ke­wan stated: Port-au-Prince 30th Jan­uary, 1817 14th year of In­de­pen­dence Mr James M’Ke­wan Port-au-Prince


I have re­ceived your let­ter of 28th inst. claim­ing the English schooner Deep Nine, to­gether with the in­di­vid­u­als who brought her from Ja­maica to Trou-bon-bon, as your prop­erty. I have just given di­rec­tion for restor­ing to you the ves­sel, and ev­ery­thing per­tain­ing to her, but as to the men, they are recog­nised to be Haitians by the 44th ar­ti­cle of the con­sti­tu­tion of the repub­lic, from the mo­ment they set foot in its ter­ri­tory, and it is out of my power to re­store them to you agree­able to your de­mand.

Each coun­try has its laws, as you must know, sir, and for­tu­nately for the cause of hu­man­ity, Haiti is not the only one where slav­ery is abol­ished. The al­lu­sion you make in your let­ter can­not be at­tended with any se­ri­ous con­se­quence, be­cause no­body here has been guilty of sub­orn­ing sub­jects be­long­ing to other pow­ers; but such per­sons as ar­rive in this ter­ri­tory must be pro­tected, since the laws re­quire it.

If there be, among the men you claim, any who have com­mit­ted crimes against the rights of men, they will, on your fur­nish­ing me with proof of their crimes, be de­liv­ered over to the proper tri­bunals es­tab­lished for the pur­pose of tak­ing cog­ni­sance of them by the lo­cal laws of the coun­try, of which they are now ci­ti­zens.

I have the hon­our of salut­ing you, sir, with con­sid­er­a­tion.

M’Ke­wan failed to re­claim his ‘hu­man prop­erty’. On re­turn­ing to Ja­maica, he pressed the Govern­ment with his repa­ra­tions case. The Assem­bly de­bated the mat­ter on the 16th De­cem­ber, 1817, and voted repa­ra­tions of PS1,000 to Mr M’Ke­wan.

The 15 Ja­maicans were just the tip of the free-berg. Hun­dreds found free­dom and cit­i­zen­ship in Haiti. Trou-bon­bon is, there­fore, a memo­rial to Ja­maican free­dom and should be recog­nised as such in this bi­cen­te­nary mo­ment. Maybe Min­is­ter Grange should ne­go­ti­ate for the es­tab­lish­ment of a suit­able mon­u­ment, as the Govern­ment pre­pares an ap­pro­pri­ate strat­egy to fa­cil­i­tate the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion process. Such an edifice would be a last­ing re­minder of the hu­man bonds be­tween Ja­maicans and Haitians that can­not be shaken by any act of na­ture.

[Source: Jour­nals of the Assem­bly of Ja­maica, Nov. 20, 28, Dec. 9, 1817, Ja­maica Na­tional Ar­chives, Span­ish Town]

IA. Pe­tion [sic] Port-au-Prince 30th Jan­uary, 1817


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