Atlantic Connections: Senegal and Haiti

February 6, 2010

The Géwël Tradition Project stands with Haiti during this time of tragedy.

Since the news of the earthquake the project has been working with JANBE: Bridges to Haiti to raise funds, educate people about Haiti, and provide direct aid to people in Haiti. Please visit the JANBE website for information on this significant non-profit arts organization and for information on ways that you can support Haiti (www.janbe.org ).

Although the focus of the Géwël Tradition Project is Senegal, there are connections between Senegal and Haiti. A current example that points to this connection is the offer of land to Haitians by the president of Senegal. This following was reported by BBC News on January 18, 2010:

Senegal offers land to Haitians

Senegal’s president says he will offer free land and “repatriation” to people affected by the earthquake in Haiti.

President Abdoulaye Wade said Haitians were sons and daughters of Africa since Haiti was founded by slaves, including some thought to be from Senegal.

Haitian that wants to return to their origin,” said Mr Wade’s spokesman, Mamadou Bemba Ndiaye.

Tuesday’s earthquake killed tens of thousands and left many more homeless.

Buildings have been reduced to rubble, the distribution of aid is slow, and people have been flooding out of the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince.

“Senegal is ready to offer them parcels of land – even an entire region. It all depends on how many Haitians come,” Mr Bemba Ndiaye said.

“If it’s just a few individuals, then we will likely offer them housing or small pieces of land. If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region.”

The spokesman emphasised that if a region was given, it would be in a fertile part of the country rather than in its parched deserts, the Associated Press news agency reported.

In the above article President Abdoulaye Wade refers to a connection between the people of the two nations when he identifies Haitians as “sons and daughters of Africa.” He further explains that this is an historic connection “since Haiti was founded by slaves, including some thought to be from Senegal.”

An enduring example of the relationship between Senegal and Haiti that gives meaning to President Wades comment is the striking historic portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, painted in 1797 by Anne-Louis Girodet.

Jean-Baptiste Belley, by Anne-Louis Girodet, 1797.

Jean-Baptiste Belley, by Anne-Louis Girodet, 1797.

Jean-Baptiste Belley was born on Gorée Island, Senegal about 1747. However, his birth island, located just off the coast, would not be his home for long. At the age of two he was sold into slavery and transported to St. Domingue. Little is known of his early life there, but he was eventually able to purchase his freedom.  He is to have once declared:

“Brought as a child onto tyranny’s soil, through hard labor and sweat I conquered liberty.”

He joined the military and was one of the 545 “Colored: Volunteer Chasseurs, Mulattos, and Negroes, newly raised at St. Dominguo” that served in the American Revolutionary War and fought in the siege of Savannah in the fall of 1779.

When the revolution began in Haiti in 1791 he joined the fight for the end of slavery. When French official Sothonax arrived in St. Domingue in 1793 and proclaimed an end to slavery on the island, elections were held to determine representation for the French assembly. Jean-Baptiste Belley was elected one of the representatives.

On the trip to Paris from Haiti the ship first stopped in Philadelphia, a city that had become home to a significant number of refugees from St. Domingue. There the delegates were attacked and treated very roughly. They were particularly rude to Jean-Baptiste Belley, taking his sword, watch, money and papers. They also issued insulting comments about him daring to wear the uniform of an officer and commanding whites. Belley responded that if he could save and defend whites, as he had done in Georgia, he had the right to command them.

In 1797, as a result of a system for the rotation of elected officials he gave up his seat and returned to St. Domingue. The portrait of him was painted before he left France. It is believed that he was involved with the independence battles in Haiti, especially after Napoleon’s attempt to reinstitute slavery on the island. But after his return to St. Domingue he is lost from the historical records. However, in the late 18th century, Jean-Baptiste Belley, a Haitian of Senegalese birth, stepped into the spotlight of the world stage and made an important contribution towards the free nation of Haiti.

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