Silencing the Past, Silencing the Present

The Haitian Revolution, Anti-Haitianism, and the 1937 Genocide in Gerardo Gallegos’s Beau Dondón conquista un mundo

• June 2016

Alejo Carpentier’s 1949 novel on the Haitian Revolution, El reino de este mundo, is often a point of departure to discuss the place of Haiti in Latin American literature. An important novel indeed, it is where Carpentier made available his theorization of the marvelous real to a wider audience, and it is often considered to be an innovative Latin American historical novel.1 Its importance notwithstanding, El reino de este mundo’s preponderance in Latin American literature and intellectual history obscures other novels, essays, and chronicles on Haiti and more specifically on the Haitian Revolution published in the Hispanic Caribbean before 1949. To get a more complete picture of how Haiti and the Haitian Revolution have been imagined in the Hispanic Caribbean, I want to focus on one of these lesser-known works, Beau Dondón conquista un mundo, a novel published in Cuba in 1942 by Gerardo Gallegos.2 I argue that not unlike Carpentier, Gallegos uses the Haitian Revolution to ponder the place of Haiti in the Hispanic Caribbean and the wider Latin American contexts. If, in Carpentier’s case, the Haitian Revolution is the historical and cultural source of the marvelous real, for Gallegos, it justifies the Haitian massacre of 1937 and the consolidation of the Dominican ideology of antihaitianismo.

As I began reading Gallegos’s novel, I was struck by the similitudes between the title of Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo and Gallegos’s Beau Dondón conquista un mundo. It seemed obvious to me that Carpentier knew about Gallegos’s novel, and perhaps had even read it. Gallegos’s novel narrates the story of Beau Dondón, a former slave who is in charge of the Auxiliary Forces of the North, an army of slaves fighting alongside the Spaniards and the English against the French in Saint-Domingue in 1793. Beau Dondón, who is loosely based on Toussaint Louverture, betrays the alliance between the Spaniards and the English when the French offer him a title, the count of Château Royal. The novel concludes with the signature of the treaty of Basle in 1795, by which Spain gives up Santo Domingo to the French. At the same time, the English execute Beau Dondón. Before he dies, Beau Dondón claims that the war is not over, that the island of Saint-Domingue, both its western French territory and its eastern Spanish territory, will belong sooner or later to the slaves.

I was intrigued not only by the intertextual connections between Carpentier and Gallegos but also by how Gallegos, to echo Michel-Rolph Trouillot, silences the past and the present with his novel. Gallegos silences the past by selecting some archival works and episodes of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue and by emphasizing specific events of the Haitian Revolution to impose his vision of history for present days. His vision of the Haitian Revolution is that it is unthinkable, exotic, and marvelous. As such, his way of silencing the Haitian past is not original; a bulk of novels, films, and essays envision the Haitian Revolution in similar ways.3 But Gallegos also associates the so-called exoticism and marvelousness of the Haitian Revolution with violence and barbarism, in contrast to what he believes to be the pacifying and civilizing task of Rafael Trujillo, especially the “dominicanization” of the border with Haiti. By doing so, the novel also silences the present because it recycles the history of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue to defend Trujillo’s genocide and to warn the reader against—to use Trujillo’s rhetoric—the “haitianization” of the Dominican Republic. In other words, Gallegos’s novels and essays on the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic create an archive for the present; they organize history while silencing it.

I was also surprised by how scarce the critical attention to the works of Gallegos has been so far. Although Hispanists today have forgotten Gallegos, Beau Dondón conquista un mundo was fairly well received in the 1940s, when critics wrote about its vivid and realistic depictions of war scenes and Vodou ceremonies.4 So far, other than some mentions of Gallegos in anthologies of Ecuadorian literature or of Latin American literary vanguards, I have found only short observations of Gallegos’s earlier El embrujo de Haití, in Elzbieta Sklodowska’s 2009 Espectros y espejismos: Haití en el imaginario cubano. I agree with Sklodowska when she writes that El embrujo de Haití is a predictable depiction of the exoticism of the Caribbean, but I wonder why she did not include Beau Dondón conquista un mundo in her analysis.5 Gallegos, after all, spent almost thirty years of his professional life in Cuba and in the Caribbean and published extensively there. It is worth unearthing a forgotten voice like Gallegos’s to get a clearer picture on the multiple ways the history of Haiti has been imagined in the Hispanic Caribbean. It is also important to include his voice in the corpus of literary texts written by Caribbean writers—Carpentier, C. L. R. James, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott—about the Haitian Revolution. I hope that my work is a step in that direction.

Gallegos’s novel, like Carpentier’s, shows that the Hispanic Caribbean political imagination has always preferred to claim that religion and Vodou are the forces that drive the slave revolts in Saint-Domingue, instead of a radical reading of the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment. The revolutionary figure of Beau Dondón is described as brutal, irrational, and superstitious, which are precisely features against which the philosophers of the Enlightenment stood. In the Hispanic Caribbean context of the 1940s, the culture of the Enlightenment often meant Europe—France, mostly—and European culture was decadent in comparison to the cultural vivacity of the New World.6 In political terms, the philosophy of the Enlightenment has often been seen throughout the twentieth century as a legitimization of the colonial order or as an emancipation movement that led the way to totalitarianism, following Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment. It may not come as a surprise, then, that magic, religion, and Vodou were preferred over the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to envision the Haitian Revolution. In the 1930s and 1940s, it did not seem possible to imagine, in works of fiction, that Vodou could coexist with the Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizen, and that slave insurgents could write a significant chapter in the history of ideas of the Enlightenment.7

Gallegos, however, was not satisfied with the ousting of the Enlightenment and the celebration of the exotic Vodou to describe the birth of the Haitian nation. He needed to emphasize that the slave insurgency, with Beau Dondón at its head, was an uncivilized and traumatic event, as shown by the rewriting of the Bois-Caïman ceremony in the novel. The much-debated ceremony, a foundational episode of the Haitian Revolution during which slaves gathered to foment the insurgency, becomes in Gallegos’s novel a Vodou ceremony organized by the brotherhood of Los caballeros del sapo (the Knights of the Toad). Beau Dondón is a high-ranking member of that brotherhood, whose origins, following the omniscient narrator, harks back “en la geografía al corazón de las selvas africanas y en la tradición a una secta religiosa, homicida y antropófaga importada desde los pantanales de Dahomey.” (67).8 By interweaving the emancipation of slaves with religion and anthropophagy, Gallegos not only offers a sensationalist description of the roots of the Haitian Revolution but also qualifies the emancipation of slaves as barbaric. Furthermore, according to the priest of the Vodou ceremony, Beau Dondón is invincible because an angel protects him, the angel of a French pirate who later became a slave owner in Saint-Domingue and who also happens to be one of Beau Dondón ancestors: “Su espíritu todavía ávido de sangre, de violencia y de crueldad, ha vuelto a rondar por los mismos valles y las mismas montañas donde, siglos atrás, levantara una cabaña rústica y solitaria en mitad de la manigua. . . . Está presente en Haití y en la violencia de los hombres de la raza de color, en cuyas venas insufló el espíritu y el calor de su propia sangre” (104).9

There are a few ways to analyze this problematic passage. First, Beau Dondón is a variation on Black Spartacus, but his invincibility does not depend on his military strategies and political intelligence. Rather, he is successful thanks to his supernatural protector. This is one way to delegitimize the real, political action of the slaves, since their actions are not motivated by their circumstances. Second, Beau Dondón’s strength comes from a pirate, that is, from a violent outlaw, an outcast, a marginal being. Leaving aside the gothic motif at play here, such a fact echoes the Haitian Revolution as marginal, outside of normality, unthinkable. Finally, the protector’s participation in the colonial regime indicates that Beau Dondón is compelled to replicate the same colonial violence of his ancestor. After all, he agreed to form an alliance with the French. Colonial violence repeats itself through the Haitian Revolution.

The rewriting of the Bois-Caïman ceremony ends with the drums, heard everywhere at night, and with descriptions of the “multitudes oscuras” (112), “que se han sumado . . . sin que se supiera a qué hora ni por dónde han llegado” (110), creating “una red de embrujamiento,” (112) and with a “subjugada voluntad” (112).10 Insurgents are systematically described as an obscure, animalized, and dangerous force: “aullaba la turba asquerosa excitados los lúbricos instintos” (14), “la marea oscura se desborda al pillaje y al saqueo” (17), “una marejada imponente [que] produce una vaga sensación de zozobra” (46–47), and an “ola inmensa y oscura” (50).11 The genealogy between the pirate and Beau Dondón (and his army of insurgent slaves), marked by a desire to invade and to sack, is one key to reading Gallegos’s novel as the expression of a fear of a new Haitian Revolution, a fear that, in the twentieth century, “millares de cabezas crespas y oscuras pululan por las laderas de las colinas” (58) of Santo Domingo.12 Furthermore, it is revealing that the novel concludes with the 1795 treaty of Basel, by which France acquired Santo Domingo. Among all the events that shaped the history of slave emancipation in Saint-Domingue, Gallegos chose to conclude his novel with the invasion of Santo Domingo by racialized foreigners. The island becomes French and is invaded by Haitian slaves, which is inconceivable for Trujillo’s ideology of antihaitianismo, as expressed by conservative historians such as Manuel Arturo Peña Battle. Beau Dondón clearly communicates his hope that the island will belong to the slaves. In the epilogue, the narrator voices his concern about an island governed by slaves. At this point, in the closing pages of the novel, the reader is unsure whether the narrator speaks of 1795 or 1937: “Grandes masas oscuras cruzan la frontera franco-española de la isla. Inútil el valor y el heroísmo de aquellos que se oponen a su paso. De un solo empuje los arrollan y pasan. Montones de cadáveres señalan la ruta de la invasión. ¡Santo Domingo es suyo! ¡Todo Haití para la raza de ébano!” (230).13 For the first time in the novel, the narrator mentions Santo Domingo (and not Saint-Domingue), warning of the danger that Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) will be invaded by its “darker” and “superstitious” neighbor. The novel blurs the past and the present, silencing both, on other occasions. For example, there is a chapter that depicts how thousands of slaves were killed by white settlers. The title of the chapter is “Massacre,” the name of the river where the 1937 genocide occurred and a space that signals the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The desire to repel the Haitian invaders went back in time, in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Those white settlers who massacred slaves in the 1790s are heroes, much like those Dominicans who massacred Haitian peasants who “invaded” the Dominican Republic in the 1930s.

Gallegos tirelessly uses the same anti-Haitian rhetoric in his nonfiction texts on the Dominican Republic. In his 1968 apology of Trujillo, he describes present-day Haitians as a “marea haitiana” and as psychologically and physically sick people who practice witchcraft and sacrifice babies.14 While celebrating Trujillo’s decision to kill thousands of Haitians in 1937, Gallegos’s final reflections on the genocide echoes the epilogue of Beau Dondón conquista un mundo: “Por fortalecido que esté ese cordón, cualquier día puede romperse para fundir los dos pueblos en un abrazo, al impulso de una natural expansión del pueblo hambriento de tierras para sobrevivir (114–15).15 Gallegos’s fear of a Haitian invasion, and his amalgamation of the 1790s and the 1930s, still speaks true to many Dominicans in the twenty-first century. By bringing to light Gallegos’s anti-Haitian sentiments, we have another proof of how deep that fear is.

 

Marc Olivier Reid is assistant professor of French and Spanish at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he specializes in twentieth-century Latin American literature and intellectual history. Currently he is preparing a book manuscript on the reception of the Enlightenment in Latin America. His published essays have appeared in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, and Bulletin of Hispanic Studies.

 

 


1 See Seymour Menton’s Latin America’s New Historical Novel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 14–38.

2 Born in Riobamba (Ecuador) in 1905, Gallegos founded the magazine Savia in Guayaquil in 1925. In the early 1930s he moved to Venezuela, visited Haiti, and then lived in Cuba, where he was a journalist. In Cuba, Gallegos wrote for Carteles, a magazine to which Carpentier also contributed, and for the conservative Diario de la Marina. Obsessed by Haiti, and a fervent apologist of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, Gallegos published in Cuba El embrujo de Haití (1937), Beau Dondón conquista un mundo (1942), and República dominicana (1945). He later published Trujillo en la historia (1956) in Ciudad Trujillo, and Trujillo: Cara y cruz de su dictadura (1968) in Madrid. A revised version of his works on Haiti, including Beau Dondón conquista un mundo, was published in Madrid in 1973 under the title Los ritos mágicos: El vudu. Gallegos died in Miami in 1986.

3 Before the publication of Gallegos’s work on Haiti, there appeared Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play The Emperor Jones and its 1933 film adaptation by Dudley Murphy, Blair Niles’s Black Haiti (1926), John W. Vandercook’s Black Majesty (1928), and William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929), among others.

4 See reviews by Madaline W. Nichols (Revista Iberoamericana 7, no. 14 [1944]), Gastón Figueira (Books Abroad 18, no. 2 [1944]), and Emilio González López (Revista Hispánica Moderna 11, nos. 3–4 [1945]).

5 See Elzbieta Sklodowska, Espectros y espejismos: Haití en el imaginario cubano (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2009), 100.

6 This is evident in the works of Carpentier. The influence of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West on Carpentier has been vastly studied by scholars. The recent publication of El ocaso de Europa: Crónicas de la Revista Carteles, 1941 (Madrid: Fórcola, 2015) offers another example of Carpentier’s pessimistic views on European culture in the 1940s.

7 See Laurent Dubois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment: Rethinking the Intellectual History of the French Atlantic,” Social History 31, no. 1 (2006): 1–14.

8 “Geographically, to the heart of the African jungle, and in the homicidal and anthropophagic religious sect imported from the marshlands of Dahomey”; Gerardo Gallegos, Beau Dondón conquista un mundo (Havana: Editorial la República, 1942), 67; hereafter cited in the text. All translations are mine.

9 “The spirit of the pirate, still with a thirst for blood, violence, and cruelty, came back to haunt the same valleys and the mountains where, centuries ago, he had built a rustic cabin in the middle of the jungle. . . . He is present in Haiti and in the violence of the men of color. He instilled in their veins the spirit and the warmth of his own blood.” That pirate, Roger de Croix-Bouquet, also appears in Gallegos’s earlier novella El embrujo de Haití (Havana: Carasa y Cia., 1937).

10 “Obscure mass”; “joining forces from we do not know where”; “a web of witchcraft”; “subjugated will.”

11 “The disgusting mob was howling, their lubricious instinct aroused”; “the obscure tide overflew, mugging and looting”; “an imposing swell, buzzing”; “immense and obscure wave.”

12 “Thousands of curly and obscure heads swarm on the side of the hills.”

13 “Imposing and obscure masses cross the French-Spanish border of the island. The courage and the heroism of those who fight against them are vain. They are pushed away and crushed. Piles of cadavers mark the way of the invasion. Santo Domingo is to them! Haiti belongs to the race of ebony!”

14 Gerardo Gallegos, Trujillo: Cara y cruz de su dictadura (Madrid: Iberoamericanas, 1968), 108 (“Haitian tide”), 109.

15 “The border may be stronger now, but at any time it can be destroyed to unite both territories, like an embrace, through the natural impulse of the Haitians, and their hunger for land, in order to survive.”

 

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