Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Haiti Earthquake: Let’s Give Money AND Respect

HaitiArt 001One of the best-informed, most efficient and most cost-effective relief organisations currently working in Haiti is Medecins Sans Frontieres. If you’re in doubt about how to help, I’d suggest giving to them. The web address is: They speak French, they’ve been there a long time already, and even the BBC News last night attributed some of its information about conditions in Haiti to MSF – which indicates that they know what’s going on.

But while doing what can be done to help, let’s resist the tendency to talk about Haiti as some permanently pathetic crippled nation. Haiti has had a bad press for centuries partly because it was the first country where slaves achieved a successful and lasting rebellion and established an independent nation.

It happened because in 1793 the French Revolutionary government abolished slavery in all French possessions, including Haiti. The black leader Toussaint L’Ouverture established a successful and moderate government which looked like giving the new island state prosperity. Then Napoleon Buonaparte, in a treacherous reversal of policy, decided the island must not become independent of France. He sent an army to conquer Haiti and reimpose slavery. L’Ouverture was captured through an act of treachery (he was invited to talks with the French, who abducted him) and taken to France, where he died in prison.

William Wordsworth wrote an unforgettable poem about him in 1802, not knowing whether L’Ouverture – a hero of liberty – was alive or dead:

TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
– William Wordsworth

The French were later defeated and regained their independence. Foreign intervention and foreign debt have been problems ever since, as has internal corruption. But Haiti’s people have been resilient, resourceful and brave.

They have been badly treated, and dismissed by foreign observers, often through racism. Entertaining but sensational and racist books like William Seabrook’s famous The Magic Island led to the identification of Haitian religion, Vodun, with ‘Black Magic’, whereas it is simply West African religion transmuted into Catholic Christian imagery – distinct from, but parallel to, Cuba’s Santeria. (Seabrook is said to have written his book by sitting in a Port-au-Prince bar and taking down everything the local drinkers told him. You can imagine the results.)

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Behind the Buddha on my mantelpiece is a Haitian ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture cut from a thin disc of steel. It’s exquisite, as you can see: a beautiful thing and full of life. These metal-cuttings originated with artists who took the tops of old oildrums and shaped the design to make perfect use of the circular steel disc.

In the Dominican Republic I slept for a week beside an exquisite Haitian steel screen showing Vodun deities in a forest: a work of art the medieval scultpors of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals would have appreciated.

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Our bedroom is graced by a lovely Haitian Madonna and Child in radiant colours. Let us pray to her and other gods and spirits that Haiti may benefit from the world’s goodwill now and into the future. reafforestation, lighter but stronger buildings, some good roads and better education will be a few of the long term goals but Haiti has a proud history and a rich culture.

They also have some of the Caribbean’s most magnificent traditions of folk art and music.

Right now we’re necessarily hearing a lot about the agonies. But let’s not forget that Haiti also represents, and will represent again, ‘Man’s unconquerable mind’.