Migrations and Microhistories: An interview with historian Matthew J. Smith

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MATTHEW J. SMITH is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. His first book, Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 is a brilliant, pioneering account of the remarkable political history of Haiti from the end of the US Occupation to the rise of Francois Duvalier. Red and Black in Haiti was the recipient of the 2009 Principal’s Award for Best Book from the University of the West Indies and of the 2010 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize of the Caribbean Studies Association. His second book, Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation, is a path-breaking history of the cross-Caribbean, transnational political and social exchanges of the nineteenth-century.  Smith has also written on the history of Haiti and the Caribbean for Caribbean Quarterly, Radical History Review, Journal of Haitian Studies, Small Axe and numerous edited volumes.

The Public Archive: What first led you, as a Jamaican, to the history of Haiti—and in particular, to the years between the first US Occupation and onset of the Duvalier era?

My interest in Haiti’s history began with my first exposure to Haitian history, through Caribbean Story, the standard textbook for students doing History as one of their Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) subjects. In those studies, I became aware of the Haitian Revolution and its broad outlines. Then, as an undergraduate History major at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in my second-year survey course on Caribbean History (a compulsory course for all History majors), I encountered the Haitian Revolution again and chose to write my term paper on the topic. I read whatever was available to me then – C.L.R. James, David Geggus, and Thomas Ott. Even though I had read The Black Jacobins as a supplementary text on the CXC syllabus while studying for that exam, it wasn’t until the university course that I explored it more fully. That book had an astounding effect on me. I read it cover to cover in no time, drawn in by James’s moving narrative. I felt the immediacy of the revolution. I also felt very strongly similarities in the slavery experiences of Haiti and Jamaica. At the same time, likely influenced by the strong interest in issues related to political independence in the post-colonial Caribbean and the history of radical politics that I was developing at the UWI, I was also nurturing an enormous curiosity about Haiti’s post-Revolutionary history. In the popular discourse at that time (the 1990s), when Aristide’s first removal and then reinstatement was very much in the news, Haiti after 1804 seemed to be regarded as a completely different country than the republic Toussaint and Dessalines had created.

After UWI, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, I left Jamaica to pursue doctoral studies in History at the University of Florida. I had intended to study the role of the United States in the movement toward decolonization in Jamaica. Shortly after starting the program though, a few things happened that drew me to Haitian history instead. A crucial factor was that my advisor was David Geggus, a scholar intimately knowledgeable about Haiti and one whose work I had read and admired. Another was that thanks to the friendships I was building with fellow students from Haiti at UF, I was learning a lot about Haitian society, culture, Haitian Creole, and especially music. The music was – and has continued to be – a phenomenal inspiration and influence for me. Listening to David, the Gemini All-Stars album, for the first time drew me to Haiti in ways that are hard to express in words.

With my long-standing curiosity about Haiti and these other influences, by the end of the first semester, I knew that my doctoral work would be devoted to studying twentieth-century Haiti. The focus on the years after the U.S. Occupation emerged because after reading and exploratory archival research, I was struck by how little scholarly attention had been paid to that period. Probably because of the socio-political context in which I had grown up in Jamaica, I noticed the particular gap in historical research regarding issues of class, color, and politics and their relevance to the political history of the period.

Can you say a few words about the Revolution of 1946 within the history of Haiti—especially with regard to the significance and impact of Marxism, surrealism, and an emergent noirisime on it—as well as within the history of the Caribbean region?

The events which took place in January 1946 which became known by contemporaries as the “Revolution of 1946” really marked a turning point in post-Occupation Haiti. To appreciate its effect we should remember the nature of Haitian ‘revolutions’ in the nineteenth century and leading up to the arrival of the U.S. marines in 1915. Most of these were struggles for political power that military elites waged. Democracy had little space in those struggles. After the Occupation, Haitian radicals felt that the nineteenth century cycle had ended. Marxism, surrealism, and a renewed noiriste discourse fueled that hope. The young Marxists who were associated with the newspaper La Ruche, viewed themselves as part of a vanguard that could change the political dynamic in the country. In this context, the January 1946 overthrow of President Elie Lescot was heralded as a monumental shift in Haiti’s political history. The political leaders were acutely aware of the pitfalls of authoritarianism in Haiti—likening the presidents of their own time not only to the country’s nineteenth century leaders but also to fascist dictatorships in Europe. They desired, I believe, a more incorporative system of governance.

At the same time though, these movements energizing the activities in 1946 were disparate; they had different political visions for Haiti. And, as it turned out, they were unable to overcome internal ideological conflicts, deeper social divisions, and the dominant power of the United States and the Haitian military.

I believe that the great importance of 1946 was that it raised the political consciousness of a wide cross-section of Haitians. This gave rise to the support for some very important personalities, including, among others, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Dumarsais Estimé, Daniel Fignolé, and Roger Dorsinville. The debates among these personalities and their struggles for power exposed the contradictions and virtues of black consciousness and left-wing political discourse when applied to Caribbean societies. Their influence also stretched beyond their generation. In many ways the debates in Haiti in 1946 and the decade following were precursors to the sorts of political debates that occurred across the region in the 1960s and 1970s.

You’ve written that “the source material for a study of the Haitian Left is extremely diffuse and research involved threading together fragments of information to build a reliable narrative.” Can you say something about your struggles in finding archives for Red and Black in Haiti and talk about some of the more surprising or revealing archives you discovered?

I think most historians of Haiti would agree that patience and an open-mind are necessary prerequisites for research. A lot of the archival material on Haiti is scattered throughout holdings in libraries and archives in North America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Unlike the Haitian Revolution for which there are incredibly impressive and extensive collections, source material for the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century is more rare and inaccessible. One of the reasons for this is because some important Haitian collections of the national period were dissected, with parts ending up in different collections. Another reason is because a lot of material was permanently destroyed in the Duvalier sixties. A prominent Marxist of the 1940s who I got to know well while I worked on the book, told me that he was forced to destroy all his party documents and literature during the Duvalier period. To keep them was to endanger not just his own life but that of every member of his family. And many other leftists and labor activists also had to do the same. Although internal party documents from that period rarely survived, the party newspapers that did have been quite revealing. While they may not give a lot of information on internal operations, membership, and meetings, they do offer some sense of how the parties positioned themselves in political debates and events. Having said that, there are fine yet underutilized collections in public and private archives in Haiti such as the National Library, and St. Louis de Gonzague in Port-au-Prince. I used newspapers from both collections in my work on Red and Black in Haiti and these provided a lot of contextual information on the period, especially for the years 1946-50 when the free press in Haiti opened up significantly. Research on radical organizations, however, was particularly challenging and to examine this, the most revealing sources for me were the people I interviewed. I was fortunate to have interviewed several people – many of whom have since passed – who were involved in the movements of the period. Their recollections exposed the blurred lines between partisan loyalty and social position, a point that I think is often misunderstood in discussions on Haitian history. These insights shaped the approach I took in the book’s narrative.

Clifford Brandt, the descendant of one of the Jamaican migrants to Haiti you mention in Red and Black in Haiti, has been in the news of late. Could you say something about the history of his great grandfather, Oswald (O.J.) Brandt, and his economic and political importance in Haiti?

Clifford Brandt Jr. comes from a family that is one of the most prominent of several well-known Haitian-Jamaican families. In brief, the family’s history with Haiti goes back to Oswald John Brandt, the most known Jamaican in twentieth-century Haiti who in his lifetime was definitely one of the country’s most powerful persons. Brandt was born in 1890 in Albert Town in the Jamaican parish of Trelawny. His father, John William Brandt, was a planter of German descent and quite prominent in the parish. After he completed school in Kingston Oswald worked as a salesperson in a store downtown. Around this time he met Therese Barthe, a young Haitian woman whose father was exiled in Jamaica. There were then very strong links between Haitian exiles and Jamaican elites. When he was barely out of his teens he married Therese and relocated with her to Haiti. He had the benefit of the powerful political and economic connections of his in-laws. Many Jamaican elites had capitalized on their contacts with Haitian exiles when they returned to Haiti and Brandt was no different. In the pre-Occupation period, Brandt got a job working in the National Bank through family links.

After the U.S. invasion he began working with the Royal Bank of Canada which had a presence in Haiti. At all stages in his career Brandt cultivated strong alliances with the political elite. He would eventually leave the bank and start his own business by 1930. Brandt purchased the confiscated businesses of German immigrants in Haiti and turned them into large successes under his company Brandt Brothers, Industrial and Commercial Undertakings, which he managed with his brother Ivan who was a solicitor in Kingston. By the Second World War O.J. Brandt became an enormously wealthy industrialist who controlled significant chunks of the import-export trade including agriculture, motor vehicles, machinery, pharmaceuticals, and textiles just to name a few. He also owned leading manufacturing plants. His economic influence made him a powerful figure in Haiti. Precisely because of this prestige, Haiti’s politicians during this period depended on his good favors. Brandt had an interesting relationship with Duvalier. Already given a national honor by Magloire, in 1960 Duvalier bestowed O.J. Brandt with the insignia of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of Toussaint Louverture, one of Haiti’s highest national honors. But eight years later Brandt and his son Clifford–grandfather of the Clifford Brandt Jr. who is now implicated in the kidnapping scheme in Haiti–were indicted by the government for allegedly financing a foiled attack on Duvalier by Haitian exiles from Montreal and New York. There was also government suspicion that Jamaica was being used as a base for air raids by exiles and Brandt was Honorary Consul to Jamaica in Haiti. It was a far-fetched belief and part of a long history of Haitian state paranoia over the activities of exiles in Jamaica. At any rate, based on this father and son were arrested and held in the military barracks but eventually released. Interestingly O.J. Brandt never gave up his British-Jamaican citizenship and maintained strong ties with Jamaica. A good source on O.J. Brandt’s power, career and influence is Haitians: Class and Color Politics by Lyonel Paquin whose maternal grandfather, by the way, was also Jamaican.

In the Journal of Haitian Studies you have written of the importance of David Nicholls’ From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti within the historiography of Haiti. In many ways Red and Black in Haiti offers a critical rejoinder to Nicholls’ classic text. I’m wondering what other texts on Caribbean history more broadly have been important for you in thinking about not so much your own historiographical lineage, but the craft and literary practice of historical writing on the Caribbean.

I’ve been impressed and inspired by the works of so many people who have written on the Caribbean. I can’t possibly include them all so I will mention some that have been formative to my thinking. Nicholls, particularly in his From Dessalines to Duvalier, and C.L.R. James in his The Black Jacobins made phenomenal contributions because of their conscious framing of Haitian history within the wider spectrum of Caribbean history. Haiti’s Caribbean context seems fairly obvious but I am always surprised by how frequently it is neglected in discussions and books on Haiti. I don’t think it is accidental that both Nicholls and James conceived their studies on Haiti in the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad. Among others, Gordon K. Lewis’s Main Currents in Caribbean Thought was another work that impressed me, especially in terms of its integration of various intellectual traditions across the linguistic divide. And Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery struck me as quite bold when I first read it. I have also drawn inspiration from Elsa Goveia’s work and her emphasis that careful study of the Caribbean past is necessary for the future of the region.

The works of Haitian scholars have been instrumental in deepening my sensitivity to Haiti’s social dynamics. There are many I could name here but I’ll restrict myself to a few classics that I draw on a lot. Michel Rolph Trouillot’s Haiti: State Against Nation, and Roger Gaillard’s body of work especially his studies on the Occupation, Les Blancs Debarquent and his La République Exterminatrice series stand out as formative texts for me.

Caribbean literature has also contributed a lot of nuance to my understanding of the region. In ways that historians often cannot, I find that fiction writers are able to use their imagination to fill the spaces left by the documents. Because there are so many spaces in Caribbean history, literature can contribute a great deal, particularly in emphasizing the power of the narrative of Caribbean history. Since high school, my reading of Caribbean literature helped to craft my perceptions of the region, its diverse cultures, populations and histories. Alejo Carpentier, Edwidge Danticat, Sylvia Wynter, Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Rene Depestre, V.S. Naipaul, Louise Bennett, Sam Selvon, Michael Anthony, Derek Walcott and so many others have been very important to me in this regard.

Your latest book, Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica After Emancipation, examines the history of migrations between Jamaica and Haiti in the nineteenth century. What is the larger significance of these migrations, especially against the better-known stories of migration to Montreal, New York, Miami and other urban centers? And what do such “microhistories” teach us about the Caribbean and the African Diaspora?

Haiti and Jamaica each have deep histories of large-scale movements from the island to other locations. The migrations to North America are better-known because of the size of the migrant populations. Today Haitians and Jamaicans form the largest numbers of non-Hispanic Caribbean migrants to the United States. This is a clear and justifiable reason for the intense scholarly attention to these migrant communities. But if we are to have a wider and more accurate perspective on the phenomena of Caribbean migration we have to look to other places where there were smaller numbers of migrants and study their movements over time. By privileging twentieth-century North American and European migration we leave out quite a lot. Recent migration histories give closer attention to this point and I am happy that there has been a noticeable shift in the scholarly literature.

My contribution in Liberty, Fraternity, Exile, is to tell the story of migrations and connections between Haiti and Jamaica in the nineteenth century which, though little-known and much smaller than twentieth-century migration, were very important. After emancipation from slavery in the British Caribbean in 1838, Jamaica was more attractive to migrating Haitians. This migration was fairly continuous. In Kingston they worked, cultivated friendships, traveled around the island, married Jamaicans, raised children, and made new lives for themselves. When they returned to Haiti, as many did, they carried these experiences with them. In turn, the interactions connected the two islands and over time Haiti became a site of Jamaican migration in the nineteenth century.

For me the great lesson from these “microhistories,” such as the ones I examine in the book, is that the Caribbean was not as divided as we often think. We need to revise how we perceive island relations. Travel between the islands was much easier than it is nowadays. Migrations more tangibly connected the islands and made people there more aware of their neighbors. Take for instance the long-standing view that post-Revolutionary Haiti was a threat to the political stability of its neighbors who feared its influence and export. While this may have been a perpetual feature of colonial and elite discourse, the presence of Haitians in Jamaica and vice versa challenge the perception of successful campaigns to isolate the islands from one another. Haiti represented much more than an endless series of revolutions and dictatorships. It also offered opportunities that could be tapped by the freedpeople from the British islands who went there or the middle-class merchants who organized business networks between the islands. Over several decades these migrations led to the formation of lasting networks that superseded island or imperial boundaries. Whenever a coup or revolution broke out in Haiti an immediate consequence was the arrival of Haitian migrants in neighboring islands such as Jamaica. These islands were closer than North America, cheaper to get to, less restrictive in granting entry, and importantly made the possibility of return to Haiti more foreseeable. Today there are families in both places whose origins can be traced to this earlier nineteenth-century migration. This situation can be widened to other places in the region where people crossed linguistic borders such as the case of Trinidad and Venezuela, and Haitian and British West Indian migration to Cuba. I feel strongly that we need to study more closely these sorts of connections and how they figured into the historical narratives of the islands. We run the risk of obscuring the history of the region and the diaspora by ignoring them.

You travelled to Haiti in February 2010-a month after the earthquake. Can you say a little about the background and purpose of that trip and tell us what you found? What changes or developments have you observed in the intervening years?

Immediately after the shocking news of the earthquake reached us in Jamaica the senior management of the UWI, Mona campus organized a meeting to discuss how the UWI could respond. The campus felt it was necessary to make a strong intervention that drew on the strengths of the UWI as a regional university. Then Principal of the Mona Campus, Professor Gordon Shirley, appointed me the director of this effort which became known as the UWI Haiti Initiative. Our mandate was to determine how we could best assist our partner universities in Haiti. It was with this purpose that I traveled to Haiti in February 2010. The devastation was quite far-reaching and serious. What was striking was not only the scale of the physical destruction, but the trauma and the emotional reverberations from the ordeal.  It was a difficult experience for anyone who was there at the time.

I met with colleagues and directors of the State University of Haiti (UEH) and based on those meetings the UWI Haiti Initiative organized a plan of action. The UEH was badly affected by the earthquake. Most of its faculties were terribly damaged and the institution lost faculty members, staff, and students. Attentive to that urgent situation, the UWI Haiti Initiative proposed to offer full scholarships to UEH students in various disciplines who were in their final year of study but were unable to complete their programs given the circumstances. We believed that providing them with the opportunity to finish their final year of study in Jamaica offered many advantages. The most important was that once the students completed their degrees they could participate in the recovery efforts in Haiti when they returned. With colleagues from the UWI I traveled to Haiti several times that year to work out the modalities with our counterparts at UEH. With local, regional, and international funding we were able to award nearly 100 full scholarships to UEH students who studied at the Mona campus and also the St. Augustine campus in Trinidad. I am very proud to have been part of that effort. Having Haitian students at UWI campuses and interacting with students from across the region was truly special. It was an important learning experience for all. At Mona there was strong support from the student body for the Haitian students and some lasting friendships were formed.

I think Haiti has been in a state of flux since 2010. Progress has been slow and uneven. There are so many areas where there is evidence of this. I also think that the earthquake exposed many of the inherent problems in Haiti that were little-known outside of the country. People have always been aware of Haiti’s poverty and its political challenges. But the complexities of how those problems function and replicate themselves across a range of domains was a surprise to many people unfamiliar with Haiti. I recall on early trips to Haiti in 2010 hearing foreigners and Haitians alike optimistically chant that Haiti would be completely rebuilt in short order. An experienced foreign educator who I heard speak at a 2010 conference in Haiti even mentioned that given the international support in funds and personnel, Haitian universities would make a dramatic recovery in a year. Such claims reminded me how deep the dissonance is between outside perceptions and Haitian realities. The country is still in many ways grappling with the consequences of that dissonance today. In the midst of it, there is always hope though. One of the most encouraging developments for me is the hard, daily work that people on the ground are still doing; the majority of these people work tirelessly without recognition. Some have been there since the earthquake and they continue to channel their energies to improve conditions at the community level. That is where the most positive changes are happening.

Image: Christopher Cozier, “Castaway,” from the Tropical Night series.

An archive of The Public Archive interviews can be found here.

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  • Kramer auto Pingback[…] Migrations and Microhistories: The Public Archive interviews historian Matthew J. Smith "…For me the great lesson from these ‘microhistories,’ such as the ones I examine in the book, is that the Caribbean was not as divided as we often think. We need to revise how we perceive island relations. Travel between the islands was much easier than it is nowadays. Migrations more tangibly connected the islands and made people there more aware of their neighbors. Take for instance the long-standing view that post-Revolutionary Haiti was a threat to the political stability of its neighbors who feared its influence and export. While this may have been a perpetual feature of colonial and elite discourse, the presence of Haitians in Jamaica and vice versa challenge the perception of successful campaigns to isolate the islands from one another. Haiti represented much more than an endless series of revolutions and dictatorships. It also offered opportunities that could be tapped by the freedpeople from the British islands who went there or the middle-class merchants who organized business networks between the islands. Over several decades these migrations led to the formation of lasting networks that superseded island or imperial boundaries. Whenever a coup or revolution broke out in Haiti an immediate consequence was the arrival of Haitian migrants in neighboring islands such as Jamaica. These islands were closer than North America, cheaper to get to, less restrictive in granting entry, and importantly made the possibility of return to Haiti more foreseeable. Today there are families in both places whose origins can be traced to this earlier nineteenth-century migration. This situation can be widened to other places in the region where people crossed linguistic borders such as the case of Trinidad and Venezuela, and Haitian and British West Indian migration to Cuba. I feel strongly that we need to study more closely these sorts of connections and how they figured into the historical narratives of the islands. We run the risk of obscuring the history of the region and the diaspora by ignoring them…" […]

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