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Boukman, Moses and slave freedom



EDITOR: Boukman and Moses were leaders of two African liberation movements. Boukman was active in the Haitian revolution 300 years ago while Moses was an unbelievable one-man captain of the Hebrew caste in Egypt, 3,000 years ago. For both men, the slaves they led were the people of God. A theology of liberation was an explicit part of their weaponry in the struggle.

Boukman barely fills up one or two pages of Caribbean history, and as one would expect, he does not have any room in the castle of our imagination. In the case of Moses, his work appears in some five of the books in the Hebrew bible, which we call the Old Testament.{{more}} In the mind of Vincentians, mostly all those 30 years of age and older, Moses is one of the best examples of a servant of God, next to Joseph, son of Jacob, and Jesus Christ.

I want to put these two leaders in position as leaders of an underclass, and then listen to them speak. (Perhaps too I can put their manifestos alongside the thinking of European leaders of the abolition movement and see the difference).

Two hundred years ago, more or less, slaves from 100 estates in Northern Haiti used to meet on Sundays to plan their uprising. One evening, after their final meeting when they set the date and fixed the logistics, these 200 slave leaders from 100 estates, had a prayer meeting at Bois Caiman. Boukman spoke. You can say that he preached the sermon, or delivered the feature address, or gave the marching orders. Here are some of the words he spoke:

The God of the whites inspires them to do evil deeds, but our God calls us to do good. Our God will strengthen us… Symbols of the God of the whites. Listen to the word speaking ‘Freedom’ inside our hearts.

These words are terrifying to me, as Christian. Boukman sounds so much like Moses in Egypt, who put a distance between the God of the Pharaoh court and the God of the Hebrew underclass. The two were different, he said just like Boukman. Hear Moses in Exodus 3, as he gets the call to face the might of Pharaoh and to mobilize the disunited slaves:

When I go to these people and tell them the God of your ancestors is calling you to freedom, and they ask me “what is this God’s name?” What am I going to tell them? What name must I give them?

The question is bold, but necessary. Moses can’t face the might of Pharaoh, much less the warsome spirit broken people without a power higher than himself, and a power higher than Pharaoh and his spirituality. So Moses argued in this way:

What you calling me to do is dangerous, is like pure suicide. None of the two sides trusts me, but they might trust and respect you if you could show your credentials…

Moses was clearly saying this: The Pharaoh and his gods have no interest in setting these working people free. Only a God of their own will free them. Only a God of their own will win their allegiance. Tell me, please, who you are so these people can have confidence in you and then in me, and then in our mission of freedom. What Moses was asking for – God who stood on the side of freedom for the oppressed – was that Boukman proclaimed: Our God – not the god of the enslavers – calls us to justice and right actions. God speaks in our hearts. The God of the whites speaks with whips and guns and cruelty.

Boukman from Haiti was killed about three months after his recorded announcement from God, but the struggle that he represented did lead to a deliverance never before seen in this part of the world. It seems to me that both Boukman and Moses attest that to be free from caste like domination requires a spirituality of a distinct covenant with God.

The British abolitionists were mostly or entirely persons of Christian faith, but they were weak on the Boukman – Moses commitment to slaves liberation. They were limited ‘tot heir caste’, unable to commit “class suicide” and stand in the shoes of the oppressed. It is their theology and their Christianity that we have inherited.

Even 180 years ago, in 1823, when at last the British abolitionists began to call for emancipation they wanted an emancipation that would not disturb British society or British colonial rule – a gentle emancipation. Eric William quotes Buxton one of the abolition spokesmen:

We shall leave it (slavery) gently to decay – slowly, silently, almost imperceptibly to die away and be forgotten.

Buxton seems to have been a prophetic voice. Have we not forgotten slavery, as he wished? On the other hand, Moses’ people have not forgotten their slavery and the God who was on their side.

Let us remember Boukman, as we remember Moses, and revitalise and relive the liberation God has dressed us in.

Oscar Allen