February 17, 2011

Feb. 17 – Polish Haitians: How They Came to Be

Polish Haitian woman
I am currently in Warsaw, Poland, on a business trip, and let me tell you, it is cold here!! However, when I arrived yesterday afternoon, I was determined to bundle up and walk around to at least get a flavor of the city, since I have never been here before. I had also been thinking a lot about what I wanted my blog post to be today – hopefully to somehow have a tie to Poland. I had some ideas and had done some initial research, but was quite frankly, ‘underwhelmed’ by my choices. However, after I had been walking around for about an hour, taking photos, and had reached the point of no longer being able to feel my fingers (despite wearing gloves!), I was suddenly drawn by some posters depicting beautiful photographs of people with light-brown skin. Unsurprisingly, on my flight to Warsaw, I noticed that I was the only person of color; and when walking around, I saw the tiniest ‘sliver’ of diversity. So, this is why my curiosity was so peaked. The posters were showcasing photos of Polish Haitians, and how they came to be. This is their complicated story:

In the early 18th Century, The Caribbean’s wealth was dependent upon Europeans’ taste for sugar and coffee. This meant that plantations were plentiful, and slave labor was needed to work them; and because there was a high death rate, due primarily to yellow fever and malaria, it was necessary to continually ‘import’ more slaves.  The slaves had been forced there, from Africa, and they outnumbered the plantation owners by as much as ten to one. The plantation owners lived in fear of a slave rebellion.

A century earlier, in 1685, The Code Noir (The Black Code) had been decreed by France’s King Louis XIV. Among other things, it defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonies and restricted the activities of free Blacks. 

Le Code Noir

In 1758, the white landowners began passing legislation that set restrictions on the rights of other groups of people until a rigid caste system was defined. They were in three groups: White colonists, free Blacks (often mixed-race Mulattoes and well-educated) and African-born slaves.
By 1789, Saint-Domingue was producing 60% of the world's coffee and 40% of the world's sugar, imported by France and Britain – making it the most profitable, French-owned colony. This is the same year that, in France, a newly-formed National Assembly, published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, declaring all men to be free and equal; and the same year that The French Revolution began. Because of the caste system, in Saint-Domingue, only many of the Creoles became free because they were the children of the landowners. Many of these Creoles had become educated, acquired wealth and had been trained in the military during The French Revolution.
The White landowners were not about to give up their livelihoods by declaring the slaves to be free, as well. Fighting began to break out between former slaves, who also wanted citizenship – and the right to vote – granted to them (under law) and the landowners. At this point, the people, who were still enslaved, were watching and waiting to see what would happen.
After about 18 months of isolated fighting, the slaves had had enough, and they revolted. On August 21, 1791, the slave revolution began – plunging the country into civil war. Within weeks, over 100,000 slaves were involved, and they had destroyed almost 200 plantations. By 1792, slaves controlled over one-third of the island.  The French were becoming extremely concerned about their economic interests. In an attempt to stop the revolt, the Legislative Assembly granted full civil and political rights to free men of color, in March 1792. The United States and many other European countries were horrified, as they were still heavily relying on slave labor, and certainly did not believe in Black people’s civil and political rights, at that time.
By 1793, France had declared war on Great Britain, and Spain controlled the Caribbean island, Hispaniola. The White planters in Saint Domingue made agreements with Great Britain to declare British sovereignty over the islands. Spain also joined the conflict and fight with Great Britain against France. The Spanish forces invaded Saint-Domingue and were joined by the slave forces.

1794 saw the abolition of slavery, and full civil and political rights was supposedly given to all Black men in the colonies (however, it actually continued in some of the French colonies until 1848).

One of the most successful black army commanders, during all of this fighting, was François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former, domestic slave.  He initially fought for the Spanish, but after the British had invaded Saint-Domingue, L'Ouverture decided to fight for the French, if they would agree to free all the slaves.  Under his leadership, the forces – made up mostly of former slaves – succeeded in winning concessions from the British and expelling the Spanish forces. In 1801, L'Ouverture issued a constitution for Saint-Domingue, which provided for Black autonomy and decreed that he would be Governor-for-life.  However, Napoléon Bonaparte, the French military leader, was having none of that. He wanted to restore slavery and restore French rule. So, in retaliation, he dispatched 40,000 soldiers, led by his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. They were under secret instructions to restore slavery, at least in the formerly Spanish-held part of the island.  During the struggles, some of Toussaint's closest allies, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines, abandoned him. L'Ouverture had been promised his freedom, if he agreed to integrate his remaining troops into the French Army. L'Ouverture agreed to this in May 1802. However, he was deceived by Leclerc, seized by the French and shipped to France, where he died in prison.

General Toussaint L'Ouverture
Napoleon Bonaparte

Charles Leclerc

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Amongst Leclerc’s soldiers were the ‘less-elite’ French soldiers, 5,000 Polish Legionnaires and some German and Swiss soldiers, as well.

The Polish soldiers were led by Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, a former high-ranking officer in the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were also under French rule, due to complicated politics, at the time. The Poles had been told that they were there to liberate people – not restore them to slavery. After a short time of being there, the Polish realized that they had been deceived, and they stopped fighting, became deserters; and in most cases, joined Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his slave army. Due to yellow fever and malaria, and the fact that the war had resumed between France and Britain, Napoléon was forced to sell his overseas possessions to the United States in The Louisiana Purchase deal and retreat in 1803. The slaves had won!

Jan Henryk Dąbrowski
Most of the Polish soldiers had perished. About 700 returned to France and Poland, and about 400 remained on the island because they either could not afford to leave, or they actually wanted to stay. However, many feared for their lives, as White people, so fled to the most remote parts of the island, in places such as Fond des Blanc and Cazales, which originated from the Polish name, Zalewski and Creole word, Kay.

In January, 1804, independent Haiti was declared, and White people were prohibited to own property there – with the exception of the Poles, in gratitude for their defecting from Napoleon’s army. The Haitian Constitution of 1805 stated in Articles 12 and 13 that “no White man may hold land in Haiti apart from Germans (who had a small community there) and Polanders.”

The Polish people formed communities over the next two centuries. In Cazales, ~45 miles North of Port-au-Prince, there now lives a community often referred to as blanc polone (White Polish). They are Haitians; but due to the fact that the bulk of the Polish Legionnaires settled there, the community has forever been referred to as ‘Polish’; and there is a high proportion of very light-skinned, blue-eyed Haitians here.

Polish Haitian in Cazales

So that is how the Polish came to be in Haiti.  Click here to see this amazing collection of photos of Polish Haitians, by Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak. The exhibit is entitled, 200 Years Away from Home.

Very sadly, the one year anniversary of the horrific earthquake in Haiti, was recently marked. There is still so much to be done to help the Haitians. The posters I saw were commissioned by the Poland-Haiti Foundation, founded by Zofia Pinchinat-Witucka a half-Polish, half-Haitian woman. If you want to know more about her foundation, click here (click on the British flag to read it in English).
I am so grateful to have stumbled upon those posters and the story of the Polish Haitians. I hope that you have learned something new today. I certainly have.

Polish Flag & Haitian Flag

 Sources: Polska-Haiti.org, Colombia University, Wikipedia, Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak , BioDiversity.com,  Google Images


  1. Fantastic history, great job writing this - thank you. Kent from California

  2. Thank you for your blog entry about Haitians with Polish descent. It is very fascinating! I have also looked through pictures that were posted by Mr. Wojtkowiak. Amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Interesting read. Thanks!

  4. I'm an amateur genealogist with Polish heritage. I'd never heard of Polish Haitians until just a few days ago. Thanks for writing such a clear and concise description of the times. I'll be putting a link to this in my blog mcfroots.blogspot.com

  5. Very interesting, I never heard of this before, but I won't forget. Btw, I'm a German living in the Netherlands, married to a Polish and do quiet some travel. Still learning every day :-)