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Chapter one: Minds over Machetes
My name is Toussaint L’Ouverture. Perhaps you’ve heard of me. Or perhaps not. I’m technically fourteen years old, but today I’m about to die of old age. But before I do I want anyone who reads this to hear the story of one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever seen–greater than the American Revolution and even greater than the French Revolution. It was the only time a group of slaves took on Spain, Britain, and France and won. It was the first successful slave revolt that created the first black republic in history. But most of all, it not only changed the Caribbean, it changed the world. This is the story of the Haitian Revolution…
Saint Domingue: August 12th, 1791
Today would have been a perfect day to not be a slave. But then again, any day would be perfect to be free as far as I was concerned. But today would have been especially perfect. From the way the crisp breeze kissed my face to the way the sunlight set the blue sky ablaze above me. Or from how the cool river water trickled over my bare feet as I filled my bucket to how the parakeets sang to me from the tops of the mango trees on my way back. I wanted so much to drop my bucket and climb those trees, to eat the mangoes in the shade, and let the sweet juices run down my lips. I wanted to rush down to the beach and race my friends across the shore. I wanted to play tag in the jungle and swing from vines into the lagoon. Everything seemed to be whispering to me to throw caution to the wind and enjoy this beautiful day. It was as if God was smiling down and had turned the entire island of Saint Domingue into a slice of heaven. But the sound of cracking whips quickly reminded me that I wasn’t in Heaven at all. I was in Hell.
“Fe vite!” a voice boomed nearby, ordering a slave girl to move faster.
I snapped out of my daydream and continued carrying the bucket of water on my head. Fields of green, ten-foot-tall stalks of sugar cane were on either side of the dirt path I was on, thick like two miniature forests. The air was filled with the whacking of machetes from the other children cutting the canes down inside them. About twenty other children were scattered between the two fields carrying bundles of sugar cane on their shoulders to wooden wheelbarrows. About half a dozen men were wandering between the fields watching the children work.
“Fe vite!” the shout boomed again.
I watched as one of the men breathed down a girl’s neck as she carried her bundle towards a wheelbarrow. The man was dressed in a straw hat, white blouse, black breeches, and black boots and stood tall enough that he was just a few heads shorter than the top of the stalks. But the most striking feature was his pasty white skin, whiter than the blouse he was wearing and even whiter than the clouds in the sky.
The girl shrieked in surprise, stumbled, and the sugar canes dropped to the ground. The man roared then cracked his whip against her back. She squealed and I winced as the man whipped her again.
“Useless makak!” the man shouted with another whip. “Pick it up!”
I felt my blood boiling as I walked towards them. I saw this every day, but I never got used to how the slaves were treated. They called us makak, which meant monkey–but it wasn’t because they just wanted to be mean. They actually believed we were monkeys and not really human. I lowered the bucket to the ground and made my hands into fists as the man raised his whip to strike the girl again.
“Stop,” I said, barely above a whisper.
The man’s head whirled in my direction and he glared down at me with glassy, gray eyes.
“Keep it moving, boy,” he threatened.
“She can’t pick them up if you keep whipping her,” I told him.
The man took one step closer to me, swallowing me in his shadow. “Don’t think that just because you’re a house slave I won’t beat your black behind to a pulp.”
I gulped and immediately lowered my head.
“Now get outta here!” the man ordered, raising his whip at me this time.
I grabbed my bucket and didn’t even bother lifting it to my head as I scurried into the field on my left. I didn’t like seeing my fellow slaves get beaten, but I also didn’t like getting beaten myself. After all, it was Sunday and Sunday was the worst day. I heard the whip cracking again and the girl’s shrieks sent my skin crawling. I came to a stop and set the bucket on the ground and shut my eyes, wishing I could drown out her screams.
“Look who it is!” another voice forced my eyes open again and I saw a young shirtless boy and two girls in dresses standing nearby.
“Hey, Jacques,” I greeted my friend.
“Sak pasé?” he greeted me back.
“Nap brulé.” I was about to say something else, but a sickening odor assaulted my nose. “What is that smell?”
Jacques nodded to his left where a small mound of thick brown mud was attracting flies. “A donkey pooped there and a zombie said the next time I act up he’s gonna make me eat it.”
I almost threw up. I didn’t even want to ask more about it. I was surprised that he and the others were able to stand the smell like it was nothing.
“Are you actually working today?” Jacques teased me. “Or did your master give the house slaves a day off?”
“No, silly!” one of the girls laughed. “He’s here to give us water!” Before I could stop her, she lifted the bucket high and poured the water over her head.
“Sanité!” we all screamed at her, but she just giggled and shook her hair out. Then she spun in a circle, sending rings of water flinging out from the edges of her dress.
I wanted to be angry, but I should have known better than to leave the bucket near Sanité. She was a year older than me and Jacques, but she acted less like a fifteen-year-old girl and more like a newborn kitten–utterly curious and oblivious to danger or the consequences of her actions. It was how she got the nickname “Sanité”, which meant “sanity,” because sometimes she acted like she’d lost hers.
“Sorry…” she shrugged. “Did you guys want some?”
“Those were for the horses,” I groaned. “Now I have to go all the way back to the river and get more.”
“Oh no,” Jacques said, dripping with sarcasm. “Not the river. You have to walk around in cool water while we whack away in this heat all day? That must be a nightmare.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Leave him alone,” the second girl said, punching Jacques in the shoulder. Her name was Marie-Jeanne and at sixteen, she was the oldest of the group. Because of that, she normally kept us all out of trouble and we saw her as a big sister. Her and Sanité were both in dirt-stained dresses that all the slave girls wore. But whereas Sanité had her hair tied in a red bandana, Marie’s braids were in full view for everyone to see.
“We’re all slaves here,” she reminded us. “Right, Tou-Tou?”
I nodded. Jacques was about to say something else when suddenly the sound of a whip split the air and a boy screamed somewhere in the field. We fell silent as we listened to the child’s cries. After about three whips, Jacques went back to whacking the sugar canes with his machete.
“We should kill the zombies,” he muttered.
“Yeah!” Sanité agreed. “I say we pour hot oil on their eyes.” She dropped her machete then picked up the empty bucket and dramatically acted it out, pretending to shriek in pain from the imaginary oil.
“Keep it down!” I warned them, looking over my shoulder. “Do you wanna get us killed?” After all, it was Sunday and Sunday was the worst day.
“Don’t you wanna get them killed?” Jacques spat back. “Do you not remember what they’ve done to us?” With that, he turned his back to us and I winced at the scars crisscrossing through his skin. They were all thick and scabbed over and looked like a gruesome, puffy map carved into his body. The zombies were all violent. But Jacques’s master was particularly cruel. While the others would share their own horror stories of the punishments they received for disobedience or mistakes, Jacques rarely talked about what was done to him. As a result, none of us knew where any of those scars were from. They could have been from whips, sticks, knives, chains or a combination of all of the above.
We lowered our heads and fell silent in the face of the scars.
Jacques turned back to us with a determined look on his face. “One day I’m gonna kill all the zombies on this island.”
“And how are you gonna do that when they can’t die, Jay-Jay?” Marie asked him. He was lucky his skin was so dark so we couldn’t see him blush at her nickname for him.
“She’s right,” I added. “Trying to kill them will just make things worse for all of us.”
Jacques frowned at the reminder.
The zombies were a really strange and frightening mix. Unlike the ones that Americans would write stories about a century later, the zombies in Saint Domingue weren’t mindless, lethargic creatures. They were intelligent, incredibly strong, and moved just as fast, if not faster, than regular people. They also weren’t the result of an infection and wouldn’t turn us into zombies by biting us. In Saint Domingue, the zombies were the result of spells a boko–a voodoo priest–would cast to bring someone back from the dead. Once they were resurrected, whoever brought them back had control of their soul and would force them to do their bidding. So while they weren’t mindless, they were very much soulless. But since they were already dead, this meant they couldn’t be killed.
“Then I’m gonna sail to France and kill Napoleon and all the Frenchmen there,” Jacques announced. Then he lunged and swung his machete at me. I reacted with catlike swiftness and kicked Sanité’s machete off the ground then blocked Jacques’ attack. Sanité cheered as the two of us went around dueling, but Marie rolled her eyes.
“What’s the point of all our pirate games if we’re never gonna fight for real?” Jacques asked as our machetes clanged. I matched his attacks as we circled the girls. But Jacques was a much better fighter than I was and after a short minute, he knocked my machete away and pointed his at my chest. The girls gasped. I slowly stepped to the side and he followed me carefully like a lion watching his prey. I finally stopped moving when we’d completed a half circle and he pinched my shirt with the tip of his blade.
“I win,” he smirked at me.
“Are you sure about that?” I asked, nodding at his feet.
He looked down and screamed. He’d stepped right into the donkey poop–bare toes and everything.
“Illllll!” Sanité shrieked. “Jackie stinks! Jackie stinks! Jackie just got doo doo feet!”
While he was distracted, I kicked him in his chest and knocked him on his back. Then I snatched my machete back up off the ground and pointed it down at his neck and Sanité and Marie gave me a round of applause.
“No matter how good we are at fighting,” I said. “There are hundreds of zombies on the island and they can’t die.”
Jacques scoffed as he glanced at the tip of the blade inches from his chin.
I stretched out my hand to help him up. “If we ever want to revolt, we have to use our minds and not just our machetes.”
He sighed and grabbed my hand. But before I could pull him to his feet, a long blast of a conch shell filled the air and stopped our hearts. We all looked at each other and even Sanité’s eyes went wide. Because it was Sunday and Sunday was Whipping Day.