Perhaps the most intriguing group of people among Poland’s huge diaspora (the so-called Polonia) are the ‘Poles of Haiti’. I heard about this lost little enclave of ‘Polishness’ on radio and began to follow, Theseus-like, the strands of stories that might lead me to some sort of end-point in my search for the truth in the labyrinthine information maze that is the internet. Much to my surprise, I was able to bring together these strands and get some kind of picture of how on earth Poland has managed to touch the culture of Haiti.
In 1804, Haiti declared independence from Napoleonic France. Napoleon was having none of it and swiftly sent a force of over 5,200 Polish Legions to stamp his authority on the natives and their lust for independence. The Third Half-Brigade of the Polish Legions were not extremely happy with this state of affairs as the Legions were primarily focused on fighting for Polish freedom in Europe. The idea of (1) fighting against freedom and (2) fighting over eight thousand kilometres away from one’s homeland on the other side of the world seemed both ridiculous and annoying to these soldiers. But soldiers they were, and more importantly, soldiers of Napoleon and they had to follow orders.
The Polish Legions became embroiled in the Haitian Revolution, and most died, although it was not the fighting that killed them but yellow fever. Unaccustomed to the climate and the dangers of life in the Caribbean 4,000 soldiers died of the disease. Those that remained became the stuff of legend, Haitian legend. Miffed off with fighting those who were fighting for freedom (like themselves), the remaining Polish soldiers decided to throw off the yoke of their French masters and joined Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the Haitian struggle for independence living to see a free Haiti. The indigenous peoples were so enamoured by their Polish brothers-in-arms that they included them in the Haitian Constitution of 1805 in which it was stated in Articles 12 and 13 that no white man may hold land on Haiti apart from the Germans (who had a small community there) and the Polanders (Poles).
These naturalised Polish Haitians had a great impact on the fledgling Empire of Haiti, later the Republic of Haiti. The Haitians were impressed by the Poles’ great love of their Matka Boska Częstochowska (Our Lady of Częstochowa). They noticed how greatly the legionnaires venerated their icon. Through a process of assimilation and transformation, the Polish Catholic Matka Boska Częstochowska became the Haitian Vodou Erzulie Dantor, a warrior spirit, the protector of women and children, associated also with lesbians, homosexual men and abused women. Interestingly, like Matka Boska Częstochowska, Erzulie Dantor also has scars on the right-side of her face which she got from a fight with her sister when she stole her husband from her. A rather different persona from Matka Boska Częstochowska.
The ties between the two countries do not stop there. In Cazale, 70 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince there lives a community often referred to as blanc, polone. They are, to all intents and purposes, Haitians but due to the fact that the bulk of the Polish legionnaires settled there, the community has forever been referred to as ‘Polish’. If you are from Cazale, you are Polish, it’s as simple as that. Interestingly, there is a high proportion of blue-eyed Haitians here. Another link is Jerzy Grotowski who came to Haiti in search of inspiration in the 1970s. It’s fair to say that his experimental theatre owes a great deal to the spirituality of Haitian Vodou.
It is wonderful how two seemingly disparate and distant cultures have common threads weaving them together. On the one hand, we have Napoleon, the Haitian battle for freedom, the Polish legionnaires who joined with the Haitians in their Revolution and all the ramifications of their presence on the island. This includes a strong genetic marker in Cazale and the surrounding area and the warrior spirit of Erzulie Dantor. On the other hand we have Grotowski and his deep love of Haiti and its spirituality. Poland and Haiti – who would have thought…?