Lost Polish Tribe on Haiti…

June 2, 2013
Polish Legions in Haiti

Polish Legions in Haiti

It’s not something I normally do but the following post has proved to be so popular that I have decided to re-post it. Enjoy.

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.

Following HIS orders

Bonaparte – Giving The Orders

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.

Dessalines - Father of Haitian Freedom

Dessalines – Father of Haitian Freedom

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).

Erzulie Dantor - Not Matka Boska

Erzulie Dantor – Not Matka Boska

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.

A 'Polish' Haitian (c) Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

A ‘Polish’ Haitian (c) Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

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.

Haiti - Not Just Earthquakes

Haiti – Not Just Earthquakes

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…?


Systemic Sex Abuse

May 2, 2013
Stuart Hall - Sex Offender

Stuart Hall – Sex Offender

I feel devastated, disgusted and betrayed. After hearing the news that TV and radio icon Stuart Hall has admitted to assaulting thirteen girls between the ages of nine and seventeen I feel utterly, utterly sick to the very pit of my stomach. I physically wanted to wretch. I feel like vomiting. I’m absolutely stunned by the news. Stuart Hall was an icon to so many of us growing up in the UK in the seventies and eighties. A superb wit, a superlative broadcaster with a superb gift for comedy. I loved the man, as so many of us did back then. To hear that Stuart Hall was an ‘opportunistic predator’ of young girls in many ways destroys my own conception of my younger and teenage years. What icons we had! First Jimmy Savile, a British institution no less, and now Stuart Hall. I feel like a little part of me has been ripped out and spat on.

Jimmy Savile - Sex Offender

Jimmy Savile – Sex Offender

What makes things even worse is the fact that it is not only Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall, who seemingly did (ironically) so much for charity, but it is a long list of media stars who join them on the deviant roll call of shame. It now turns out that Hall is the eleventh person who is being investigated under Operation Yewtree which seeks to uncover the nasty truth about all the dark deeds of Jimmy Savile et al. The roll call of shame makes morbid, disturbing reading. Along with the now deceased Savile we find sex offender, seventies glam pop star Gary Glitter, comedian Freddie Starr, radio DJ and icon Dave Lee Travis, comedian Jim Davison and (according to the BBC) entertainer Rolf Harris, who were all arrested as part of Operation Yewtree. Every single one of these people were truly ‘big names’ in my formative years.

Savile - Friend to Prime Ministers?

Savile – Friend to Prime Ministers?

As well as the numerous counts of assault, abuse and rape from this collection of ‘stars’, there are two questions that keep popping into my head. Firstly, how the hell could have this gone unnoticed? Hall is said to have assaulted thirteen girls from 1968 to 1986. Savile seems truly villainous in that there are said to have been 589 victims across four decades. Surely, some of these victims asked for help. Why has it taken so long to bring these ‘stars’ to justice? Why didn’t any one help? Secondly, what part did the BBC play in all this? Operation Yewtree has already seen several prominent BBC employees been arrested (not including the stars, of course).

Savile - Friend to Royalty?

Savile – Friend to Royalty?

So not only have several major British media stars been arrested on charges of assault, abuse and rape but the major British institution itself, the BBC, has a lot to answer for. A shadow has been cast on the reputation of dear old Auntie Beeb that I’m afraid will never go away. Many of us feel demoralised and disgusted but, for me, the feeling of betrayal is the hardest to take. I feel betrayed because as a child I trusted Savile, Hall, Starr, Davidson and Lee Travis. They were on my side, weren’t they? They were with us on TV, at home, over dinner, over tea. We trusted them. We trusted the BBC. And it’s all gone. That past has been mangled, warped and destroyed. I’ll never be able to look back with fondness because I’ll still have a bitter taste in the back of my throat.

World’s Greatest Meme

March 11, 2013
Cultural Gene

Cultural Gene

Back in 1976 Richard Dawkins coined the wonderful term – meme. It can be defined as an element of culture that replicates itself. Some describe it as a virus, a contagion which spreads and infects other people. I prefer the idea of a meme being a cultural gene, something that hops from one mind to the next. Whether for better or worse. A good example might be a piece of music that everyone recognises – Beethoven’s Fifth or Happy Birthday to you. Memes also abound on the internet but it is difficult to say if these are genuine memes or fads that explode and later fade into obscurity. A meme, methinks, has to be long-lasting, sturdy and familiar to many.

Infectious Ideas

Infectious Ideas

When deciding what a meme is (and what might possibly be the world’s greatest meme) we have to take a look at memetics, the study of memes, which lays down the law when it comes to these tiny cultural creatures. Of particular interest to us are two terms used in memetics: memeplex (meme-complex) and memoid. The first is a complex of memes, a grouping together of memes. The second refers to a person who has become engulfed by a meme to such an extent that the meme is their reason for existence. And that is what leads me to believe that there is only one true candidate for the world’s greatest meme/memeplex.

Memeplex Supreme

Memeplex Supreme

What could possibly be the world’s greatest collection of ideas? Ideas (or groupings of ideas) that readily replicate and hop from one mind to the next? Ideas that have such power that they often completely and utterly engulf the mind of their indiciduals? A group of ideas which has the largest number of hits or followers? The answer, in the aftermath of the arch-memoid’s resignation and on the eve of the gatherings of many über-memoids to elect a new arch-memoid in the Petrine succession, has got to be the Catholic Church (or, in fact, Christianity). Join the dots, fill in the blanks. For better or for worse, the world’s greatest religion has to also be the world’s greatest memeplex.

Bizarre Tunes – Five of the Best

February 18, 2013

Just to cheer things up a little I’ve decided to share with you five of my favourite light-hearted numbers. They’re odd, strange but they always put a smile on my face. We’ll begin with the sultan of dank and dirty blues, the master of juju-, voodoo-tinted zydeco and the king of boogie woogie, Dr John. This little tune (number five on today’s Raffy top five), Jump Sturdy comes from Dr John’s phenomenal Gris-gris of 1968, and comes in #148 on Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 best albums of all time. It combines psychedelic sounds with bucketfuls of New Orleans soul. If there’s ever an album that makes me want to visit a city then this is it. Both Dr. John and New Orleans should be made saints for giving us this album. Check it the Jump Sturdy:

In at number four is my favourite Paul McCartney tune. Yes, it may seem odd to combine the words ‘favourite’ and ‘McCartney’ in one sentence but there you have it. Even though I believe him to be the lamest of Beatles he was a gargantuan songwriter. This man could fart songs out. Ask him to write a song about the price of cheese in the Vatican in the 17th century, give him 15 minutes and McCartney would write you an epic, pop-tastic opus complete with orchestrations and embellished with frog sounds. Love him or hate him, the man knows how to write a tune. This next little number does it for me. It began life as an experiment. McCartney was checking out a new machine he had just bought, hence, Check My Machine from his 1980 McCartney II album:

Now we turn to the female side of town. In at number three is the glorious, gorgeous and ground-breaking Peruvian delight Yma Surmac who rocks my world so much that I still find it hard to believe she can do what she can do. Born in 1922, she broke ground with her take on exotica music and together with Les Baxter and Martin Denny is regarded as one of exotica’s finest. This woman could belt out songs like no other and had a range of over four octaves ranging from baritone to soprano. This song Malambo No. 1 comes from her much-acclaimed 1954 album, Mambo!:

We move back to the blokes and to a legend. In at number two is one of my heroes. This man cannot be beat. One of the first shock rockers, a man who combined opera with humour, from the macabre to the ridiculous, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had a voice that could shake buildings. His 1956 song I Put a Spell on You is regarded as one of the most influential and important songs in rock history and comes in #313 on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Screamin’ Jay was and has been a huge influence on (the afore-mentioned) Dr. John, the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, even Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson. This is why:

Number one (for no particular reason) goes to a band close to my heart. The J-pop, shibuya-kei maestros Pizzicato Five turned my musical world upside down when I unearthed them by accident in Japan. I would spend my Monday afternoons perusing round the (only) little music store in the charming town on Kobayashi. One day I happened upon an album with a gorgeous lady on the cover. I bought the album. I was hooked. This is what Japan does best – clone and copy, upgrade and improve. There is so much about Pizzicato Five which originates from the West but it is so, so, so very Japanese. From the 1997 album Happy End of the World, here is the high-tempo It’s a Beautiful Day:

Bizarre Polish Place Names

January 4, 2013
Ho, Indeed!

Ho, Indeed!

Inspired by several polls, lists and tables of ludicrous, embarrassing and rude English place names, I have decided to compile a similar list for Poland. However, before we get down to the polski equivalents, let’s delve into the most bizarre English ones I have been able to unearth. The Mirror and The Telegraph both have wonderful ‘top tens’ but my personal favourites, my top ten, if you like, has been put together using other lists, place name websites, and a host of other wonderfully funny sources. Here are my British favourites:
10. Zeal Monachorum, Exeter.
9. Burton-le-Coggles, near Grantham.
8. Durdle Door, Dorset.
7. Wide Open, Newcastle upon Tyne.
6. Wetwang, near Bridlington.
5. Bullyhole Bottom, Monmouthshire.
4. Cuckoo’s Knob, Wiltshire.
3. Cocklick End, Lancashire.
2. Loose Bottom, East Sussex.
1. Dancing Dicks, Essex.

Give It to Me Here

Give It to Me Here

Not sure that the Polish ones can match the British ones but let’s have a go. Many humourous British place names seem to revolve around the countless fun that can be had with sexual connotations – endless knobs, countless bottoms, the odd fanny and a splash of dick now and again make for japes all around. The funniest (or rather, strangest) Polish ones I have been able to find seem to revolve around odd word/phrase formations. I’ve also included my own personal gloss/translation of each place name just to help all of you non-Polish speaking souls. Here is the list (and just a sample of the fun you can have with place names):
10. Koce Schaby (Cat’s Chops), in the Province of Mazovia. 
9. Zgniłocha (Rottenness), Warmia-Mazuria.
8. Biały Kał (White Faeces), Lower Silesia.
7. Krzywe Kolano (Bent Knee), Kuyavia-Pomerania.
6. Koniemłoty (Horses’ Hammers), Świętokrzyskie Province.
5. Kukuryki (Cock-a-doodle-doos), Lublin Province.
4. Kłopoty Stanisławy (Stanisława’s Problems), Podlasie Province.
3. Młynek Nieśwniński (Small non-pig-like Mill), Wielkopolska.
2. Jęczydół (Moaning Pit), Western Pomerania.
1. Gnaty Wieśnaty (Bumpkin Bones), Mazovia.

There are, of course, countless others and this list could go on ad infinitum but that’s where I leave the rest to you. If you have any more interesting ones, please let me know. All of these place names have their etymological, geographical reasoning and it’s always interesting seeing new ones.

Rain Stops Play

October 17, 2012
Rain, Rain Go Away

Swampy-wet Pitch

Football has moved on in recent years: better-behaved fans, better stadia, even perhaps a better all-round experience. Football is big business. Football is a machine. A well-oiled, money-making global machine. But perhaps not in Poland. The failed first attempt at playing the Poland-England World Cup qualifier is perhaps indicative of what Poland is all about. The Poland-England cancelled game is Poland in a nutshell, warts and all (but mainly warts). A hour or two before the planned kick-off it was already apparent that the game would certainly not go ahead. The sight of the referee emerging from the tunnel and throwing the ball at the huge puddles that had already appeared on the pitch well before the game’s KO was laughable. Seeing England manager Roy Hodgson standing on the Polish National Stadium quagmire soaked through was a sad advert for Polish organisation, Polish preparation and, to be frank, Polish football.

Bog-standard Conditions

Bog-standard Conditions

Panic, embarrassment and absurdity engulfed the stadium, the fans and people at home watching the TV. Jerzy Dudek, who was commentating for Polish TV, was visibly irritated at the complete incompetency of the organisers in their inability to: (a) take a firm decision, (b) close the roof, and (c) inform the fans what was going on. Again, the referee came onto the pitch (bog?) in order to check the consistency of water and the physics of balls in puddles and disappeared deep in thought. The Polish Football Association (PZPN), FIFA, the referee and both teams (who took the decision not to play under a closed roof) could have been blamed for the sorry state of affairs but for those of us who live in Poland, we all know what was to blame…


Flippin' Hell!

Flippin’ Awful Game

This could only happen in Poland. How could the pitch of a spanking, sparkling new stadium possibly be unplayable? This centrepiece of Polish football was unable to host an international football game but several months before had hosted the continent’s premier footballing competition. How was this possible? And in this answer is the key to understanding everything there is to know about Poland. In times of trouble and stress Poland always comes out on top. Take the Solidarity movement and the fall of communism as an example. Take Poland’s situation during the global financial crisis as another. Take Euro 2012 as yet another. With their backs to the walls, Polish people are phenomenal. They can really be relied upon and are a model to the rest of the world. But the Poland-England World Cup qualifier wasn’t a political demonstration, nor was it an über-prestigious tournament that the whole continent was watching. It was just another football game. And there lies Poland’s downfall.

Poland's Red Card

Red-faced Poland

Two words were bandied around by Polish commentators and experts in the hours that followed the farce: bylejakość and olewactwo as typical Polish demons. The first can be loosely translated as ‘mediocrity’, ‘poor quality’; the second as ‘not-giving-an-arse-ness’, ‘not-treating-seriously-ness’. These demons were firmly behind the reason to: (a) decide not to spend more money on a better pitch drainage system; (b) ignore the weather forecast, (c) decide not to close the roof (for fear of forfeiting the manufacturer’s warranty); (d) not inform the fans what was going on; (e) not have a plan b for ticket refunds; (f) not have the balls (forgive the pun) to take responsibility for one’s mistakes.

Light-hearted Spirit

Light-hearted Spirit

But not all is lost for Poland. The positive side to this embarrassing tale is the ability of Poles to make light of difficult and absurd situationsThe internet was rife with talk of Poland’s new ‘National Swimming Centre’, the economic feasibility of Poland’s National Stadium to double-up as a paddy field as well as news that Poland’s goalkeeper Przemysław Tytoń will be replaced by Otylia Jędrzejczak, Poland’s Olympic swimming champion. The match may have been cancelled, Poland’s ability to host an international event may be tarnished and the Polish Football Association may be a laughing stock but the ability of Poles to laugh at themselves is well intact.

Racism is NOT a Polish Problem

June 8, 2012
Spanish Monkey Chants

‘Spanish’ Monkey Chants

The European Championships are upon us and the journalists of Europe (and the world) are focused on the two host countries of Poland and Ukraine. It all began with the BBC’s Panorama suggesting (and in fact showing) that racism is rife in Ukraine and Poland. I won’t deny it. Yes, it is. More recently, the Netherlands team complained of racial abuse and monkey chants during their training session at Kraków’s Stadion Miejski. This too cannot be denied and must be weeded out. However (there’s always a ‘however’), I am loathe to sit back and watch Poland and Ukraine become the pariahs of Europe just because the anti-racism/PC bandwagon has become particularly en vogue in certain circles. Fighting racism should always be on the agenda but it should not be the agenda. I am no apologist and will never condone racism in any form having been the subject of racism for much of my life, but please, let’s put things into context.

Chinese Human Rights Overlooked

Chinese Human Rights Overlooked

It is also interesting that the politicians of Europe in their infinite wisdom have all decided to gang up on Ukraine and have refused to travel to Europe’s second largest country  in outrage at the treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko. Interesting decision. Politicians are often the first to admit that politics and sport should not mix. FIFA and UEFA themselves uphold regulations that do not allow governments to intervene in local federations. Odd that there were no similar boycotts of the Beijing Olympics and politicians of the West flocked to China blindly ignorant of the human rights violations that were taking place. But back to racism as this is what concerns us most. There is racism in Poland. This cannot be denied. By the same token, there have been even more grave manifestations of racism in other European countries recently. In the UK this included the Bradford and Oldham riots of 2001, the death of an Indian sailor in Scotland in 2009 as well as the London riot in the summer of 2011 which was believed to have been started by (institutionalised  police) racism.

Casting the First Stone

Casting the First Stone

In France, this included the outrageous racism displayed towards Romani people when they were forcibly deported from France in 2010. More recently, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party of Greece gained 21 seats (!) in the last Greek parliamentary elections. The party spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris is wanted for assaulting a female politician (live on TV). As we can see, this is not a Polish problem but a deep-seated European problem compounded by the economic crisis. Hardship, poverty and ignorance fan the flames of racism, fascism and intolerance. Poland had over fifty years of communist seclusion and racial homogeneity. Hardly an excuse but it means that foreigners are still a novelty. It will take time but everyone needs to join in and help. It wasn’t that long ago – I can recall football matches that I went to in the 1990s in England – where monkey chants were a regular occurrence rather than an abhorrent exception. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Any takers?