What is “Polish”?

What is “Polish”?

Originally published on PISK.ca.

Let me tell you about the strange and wonderful case of Haitian Polonia. For starters, check this out (the original TVP newscast introducing the topic was taken down, so this’ll have to do)”:

So… what exactly does it mean to be Polish? This is a question that hits many of us in Polonia much stronger than anyone living in Poland. As with other questions of identity, its meaning seems quite simple from a distance but quickly blurs into all sorts of shades of grey as you approach it.

As a case study, let’s dive into the unexpected Polonia community that’s been living in Haiti since the early 1800s. I first found out about this group through a chance visit to what has since become an invaluable resource on Polonia: polishforums.com (highly recommended you check it out if you get a minute; there are so many interesting discussions!). “Polonia in the Caribbean? For 200 years?” I know, it’s crazy. Before we begin, some history. Columbus discovered the island of Hispaniola and made it a Spanish colony at the end of his famous voyage of 1492. The next 100+ years saw the land go through much turmoil as various parties tried to set up shop: English, French, Spanish, and Dutch settlers/pirates/explorers all called Hispaniola home, fighting among themselves for power while simultaneously wiping out the indigenous population with diseases brought from the Old World. Hurrah, colonialism wins again.

By 1660, it was the English who held sway on the island. They then they made the crucial mistake of promoting a Frenchman, Jeremie Deschamps, to Governor. The first thing Deschamps did was proclaim the land French, starting Haiti’s long and painful history as a French colony. French settlers started coming in shortly thereafter, bringing with them tens of thousands of African slaves to work the plantations they had set up. By 1789, there were about 500,000 blacks working under just 32,000 whites. However, the French government back in Europe was slowly progressing towards abolishing slavery. The ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité that fed the French Revolution of 1789-1799 transferred over to their colonies as well, and indeed, by 1794 slavery was abolished in Haiti.

Things were peachy for a bit… until Napoleon came into power at the end of the French Revolution, and France began to rethink her policies on freeing such a solid source of cheap labour. Napoleon quickly sent a contingent of 40,000 troops to Haiti to recolonize it and to resubjugate her citizens to slavery. Included was a Polish Legion 5,280 strong. I know, right? How did our dear Kowalskis get involved in this mess? Well, remember that Poland was experiencing her third partition at this time (1795-1918), with chunks ripped out by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. In fact, Poland as a state didn’t exist at all. Nothing incites patriotism so much as a defeat, and Polish soldiers were no exception. They immediately started looking for allies to help them reestablish their nation, and their sights quickly set on a French up-an-comer whose ambitions were making him enemies everywhere anyway—conveniently among them, the Austrians, the Russians, and the Prussians. Enter Napoleon Bonaparte.

Polish Legions were quickly formed to help Napoleon in his conquests, hoping he would remember Poland when he emerged victorious. The legions numbered around 25,000, one fifth of which, again, was sent out to reinstate slavery in Haiti. This consisted of the Danube Legion, largely made up of Polish volunteers gathered as prisoners of war from French battles with Austria (bear in mind that with partition came the reassignment of nationality and many Poles found themselves serving the armies of their conquerors). Polish-Haitian relations were remarkable during the brief, disastrous French campaign of 1802-1804. Suffice it to say that, despite being enemies at first, they ended the war as friends. Haiti’s constitution of 1805 even expressly read that no whites could ever own land in the nation, with the exception of naturalized “Germans and Polanders” (a small contingent of Germans and Swiss had also accompanied Napoleon’s forces to Haiti).

War and disease decimated the Danube Legion, leaving only a few hundred survivors by the end of the campaign. Of these, the majority left for Europe following France’s defeat, leaving about 100 soldiers behind. These settled largely in Casale and in Fond des Blancs, each not more than a square kilometre in area, and each 150 km away from the other.

Now, it’s been over two centuries of isolation since this time, yet there still remains a community of self-identifying Poles in Casale. In fact, even the name of the town is hypothesized to have roots in the surname of one of its early settlers, Zalewski: “kay” in Creole means “at”, and locals had a habit of shortening long Polish names so voilà: ca-zal, Casale: at Zalewski’s.

Over the centuries, the Polish language and the old traditions accompanying the community died out, but an awareness of being different still remains among the locals. And some vestiges of the old country still exist: African-rooted voodoo turned the Catholic Black Madonna of Częstochowa into the voodoo spirit Ezili Dantor, the patron of motherhood with a penchant for black creole pig sacrifices (though she also doesn’t mind offerings of rum and strong, unfiltered cigarettes). There are anecdotes of red and white ribbons used to decorate houses during festivities, and stories abound of blue-eyed Haitians with fair skin and blonde hair. Heck, Światosław Wojtkowiak traveled to Haiti in 2010 to shoot an album of the locals, aptly titled “200 years away from home”. See them for yourself:

There is something uncommonly Slavic in all these faces. But perhaps the most telling mark of a lasting Polish influence is that these Haitians are known as les polonias. That’s French for “Polish”. And they are proud of it.

Tradition has it that Polish soldiers, upon seeing the horrible treatment of the locals by the French, and understanding the pains of subjugation so well from their own partitioned history, would often desert their French commanders and fight with the black slaves for Haitian freedom. And indeed, history confirms this with a few handfuls of soldiers, though these seemed to be more survival tactics than acts of sympathy. At the same time, it’s tough to subjugate a people while proudly flying a flag loudly proclaiming “za naszą i waszą wolność”—the official motto of the Polish army during this trying time. Interestingly, this myth of noble, principled Poles throwing down banners in fits of rage and disgust against slavery and joining with the locals to fight for a better world seems to have been more a product of Haitian fancy than of any misplaced Polish patriotism. This myth still abides to this day, perhaps accounting for the fierce pride Haitian Polonia feels in its roots.

Which brings us full circle to my original question: what makes one Polish? Is it a proper lineage and a certain upbringing, is it a knowledge of traditions and language? Is it the practice of a certain religion, the holding of deep-rooted beliefs? A common history coupled with a shared culture? A shared space, be it geographic or a branch on a genealogical chart? Is it race, genetics, or physical characteristics? No, clearly not. All these are important factors contributing to culture, but not one of them can really be said to unite Haitian Polonia with Poland. For them, being Polish is just that: a label. A very strong label.

And you know, I think this is what all national identity really is. You have to identify with it, and others must also identify you with it (both from within and from without the community). That’s it. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m very proud of my roots and am honoured to be a member of such a strong, noble, widely-spread diaspora, but there is nothing really special about being Polish except, well, that I am.

Which, paradoxically, makes all the difference.

Below is an excellent documentary about the subject for those of you yearning to learn more about our Haitian brothers. For all you francophones out there, you can learn even more by watching the French documentary Casale (Roland Paret, 2004).

Further reading:

  1. Cazale, Haiti (“Polish” Haitians) (Forum post by Bonaoense, 2011)
  2. Lost Polish Tribe on Haiti (Raf Uzar, 2010)
  3. Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy: A Study of Polish Legions in the Haitian War of Independence 1802-1803 (Book review by Bob Corbett, 2001)
  4. The Tragedy of the Lost Polish Brigades (1802-2002) (Margaret Odrowaz Sypniewska, 2007)

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