Abstract: This paper analyses Gouverneurs de la rosée, focusing on some of the striking features that cannot be overlooked: the image of Africa in the black diaspora, family dynamics in the novel, precisely the relation between mother, child and husband in a land in distraught and the article also emphasizes the attempt to improve human beings’ living conditions in Haiti by a martyr who spends some time in exile in Cuba in order to acquire skills that he intends to use, to pull his fatherland out of need and want and by doing that, insuring sustainable development in Haiti. I translated the French quotations into English in this paper.
Key words: pan-Africanism, sustainable development, radicalism, activist, the “Commons”
Gouverneurs de la rosée is the most politically and socially engaged work by Jacques Roumain who was born in 1907 in Port-au Prince (Haiti). He is a young writer who did not live long but left an immense legacy to the next generations. The author traveled and studied in several European countries like Germany, Switzerland and England then returned home to Haiti with the aim of using the skills acquired during his various sojourns; his political activities led to his exile to Cuba and that time away from Haiti enabled him to meet several pan-African writers. Roumain was a writer, and also an activist with a resilient spirit and his political views and activities landed him in prison in 1929 and several other times since the conservative authorities in Haiti at that time saw his writings and utterances as a threat to the stability of their government. His first literary work is La Proie et l’ombre.
Roumain openly states that he is a leftist and that transpires in his novel. He strongly opposed the USA occupation of Haiti and founded the Haitian Communist Party in 1934. When the political situation in Haitian became less hostile to him he returned and occupied several political positions as ambassador of Haiti to Mexico and several other countries. That was the time when Roumain published most of his works, including his collection of poetry Bois d’Ebène (Ebony Woods). One can say that much of Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée, which is implicitly autobiographical, craftily written in a mixture of “standard French” and Haitian Creole, and expresses the frustration and rage of the downtrodden across the world. He includes “the masses” in his writing and calls on the poor to organize, strategize and fight for better living conditions. This paper will carefully examine pan-Africanism in the novel, class struggles from the Marxist view and the self-sacrifice done by Manuel, the protagonist in the novel, in his efforts to put an end to oppression and poverty in Fonds Rouges his hometown in particular and Haiti in general.
Critique of French Imperialism: The Haitian Revolution and Gouverneurs de la rosée
Jacques Roumain’s novel sheds light on the socio-historical progression of Haiti, as the first black republic of the world, the first black nation to fight the French colonizer and gain their autonomy. Led by Toussaint l’Ouverture, the Haitian revolution (1791–1804) remains one of the most organized liberation movements in world history. The Haitian Revolution was a slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and the founding of the Republic of Haiti. The Haitian Revolution was the only slave revolt which led to the founding of a state. Furthermore, it is generally considered the most successful slave rebellion ever to have occurred and as a defining moment in the histories of both Europe and the Americas. The rebellion began with a revolt of black African slaves in August 1791 and ended in November 1803 with the French defeat at the battle of Vertières. Haiti became an independent country on January 1, 1804. C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins thoroughly studies the slaves revolution in Haiti.
However, the contrast lies in the fact that the first black republic of the world which brought pride and dignity to blacks all over the world found itself some years along the line as a society in “decomposition”: betrayal among neighbors, massive unemployment, abject poverty and migration of the youth in search of greener pastures. Gounerneurs de la rosée opens with a horrendous tableau of the need and want which is rampant in the land. The novel questions the existence and the role of God in such a context, when human beings are praying, calling for divine intervention in the midst of misery. One might read in such a text the Marxist and atheist position of the author. He seems to pose that God is insensitive to the plight of the living and the reader can push the argument further here by stating that Roumain implicitly asks whether such a God exists or is worth worshipping. The novel ridicules the people’s prayers and God’s reaction to those prayers. Prayers are rather qualified as “loud noise” that angers God in the novel. Délira prays and calls on God to come to their rescue but He does not, He is rather irritated and disturbed by so much cacophony coming from all angles. The dire living conditions persist in the land, Fonds-Rouge. The old couple, Délira and Bienaimé live in an environment where drought, hunger and hopelessness rule. Suffering drives the old lady to the brink of insanity. Death is looming. The land is dry, dust reigns over everything and there is no hope of getting food or drink. That portrayal is rendered more striking by the conversation between the couple: “Nous mourrons tous: les bêtes, les plantes, les chrétiens vivants, ô Jesus-Maria la vierge; et la poussière coule entre ses doigts / We are all dying: the animals, trees, living Christians, Jesus-Mary the virgin; then dust fell through her fingers.” (11) This difficult life condition is understood by the couple as an abandonment by God. They think that God is not there for them and has shut his ears and abandoned them as Délira says:
Mais c’est inutile parce qu’il ya si tellement beaucoup de pauvres créatures qui hèlent le bon Dieu de tout leur courage que ça fait un grand bruit ennuyant et le bon Dieu l’entend et il crie: Quel est, foutre, tout ce bruit? Et il se bouche les oreilles. C’est la vérité et l’homme est abandonné.
This is of no use since there are so many poor creatures calling onto God with all their strength and the produces an annoying noise that God hears and shouts: why all this noise? then He closes his ears. Man is really abandoned. (11)
There is a striking similarity between the condition of the human body in Gouverneurs de la rosée and Emile Zola’s Germinal. As the whole family that works in the coal mines in Germinal in poor conditions, with workers spitting “blacks substances” as a result of their lungs being filled with coal particles, the characters at the beginning of the novel understudy do not render a better image: Délira and Bienaimé are thin, hungry and sick. Délira describes the state in which her body is in these lines: “Tout mon corps me fait mal, tout mon corps accouche la misère, moi-même. /My whole body is painful, my whole body epitomizes only one thing: misery.” (12). Her husband coughs like Bonnemort the poor coal mine worker in Germinal: “Bienaimé tousse rudiment. Il voudrait peut-être dire quelque chose. /Bienaimé coughs loudly. He might have wanted to say something.” (12)
The reader can see here the radical view of the writer, the fact that the narrator describes in details the poor living conditions of the people in Haiti. The radical Marxist position of the author also transpires through the same lines. In Germinal, the majority of workers were toiling for the owners of the coal mine and here the reader wonders if Bienaimé and Délira are living in a country where a leader exists, a country where people’s living conditions are considered. The atmosphere in the novel is one of total hopelessness, human beings are abandoned to linger in misery. That reveals Jacques Roumain’s position as an activist, a spokesperson for the downtrodden. He condemns the American government which has occupied Haiti, and the reader can see imperialism at its best. The occupying power rules and the populations die of need and want.
Marxism, Radicalism and Collectivism
This work is anchored in two theoretical frameworks: Marxism and the Concept of Sustainable Development. A working definition of Marxism can be found in “Karl Marx: From the German Ideology” by Charles Caplan and William Anderson (2000). They plainly explain Marxism, equating it to Marx’s philosophy which they describe in these terms:
In contrast to idealist philosophy, which concerns itself primarily with the world of the mind, ideas, and the transcendent, Marx’s philosophy is materialist, empirically grounded in the concrete world of work and economic relationships, rejecting metaphysical explanations. Few would dispute that such things as housing, clothing, and consumption of material goods are determined in large part by economic factors. (310)
The reference to economic relationships, housing, clothing and consumption of material goods speaks to what Délira and Bienaimé lack, on the first pages of Gouverneurs de la rosée. The oppression that the Americans subjected Haiti to is clearly mentioned in the following section, where the American machinery and its means of self-defense exist. “La première chose à faire, c’est de s’assurer de Manuel. De toute manière, c’est un mauvais élément, un nègre dangereux qui causait des paroles de rebellion aux habitants… ce Manuel est contre la loi et l’ordre établi, il est contre le gouverneur. / The first thing to do is to get rid of Manuel. He is a real bad element, a dangerous Negro who was talking to people about rebellion. This Manuel is against the established order and the ruling government.” (142)
Manuel who is the son of Délira and Bienaimé is the catalyst for the revolutionary change. He is the activist whose parents wonder whether he is alive or not, or where he is, if he is alive. The old couple who wallow in poverty think that their son is dead, although before setting off, he had mentioned to his parents that he was heading to Cuba, to work on the sugar plantations: “Il y a si longtemps qu’il est parti, il doit être mort maintenant, songe-t-elle. La vielle Délira pense à son garçon. Manuel qu’il s’appelle, parti il y a des années couper la canne aàsucre à Cuba. /He left such a long time ago, he might be dead by now, she told herself. Old Delira thinks about her son, Manuel who went years ago to Cuba to work in the sugar plantations.” (22–23) Manuel is the prototype of the Prometheus character, the one who takes upon himself to seek what is happening in other areas and brings back to his homeland what he has acquired abroad. The reader can also see in Manuel the one who educates the masses and the oppressed when it comes to their rights so that army of the oppressed, the factory workers and the downtrodden can be galvanized and carry out the revolution which Karl Marx terms as the victory of the proletariat. Manuel also represents that youth whom Frantz Fanon is addressing in his work Toward the African Revolution. Although Fanon refers to the colonized in general and the Algerians in particular, and despite the fact that Fanon’s works were written long after the publication of Gouverneurs de la rosée, Fanon’s works were concerned with colonization and exploitation in all its forms and all its locations. So his analysis can be applied to Haiti which is more than a colony, it is an occupied land to which the French were as attached as they were to Algeria. The following statements by Fanon on Africa and Algeria can also be applied to Haiti:
The colonized peoples have generally recognized themselves in each of the movements, in each of the revolutions set into motion and carried through by the oppressed. Beyond the necessary solidarity which the men who, throughout the earth, are fighting for democracy and respect for their rights, there has been, with unaccustomed violence, the firm decision of the colonized peoples to want for themselves and their brothers the recognition of their national existence, of their existence as members of an independent, free, and sovereign state. (Fanon:114)
In that struggle for self-assertion, Fanon assigns a special role to the youth and Manuel in the novel under study is one of those young people. In the same work, Fanon throws to them a direct call to arms:
Youth of the French colonies! For four years we have constantly repeated to those who sit in the French Assemblies that French colonialism will not yield to any magic operation and that it is futile to hope for its progressive disappearance. The future will have no pity for those men who, possessing the exceptional privilege of being able to speak words of truth to their oppressors, have taken refuge in an attitude of passivity, of mute indifference, and sometimes of cold passivity. (Fanon:116–117)
Manuel in Gouverneurs de la rosée acts exactly as one of those youth that have heeded the type of call Fanon addresses to young Africans regarding the issue of colonization and liberation. Manuel’s migration to Cuba represents first of all the power that lied in the hands of the European powers in the Caribbean in the 18th century, since people moved from one territory to another as laborers seeking the greener pastures (that belong to the Spanish in Cuba in this precise case). Forced migration is one of the consequences of the hardship in the land. Manuel’s trip is important because it turns the young man into an activist full of experience, an organizer of the local community for better living conditions and collectivism, the opposite of what Délira and Bienaimé are going through. Manuel’s departure to Cuba is therefore a landmark in the novel. Parental emotions are heightened when the young man is leaving for Cuba and when his parents spend several years without any news from or about him, sorrow fills their heart and they think that he is dead…
Roumain carefully captures the price that Manuel had to pay in the sugar plantations in Cuba, the experience that the young man brought to Haiti was not acquired in a cheap way:
Quand, sous le matraquage des Guardes Ruraux il sentait ses os craquer, une voix inflexible lui soufflait: tu es vivant, tu es vivant, mords ta langue et tes cris car tu es un homme même pour de vrai, avec ce qu’il faut là où il en faut. Si tu tombes, tu seras semé pour une récolte invincible. “Haitiano maldito, negro de mierda” hurlaient les guardes. Les coups ne faisaient même plus mal. A travers un brouillard parcouru de chocs fulgurants, Manuel entendait comme une source de sang, la rumeur inépuisable de la vie.
Although he could feel his bones breaking under the whips of the Local Guards, a strong voice kept telling him: you are alive, you are alive, bite your tongue and swallow your cries because you are a man, a real man who possesses what a man must have, and at the right place. If you succumb, you will be forgotten forever. The overseers kept shouting “Haitiano maldito, negro de mierda”. He was not feeling their blows anymore. Manuel could hear only the unquenchable sound of life in his blood. (Gouverneurs: 34–35)
Pan-Africanism in Gouverneurs de la rosée
Our understanding of pan-Africanism in this paper is based on the definition that Kofi Anyidoho attributes to the terms in his work The Pan-African Ideal in Literatures of the Black World (1989). Anyidoho clearly poses that pan-Africanism means talking about the black world, the various areas where blacks live, how they got there, but also and above all, the current conditions in which blacks live, all the world over. Anyidoho issues the following caution:
We must be careful not to dwell only on where black people may be found in significant numbers, but also on how they got to these places in the first place, and finally the conditions under which they live. More than where they live and how they got there, it is the circumstances of their life that constitute the single most important factor in the determination of the Pan African ideal and the literary expressions of that ideal. (2)
For Anyidoho, pan-Africanism involves all of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, the victims who died during the middle passage, those who were successfully transplanted onto a new location, those who were complicit and profited from that gruesome trade, and also those who were left behind. He adds that this common experience establishes one of the driving forces of pan-Africanism, which is memories of horror, trauma of slave raids, dark dungeons, a journey of no return and also the quest for wholeness. Anyidoho’s treatment of the diasporan black’s consideration of and connection to Africa will guide our treatment of the theme of pan-Africanism at this level of the work.
Africa is an omnipresent element in the novel under study. All blacks refer to the continent and in diverse circumstances. They do not hesitate to assert their African origin, they pray to African gods and spirits do rescue them from the hunger, starvation and hostility they are going through. One can therefore confidently say that Africa is “the promised land” in Gouverneurs de la rosée. People call on to Loa whom they refer to as the African divinity that can help the land with rains and the sustenance of life: “on prie pour la pluie, on prie pour la recolte, on dit les oraisons des saints et des loas. /we pray for the rain to fall, we pray for good harvest, we sing praises of the Saints and the loas.” (47) Délira calls on to the African gods, especially those from Guinea for fruitful harvest before she plants her maize seeds: “Avant de semer le maïs, au lever du matin, devant l’œil rouge et vigilant du soleil, elle avait dit au Siegneur Jésus-Christ, tournée vers le levant, aux Anges de Guinée, tournée vers le Sud, aux Morts, tournée vers le couchant… / Before planting corn, early in the morning before the sunrise, she (Délira) had prayed to Lord Jesus Christ while she was turning toward the East, to the Engels of Guinea while she was facing the South, had solicited the help of the spirit of the dead while she was facing the West…” (54).
Legba is known in the novel as the ancient god from Guinea who opens the path for people anytime they find themselves in difficult situations. His presence is acknowledged in the following line: “Et Legba était déjà la, le vieux dieu de Guinée. /And Legba was already there, the Great God of Guinea.” (60) Voodoo priests are worshipped and Whydah, one of the most revered spiritual sites in Daomey (today’s Benin) are a source of pride in the work. The Yoruba god Ogun is recalled as “Papa Ogoun” (66). The presence of Africa in the novel reaches its highest point when Guinea is called by Haitians as “Guinée natale / native Guinea” (66), the land they were uprooted from by slave raiders.
The Struggle for Sustainable Development in Gouverneurs de la rosée
One thing that strikes the reader is that a concept which has now become the theme of almost all international forums, “Sustainable Development”, is treated carefully and with diligence in Gouverneurs de la rosée, a novel published in 1944. Sustainable Development is the struggle to ensure the existence of the human race on earth. Proponents of that concept are drawing the attention of world to the fact that the destruction of the environment by human beings has reached such a high level that human existence is threatened. They point out that global warming is on the rise, natural resources are being wiped away, the ozone layer is becoming thinner and thinner and as a result, human existence is in jeopardy. Jacques Roumain’s novel raised the same problem almost hundred years ago, with the portrayal of the decimation of the environment in Haiti, with a comparison between the green rich vegetation and abundance in Haiti some years before and the dry, sterile, poor Haiti some years later where hunger and lack of rain kills people. Roumain was undoubtedly ahead of his time.
Several definitions and explanations are attributed to Sustainable Development today. It is basically the work toward ensuring decent living conditions to the current generation of human beings without jeopardizing the living conditions of the future generation. Gouverneurs de la rosée is a pan-Africanist and radical political work and also a blatant exposition of the consequences of the denial or violation of sustainable development. Kendie and Martens define and explain the concept of sustainable development in the following terms:
The idea of sustainable development or sustainability represents an attempt to link environment and development. This was effectively done through the report Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report), which states that the critical global environmental problems were both the result of the enormous poverty of the South and the non-sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the North. It calls for a strategy that unites development and the environment—described by the now-common term sustainable development—defined as “development that meets the needs of the current generations without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs.” (2008:6)
Closely related to the issue of the destruction of human resources and the impact of such a phenomenon on human life is another fundamental notion which is exemplified in Gouverneurs de la rosée and which is also closely related to Sustainable Development: The Commons, and the Tragedy of the Commons. The Tragedy of the Commons is a theory propounded by Garret Hardin, according to which individuals, acting rationally and individually according to each other’s self interest behave contrary to the whole group’s best interest by depleting some common resources and in this context, “Commons” means the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, national parks and any other shared resource. In the novel under study, Haitians are victims of the tragedy of the Commons. The novel unravels the pitiful state into which the land has been rendered as a result of human activity: “les érosions ont mis à nu de longues coulées de roches: ells ont saigné la terre jusqu’a l’os. /erosion had exposed long lines of rocks: the land had been made to bleed to the bone.” (Gouverneurs: 13) The obvious consequence of such a phenomenon is abject poverty in the country. There is joblessness, draught, hunger, need and want: “un peu de bois à couper pour reparer les entourages des jardins, quelques bayahondes à abattre pour le charbon que leurs femmes iront colporter à dos de bourrique jusqu’a la ville. C’est avec quoi ils devraient prolonger leur existence affamée. / Just a little bit of wood to cut and fence gardens, few trees to fell for charcoal that women will use donkeys to carry to the city, to sell.” (40) This can be contrasted to what Haiti was before, a green land where people did not know famine, a land of abundance as the following lines demonstrate, with a pan-African reference to the green grass of Guinea:
On entrait dans l’herbe de Guinée! (Les pieds nus dans la rosée, le ciel pali, la fraicheur, la carillon des pintades sauvages au loin…). Peu à peu les arbres noircis, leurs feuillages encore chargés de lambeaux d’ombre, reprenaient leur couleur. Une huile de lumière les baigaient. Un madras de nuage ceignait le sommet des mornes élevés. Le pays émergait du sommeil.
Then one entered the Grass of Guinea! (barefooted in the morning dew, the grey sky, the freshness produced by the sound of guinea fowls…). Gradually, trees would become dark and their leaves would produce shade. Light was everywhere, clouds covered the tops of the hills. The land was awake. (14)
Manuel devotes his life to the reversal of situations in the country. Until he is killed by local enemies who opposed his revolutionary and developmental activities after his return from Cuba, Manuel works tirelessly to ensure sustainable development in Haiti. He works hard to discover a water body which will irrigate the whole island and teaches people how to work toward the development of the island, without imperialist interference. He discovers a water body and talks to his lover about it and the advantages it will bring to Haiti. Manuel asks her to assist him in mobilizing both men and women for the development of the land (he stresses the important role that women play in such a development process) once water begins to flow and at the same time, he reminds her that if the whole community does not unite to put an end to unnecessary fights, the water body will remain a reserve, not a resource which is used for better living conditions:
Quand j’aurai déterré l’eau, je te ferai savoir et tu commenceras à parler aux femmes. Les femmes, c’est irritable, je ne dis pas non, mais c’est plus sensé aussi et porté du côté du cœur et il y a des fois, tu sais, le cœur et la raison c’est du pareil au même. Tu diras: Cousine Une Telle, tu as appris la nouvelle? Quelle nouvelle? Elle répondra. On répète comme ça que le garçon de Bienaimé, ce nègre qui s’appelle Manuel, a découvert une source… et comme on est fâchés, la source restera là, sans profit pour personne.
When I dig the water I will tell you and you will speak to the women. Of course women can be troublesome sometimes, but they have more sense and listen more to their heart. You will say: my cousin, have you heard the news? Which news? The answer will be: it is being speculated that Manuel, the son of Bienaimé, has discovered a source of water… and since we are not united, that water will remain there, nobody will benefit from it. (87)
This article attempted a close reading of Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée, highlighting the following features: pan-Africanism, Marxist racalism and sustainable development. The article also pointed out that the image of Africa is a positive one in the novel and that Gouverneurs de la rosée made a clarion call for sustainable development long before it became the concern of most individuals and organizations.
—Dr Moussa Traoré The author is a lecturer at the English Department of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. His area of specialization is Comparative Literature and he also did some extensive work on Global English, Diasporan Studies and Postcolonial Literature. He holds a PhD in World Literature and Composition from Illinois State University, USA; email@example.com
Anyidoho, Kofi. The Pan-African Ideal in Literatures of the Black World. Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1989.
Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution (Political Essays). Trans. Haakon Chevalier. France: François Maspero, 1964.
Harding, Garret. “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Science AAAS. (162), 1243–1248.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, London: Seckerb & Warburg, 1938.
Kendie, B. Stephen, Martens, Pim. “Governance and Sustainable Development—An Overview”. In Governance and Sustainable Development. S.B. Kendie & P. Martens (Eds). Cape Coast. Marcel Hughes, 2008, pp.1–15
Marx, Karl. “From the German Ideology”. In Criticism: Major Statements. Fourth Edition. Charles Kaplan & William Davis Anderson (Eds). New York: Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 2000, pp.310–318.
Roumain, Jacques. Gouverneurs de la rosée. Paris: Temps Actuels, 1946.
Zola, Emile. Germinal. Paris: Le Gil Blas, 1884.