Pirates, Freedom, and a Voodoo Goddess: The Story of Polish Haitians
The following is a tale about buccaneering Poles: Napoleon’s 19th century plan to quell a rebellion in a French colony resulted in Polish legionaries becoming Caribbean pirates, leaving indelible traces of their legacy in Haitian culture
From Livorno to Cap Francais
In 1791, a slave revolution started in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, the oppressed people of the French part of the island of Hispaniola began to fight for their freedom. The struggle went on for years and became a pressing political issue under the reign of Napoleon, when one of the leaders of the slave revolution, gen. Toussaint – Louverture gained control over the entire island and proclaimed a separatist constitution. The French ruler decided to send numerous troops to Hispaniola to recapture the colony. Among the troops sent to the Caribbean were Polish legionaries enlisted in Napoleon’s army. At that time Poland was partitioned and thousands of Poles joined the famous French leader’s forces to maybe get a chance to fight for Poland’s independence. In 1802, on Napoleon’s orders, a group of 2,5 thousand Polish soldiers was sent from Livorno, a town which today lies in Italy, to Cap Francais, which presently is a Haitian town named Cape Haitian.
In total Napoleon sent over 5 thousand Polish legionaries to Hispaniola to fight against the rebels. The irony of this fact is that the Poles, who were essentially seeking an occasion to fight for the freedom of their own country, were involved in preventing others from obtaining their liberty. The Polish soldiers weren’t happy with this situation. They also felt unfairly treated by the French, who didn’t pay the Poles on time and sent the Polish legionaries only to the worst fights. The rebels learned about the Poles’ uneasiness from deserters from the French army. This is what one of the insurgent generals told a group of Polish prisoners of war caught by the rebels: “Poor Poles, the French seduced you and told you to look for your homeland beneath a sweltering sky, for your services they pay you with ungratefulness”. In general, the rebels treated the Poles better than the French because the Polish troops were less cruel towards the rebels than the French soldiers. Some of the Polish troops even switched sides and joined the insurgents.
The rebellion eventually prevailed and the French colony of Saint -Domingue was replaced by the state of Haiti in 1804. After the victory, the Poles’ stance wasn’t forgotten by the new authorities. In 1805 one of the leaders of the insurgency, gen. Dessalines proclaimed a constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to any Pole who wished to become a Haitian. Approximately 400 Polish soldiers decided to stay in the newly founded country, most of them settled down in the village of Cazale.
A trace of the Polish 19th century presence is still noticeable in contemporary Haitian culture in the form of popular depictions of Ezili Dantor. Ezili Dantor is an important spirit of motherhood in the Voodoo religion. Popular Haitian representations of this spirit look exactly like the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, which is an ancient and famous icon of the Virgin Mary housed in the Jasna Góra Monastery in Poland since the 14th century. The Polish soldiers brought miniatures of this icon with them to Hispaniola. Local believers of Voodoo incorporated the image of the Black Madonna, which they first encountered via the Poles, into their system of beliefs. This religious amalgam still exists today as an element of Haitian Voodoo.
Not all of the legionaries were however interested in living a peaceful life on a Caribbean island. Some of them made it back to Europe to fight with Napoleon on that continent, some went to the USA and some became corsairs. Kazimierz Lux for instance became the leader of a 60-strong unit of French and Polish corsairs that manned the Mosquito, a vessel that was under the command of a Frenchman. The crew of that ship captured and looted a number of vessels in the Caribbean Sea attracting attention from the British navy. After evading the British for weeks the Mosquito eventually had to engage in battle, in which it fought off the pursuit. Afterwards the French and Polish crew could enjoy their hefty loot.
Wincent Kobylański on the other hand was less fortunate than Lux. After the Saint-Domingue campaign Kobylański used his contacts in the French military to become a pirate. He sailed to various places in the Caribbean Sea, amongst others to Jamaica. His end however came quickly and abruptly - he was poisoned by a fellow buccaneer. Another 19th century Polish pirate of the Caribbean was Ignacy Blumer. Even before the end of the Saint-Domingue campaign he and a group of Polish legionaries left Hispaniola aboard a ship he received from the French. He became the commander of that vessel and buccaneered in the waters near Cuba. It wasn’t long before a ship of the British Royal Navy attacked his vessel causing severe damage. Blumer’s ship however managed to flee from the fight and reached Florida, where reparations commenced. The crew members suggested that Blumer found a Polish colony on that peninsula, but the captain wanted to hear nothing of it. He eventually returned to Europe, where he once more fought for Napoleon.
The Polish ties with Haiti were strengthened in the 20th century by the famous Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski. In the end of the 70s he travelled a few times to that country to learn about Voodoo rituals. On his initiative the informal Voodoo priest Amon Fremon, who came from the village of Cazale, visited Poland. In Cazale, where the memory of this village’s Polish heritage is still alive, Grotowski is considered a great friend of the locals.
Author: Marek Kępa, February 2015