If you are intending to visit Haiti you should make sure to get hold of Isabel Allende’s book Island Beneath the Sea.
A novel based on life around the end of the 18th Century on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue which is now divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Although it is fiction, this novel gives an excellent background to life on the island before Haiti got its independence when it was populated by influential plantation owners and their slaves who worked long and hard to keep the owners in a sophisticated lifestyle they had forged for themselves on the island. Spanning almost 600 pages, this book gives a magnificent insight into the lives of the gentry who owned huge plantations and almost as many slaves who worked the land. It outlines the huge divide that existed among the wealthy and the enslaved on the island during a lifetime beginning around 1770 and incorporating the struggle of the slave population for independence.
Long before independence was achieved and even afterwards, the lives of these people were filled with fear, slaughter, and physical and sexual abuse, often on a daily basis by the ‘noble’ people they worked for.
I found Island Beneath the Sea gave me a fantastic understanding of the nature of the Haitian people, their history and some understanding of the oppression that is still endemic among some of its people.
The story focuses on Tété who was bought by an ambitious plantation owner Toulouse Valmorain to tend his wife and home. As Tété’s life unfolds before the reader, you come to feel her pain, her inhibition, her lack of freedom and the domination of Toulouse Valmorain over her.
As the peasant’s revolution comes to a head at the beginning of the new century you wonder will it spell freedom for Tété and downfall for Valmorain. However, life is never simple and freedom always comes with a price.
200 years later there are many similarities between the early generations of Haitians and the country’s present day inhabitants, who still hold many fears, few opportunities and a life of poverty.
Make sure to get hold of Island Beneath the Sea which will help you to empathise with this strong, determined and persevering people.