The modern world is often viewed through a lens of multiculturalism. Global economies, air travel, and cultural connections , and wars, have turned societies around the world from isolated communities into richly diverse communities. Few people realise that the multiculturalism the world enjoys today is the result of immigration and migration that has been taking place over the course of many centuries; it is most certainly NOT a series of recent events. War, famine, and economic opportunity drive people to migrate around the world today, and those same factors have been pushing and attracting people across international borders since the age of sailing ships. Such is the story of Haiti’s little-known Polish community.
The historical incidents that brought Polish citizens to the shores of Haiti are complex and interwoven with European history. The journey of these Poles began in 1772 when military forces from Russia, Prussia, and Austria began conquering portions of Eastern Europe, including present-day Poland. Over the course of the next 30 years, Polish citizens would be fighting for their freedom from invading forces and distant rulers who knew little of their land.
Because of the warfare in the region, Poland formed an alliance with France to counterbalance the influence of Eastern European powers. The Polish military forces were integrated into Napoleon’s French Army, but retained a distinction as Polish fighting units. It wouldn’t be long before events taking place in the Caribbean would bring Polish troops to the shores of Haiti. In 1802, Napoleon sent a military force consisting of some 5,200 Polish troops to Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was then known) as the Haitian Revolution developed. The Polish soldiers were informed they were going to aid France in quashing a revolt on the island. When the Polish forces arrived, they discovered a very different situation than they had been told. The slaves of Haiti were revolting against French rule, which gave the slaves a common bond with the newly arrived Polish troops, who regarded themselves as enslaved.
Desertion and Establishing Roots
The Polish forces that had left Europe to restore order and free people in Haiti, found that they were instead being asked to quash a rebellion and return Haitians to slavery. Knowing what their own people were going through in Europe, fighting for freedom, the Polish forces could not fight against the Haitian slave army. Many of the 5,200 Polish soldiers deserted Napoleon’s army and refused to fight. Significant numbers of the Polish soldiers joined forces with the Haitian slave army under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. For the next two years these Polish soldiers would fight and die alongside Haitian forces in an effort to free the colony from Napoleon’s oppressive rule. By 1804, a combination of factors had led to Haitian victory over France. At the same time mainland Europe was burning from East to West as war raged across the continent. A resumption of hostilities between France and Britain, and mounting debts, led Napoleon to pull out of many of its colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Napoleon sold a large swath of North America to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.
His forces in Haiti, devastated by warfare, malaria, and yellow fever, pulled out of the island and returned to Europe. By this time, many of the Polish forces had perished fighting alongside the Haitians. Of the remaining troops, 700 returned to Europe. Roughly, 400 remained in Haiti because they either wanted to do so, or could not afford to flee.
A Special Exemption
When the French left the island following the victory of Dessalines’ slave army, an uneasy time settled over the island. Many white residents that remained behind on the island were slaughtered for their support of the French colonisers. When a new Haitian constitution was drawn up in 1805, it included a prohibition of white men from owning land in Haiti. Only two exceptions were made to this ruling. German citizens, who had remained neutral in the fight, were allowed to remain in their small community. The other exception: Polanders.
The Village of Cazales
Prior to the adoption of the Haitian Constitution of 1805, the remaining Polish soldiers who had fought for the colony’s independence feared for their safety as white men. Many of them fled to remote parts of the island and kept a low profile in hopes of living peacefully in Haiti. The village of Cazales, located 45 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince in the rugged highlands of Haiti, became a bastion for Polish soldiers. The village is believed to have derived its name from the combination of Polish and Creole words. The Creole word kay, meaning home, was combined with Zalewski, a common Polish surname among the troops. Kay Zalewski, translated from Haitian Creole, means “the home of Zalewski.” Over the course of time, the village became known as Cazales. Today, the village remains the center of the Polish-Haitian community. Many of the people who live there now exhibit unique physical characteristics that serve as one of the few reminders of the role Polish forces played in Haiti’s fight for freedom. Many of the village’s residents have light skin and blue eyes, features not common in Haitian Creole communities.
Impact on Creole Culture in Haiti
The people of Cazales remained largely isolated from the rest of Haiti following the colony’s independence. However, over the years one bit of Polish religious culture did manage to imprint itself on Haitian Voodoo. Haitian Voodoo is primarily derived from the deity and ancestor veneration that was practiced in western Africa during the height of the Atlantic slave trade. There are spirits that exist in Haitian Voodoo that do not exist in voodoo practiced in Africa during this time period. Slaves living on Caribbean islands under the control of France were forbidden from practicing religions other than Catholicism. In Haiti, a process known as syncretisation took place which saw Catholic saints become identified with voodoo loa (spirits). Some Catholic saints even became loa in their own right. As it pertains to Polish culture in particular, it is the Black Madonna of Czestochowska (Czarna Madonna, Czestochowska in Polish) that connects the two communities.
The voodoo loa Erzulie Dantor bears a remarkable resemblance to the Black Madonna. In Poland, the Black Madonna is housed at the monastery at Jasna Gora. Legend states that the painting was created by St. Luke on a tabletop that belonged to Mary and Joseph. In the image, a woman with a scarred face is protecting an infant. In the Catholic faith, the image is interpreted as a mother fiercely protecting the child she carries. In a literal sense, many Poles view the child as Jesus. Even in the 21st century, many Polish Catholics keep images of the Black Madonna in their homes. In Haitian Voodoo, Dantor is said to have been present at a voodoo ritual in 1791 that sparked the slave rebellion. It is said that Dantor took over the body of a voodoo worshiper and told Haitians to “kill the stranger.” This is believed to have sparked the revolution that led to independence, and the slaughter of all remaining Frenchmen on the island. The image of Dantor features a woman with scars on her face.
Voodoo lore states that Erzulie Dantor loved knives and received her scars in a fight with her sister, Erzulie Freda. Haitians view those scars as a sign of strength. Dantor is wounded, but she continues the fight to protect her child. It is not precisely known how these two pieces of art came to be connected. Many believe that the dark skin of the Black Madonna made her more easily acceptable to Haitians. Others believe it was simply a matter of multiple copies of the image circulating on the island following the revolution. The 5,200 Polish legionnair es that came to Haiti in 1802 to quash a mythical rebellion are believed to have brought with them countless images of the Black Madonna. Today, it remains as one of the few reminders of the connection between Poland and Haiti, and a source of identity for the Polish Haitians inhabiting the community of Cazales.