Haitians tell the story of how Haiti saved the United States from Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. Bob Corbett, a retired professor from Webster University with a deep interest and involvement in Haiti writes:
But, over dinner a discussion came up in which the Haitians present were teasing me about how Haiti “saved” the United States. I was fascinated. I didn’t know this story. It certainly was not taught in my history courses in school.
When I did finally get back to the states, I started reading about this “saving” story. The glory of the tale is rooted in a late 20th century view of the world. From that perspective little bitsy Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, by resisting Napoleon’s invaders, had saved the U.S. since Napoleon was really on his way to attack the huge and glorious U.S.
But, the real story, as set in the very beginning of the 19th century was much more glorious than the Haitians knew. Haiti was the economic giant, the plum of Napoleon’s empire, and the jewel around which he would build his empire. The then small and less interesting U.S. would simply be a feeding ground for the slaves he intended to reinstate in Saint-Domingue.
This Haitian revolution is Kleist’s setting for his excruciatingly tense Betrothal in San Domingo. The revolution raged during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. A quintessentially Romantic tragedy, complete with tragic hero, a heroine felled by misinterpreted intentions and the hero’s subsequent suicide, Kleist’s prose and fiercely realised characters give the story a compelling force. Like its sister tale The Chilean Earthquake, another colonial story full of tension and despair, Kleist opts to end with the hint of cathartic redemption.
Monday was the 200th anniversary of Kleist’s suicide, so it felt right to be reading one of his magnificent stories. It is also German literature month. The comments to Nicole’s post about another Kleist story lead me to Betrothal in San Domingo.