By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | February 25, 2011 |
By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | February 25, 2011 |
Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
Poles are the quintessential archers of afterthought. We do our most celebrated work post factum (and in case of our homeland — post mortem), and seem to specialize in footnoting other people’s stories. Our military hall of fame is rife with fine print: the top-scoring fighter squadron … during the Battle of Britain; history’s biggest heavy cavalry charge … performed to relieve Vienna. It’s not that we’re only capable of heroism when fighting other nations’ battles — on the contrary, we got romantic outbursts of impotent martyrdom down to an art — but it’s as if sometime around the 18th century, we collectively decided that aligning one’s national interests with well-executed political or military action was in poor form. Instead, we started alternating between pretty badass contract work, and spectacular failures in preserving/reviving our state. This pattern had become so ingrained that arguably the biggest Polish military triumph of the 20th century — the Battle of Warsaw of 1920, which stopped the wave of newborn bolshevism from spilling into Central and Western Europe — was quickly written off by our historians as “The Miracle at Vistula,” thus allowing our momentarily confused national spirit to resume masturbating over exercises in heroic futility.
This is the story of our most bizarre outing: As an expeditionary force sent to quell a slave uprising in the Caribbean Sea. It is, in a sense, a cautionary tale, illustrating the pitfalls of trying to stitch your empire together using gullible romantics.
A little back story: By the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was rendered completely inert by her ruling oligarchy, who in a stroke of … no idea what, really — it could have been an actual stroke — figured that no one would bother her if she posed absolutely no threat to her neighbors. This brilliant strategy somehow backfired (I know!) and eventually the above mentioned neighbors got together to chop off several of its extremities (1772 — the so-called first partition). Poland responded by reluctantly agreeing that she could, indeed, try to eat with her feet instead but maybYYEEAAGH (1793 — second partition) NOT THE EYES NOT TH- (1795 — third and final partition).
Thus what was once the biggest country in Europe became the most abruptly nonexistent one. What followed was 123 years of unsuccessful national uprisings and attempts to hitch the Polish wagon to other causes. Unfortunately, since reconstituting the Polish state meant facing off against its partitioners — Prussia, Russia, and Ussia* — who just happened to be 3 of the continent’s 5 Great Powers, said wagon was doomed to remain unhitched, at least until someone came along who’d try to challenge the entire continental status quo.
Enter Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon famously stirred up some serious shit in Europe, and Poles were with him for the whole run, even covering his retreat after his ill-fated march on Moscow, as apparently they were the only ones not completely taken off guard by the fact that Russian winters are a wee bit drafty. Napoleon returned the favor by dispatching soldiers from the Polish Legions (a sort of army-in-exile, whose purpose was to revive the Polish state) to quell an uprising in the French colony of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti) led by Toussaint Louverture, and following his capture by Jean-Jacques Dessalines. In 1801, Napoleon sent out 14 000 French soldiers to put down the revolt. This force was soon supplemented by 5000 Poles, but these last reinforcements didn’t quite work out as planned.
Now’s the time for the Hollywood exec in you to decide: Do you want the cinematic version, or the accurate one?
In the cinematic version, the Poles arrived on Saint Domingue seriously pissed off, as by then most of them had figured out that Poland was in the opposite direction from where they were going. In addition, they were still walking a bit funny from their run-in with Prusso-Russo-Austrian imperialism, so once they realized they were actually being used to subjugate another nation, they switched sides and joined the slaves instead — to the point where Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ personal guard was rumored to be 100 percent Polish. The revolt was successful, and in honor of their contribution, the new Haitian constitution of 1805, which prohibited whites from owning property on the island, made special provisions for Poles. And Germans — because they had already had settlements on the island, and because it’s always a good idea to put Germans and Poles together.
As for the killjoy account: Upon their arrival on Saint Domingue, Poles did what most Slavs do when suddenly dumped into the tropics: They died of yellow fever. Of the 5000 sent, around 4000 succumbed to disease. The rest followed their orders, although based on the letters they sent home, they saw the war as dirty and immoral, and eventually started deserting. The turning point was the massacre at Saint Marc, during which black and mulatto soldiers who fought for the French were rounded up to be executed, just in case they were planning to switch sides. Legend has it that Polish troops refused to carry out the execution order, but there’s no evidence to back up that claim. What we do know is that Dessalines himself seems to have perpetuated that myth, and that from a certain point onwards, Polish prisoners of war were released, while French ones were killed on the spot. All in all, Haitian historians estimate that from the 1000 Poles that made it past the viral hurdle, around 150 ended up fighting alongside the slaves, and 400 settled in Haiti after the war was over.
There’s one final, colorful twist to the story. The Polish Legions, like all of Poland’s Catholics, revered the Virgin Mary — a figure so powerful we’ve made her Queen of Poland, even though we’re a republic (which means that you guys could probably make Jesus the Secretary of USA4EVAH, or something … look into it, Republicans). The most famous icon associated with the cult is the so-called Black Madonna, or Our Lady of Częstochowa. The painting was initially studded with gems, which were subsequently pried off by looters in the 15th century, leaving two characteristic marks on Mary’s cheek. Following our ill-fated excursion into the Caribbean, Our Lady of Częstochowa found a second life as the Haitian loa Ezili Dantor, the scarfaced warrior, fierce protector of single mothers and patron of lesbians.
I guess such is the transformative power of being in the wrong place at the right time.
* actually it was Austria, but can you blame me?
Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows are gray. Sometimes he likes to think he does other things as well.