Building Communities

Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Building Communities
Apprenticeship and Emancipation in Barbados with a Focus on Education
Vive chef coumbite!" : The New Masters in Post-Emancipation Haiti
Mixed-race People and Emancipation-Era Jamaica

The freed slaves in Haiti created a system of family life and labor that combined elements of their African past with elements of their colonial present.  While the Caribbean can be represented as an end or as a beginning, the example of the Haitians, with their new language and new labor practices, give evidence for the argument that what was created by the former slaves was neither a transplantation of Africa nor a bastardized sense of the European.  Instead, it was something new. 

The observations of Eugène Aubin, a French traveler, recorded around the turn of the century mark the double identity brought about by abolition.  The book’s title—En Haïti; planteurs d’autrefois, nègres d’aujourd’hui [2] —suggests the contrast: these people were planters, slaves of before, and today they are forming an identity as free blacks.  Part of this identity involves a new language that, as Aubin notes, cannot be directly linked to specific African tongues.  The naming of the landscape is particularly significant because it is symbolic of claiming the land.  This was now their land.  Though some African idioms were lost, some isolated words appear in creole. [3]    Geographical nomenclature is part of the process of forming a national consciousness involves claiming the land, and this is done in part through naming of the land. [4]  

Working with the land is another important part of this process.  Coumbites were units of cooperative labor, a system based on a system of give and take.  While there were others, such as the more regular société, coumbites Aux Grand Boiswere unique in that they could be organized for any kind of labor: for a harvest, to build a hut, and for women to do housework.  Harold Courlander suggests that the word comes from the Spanish convide or convite, “to invite”.  There are several kinds of coumbites.  Songs performed during work aroused unity and leadership, and workers were rewarded with a meal at the end of the coumbite. [5]   In Jacques Roumain’s novel Gouverneurs de la rosée [6] , which is considered a Haitian classic, Manuel returns to his village after a ten-year absence and finds it in a state of upheaval: families are fighting and a drought threatens the harvest.  Only by people working together can the water be located and brought to the village.  The people in the community elevate Manuel to the status of the coumbite leader.  Reverence inspires solidarity, and with the return of water, the villagers vow to work together once more. 

Melville Herskovits argues that the coumbite is entirely African. [7]   Harold Courlander notes that the mechanics of the work, including the particular use of the hoe and the use of music to help along the workers, are West African in origin.  Indeed, Courlander states, “The coumbite is the legitimate descendant of. . .West African cooperative systems.”  This is not to say that the coumbites and other Haitian work habits were a transplantation of Africa.  Rather, in forming communities in post-emancipation, African heritage played an important role, but the new language, for example, is an indication that this was not simply Africa revisited.

Representations of the plantation workers’ lives in the late nineteenth century characterize the communities as Edenic, happy places; Roumain uses the memory of a past where the community was united for an important message in his novel.  Did a paradisiacal world, in spite of poverty, really exist?  Joan Dayan argues that it probably did not. [8]   Dayan refers to the writers Roumain and Chauvet, but what did the plantation workers think?  We have little to go on.  Perhaps the views of Paul Dhormys are romanticized, but his perception of the Haitians as of nature, of the land, is significant.  Haitian indolence may have been an issue, as it is mentioned frequently in post-emancipation writings, but what do the coumbites represent, then?  Dhormys criticizes the Haitians as uncivilized and free in Au Marche du Pont-Beudettheir lack of metropolitan civilized norms, but this is of course evidence of their forming an identity; naturally, how they and their ancestors lived in Africa play a role in how they live in Haiti.  The coumbites did provide a means not only for effective labor during the harvest, but also for the fostering of a sense of community.  What we would call art and music were integral parts of their daily life, as Herskovits notes the importance of communication through the songs and of the transmission and exchange of gossip. 

With freedom comes the problem of regrouping, and Samuel Hazard suggests that it would be best if the United States were to annex Haiti.  “Do they not know that the men of the island exist upon the industry of the women, who are really the only laborers; and that, furthermore, at least two-thirds of the population do not speak any language recognised by the civilised world; that there is not a town on the island not remaining in ruins more or less caused by their revolutions?”  Citing Ardouin, Hazard notes the lazy youth, the abundance of the “natural union” without marriage, leading to “irregular and irresponsible families and ties” (Ardouin). [9]

Paul Dhormoys notes what he regards as the simplicity of the needs of blacks, and he depicts the richness of the land full of fruit, the river full of fish, tobacco as common as a weed, and as for clothes: “. . .à quoi bon s’en inquiéter? est-il un jour de l’année ils ne soient, pour l’enfant de la nature, moins une utilité qu’une gêne?” (“what good is worrying?  Is there a day of the year where they are not, for the child of nature, less a useful thing than an annoyance?”)  Dhormoys argues that Haitians do not have the same concept of work that Europeans have, that they do not agree that without work “. . .il n’y a plus ni société, ni civilisation, ni progrès, ils vous répondront que, ne manquant de rien, ils se soucient assez peu du progrès de la civilisation, de la société, et. . .ils vous prieront poliment de vous ôter de leur soleil.” (“. . .there is no longer society, or civilization, or progress, they will respond that, not lacking anything, they worry rather little about the progress of civilization, of society, and they would ask you politely to move away from their sun” (63-64).  Dhormoys finds this kind of life positive, where one is born free of the needs of a civilized people, “n’ayant aucun de nos besoins de civilisés, peuvent laisser couler la vie sans regrets de la veille ni soucis du lendemain!” (. . .not having any of our civilized needs, can let life flow without regrets of the day before or worries of tomorrow!”. [10]      This view of Haitians as a simplistic people perpetuates the myth of the happy brute.

By contrast, Eugène Aubin’s depiction of Haiti is positive and respectful.  He includes in great detail the words used; this personal account illustrates what a coumbite was like.  Particularly notable about this description is that Aubin quotes five coumbite songs in the original creole, and it is the French translations that appear in parentheses.  His description agrees with the later authoritative writings of Herskovits and Courlander.     What follows is an extended quotation from Aubin’s description of a coumbite.

“On a slope, at the side of the road, a dozen cultivaters work in a coumbite.  A planté-patate is needed, and the master of the fields called to this end a dozen of his neighbors.  The coumbite is a community of organized labor, as widespread by the small properties of the mountains as among the sharecroppers of the plain.  The communal effort is made more quickly and more gaily one comes to cultivate the goods of the next who, in turn, will cultivate yours.  The coumbite is a type of agricultural association, where the Negro finds a new occasion to sing and drink.  There are different types.  If a short task is needed that will be finished in the first hours of the morning, it is a simple douvant-jou; or as well in the afternoon, from two to five, a diné-manchette: the grand coumbite comprises a prolonged work that lasts until noon.  The master of the field, who becomes, for this circumstance, the master of the coumbite, has no other affair but to feed his workers; he oversees, in a corner, the cauldron where peas and rice are cooking, and rushes, at each requisition, with a bottle of tafia.. . .They are there, held tightly one against the other and striking the earth with their hoe; one of the two, knocking his manchette with a piece of iron, marks this cadence and repeats indefinitely the traditional song, which must be reprised by the ensemble [11] :

Ago! houe démanchée
Ti gaçon, manché li ban moin!

[“Let’s go! The handle is removed from the hoe,
Little boys, put it back on for me!”]

Mealtime means a special call:

Tendé ça, moin dit ou
Vent’ m’apé mangnien moin!

[“Listen, I say to you
The stomach works me!”]
It finishes with an gesture of gratitude:

Vive le chef la commune,
Qui baille tranquillité!
Vive chez section,
Qui pèmette nous dangoïé!
Vive chef coumbite!

["Long live the commander, who gives us security!
Long live the master, who allows us to frolic!
Long live the master of the coumbite!"]

If this last one has done things badly, it is the moment to make him feel:

Moin pas pr'allé encò
Nan mangé cilà-là
Nous pas pé mouri pour tête moure encò!

["We will go no longer in this dîné; we will die no longer for anyone!"]

One the work is finished, the Negroes separate from each other singing the Mazonne:

Gé veillé cò!
N'a oué ça;
N'apr' allé la cäy!

["The eyes watch over the body; we will see that; we are going home!"]

Importantly, Aubin quotes the coumbite songs.  This is particularly significant because he gives the Haitians a voice—their voice. 

Femmes Descendant au MarcheWomen were particularly important in getting work done.  Aubin notes that it is the women who do the coming and going. [12]   Courlander notes “a clear-cut and equitable division of labor between the sexes which was particularly suited to the agrarian life.  The pattern of work sharing seems to have been misunderstood by nineteenth-century chroniclers, many of whom complained that the Haitian male napped in the shade while the women performed all the labor”. [13]  

In my research I was unable to find writing done by plantation workers because There is no real slave or former slave narrative in French.  What I did find in their voice was their songs.  These coumbite songs, performed to arouse a congenial working atmosphere, represent the creativity that was born in the New World.  




Aubin, Eugène.  En Haïti; planteurs d’autrefois, nègres d’aujourd’hui.  Paris, A. Colin, 1910. 

Dhormoys, Paul.  Une visite chez Soulouque : souvenirs d'un voyage dans l'ile d'Haiti.  Paris: Librairie Nouvelle, 1859. 

Hazard, Samuel.  Santo Domingo, past and present, with a glance at Hayti.  New York, Harper & Brothers, 1873. 

Herskovits, Melville J.  Life in a Haitian Valley.  (1937).  Reprint: Anchor, 1971.


Courlander, Harold.  The drum and the hoe; life and lore of the Haitian people.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. 

Dayan, Joan.  Haiti, history, and the gods.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. 


[1] “Long live the coumbite leader!”

[2] Eugene Aubin, En Haïti; planteurs d’autrefois, nègres d’aujourd’hui [In Haiti; planters of before, Negroes of today], (Paris, 1910).

[3] Aubin, 36-37.

[4] Aubin cites these examples of creole words for the landscape, with French definitions in parentheses: “. . . les mornes (montagnes), les pitons (pics), les platons (plateaux), les coupes (cols), les fonds ou trous (vallées), les arses ou aculs (fond d’un baie), les anses, les caps, les côtes de fer (rivages de rocher), les tapions (falaises), les lagons (lagures). . .”: Aubin, 72.

[5] For a description of coumbites in more detail, see Harold Courlander, The Drum and the Hoe; Life and Lore of the Haitian People, (Berkeley, 1973), 116-120.

[6] Jacques Roumain, Gouverneurs de la Rosée, Roman [Masters of the Dew], (Port-au-Prince, 1944.)

[7] Herskovits,   : “In the organization of production and distribution an African mold, if not full content, predominates.  The cooperative work-system, which is so important in maintaining agricultural production, is directly related to comparable groupings of West Africa. . .The combite, as an instrument of co-operative labor and mutual self-help, with its tradition of giving no pecuniary reward for work done, but of making the feast which comes at the end of the day’s labor adequate return—all these represent pure retentions of African practice.  Even more striking is the carry-over in the attitudes which go with these outer forms—the manner in which the participants look forward with pleasant anticipation to taking part in combites, the enjoyment which they derive from their group work, and the verve with which the work is done are clear expressions of these attitudes.  The role of the combite-song in exercising social control and enforcing conformity to local custom is entirely African, as is its function in stimulating work by setting a rhythm for it.” 259-60

[8] Joan Dayan, Haiti, History and the Gods, (Berkeley, 1995), 86-88.

[9] Samuel Hazard, Santo Domingo, Past and Present, with a Glance at Hayti, (New York, 1873), 434-36.

[10] Paul Dhormoys, Une Visite Chez Soulouque: Souvenirs d'un Voyage dans l'ile d'Haiti, (Paris, 1859),  62-64, my italics.

[11] Aubin, 106-7: “Au sommet, la forêt s’est éclaircie et les caféières ont fait place aux cultures de vivres.  Sur une pente, au bord de la route, une douzaine de cultivatuers travaillent en coumbite.  Il s’agit d’un planté-patates, et le maître du champs a convoqué dans ce but une douzaine de ses voisins.  Le coumbite est un monde d’organisation du travail, aussi répandu chez les petits propriétaires des mornes que parmi les métayers de la plaine.  L’effort en commun se fait plus vite et plus gaiement on vient cultiver le bien du prochain, qui, à son tour, cultivera le vôtre.  Le coumbite est une sorte d’association agricole, le nègre trouve une occasion nouvelle de chanter et de boire.  Il en est de différentes espèces.  S’agit-il d’une courte besogne qui s’achèvera dans les premières heures du matin, c’est un simple douvant-jou; ou bien dans l’après-midi, de deux à cinq, un diné-manchette: le grand coumbite comporte un travail prolongé qui dure jusqu’au midi.  Le maître du champ, qui devient, pour le circonstance, le chef du coumbite, n’a d’autre affaire que de nourrir ses travailleurs; il surveille, dans un coin, le chaudron cuisent les pois et riz, et accourt, à chaque réquisition, avec la bouteille de tafia.  Quelques-uns piquent les pieds de patates, après que le gros des travailleurs a remué le sol.  Ils sont , serrés les uns contre les autres et grattant la terre de leur houe; l’un deux, frappant [107] sa manchette d’un morceau de fer, marque la cadence et répète indéfiniment la chanson traditionelle, qui doit être reprise par l’ensemble. . .”

[12] Aubin, 109.

[13] Courlander, 113.