by Jesse Micari
Shimbaleke Mukulu was born sometime in late 1768 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He lived in a village until he was 17, when he was captured by Arab slave traders. He was walked all the way out to the east coast of Africa and taken to Zanzibar, where he was put on a slave ship. He stopped in South Africa for a brief time so the crew could dispose of dead slaves and add new ones. Isangoma Inkosi Nonkululeko was boarded next to Shimbaleke here. He was brought to Cap-Haitien, Haiti in 1786 and sold to a plantation in Guillerpo, Haiti. After attempting to escape in 1787, he was sold to another plantation in Perches, Haiti. When the Haitian Revolution first started, Shimbaleke’s plantation was one of the first to join in. He survived the warfare and lived to see freedom in Haiti. Shimbaleke moved to Limbe, Haiti after the Revolution. When Henri Christophe rose to power, and there was another revolt in Northern Haiti, Shimbaleke, who now had his own land, was quick to rebel and go against the new rule. He was killed during a fight with Christophe’s officers.
My name is Shimbaleke Mukulu, son of Vidiye and Shimugabo Mukulu. I was born in a village called Ipa-Kumwimbe. I am a member of the Hemba People, as was my whole village. I remember growing up with the forest being a short run away and nothing but farms the opposite way. Our houses were not far from each other’s, so most days we would gather somewhere in the middle and talk and the kids like me would play. My mother taught me how to plant seeds and harvest food since before I could run straight. I used to always help her out around harvest time. My father taught me how to set traps in the forest and how to make nets for hunting. He taught me how to shoot a bow and arrow and how to throw a spear and knife. I was taught many of the dances and ceremonies of the Hemba; I was taught the language, chants, and stories, and I am grateful I remember what little I still do of these things.
I had only one sibling, a sister named Mwadi Balopwe Mukulu. She was a few years older than me. When I was first learning how to shoot a bow and arrow, she was almost as tall as my mother. Just as I was starting to grow, these men attacked our village. They wore what I now know is European-like clothing and guns. When I was young, the gun sound was the scariest thing I had ever heard. I looked around and saw family members, friends, village elders, all get shot and killed in minutes. My mother took my arm and told me to run. My father was protecting the village but we never saw him again. I would say close to 50-60% of the people were either killed or missing after that. Those of us who were left moved further up into the forest and made a couple more farms. We lost most of our fathers and brothers but some were still left. There was a long time where things were very sad and heavy on us and many were depressed but through prayer and music things got better and somewhat back to normal.
When I became of age, I was initiated into the warrior class and was an official protector of the village. About 3-4 months later, the same people attacked again. This time they had more soldiers wearing different, but still European clothes. They started firing before we knew they were coming and a lot of warriors died relatively quickly. I charged to get a closer target and started shooting arrows. I killed one man after hitting him in the center of the chest, but then I was shot in my left arm. I went down. It was the most excruciating pain I’d ever felt at that point. While I was trying to heal myself, the attackers picked me up and tried to make me walk. When I kept refusing, one of the capturers pulled out a knife and picked the bullet out of my wound. It hurt unbelievably but I am grateful because it could’ve lead to medical problems later on. They tied a shirt around the wound and the bleeding stopped after a while. I was woozy but able to walk. The attackers chained me to another member of my tribe and two men from the Luba Kingdom. I recognized their language but only knew it slightly.
Whenever we tried to pray we were either whipped, hit with an iron bar or beaten. I tried to be strong, but at that age, I had to stop eventually. Some women who were captured along the way were raped, often violently. I saw a woman beaten while being raped, one getting whipped, almost all were routinely threatened with death if they resisted. Some people died mid-stride from exhaustion. Many who tried resisting, singing, talking in their native language, or anything considered rebellious were killed; some by gun, some by cutting the throat, some were whipped to death. One time, they cut a man’s head off, put it on the end of a spear of ours they’d stolen, and made us carry it. It was a long, three-month walk to the Indian Ocean. There were an enormous amount of slaves in this port that I was taken to. They were from all over; they all looked different and spoke different languages but all were chained and enslaved.
There was constant screaming, moaning, and crying from the slaves inside the dungeon. Some were depressed and hopeless but many more were hopeful and praying. Others were trying to find ways to escape or kill the guards. It was only a week that I had to be in that dungeon but then I was taken to the ship. On our way out, the sand burned my feet and if I showed pain, the white men would stomp my foot further into the sand. There were so many of them on the ship. They all looked so unhealthy, sickly even. They smelled terrible and were abusive beyond anything I’d heard of before. As we walked in chains down the beach, some white men had a branding iron in the fire and as we got up to them we were each branded on the back. As we were put on the small boat that took us to the biggest ship I had ever seen, some of the white men moving us would poke and smack the spot where we just got branded just to hurt us more.
When I was brought into the ship, the first thing I noticed was the horrendous smell. It stunk from outside the ship and inside was much worse. People were in the worst shape I had ever seen human beings. Starved, dirty, chained right on top of one another, some men were covered in urine and feces before all of us were chained and boarded. The sight and vibes almost paralyzed me but the white men were whipping our ankles to keep us moving. I was packed in the back of the ship next to people I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. I tried to learn their language and we were able to learn a little bit. I found someone else who spoke Hemba and another who spoke Luba so I talked with them more. I cried every night for the first week. I had seen my village destroyed, people tortured, chained, branded and I was on a ship heading out to nowhere. I had no idea where we were going and most of the time couldn’t see anything outside the ship except for the hour or so they let us out during the day. For weeks, all I saw was water. Inside, the moans continued. I could hear, as the days went on, the moans becoming more and more quiet as more slaves died. The boat landed in a far-away place that looked exactly like the port from before.
The ship crew came down, unchained the dead bodies and carried them out. They didn’t clean anything and didn’t unchain any of us who were living. I thought we were going to be unloaded here but then the crew brought in new slaves. There were more Africans who spoke languages I had never even heard of. One tall man was chained next to me on the ship and all he would say is “Isangoma Inkosi Nonkululeko” and “Zulu”. I eventually realized it was his name and after hearing many other slaves chant to “Zulu”, I figured that was their Nation. We were on the slave ship for what felt like ever [roughly 7 months]. Each day I prayed and hoped for freedom, but each day came and went. It was the same sight every day. I had become almost delirious from the suffering. I couldn’t figure out when I was asleep and when I was awake. I had a constant headache and my body got stiffer and I experienced more pain the longer I stayed chained. My wrists bled, so did my ankles. After a few days, I stopped trying to hold my arms up so the urine, feces, and throw-up didn’t get into my cuts; it seemed pointless at that time to stay healthy. Every day, when we got our time to go up to the deck, all the slaves began communicating, or at least trying to. One day, sometime during the middle of the trip, we had each put together enough words to develop a plan. There was a big rebellion. After the white men used their thunder sticks [guns], I looked around and saw at least 20 of my people dead. Few more were bleeding and writhing around in pain. The rest of us were whipped and beaten with big metal rods back into the lower deck. At night, a couple white men came down and began yelling at us. I don’t know what they were saying but they were furious. Those of us who were chained were already too numb to be scared by yelling.
Eventually, we landed in a big village [Cap-Haitien, Haiti] with huge ships (like the one we were on) and stone-built buildings that looked very strange and jagged. There were many white people but many others who looked like my people, but were clearly from other tribes or kingdoms. They were in clothes that looked just like the white men’s clothes; some were in chains like me, others were able to walk without chains. All of us chained in the boat were walked out in a line, with wrist and ankle chains on. I was brought to another dungeon and crammed in with at least 50 other men. One by one, we watched the white men unhook one of us from the rest and bring him/her to a big platform [auction block]. The platform was in front of many white men and many stepped up on the platform and began touching and rubbing each person brought up. Some tried to resist going up but multiple white men would come and force them over. We heard screams and sizzling coming from the side of the dungeon but none of us could see what it was.
When I was finally brought up, I saw what the sound was. The man who was brought up before me was taken over to the side, in chains, and was stabbed with the burning metal rod [branded]. There was a different symbol this time but I couldn’t see what it was. Immediately I panicked. I began fighting and kicking the men holding me. I tried tearing the chains apart and dropping down to make it harder to move me but I was still carried up. These eerie, sickly looking white men began poking me, squeezing my arms, sticking their fingers in my mouth and moving my ears. I stared down each man who came up and they began talking amongst themselves and pointing at me. All of a sudden, the one man who stayed up on the platform began yelling and white men in front were throwing their hands up randomly [auctioning]. Quickly, a white man smiled, called for 3 other white men and a brown [half black/half white] man to come over, and the 4 began putting on new chains. They held me down so as they took one part off, I could barely move to get them off of me. Once all the new chains were on, they walked me over to the metal rod [branding iron]. I knew the pain of the rod, so I tried running and diving down to get away but the chains prevented me from being able to get away. The men held me up and the rod holder stabbed the burning metal into my neck. For a moment, I thought I was going to pass out and everything got dark but I soon came back and was being walked to a horse with 4 other people from the boat.
One of the people was Isangoma Inkosi Nonkululeko. He and I spoke what little we could to each other but whenever we did, the white man on the horse told something to the brown man and he would start whipping us. I did not know what we were doing wrong to deserve a whipping then but by time the walk was over I knew it was because we were speaking our language. The trek was brutal. We had walked for almost the rest of the day [4 hours] until we stopped at a huge field [plantation in Guillerpo, Haiti] with a giant, all-white building at one end [master’s house] and smaller wooden buildings at the far other end [slave quarters]. I saw other black people, like us from the ship, out in this big field harvesting food and plants. I saw the frightened looks on the black people’s faces who were already there. Some looked completely worn out and sad, others looked angry and ready to fight, some were indifferent; I didn’t know if these people were mad at me or someone else.
At this point, the 5 of us were separated but still kept in chains. I was taken to a small shack which would become my house for the next year. I was kept in chains in this little shack for almost 24 hours a day. Periodically, a white man [the overseer] would come in and bring me food. He would try to get me to say certain things in his language. I kept quiet whenever he did this. It made him very mad whenever I didn’t speak. Sometimes he would get mad and leave but other times he would beat me, throw tools at me, whatever he could use to get his frustration out.
After some time alone in this shack [roughly 2-3 weeks], I had picked up enough of the language [French] to understand what the overseer and master were saying. The longer I stayed, the more I picked up and eventually I figured out how the whole system of slavery worked in St. Domingue [Haiti]. The master had given me the name “Jean-Francois” but I refused to accept that name. After being tortured for not responding to it, I began answering to that name but it never became my name. Once I was let out from the shack, the overseer forced me to work in the field in chains. He wanted me to plant seeds, harvest sugar cane, plow the field and sometimes pick indigo. Torture was the main way they made us work. I saw such inhumane things I wouldn’t even think to do them. I saw slaves whipped severely then when they began to pass out, curry powder was rubbed in their wounds. I saw people hung, eyes cut out while still alive, hands or feet amputated, dismemberment. I watched a pregnant woman who tried to escape have her baby whipped to death after it was born as punishment to her. Some men were nailed to giant wooden poles [crosses] and sometimes they were left there to die, sometimes they were stabbed, castrated, then set on fire. If men weren’t working fast enough, they could be whipped, chopped with a machete, they could have limbs, ears, or tongues cut off; it was the scariest thing when the overseer walked by. No matter how hard or fast we worked, it always depended on how the overseer was feeling that day. If he saw us working faster than usual, he would tell us that was the new standard and if we didn’t keep that up, we would be killed.
The torture almost numbed me out completely to life. At night, or on some Sundays, we snuck into different slaves’ quarters and would talk quietly. Master didn’t want us talking to each other, so we snuck it in when we could. One woman had been pregnant when I got there, had her baby in one of the shacks a couple months after I had been taken here. Her baby was lighter than her, probably the master or overseer’s child. Seeing this baby born reinvigorated me slightly; it gave me hope. I saw this child as a sign that there could still be good and hope in the world. The next day the overseer, on orders from master, took the baby from its mother, brought it outside and shot it with a rifle point-blank.
I talked with some slaves from the plantation and decided I was going to run away. Two others, Isangoma Inkosi Nonkululeko and the woman whose baby was killed joined me. We waited until the next night and ran south towards the mountains. I was trembling from fear and nervousness. We ran swiftly but cautiously, stopping and looking around intensely everytime we heard some sort of noise. As we climbed higher and higher, we could see either side of the mountain range and decided that was enough for one night. We buried ourselves in deep bushes off our trail and slept there. I remember looking through the brush at the stars in the sky and just flashing back to all the memories in my head. I had visions of memories from being back in Ipa-Kumwimbe; playing with friends, relatives, dancing, praying, and eating the good, healthy food from home. I had flashes of the scenes I had seen along the way here began popping into my mind. I was struggling to understand how I went from Ipa-Kumwimbe to a place like this. I had battles in my mind almost daily trying to think if this was karma for something bad I had done, if I didn’t pray enough or if I had been cursed.
I woke up early the next morning, almost before the sun was up. I had a very bad feeling in my gut, so I woke up the other two and said we had to get going. The woman, still in recovery from pregnancy and child birth, had trouble going fast with such little sleep. Roughly an hour after that, bloodhounds from master’s house started jumping at us and biting us. I grabbed a big branch that had fallen and began whacking the dogs with it. The overseer and 2 other white men [also overseers] rode up on horses. Two started whipping and beating Isangoma until he couldn’t run anymore. One trampled the woman with his horse. I tried running away but one of the overseers shot me in the arm. I tried to hold my arm and keeping running but I couldn’t go fast enough to outrun his horse. The three of us were tied with rope to the horses and were mostly dragged back. The overseers specifically made the horses run faster than we could so we would have no choice but to be skidded across the ground for hours. Upon return, we were whipped, chained up individually and tied to poles in the ground. We couldn’t move anything and were not fed. Our wounds were left open for the mosquitoes, ants, and other bugs to feed on.
A couple weeks after this, I was once again tied to the horse with 5 other slaves. Master, the overseer and a mixed man slightly older than me, also came along and were carried in a wagon. We arrived at a big city with multiple auction blocks [Limonade, Haiti]. It was similar to the first auction block I was taken to, except I was a little more prepared of what to expect this time. Now I understood what was happening; I was being sold. With a better understanding, I watched myself be put up for auction by master, examined by all the disgusting Frenchmen, then sold to some other white man who looked like all the rest. This man said his name was “Chaudeyrac” and he said he would keep my name “Jean-Francois Chaudeyrac”. Everything he said went right over my head; I paid these white men no mind because I knew they all wanted to do the same thing with me. I saw that I was going to be branded again, so I acted docile, then grabbed the iron and burned one of the white men with it. They became enraged and while I tried to fight two of them off, one white man grabbed the iron and jabbed it into my side and kept it there until I couldn’t scream anymore.
Just like before, I was walked/dragged to a new plantation but this time I didn’t know anyone. I tried to resist again and almost broke away but the overseer swung the butt of his gun three times and hit me in the back of the head each time. I was knocked out and when I came to, I was chained in a wagon arriving at the new plantation. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was [Perches, Haiti], but it looked similar to the first plantation, just with less mountains around.
The treatment here was the same as before. Horrendous, unimaginable torture was used. Women were raped almost daily; men were castrated or amputated for even talking about escape. If anyone did actually get away but was caught, they would be given a minimum of 80 lashes and often were killed with other torturous weapons I had never seen before. I was working in the fields on this plantation for 4 years. I tried to escape once the year I arrived; I was the only one who dared try to run away on that night. I was caught after one of the slaves told master what I was doing. When I was caught, master had the overseers chain me up, then put me on a board with 8 knives sticking up. They slightly pierced the skin, but nothing serious. The overseers then put a board on top of me and began piling rocks or and heavy tools on it. With each item, the knives went a little deeper into my arms, legs, feet, and upper back. I screamed in pain at first but eventually I stopped. The pain was there but I couldn’t feel anymore; I hoped they would just kill me right there. Afterwards, the overseers took the board off, took me off the knives, laid me on my stomach next to a tree and chained me to the tree so I could get up and go anywhere. I refused to eat for 3 days, hoping to starve myself to death. However, on the third night, I’d heard from another slave that there was going to be a rebellion. She told me some slaves in the area were talking and meeting and were planning on revolting the next night. I could barely sleep that night in excitement for the rebellion.
The next day, before going out to work, all of us slaves got together and planned out how we would kill the master/overseers and where we’d go. Around mid-day, when the overseer started getting ready to whip another slave, that slave swung his shovel and knocked the overseer clean off his horse. The slave began beating this overseer’s head until he was dead. When this happened, an almost telepathic signal went around as we slaves all looked at each other. The second overseer was attacked by 3 slaves at once on the other end of the field. I grabbed the rifle from the dead overseer and yelled out “Koulye a, nan kay la!” [Haitian Creole for “Now, to the house!”] Immediately, all 18 slaves picked up tools/weapons and ran for the Big House. We barged in and as soon as I saw the master I shot him in the face. I expected to get a sense of revenge when I killed the master but I felt this deep uneasiness and shame. I couldn’t believe what I had just done. Even though he was a horrible person who abused and enslaved who knows how many people, I felt terrible about killing him. The other slaves, especially the mixed house slaves, went after the rest of the family. Master’s wife had her throat cut, was stabbed multiple times and shot. The kids were killed too.
That night, we all slept in the Big House with weapons close. We enjoyed being in the house and messing it up because it would’ve angered master so much. We expected a white mob to come for us the next day but instead 3 black men and 4 black women approached the house. They too had weapons and bloody clothes. They told us “revolisyon an se sou” [Creole for “the Revolution is on”]. They told us about their revolt on their plantation and what they had heard from others. We stayed on the plantation for another 3 or 4 days before deciding to leave. We grabbed bags and filled them with food and canteens and headed west. As we stopped and slept on different plantations that had been overthrown, the former slaves there told us their story. Some plantations had hundreds of slaves which was unfathomable to me.
For protection, we walked in caravans that would change as we came and went from different towns and plantations. At one point, a group of 5 former slaves came running back to the group I was in. They were saying white men in uniform were marching over here with guns. The 5 joined in with our group of seven and we got down in the bushes. We all held our weapons ready and waited to attack these white men. When they walked by, single-file with their guns pointing up, we charged and killed them all. This time, killing someone wasn’t as bad. It didn’t feel entirely right but I felt much freer doing it. I ran up behind one of the middle soldiers, put my hand over his mouth and cut his throat with a machete. I could feel him trying to bite my hand and writhe his way out of my grab but he couldn’t. After a couple seconds, I felt his body get heavy and when I let go, I watched him drop down in front of me with blood still pouring out of his neck. There were about seven or eight of these “batay ti kras” [Creole for “little battles”] that I was involved in. For the last two, I used a gun I had stolen from an earlier batay ti kras and was one of the shooters who would stay down in the bushes.
It took me almost 3 days to walk from where my old plantation was [Perches, Haiti] to an open plantation in Jeannette, Haiti. There were many slaves around this area who had successfully rebelled and were defending the land so I felt safe moving here. People were split into two groups: warriors and harvesters. Those able to fight, regardless of if they were a man or woman, got weapons and were trained. Everyone else grew food and got supplies together. I offered to be a warrior and was accepted. I worked with many different former slaves, including a day I spent with Jean-Jacques Dessalines. He went over war strategy where the whites were in the greatest and lowest numbers and encouraged us that we were “jis yon batay kèk nan libète” [Creole for “just a few battles away from freedom”].
Periodically, over the course of 12 years, my fellow warriors and I would watch over our village and go out looking for white people to kill. Most often the white men we found were Britanik [British soldiers] or Franse [French soldiers]. I watched many fellow warriors get shot. During one battle, when I got up to shoot, the man next to me took a bullet to the head and with his blood and skin on me, I had to keep my head up and straight or else I would be next. When we ran out of ammunition, we used machetes, swords, bayonets and hammers. Some of us picked up sticks or rocks and some just ran straight at the white men bare-handed. Killing these white men now felt good; it felt like a success every time their battalion died or retreated.
After word spread that Toussaint Louverture had been captured by the Franse, we went out for days at a time, looking for revenge. When we found soldiers, we took out our frustration on them. After killing them, we’d continue to beat or shoot them until we felt it was enough. Later on, when we heard that Dessalines had successfully gotten Haiti’s independence, there was incredible joy in our village. People were smiling, singing, dancing, some just ran around completely happy. I joined in a big dance and we were all singing songs. Some of the songs I had learned as a child. I began to sing out and do the dances of my Hemba people of Ipa-Kumwimbe. I could feel this energy-release from my legs right up my body to my head. It felt like I was finally able to shake off the chains I had been in for so long. Other members in this village were also from Africa and sang their songs and did the dances of their tribe/kingdom.
For a few years after this, we lived mostly a peaceful life in the village. I worked on the farm and helped in building more sturdy housing for everyone. Working on the farm, now that it was on my own will and there wasn’t a fear of being tortured, was therapeutic. I enjoyed working with the land again and was able to rest whenever I got tired. For a while, I would get paranoid and look around whenever I took a break but my new friends would reassure me that it was okay. I could rest now.
Unfortunately, only a few years after libète, Henri Christophe made a law that all Haitians had to work as slaves again to produce enough for Haiti.