Gourds and Dollars
AUGUST 01, 1978 by RALPH BRADFORD
Mr. Bradford, of Ocala, Florida, is well known as a writer, poet, speaker, and business organization consultant.
When Jonah sat in the shade of his heaven-sent vine he was no doubt unaware (as he was of some other important things) that a time would come when the fruit of his shade vine would play an important, if transitory, role in the field of high finance.
The time, to be sure, was far down the centuries from Jonah’s day, and did not arrive till 1807. The place was a steamy but beautiful little island of the Caribbean. By that time the original Caribs had long since perished, and were replaced by Europeans, especially by Spanish in the east and French in the west—and by black slaves all over the place.
Slavery, of course, is always hateful and cruel; but there are degrees to the degradation it imposes; and the planters who had settled in the Artibonite Plaine of Saint Domingues had brought its horrors to a new depth of savagery. At long last came the inevitable explosion. Suddenly the whole countryside was in flaming revolt.
And the slaves had able leaders: Oge, Boukman, Chavannes, and others of lesser fame—all of whom were soon killed. And then came three compelling figures, former slaves all, whose names were to be inscribed, quite literally, in blood: Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe. Toussaint was nicknamed L’Ouverture because as a general he always seemed able to "open" things up for victory—or for escape. His two great lieutenants were: Jean Jacques Dessalines, unlettered and ferocious, but a great battle tactician; and Henry Christophe, a physical giant with the gift of leadership.
Christophe was born, it is believed, on the British island of St. Kitts, which at that time was still called Saint Christopher. This may account for his last name, and also for the fact that though he was French in speech and name and sentiment, he always spelled his first name with the terminal English "y" instead of the French "i." Most likely he pronounced it Onree, but he spelled it Henry.
So much for the main actors. In a few swift and bloody years the dark drama of the tragic little black nation moved to its denouement. Toussaint was tricked, captured, and allowed to die miserably in a frigid French prison. Dessalines, after a grotesque brief masquerade as "Emperor," was murdered by his own people. That left the towering Christophe, who became head of state, and who finally made himself king. But the king business came later.
In 1807 this exslave stable boy and sometime waiter was named President of the newly created Republic of Haiti. It was a moment of glory for the dignified man who, as a menial, had been slapped and treated to other indignities. But it was also a moment of great problems and sharp decisions.
For one thing, he headed a completely bankrupt government. The land had been laid waste by the ravages of the revolt against the landed proprietors, the revolution against France, the wars with the Spaniards on the eastern end of the island, and by their own internecine butcheries. There was no currency system, and Christophe had no money and no reserves of any kind.
Needless to say, he could secure no credit abroad.
But Christophe was both a resourceful military leader and an able administrator. He could not read, but he knew the absolute necessity of a workable currency system. And he knew something else—namely, that the people he governed relied greatly on the homely gourd vine in their domestic economy, using its fruit, when dried and free of seeds and pulp, to make all kinds of household utensils—bottles, decanters, bowls, saucers, cups, even spoons and plates. The gourd, indeed, was about the nearest thing to a constant and general necessity in the simple life of the Haitian peasants. And the gourd utensils wore out quickly, broke easily, and had to be replaced often.
As Christophe ascended to power a green crop of gourds was ripening. So he issued an edict that all gourds were the property of the state. He sent out collectors to seize them, and in a short time they had brought in and "deposited" the year’s crop at Cap Francois. That became the "reserve" in Christophe’s "treasury," and he put an arbitrary value of 20 sous on each gourd, which established the ratio of five gourds to the French Franc. Then he waited a while.’
‘See pages 1089 of John Vandercook’s excellent book, Black Majesty, Harpers, 1928.
Gourds to Coffee to Gold
Soon the important coffee crop ripened. Coffee, along with cane for sugar, were the money crops of the island. But there was little sugar as yet, because the sugar mills had all been burned down in the wars. When the coffee beans were brought to market, Christophe bought them—and paid for them with the gourds he had previously expropriated, sometimes from the coffee growers themselves! Then he resold the coffee to foreign traders—for gold; and before long he had a substantial metal reserve and could put a gold supported currency into circulation. As one result of this remarkable adventure into sophisticated governmental finance, after 170 years the unit of currency in Haiti is still called the gourde. More significantly, the Christophe technique had become a potent, if unrecognized and unacknowledged, fixture in that form of fiscal legerdemain known today as deficit financing.
Not many Americans raise gourds these days, and converted cucurbitaceous shells have little importance in our national economy. But the gourds of Christophe are symbolic of other possessions of ours that are systematically diverted from their normal use by a modern and deadly version of the Christophe process.
Those possessions are the dollars which we have earned and tried to save and invest, but which are taken away from us by the hidden and insidious seizures of debt-created inflation.
No analogy is here intended or implied between the Haitian treasury dilemma of 1807 and the multitudinous, mountainous, and worldwide profligacies of our own government. We are not here concerned with those balance of payment problems occasioned by our many international involvements, but with the simple arithmetic of a perpetually unbalanced national budget, and the resultant gnawing away of our substance by the steady and relentless debasement of our money in relation to the things we would purchase with it.
Henry Christophe seized the people’s gourds to underwrite his money. That was the lawless procedure of a dictator, a piece of hard fisted brigandage. But it was a onetime expedient to meet an emergency, and was never repeated. Even so, it was an illegal act of ruthless seizure. And yet .. .
And yet . . . as between two methods of expropriation, the one lawless but visible and not continued, the other legal but hidden and ruinously perpetuated—maybe there is something to be said, after all, for Christophe and his gourds!