...Later, and significantly, I would see the comment as contextually bazaar, the height of non sequitur. What I came to learn was that the phrase “a roving commission” carried at least a double attack. It referred to G.A. Henty’s book of the same title with the subtitle Through the Black Insurrection of Hayti. Its editorial review reads as follows:

This is one of the most brilliant of Mr. Henty’s books. A story of the sea, with all its life and action, it is also full of thrilling adventures on land. So it holds the keenest interest until the end. The scene is a new one to Mr. Henty’ s readers, being laid at the time of the Great Revolt of the Blacks, by which Hayti (sic) became independent. Toussaint 1’Overture appears, and an admirable picture is given of him and of his power.

The cover of Henty’s book shows two figures, a young, exuberant, white boy, cap raised in triumph, as a crewman on a sailing vessel, a saber attached to his waist; and, a bearded, veteran white sailor, holding fast to a line from the sail with his left hand and a rifle, tightly gripped in his right hand. The book contains eleven lithograph illustrations. The illustrations are remarkable, as illustrations of a “black” insurrection. Of the eleven, only three show a black (or “mulatto”, a term Henty emphasizes or favors) as a main subject of focus, and that only marginally. The first of the four that show a black or mulatto depicts a black falling off a mountain with a white above him holding a pistol, with smoke rings coming from the gun. The caption reads, “He fell like a log over the precipice”. The second shows a black, mammy-like woman, in front of a litter helping to carry a wounded white casualty. Supporting the back of the litter is another white. In the left mid-ground is a white woman, wearing a bonnet and handsome dress, ambling out of view. This caption reads “The journey to the coast”. The next lithograph shows a black man, hat in hand, knees bent, and shoulders slumped delivering a message to two white naval officers of high military bearing; one of these officers with his arms crossed at the chest indicating his superior status and position. The caption on this one reads, “A message from Toussaint L’Ouverture”. [Leader of the Haiti revolution.] The last containing a black subject shows a white officer pointing a pistol at a black man. The accompanying text reads as follows:

“And for the last time I refuse”, Toussaint said; and his men without orders moved up close to him.

Biassou stood for a moment irresolute, and then, with a shout to his men to follow him, sprang forward. In an instant Nat [a white officer] threw himself before Toussaint, and when Biassou was within a couple of yard of him threw up his arms and leveled his pistol between the negro’s eyes.

“Drop the axe”, he shouted, “or you are a dead man!”

The man stood like a black statue for an instant. The pistol was but a foot from his face, and he knew that before his uplifted axe could fall he would be a dead man.

The next line of the text is the caption of the picture, “Drop it!” Nat repeated”. Henty tells the story of “…the black insurrection of Hayti” through white eyes, with no mention of the heroism and bravery of the insurgents. Even in a successful war against tyranny blacks are not the focus, not the focus of their own revolution, according to G.A. Henty. Fredrick Douglas, abolitionist, reformer, minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti from 1889 to 1891, in a lengthy speech at the Chicago World’s Fair, and contemporary of the Haiti revolt, saw the matter differently. Here is an excerpt from his speech:

The mission of Haiti was to dispel this degradation and dangerous delusion, and to give to the world a new and true revelation of the black man's character. This mission she has performed and performed it well. [Applause.]

Until she spoke no Christian nation had abolished negro slavery. Until she spoke no christian nation had given to the world an organized effort to abolish slavery. Until she spoke the slave ship, followed by hungry sharks, greedy to devour the dead and dying slaves flung overboard to feed them, plouged in peace the South Atlantic painting the sea with the Negro's blood. Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world, and our land of liberty and light included. Men made fortunes by this infernal traffic, and were esteemed as good Christians, and the standing types and representations of the Saviour of the World. Until Haiti spoke, the church was silent, and the pulpit was dumb. Slavetraders lived and slave-traders died. Funeral sermons were preached over them, and of them it was said that they died in the triumphs of the christian faith and went to heaven among the just.

To have any just conception or measurement of the intelligence, solidarity and manly courage of the people of Haiti when under the lead of Toussaint L’Ouverture [prolonged applause] and the dauntless Dessalines you must remember what the conditions were by which they were surrounded; that all the neighboring islands were slaveholding, and that to no one of all these islands could she look for sympathy, support and co-operation. She trod the wine press alone. Her hand was against the Christian world, and the hand of the Christian world was against her. Her's was a forlorn hope, and she knew she must do or die.

(Lecture on Haiti, Frederick Douglas, 1893,

as given at the Chicago World’s Fair)

Upon which report should you rely, upon which should you place your trust as accurate; an historical fiction or historical novel, such as that of G.A. Henty, or the report of a contemporary participant, Frederick Douglas?

At the time I read EG’s letter I did not know, nor wish to learn, the source of the comment “a roving commission”. I have since learned that the Henty books are a favorite of some parents doing “home schooling”, a practice that was commonplace in the United States until the Nineteenth Century when compulsory education laws came into being. Massachusetts established the first comprehensive compulsory statewide law in 1852. Upon which of the above reports or accounts should the revolution in Haiti be based? Can the Henty portrayal be viewed as in any way balanced? Or, is it—as I say it is—the case that the Henty books are propaganda—pure propaganda? Upon which should you base your child’s “home schooling” if you intend to arm the child with truth? Does one not damage a young mind by training it with false mythologies? And is not a parent who knowingly misinforms his child with stereotypical untruth fostering stereotypical—that is, false—attitudes in the child?

A 2003 United States Census survey showed that thirty-three percent of home schooling households cited religion as a factor in their reason to home school, with seventy-two percent of the total home schooling households citing the need to provide “religious or moral instruction” as an important reason. Given all that I know, and based on many personal conversations, I believe it a fair assumption that EG and his spouse home schooled their five (or more) children. Was EG a racist, teaching a racist point of view? I do not believe he was. He was a brilliant lawyer; and I mean truly brilliant. Yet, we have seen that brilliant men have significant blind spots and make terrible, racists mistakes—recall the comments of Sigmund Freud regarding the Irish, or the comments of James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and his comments about Eskimo’s and black people. (He said, “No Eskimo will ever write like Yeats”.) So, what would bring this brilliant man to take the course he took—bullying and threatening along racial lines? What do you say about a person who teaches his children secondary, negative racially biased history, or colonialist justification and exaltation, such as that of Winston Churchill who glorified the Henty book, in his own A Roving Commission, only to later resist his early attraction to this colonialist ideology? Remember, it was Churchill who said in this biography Roving Commission: My Early Life, “I would make them all learn English; then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honor; and Greek as a treat.” referring to the colonial subjects. It is of parenthetical interest that I discovered this connection while reviewing a Latin textbook.

One thing you must certainly say is that such a person is resistant to reality; that such a person—or persons—has a need to have his or her realty tainted or colored to fit the palette given by birth—whites only, good, pure, heroic whites.

Copyright W.B. Corley, Retrospectives Publishing Group, Inc., 2009 All rights reserved.