Four days after I first came to Australia for “the” visit in December 2004 I was taken aback by a McDonald’s ad on a bus stop. While McDonald’s is one of the world’s most recognized symbols and corporations, the sign really threw me due to what was written below the logo. The sign informed those who read it that there was a McDonald’s located just a few kilometres up the road in a town called Sans Souci. Amanda and I drove past this sign along the beaches of Botany Bay, the very place where Captain Cook first set foot on Australian soil.
So why does the name of a town in New South Wales called Sans Souci interest me? The answer resides in a Latin-American history class I took in my third year of university, a book, the Haitian Revolution, and a palace in Potsdam, Germany. A long story in other words. First up, Professor Bill French’s history course at UBC.
The course was largely theoretical rather than a linear study of Latin American history. The final book we studied in the course was called Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot. By far the most difficult book on the syllabus, the book was a revelation for me. While ostensibly (at least in how it was presented within our course) a book about the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th Century, the book was in reality about the production of history. While I don’t want to get into it here, this review has a nice overview for anyone interested.
The chief argument of the book is that the history we all accept is whatever history someone has deemed important enough to set down. In other words, history is subjective and many events, people, and ideas are simply forgotten or intentionally “silenced” by those in power. While this idea was/is not new, his argument was stunning. He illuminates his theory by presenting the history of the three faces of Sans Souci: a palace in Haiti; a palace in Germany; and the “silenced” figure of Colonel Jean-Baptist Sans Souci.
Just how silenced is this figure? Wikipedia has NOTHING. A google search for his name (as written above) returns ONE result, and it is the review I posted above. Googling my name returns more results. Sans Souci was a leader of the only successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere that helped establish Haiti as a free-republic. I write a blog.
The Potsdam Sans Souci
I loved the book, and a year later when I set out to cover Europe in five months, I made sure to make a special trip out to the palace of Sans Souci in Potsdam (a short train ride from Berlin). Walking around the palace I recalled the book and how this palace got its name (which in French means “without a care”). I took some photos and went back to Berlin that evening satisfied that I made it to Sans Souci. But the question still stuck with me. Why was there a palace in Germany named after a palace in Haiti which was named after a forgotten rebel of a largely ignored revolution?
Two-and-a-half years later, driving along the coast in suburban Sydney the question was raised again. Why is there a town in Australia named this? Wikipedia helps a LITTLE, but not much. Do the people in Sans Souci have any idea why they live in a town with a French name? I’ll tell you one thing for sure, Australians do not pronounce it correctly.
The many faces of Sans Souci continue to haunt me. Late last year I was at the Glebe markets exploring the used-book sellers and what do I see standing on display? A souvenir pictorial guide to the palace of Sans Souci in Potsdam. Sadly I didn’t buy it as I had no cash. But why the hell would that have been there? How did it get there? Who really has enough interest in the palace of Sans Souci in Australia to actually buy a souvenir book?
Is the only way for me to put this to rest to travel to Haiti?
The Haitian Sans Souci