Care as Revenge, Revenge as Care: Two Riddles

This short text will appear in Thick Press‘s An Encyclopedia of Radical Helping, due out in 2024.


First: Under what conditions could care be a form of revenge?

As we draw to the close of Madison Smart Bell’s magisterial fictionalized trilogy about the Haitian Revolution, we visit the pestilent scene of a makeshift field hospital in 1804. Here, French soldiers, sent by Napoleon to re-enslave the self-liberating Haitian people, lie dying in the thousands from the tropical Yellow Fever to the sound of the Caribbean sea crashing against the rocks.[1]

As CLR James explains in his classic history The Black Jacobins, the visionary Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Overture won that world-shaping struggle for freedom by strategically mobilizing the Caribbean climate and its microbial forms of life (like the mosquito-borne Yellow Fever) as weapons to help repel the armies of three great European imperial powers.[2]

In Bell’s fictionalized account, a weary French doctor speaks to a volunteer nurse, the Creole Mme. Fortier, a character who, throughout the three novels, has suffered every depravity imaginable at the hands of whites. She, like other people of mixed ancestry, is now dangerously caught between the worlds of the revolution. The doctor asks her how she has the stamina to selflessly care for the invading soldiers when “bodies were half decomposed already by the time the doomed man drew his last breath” (671) and when these racist French men verbally abuse her even in their desperate last moments of delirium. Is it in the name of Christian charity and mercy? No, she replies.

“It does content me to watch them die, when I know I have done all I could to save them.” (672)

Mme. Fortier’s revenge is undertaken through a sacrificial act of care. She does not poison her wards, but nor does she keep them alive to prolong their misery: she has done all that she can for them. And in doing her utmost, in caring fiercely for her enemy, she is content. One bad interpretation of this passage is that her contentment stems from her personal satisfaction at a job well done, or that she has done all she can for another human being in need, in spite of being on the other side of a bloody and cruel war. We want to attribute a pure and ennobling morality to her. But a better interpretation reframes Mme. Fortier as a revolutionary, in an oblique solidarity with the enemies of those for whom she cares, those Haitian guerrillas who would perhaps even kill her if they could. There is a wave-like, undulating movement of history which pushes and pulls both Mme. Fortier, her doomed patients, and the revolutionary soldiers under L’Overture. She does all she can, and it is not enough, and in doing it Mme. Fortier comes into communion with what (as Phaneul Antwi explains) the Barbadian poet and philosopher Kamau Brathwaite calls tidalectics[3]: the folding and folding and folding of history between moon, sea and land.


Next: Under what conditions could revenge be a form of care?

As a young working class Catholic growing up in the 50s and 60s, Bobby Sands’ life in Northern Ireland was plagued by Loyalist abuse and pogroms that forced his family to move several times and cost him his career in a factory.[4] When he joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army at 18 it was out of a sense of desperation: the British government’s response to the vicious situation was to deepen the oppression, surveillance and militarization by police. This, in effect, allowed Loyalist thugs, vigilantes and paramilitaries to act with impunity. Five years after joining the IRA, Sands was arrested in the aftermath of the bombing of a furniture showroom and sentenced to 14 years in the infamous Maze Prison.

It was there, in response to petty and draconian new rules calculated to humiliate political prisoners like Sands and break the spirit of IRA, that Sands and others began a series of non-violent protests. In 1976 they refused to wear clothes. In 1978 they escalated their tactics to refuse to clean their cells or themselves. In 1981 he and others initiated one of the most famous hunger strikes in world history, which would result in his death 66 days later. During that time, the poet Sands, the initiator and charismatic face of the strike, was elected as a Member of Parliament to represent Sinn Fein, helping to open the door to a non-violent electoral strategy for the Republican cause. His death was an international scandal with deep ramifications. His funeral was attended by 100,000 mourners in Belfast, where his grave is still venerated. There followed acts and gestures of solidarity around the world. The bloodiest years of The Troubles lay ahead. In spite of the fact he never renounced or condemned violence, Sands was and is venerated as an non-violent martyr.

The most memorable of Sands’ phrases: “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” can still be seen on murals in Northern Ireland. It echoes an older adage, that “living well is the best revenge”, often ascribed (ironically, for Sands) to 17th century Anglican priest and poet George Herbert, although he himself admits it already existed as a proverb.[5] No matter the attribution, the phrase resonates with an interpretation of Christian scripture in which Jesus instructs his oppressed followers to “turn the other cheek” and lead a virtuous life, trusting to God to right wrongs at Judgment Day.

But Sands’ revenge here implicitly and contextually rejects passivity and is resolutely secular. It necessarily evokes the moment of after-care: children laugh when they are safe, nurtured, carefree and perceive themselves to have a future (although much, too, could be said about children’s and other people’s cruel laughter). While revenge often brings to our imaginations connotations of hot, swift violence, Sands’ vision of a care-full revenge is glacially slow and cool, taking generations to form and move. But like a glacier, such care-revenge is not inherently non-violent: it reshapes society, levelling mountains, depositing new earthworks, cutting paths towards the sea before receding to reveal a country that, today, cannot exist on any map.[6]


Both these examples might help us move beyond the politically useless and conceptually bankrupt association of care with “good vibes only.” If we want a world that cares, we should not sacrifice a consideration of the complexity of violence and destruction on the altar of our narcissistic allergy to discomfort. Clearing space for, then cultivating, then harvesting the fruits of a world that cares, or a caring world, will require a meaningful engagement with the question of what must be destroyed. There are humans and non-humans who benefit from the current order, for example the corporate CEOs and novel zoonotic viruses that profit from factory animal “farming”; these lifeforms will necessarily be harmed in the making of a better future, and that is a good thing. That harm cannot be separated from a complex form of care. Bringing revenge into proximity with care can help us dwell with these troubling realities which we would ignore at our grave peril.

[1] Madison Smart Bell, The Stone That the Builder Refused (New York: Vintage, 2004).

[2] CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd edition (New York: Vintage, 1989).

[3] Phanuel Antwi, On Cuddling: Loved to Death in the Racial Embrace, VAGABONDS 5 (London and New York: Pluto).

[4] See Chris Yuill, “The Body as Weapon: Bobby Sands and the Republican Hunger Strikes,” Sociological Research Online 12, no. 2 (March 2007): 111–21,

[5] George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, 1651,;view=fulltext.

[6] See See Max Haiven, Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts (London and New York: Pluto, 2020).