Current Events in Historical Perspective
Published by the History Departments at The Ohio State University and Miami University
January 12, 2011 marks the grim one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. In the past year, as Haitians have tried to rebuild from that disaster, they have suffered a cholera epidemic and flooding from Hurricane Tomas. Thousands remain homeless, buildings in ruins, and violence widespread. The political process offers little hope for relief. Haiti’s recent, much-watched Presidential elections, like so many in its past, have been marred with accusations of fraud and corruption. Haiti is now arguably the most desperate nation in the Western hemisphere and among the most desperate places anywhere in the world. This month, historian Leslie Alexander puts Haiti’s recent crises in a longer perspective and reminds us that historically the United States has often hindered, rather than helped, Haiti deal with its many challenges.
Readers iinterested in the history of Haiti leading up to the 1990s, should explore the Origins piece, The More Things Change: Patterns of Power in Haiti.
One year ago, on January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. The following day, as tens of thousands of the dead and dying lay beneath the rubble and remains of their homes and communities, American televangelist Pat Robertson stated that the earthquake occurred because Haiti and its people are cursed. The curse, he claimed, was the result of a “pact” that the Haitian people made with the Devil centuries ago to gain their freedom from the French.
At the same time, other news outlets were reporting on the extreme poverty in Haiti. The mantra that “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere” was repeated incessantly, by nearly every media source, until it started to sound both like a chant and an accusation, rather than a statement of fact.
And then, just two weeks after the earthquake, a blog posting appeared, in which the author proudly declared that he had not (and would not) donate a single penny to Haitian relief because, as he put it, why should he give money to people “who got themselves in such a predicament in the first place?”
He further argued that the lack of economic resources and infrastructure—and the failure of the Haitian government to adequately respond—were an indication of the fact that Haitian people could not be trusted to take good care of themselves. So why, he wondered, should he give such people any of his money?
The blog took the internet by storm; it was splashed across the news, and the blogger, Paul Shirley, a former NBA basketball player and ESPN commentator, was later fired by ESPN for his comments.
However inaccurate or inhumane, each of these comments—Pat Robertson’s veiled reference to the Haitian revolution, the mantra about Haiti’s poverty, and the blogger’s frustration with Haiti’s internal problems—represent the most powerful and widespread beliefs about Haiti.
News reports unquestioningly accept and perpetuate the notion that Haiti is a country composed of poverty-stricken, uneducated people, under the control of incompetent leaders. And others, including the New York Times, promote the image of Haiti and its people as somehow pathologically corrupt, doomed, and “cursed” due, at least in part, to their cultural and religious practices, especially the religion of Vodun (often mistakenly referred to as “voodoo”).
New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that Haiti’s poverty can largely be explained by voodoo’s influence, which he described as a “progress-resistant cultural influence.” Likewise, Wall Street Journal contributor Lawrence Harrison issued an even more devastating critique of voodoo, in which he maintained that Vodun is a religion “without ethical content” that has undermined Haiti’s social, cultural and economic viability.
The problem with global news reporting on Haiti, however, is that none of these problems and challenges has been put into any real or accurate historical perspective. Our understanding of how and why Haiti is in such dire straits remains extremely limited and marred by profound misunderstandings.
As New York Times op-ed contributor Mark Danner explained, “there is nothing mystical in Haiti’s pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons.”
One can point to a long list of human harm to Haiti. But to understand Haiti’s so-often tragic political and economic journey it is particularly crucial to highlight two historical processes: the crippling diplomatic and economic legacy of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and also the importance of Haiti’s relationship with the United States, which swung from overt opposition for much of the nineteenth century to imperialist intervention through much of the twentieth.
From Colony to Republic: The Haitian Revolution
Arguably the most important issue in Haiti’s past and present is the epic tale of how it came to be an independent republic.
Haiti (formerly Saint Domingue) was a French colony that played a crucial role in trade between Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas during the eighteenth century. Although Saint Domingue was relatively small (approximately the size of Maryland), it was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean.
By 1789, the colony had attained a height of prosperity not surpassed in the history of European colonies. It contained 8,000 plantations and provided France with 40% of its profit from trade on an annual basis. More importantly, it produced a staggering amount of cash crops: more than one-half of the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the Americas, as well as significant amounts of cotton and indigo, were exported from Saint Domingue in the 18th century.
Race relations were unusually complex in Saint Domingue. The enslaved population was the largest in the Caribbean, about 500,000, which was nearly twice that of Jamaica, the Caribbean colony with the second largest number of slaves.
Since the European settlers only numbered about 40,000, the French colonists established a three-tiered racial hierarchy, in which a small class of free people of color, known as gens de couleur, occupied a middle position between the enslaved Africans and the European planter class.
The goal, of course, was to create a social and political “buffer” between the slaves and the settlers. Until the 1780s, this strategy was quite successful. There was little, if any, violent resistance in Saint Domingue, and the French reaped unimaginable profits from their Caribbean colony.
Given these circumstances, it is natural to wonder how the Revolution in Haiti began. Political conflict emerged when the gens de couleur, the free Black population, began to pressure the colonial government for equal rights.
In the midst of this political power struggle, a revolt erupted in August of 1791 under the leadership of a slave named Boukman, a reputedly influential man who used the religion of Vodun to inspire followers.
Vodun is essentially a blending of African spiritual beliefs with Catholicism. Significantly, it was this use of African spirituality that prompted Pat Robertson to describe the Haitian Revolution as “a pact with the Devil,” since the Haitian Revolution began immediately after one of Boukman’s spiritual ceremonies.
Enslaved Africans, armed with machetes, began beating drums, chanting, and marching from plantation to plantation, killing, looting, and burning the cane fields. Beginning with 12,000 followers, Boukman’s revolt quickly blossomed into the largest, bloodiest slave uprising in history. By the end of September, over a thousand plantations had been burned, and hundreds of Whites had been killed. The gens de couleur soon joined the rebels, and violence continued to spread.
After months of fighting and bloodshed, it became clear that the revolt had become impossible to control. In December of 1791, fresh troops sent from France clashed with insurgents, then led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture who had successfully created an organized army of over 20,000. In 1793, Louverture gained control of the government and declared an end to slavery.
But the country was not yet free. Over the next several years, both the French and Spanish attempted to re-impose European control and ensure the system of slavery would continue.
In one of these conflicts, in 1802, the French captured Louverture who died in 1803 while in French custody. Naturally, the French hoped that by capturing Toussaint, they would “chop the head off the rebellion,” but that did not happen.
Members of the gens de couleur (who interestingly enough, had fought on the side of the American rebels in the Revolutionary War) rose to power to replace Louverture. By 1803, the Black rebels successfully defeated the French, and their new leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines, either killed off or drove out all the remaining Europeans colonists.
In 1804, Haiti declared its independence and announced the formation of the first independent Black republic in the Western Hemisphere. After significant political turmoil in the wake of the revolution, Jean Pierre Boyer became the president of Haiti from 1818 to 1843 and Haiti settled into a brief period of political stability.
The Legacy of Revolution
The Haitian Revolution has been referred to as the “Vietnam of its day”—the story of an underfunded, militarily inexperienced group of insurgents who managed to defeat one of the world’s strongest powers. In essence, a band of former slaves defeated Napoleon’s army—the army that had inspired fear across Europe—and drove them out of Haiti.
The legacy of the Haitian Revolution has played a significant role in determining Haiti’s destiny ever since. Although the Haitian Revolution was celebrated in some quarters, the saga of a successful slave rebellion and the subsequent establishment of an independent Black republic caused outrage around the world and ultimately caused Haiti to become one of the most hated and persecuted countries in history.
Immediately after Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1804, the newly formed Black republic served as a beacon of hope to people of African descent around the world. From their perspective, Haiti represented the ultimate victory over slavery and the culmination of Black political autonomy.
During the revolution, enslaved people had thrown off their shackles and declared their right to self-determination. Once Haiti became a sovereign nation, it appeared to be a living manifestation of what Black people throughout the African Diaspora had hoped to achieve and was celebrated widely in abolitionist circles.
Clearly, however, this vision of Haiti was not universally—or even broadly —embraced. Although the Haitian revolution was inspiring to the opponents of slavery, it was not well-received by the major slaveholding nations—the United States, England, and (obviously) France—and sent shock waves around the world.
In slaveholding countries, the idea of an independent Black republic composed of former slaves was not only repugnant but threatening. After all, such a reality shook the very foundations that the fragile system of slavery was based upon.
If Haiti could have a successful slave rebellion, couldn’t the same thing happen elsewhere? Perhaps in their very midst? And, ultimately, it was the system of slavery that provided the political and economic foundation of their societies.
Even worse, as some leaders admitted, the reality of Haiti challenged the other central component of slavery—White supremacy. Political leaders around the world announced their feelings about this matter openly. As Napoleon explained in the midst of the war in Haiti, “My decision to destroy the authority of the Blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money…as on the need to block forever the forward march of Blacks in the world.”
Other nations agreed, and imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions on the newly formed Republic. These embargoes froze Haiti out of the global economic market, and denied the burgeoning nation diplomatic participation in the international political scene.
The Birth of U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Haiti
The U.S. relationship with Haiti was antagonistic from the beginning.
In 1791, shortly after the outbreak of the Haitian revolution, George Washington’s administration contributed significant funds to assist French planters in their fight against the Black rebels, and from that time an unwillingness to accept the reality of a free Black nation marred the U.S. government’s policy toward Haiti.
There was a brief period, in which John Adams’s administration offered some support to Toussaint Louverture in hopes that Louverture would contain French military operations in the rest of the Atlantic World. However, once Haiti gained full independence, the U.S. government’s policy towards Haiti cooled significantly.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, believed that Haiti should be under French control, and openly encouraged Napoleon to re-conquer the island. After Haiti declared its independence in 1804, Jefferson was deeply troubled and suspended all diplomatic and commercial relations with the former colony.
Although the United States eventually re-opened trade relations and benefited from their commercial relationship, the government still refused to open diplomatic ties or formally acknowledge Haiti’s independence. The United States did not agree to recognize Haiti diplomatically until 1862—nearly 60 years after Haiti gained its independence.
Undoubtedly, Southern politicians’ and slaveholders’ desires drove U.S. policy toward Haiti. In the wake of various slave revolts in the United States, Southerners worried that recognizing Haiti would be a tacit endorsement of slave rebellion and therefore ferociously opposed the idea of establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Black republic.