It is true that Haiti lies on an earthquake fault and that from time to time the tiny country is struck by natural calamity of epic proportions. However, it is not Haiti’s geography which has been the nation’s undoing: it was greed that did it in, the greed of neighbors and overseers who robbed Haiti of its civic and economic legacy before the nation had a chance to claim its future.
Domingue (the name was changed to Haiti after independence in 1804) was a French colony; sugar and tobacco plantations provided a great income stream to France. The economy of the island was predicated on slave labor, which was imported in such numbers as to exceed the slave trade in all other territories in the western hemisphere, except Jamaica. Because of the brutal conditions in which the slaves of Domingue were kept, death rates were very high and there was a constant importation of new captives from Africa.
By the late 1700’s Haiti was not a peaceful place. Recent African immigrants were not as tractable as second generation slaves might have been and the brutality of the conditions in which the slaves were maintained contributed to the unrest.
By 1791, revolution broke out. Led by Toussaint Louverture, the goal of the revolution initially was not independence but the abolition of slavery. Louverture led a successful campaign against the French, but eventually was defeated by treachery. He ended up in a French prison, where he died of pneumonia in 1803.
Perhaps if Louverture had lived, and been allowed to govern, Haiti might have had a chance. But that’s not likely. Because, not only had the arrival of colonialists brought death to the indigenous people (the Tainos)of the island, not only had these colonialists kept their slaves in such barbarous conditions as to deny the slaves very humanity (stories are told of slaves being set upon by dogs; of slaves being boiled in vats of molasses; of slaves being buried alive in ant hills), but the French decided, after Haiti became an independent country, that a debt was owed. Not by the French to the Haitians, but by the Haitians to the French.
At first, in defiance of this demand from France, Haiti endured an embargo which denied it the opportunity to benefit from trade of its rich produce. Eventually, the Haitians submitted and agreed to pay France to compensate the former slave owners for the loss of their property. Haiti was handed a bill and that bill was not cancelled until 1947. One of the reasons for the prolonged debt service was the conditions of payment; France insisted that the debt be financed through a French bank, which unilaterally set interest rates and terms.
So much for what France owes to the Haitians.
As to Haiti’s northern neighbor, the U. S.: from the moment it became an independent country, Haiti was an irritation to the United States. For one thing, Haiti presented an example to slaves in the U.S that a successful rebellion was possible. Plantation owners in the southern part of the United States were unsettled by this dynamic. Insurrections among U. S slaves, especially in Louisiana, were blamed on the Haitian influence. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Alvey Adee summed it up in 1888 when he called Haiti a “public nuisance at our door”.
The U.S. intervened in Haitian affairs numerous times over the years and U. S. corporations found Haiti a profitable place in which to invest their capital. By 1915 this investment was so significant that when it appeared to be threatened, Woodrow Wilson, the proponent of “self-determination” for European nations, sent an army into Haiti to secure U.S. interests. While the stated aim of the invasion was to neutralize the German influence on the Island, subsequent actions of the U. S. government belie this claim. $500,000 was appropriated from the Haitian National Bank, “for safekeeping”; the U.S. took over all the Customs Houses and ports; it created a national guard which was an arm of the U.S. government. Finally, Haitians were prevented from passing a constitution unless that constitution allowed for foreign ownership of property.
So…while it was still saddled with a hundred-year old debt to France, Haiti found itself straddled by an overlord who extracted essentially whatever profits remained. Any pretext at self-government was denied as the U. S. routinely replaced Haitian leaders who did not endorse U. S. policy.
Haiti never had a chance. If there had been a plan to sabotage its future, to deny it the basic opportunity to rule itself and enjoy the benefits of its own resources, the plan could not have been more thoroughly realized than it is today.
Besides the ruinous appropriation of Haiti’s revenue, France and the U.S. were guilty of another at least as injurious theft: the theft of governance. Never in Haiti’s history was it allowed to develop a civic organization which was entirely self-engendered and which acted only in the interests of the Haitian people. Crop development, land management, trade negotiations: nothing was left to the Haitians. Everything was engineered to profit first France and then the U.S.
Today Haiti is beleaguered by depleted soil, antiquated infrastructure (what remains after the last earthquake), a poorly educated citizenry and an almost total lack of governance. Haiti’s desperate state is not an act of God or an accident of nature; it is the result of plunder . Those who have plundered are responsible.
I don’t know how to fix Haiti. The amount of money necessary to do that may be more than the U. S. and France think they can afford in this difficult financial climate. But whatever the endeavor costs, it must be done. For Haiti is a living legacy of French colonialism and U.S. imperialism: like any victim of imprisonment and theft, Haiti has a right to compensation and rehabilitation, no matter the price.
Colonialism in the nineteenth century and its effect on indigenous peoples. The Modern British Empire: A Brief History. A book for young and adult readers.
Slaves at Work in Domingue
U. S. Department of State
Endowment for the Humanities:
Wikipedia- U.S. Occupation of Haiti:
Louisiana State University: The Louisiana Purchase: