The following lecture was delivered to an audience at the University of California
By Ted Widmer | March 21, 2010
The United States has been leading the response to the Haitian earthquake for all of the reasons that we would expect: our geographical proximity, our competence at emergency response, and our innate generosity. That fits the narrative most of us hold in our heads, for we typically think of Haiti and America as a basket case and a basket, joined only by their contradictions, and the beneficence of one to the other.
On the surface, that is true enough. Haiti was desperately poor well before this latest catastrophe and routinely faces problems that border on the biblical — floods, epidemics, and a deforested landscape that suggests a plague of locusts (sadly, it was just human beings). The United States is the world’s all-time winner, whether defined by Olympic medal count or GDP or any other national sweepstakes.
Yet a closer look at the early history of the United States and Haiti — proudly, the two oldest countries in this hemisphere — suggests that the relationship was once very different. In fact, it was the island’s wealth that turned heads in those days. And the United States was hardly a foregone conclusion. In the darkest days of the American Revolution, when it seemed preposterous to believe that the mighty British empire might allow 13 rogue colonies to come into existence as a new nation, the support that came from a 14th colony — French Saint Domingue, Haiti’s predecessor — made an important difference.
In recent years, the bestseller lists have been dominated by history books arguing that our founding moment is the key to understanding everything that has happened since. That is all well and good — in fact, it’s great news that so many Americans are willing and even eager to read about the 18th century. But to tell the story right, we need to think about all of the people who worked for our independence. In the appeals for aid that have gone out over the last few months, there is one powerful reason for aiding Haiti that has never been articulated. Simply put — the United States might never have come into existence without the help of our island neighbor.
That is a counterintuitive thought, to put it mildly. But to avoid defeat, Americans needed guns and powder and bullets and warm clothing. To buy those necessities, they needed money. And money in those days came from France, eager to twist the tail of the British Lion. France supported America for many reasons, including the ones we learn in school — Benjamin Franklin’s
roguish charm and the appeal of the underdog and England’s comeuppance. But a reason we hear less often is that France had a vested interest in protecting a lucrative overseas possession with a strong connection to the United States, and to New England in particular.
Here in Boston, where the American Revolution is an everyday fact, it helps to pull the camera back, away from this tiny peninsula, and consider the broader hemisphere. In the late 18th century, the situation was very nearly reversed — Haiti’s predecessor, Saint Domingue, was the richest colony in the world. Its capital city, Cap Français (today’s Cap Haïtien) was larger than Boston, and among the most cosmopolitan places in the Americas. Its culture matched anything in New York, Havana, Philadelphia, or the dour Puritan city jutting into Massachusetts Bay.
Early in the century, Benjamin Franklin had learned that modest displays of wit were punishable by jail in Boston — why he soon found it convenient to flee to Philadelphia. In Saint Domingue, by contrast, wit was everything. Comedies were performed at playhouses around the country (the largest theater in Cap Français seated 1,500). Le Cap’s first theater preceded Boston’s by more than 50 years. The historian James E. McClellan III said that Haiti’s scientific clubs “certainly rivaled, if they did not eclipse” those of Philadelphia and Boston. A highly sophisticated urban life sprang into existence — more than 11 towns had more than 1,000 people, and in the capital, all of Cap Français danced to orchestras, laughed at cabarets, played at cards and billiards, and visited wax museums. (In 1789, a waxen George Washington was put on display, in what might have passed for the first state visit by a US president.)
As these accounts would suggest, a great deal of money was made in Saint Domingue. To be “as rich as a Creole” was a familiar boast in Paris, and a substantial portion of the French economy depended on this one distant settlement. This was the jewel of the French empire, furnishing the coffee drunk in Paris, the sugar needed to sweeten it, and the cotton and indigo worn by men and women of fashion. Saint Domingue’s commerce added up to more than a third of France’s foreign trade. One person in eight in France earned a living that stemmed from it. By 1776, this tiny colony produced more income than the entire Spanish empire in the Americas.
But Haiti’s superheated economy required constant, grinding labor in the plantations — and that meant massive importation of human beings from Africa. To a greater degree than in South Carolina or Virginia, the planters of Saint Domingue worked their slaves to death. This was a slave society on a scale beyond anything seen in North America. The profits were bigger, and so were the cruelties, distributed as generously. A small colony of 10,000 square miles — roughly the size of Massachusetts — held a teeming population of Africans, half a million strong, ruled over by a mixture of French families, light-skinned mulattoes, and the profiteering adventurers who always congregate in lively Caribbean cities.
To a surprising degree, Boston was economically linked with a city that was in many ways its polar opposite. New England merchants had been getting rich in Hispaniola since at least 1684, when a young adventurer, William Phips, found a Spanish treasure that made his fortune there. Foodstuffs like dried fish were sold by enterprising Yankees to the rich French island, and the trade in molasses (a run-off of the sugar refining process) became a New England specialty, part of the so-called Triangle Trade. The difficulty of regulating this trade led to the strictures by which England tried and generally failed to bring New England to heel, enraging Americans in the process.
So, well before the first shots were fired at Lexington Green, New Englanders had a mutually beneficial relationship with Saint Domingue that was irritating to England. And France was highly protective of Saint Domingue, which the English had tried on several occasions to seize. All of this provided essential background to the key fact — the French alliance — that allowed the United States to lurch into existence.
Why did the French pour money into our cause? A large portion of the answer lies in Haiti, unremembered by Americans. France did not want to lose its jewel, and so it sprang into action when the American colonists began to agitate for their freedom. The king’s advisers worried that the British would use the conflict to shore up their Caribbean possessions, and seize Saint Domingue once and for all. To support the Americans would not only weaken the British and help avert that disaster, it would support a people with a known interest in trading with the French colonists. The loans were small and secretive at first, often funneled through clandestine agents. But eventually, French support grew open and robust. As recounted by Stacy Schiff in “A Great Improvisation,” France ultimately provided 1.3 billion livres, or the equivalent of $9 billion today.
Without this help, the Revolution probably would have fizzled. Certainly it would not have lasted as long. When the Declaration of Independence announced the United States, the Americans had only about 30,000 fighting men and very little money. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the world wondered that we so seldom fired a cannon. We could not afford it.” France’s aid made all the difference. The battle that ended the war — Yorktown — was essentially a French production.
But not entirely French. To do their part, the people of Saint Domingue responded enthusiastically to the call to defend the infant United States. Haitians of all complexions fought alongside the continentals at the Battle of Savannah in 1779 (one of them was a 12-year-old drummer named Henri Christophe, who went on to pronounce himself king of Haiti in the 19th century, after getting a taste of independence in America).
Just as importantly, Saint Domingue served as a vital point of transfer for the men, arms, and gunpowder flowing from France to the patriot cause. As those essential donations poured in to the United States, they came through what is now Haiti. Americans were buying powder there as early as 1775. The powder that won the battle of Saratoga came from there. The military engineers who designed the plans for victory at Yorktown and the cannons needed to win it and the French fleet who made sure it happened all came to us via our island neighbor. Yorktown essentially won it all for us.
Perhaps the most important gift of all from Haiti to the United States came in a form that remains difficult to quantify, but was essential all the same. The money that kept the United States afloat during the long war for independence came from those enormous loans, negotiated by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams during their long stay in Paris. Does it not seem plausible that France had money to lend to one part of America because of the huge profits that another part of America — Saint Domingue — made possible? It is hard enough today to know how money goes from one pot into a government expenditure; the difficulty increases exponentially when looking at the distant finances of a country that no longer exists. But the vast sums pouring into France from Saint Domingue at exactly the same time made foreign aid to the New World a distinctly more attractive option than it would have been otherwise. The 1770s and 1780s were the richest decades Saint Domingue had ever seen. It goes without saying that the entire enterprise rested on the backs of the men and women whose labor powered it.
We are naturally drawn to the most elevated part of the story of our national birth, and there is plenty of inspiration in the orations of Sam Adams, the immortal words of the Declaration, and the valor of American soldiers at Lexington and Bunker Hill and Valley Forge. But we do a disservice to the people of Haiti, and ultimately to ourselves, if we do not remember that a large contribution toward American freedom was made by the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans who, in their way, toiled and died for the cause.
Ultimately, America’s cause merged into Haiti’s own, for the huge loans given to America weakened the French economy sufficiently that another revolution broke out in Paris and the world turned upside down all over again. Out of that chaos emerged a third revolution, and a new Haitian nation, which declared independence in 1804, the second American country to do so. Its path since then has been rockier than our own, to put it mildly, but it overcame more difficult challenges than we did, including the opposition of nearly every nation on earth, the United States among them.
There were voices, then as now, that saw some justice in bringing the two independent nations into closer orbit. Timothy Pickering of Salem, secretary of state from 1795 to 1800, considered the revolution’s leader, Toussaint Louverture, “a prudent and judicious man possessing the general confidence of the people of all colors.” Under John Adams, there was a flourishing trade, and even some US naval support for Toussaint’s maneuvers. In return, Toussaint’s supporters began to call Americans “the good whites.”
On rare occasions, Americans even saw some similarity between the revolutions that each country experienced. In 1791, as the Haitian Revolution was just getting underway, a young Pennsylvania politician rose to defend the slaves fighting for their freedom, arguing, “if the insurrection of the Negroes were treated as a rebellion what name could be given to that of the Americans which won their independence?” In 1804, a Boston newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, wrote, “their case is not dissimilar to that of the people of the United States in 1778-1800.” But in 1806, the Jefferson administration succeeded in a ban on all trade with the newly independent nation of Haiti, extinguishing its hopes for prosperity, at the beginning of its new history.
It is easy to see why we have generally passed over this history. It is obscure, buried in old newspapers and articles, many written in French. It describes a lost colony that seems to have slid off the face of the earth. But Haiti survived Saint Domingue, and now it has survived what may be the greatest crisis in its history.
But the story does not end there. In fact, it doesn’t end anywhere, because Haitians and Americans will always bump into each other in the small hemispheric space that we occupy together. Many more arguments could be cited to convey how entangled are the roots of our liberty trees. How many Americans live in the great heartland that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains? They owe a debt not only to Thomas Jefferson, Louisiana’s purchaser, but to Toussaint Louverture and the Haitians who fought so tenaciously for their freedom that Napoleon was forced to cash out of America. (He exclaimed, on hearing of the death of his best general, “damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!”) How many Americans have been moved by the prints of John James Audubon, or the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, or the many other descendants of Haitian families, white and black, who came here in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution? How many of us have admired the iron balustrades of New Orleans and Charleston, wondering where the artisans came from who designed them?
Thousands of Americans have rushed to Haiti’s hospitals and shelters and with their expertise and aid. We have given deeply — $700 million and counting. But as the spring rains come, perhaps we can pause to consider this shared history, and do more by a sister republic that has dogged our steps and weighed on our consciences since the dawn of the American experiment. It has often been said that freedom is not free. Should we not show how highly we value it, by repaying a small fragment of the debt we owe to the descendants of a people whose blood, sweat, and tears helped us to become the United States of America?
Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. The library has formed a fund, ”Saving Haiti’s Libraries,” to protect the endangered cultural treasures of Haiti. See jcbl.org for details.
After the tragedies in Asia resulting from the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and from Hurricane Katrina in the US city of New Orleans in 2005, it was possible to imagine that we could respond to future natural calamities with a certain degree of stoicism.
But when the full picture began to emerge about the destruction in Haiti, this proved to be little more than a delusion born of the wish to limit the pain all of us feel when merciless nature strikes suddenly, brutally claiming the lives of many helpless fellow human beings.
It was not necessary for us to see the human limbs protruding from under the rubble or to see lifeless bodies lying in the streets to know the terrible cost the earthquake had imposed on thousands of Haitians.
The heaps of bricks and mortar that had been houses necessarily invoked in the mind’s eye terrifying images of crushed bodies, of people still alive under the walls that had collapsed, but condemned to die slowly because help would not reach them on time, of human blood flowing into the canyons that had opened when the earth itself became an enemy of the Haitian humanity.
Those images in the mind, even without confirmation by the graphic television footage, were enough to produce the tears that are impossible to hold back.
But the tears also came because this tragedy engulfed this particular country – Haiti!
The fact of our birth into the South Africa that was, placed Haiti in a special place in our hearts and minds. This is because it has the indestructible distinction that 206 years ago, in 1804, it emerged as the very First Black Republic in the world.
More than the mere fact of this was the history of the extraordinary uprising which led to this outcome, which could not but serve as an unequalled inspiration to those engaged in struggle to achieve their own liberation.
During a sustained military and political struggle, which ended with the birth of their Republic, the African slaves of Haiti, with many free mulattos as their allies, defeated the armies of the most powerful European powers of the day – Spain, Great Britain and France.
From this titanic struggle emerged true heroes of all oppressed peoples, including Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexander Pétion, who together out-smarted some of the best Generals that Europe could produce.
When, in 1803, their armies defeated the French forces, which were first led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Leclerc, they saved the United States of America from occupation by France.
Because the African slaves of Haiti annihilated the French army, this army could not proceed to occupy the US territory known as Louisiana, as ordered by Napoleon. Ultimately France had to sell this territory to the US, which is celebrated in the US as the Louisiana Purchase.
Free Haiti also provided the outstanding Latin American liberator, Simon Bolivar, with the war materials he needed to defeat the Spanish forces, secure independence for Venezuela and therefore guarantee the liberation of Latin America from Spanish occupation.
The Haitian Revolution was organically linked to the American and French Revolutions and should have taken its place alongside these in the construction of the new world order of the day. Sadly, this was not to be.
One important reason for this was explained by the US newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, in its January 2 2004 edition, in an article by José de Côrdoba headed “Impoverished Haiti pins hopes for future on a very old debt”.
The article said, “More than two decades after rebellious former slaves vanquished troops from Napoleon’s army here (in Haiti) in 1803, France’s King Charles X made the fledgling republic of Haiti an offer it couldn’t refuse.
“In 1825, as the king’s warships cruised just over the horizon from the Haitian capital, a French emissary demanded 150 million gold francs in exchange for recognising the new republic. The implicit alternative was invasion and re-enslavement.
“It was a huge sum, about five times Haiti’s annual export revenue. Haiti’s then-president reluctantly agreed, taking on a crushing debt.
“Today, as Haiti celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence amid growing political unrest and a collapsing economy, one of its few glimmers of hope is that long-ago deal.
“Haiti wants its money back – with interest.
“Aided by US and French lawyers, the Haitian government is preparing a legal brief demanding nearly $22-billion in ‘restitution’ for what it regards as an act of gunboat diplomacy.”
After its defeat, France refused to recognise the Republic of Haiti. Frightened by the example it had set, the slave-owning US imposed economic sanctions against the young Republic.
France demanded that the Republic of Haiti must pay compensation for the losses sustained by French property-owners in what had been its wealthiest colony. The most valuable property for which the French claimed compensation was the slaves themselves!
The France of Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité sent a new expeditionary force to enforce its demand that the liberated slaves had to pay money to guarantee their freedom.
Haiti felt that it had no choice but to pay the compensation demanded by France. Remarkably, it took Haiti 122 years to settle this debt, with the final payment being made in 1947 to the US, after the latter had bought this debt from the French!
To indicate how heavy the burden of this debt was, in 1900 fully 80% of Haiti’s national budget had to be set aside to service the debt imposed on the country by France in 1825, which continued to expand because of the interest it carried.
What the poor of Haiti paid during 122 years, expressed in 2004 US dollars, was conservatively estimated to amount to $22-billion! In 2004, a French government commission established to assess Haiti’s demand for restitution said this demand was “not pertinent in both legal and historical terms”.
It is probably true that Haiti today is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is, however, also true that as their forebears did, the people of Haiti continue to stand out today as an inspiring example of human resilience and dedication to the cause of freedom.
The urgent task all humanity faces today is to come to the aid of the Haitians, to confront and overcome the consequences of the deadly earthquake which has claimed the lives of thousands and wiped out the little wealth they had accumulated in the protracted struggle of many centuries merely to survive.
It was indeed truly inspiring to hear the international media reports about the efforts of fellow South Africans, working side by side with other foreign teams, to rescue Haitians from beneath the mounds of rubble in Port-au-Prince. It is this that makes it possible for one to say – I am proudly South African, and proudly human!
The time will come when other truths will have to be told about Haiti, to allow this country once again to set an example, this time to speak about what should be done and not done if, indeed, we are true to the humanist view that umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye – I am because you are!
When those truths are told, we will have the possibility to salute the people of South Africa that, during the year that Haiti celebrated its Liberation Bicentenary, they had the courage to welcome into their midst a distinguished Haitian family – the family of Jean Bertrand and Mildred Aristide and their two daughters.
Then we will tell of the bond of friendship that has developed between us and the poor of Haiti, including those who have resided in Cité Soleil, the biggest slum in Port-au-Prince, to which has been added the enormous destruction imposed by the January 12 earthquake.
We will also have the possibility fully to absorb the story told in Peter Hallward’s book, Damming the Flood, about what happened in 2004, as Haiti celebrated its Bicentenary and as it saw its elected president forcibly transported into exile in Africa, the ancestral home of the 1804 liberators of Haiti.
For now, we must convey our sympathy, condolences and solidarity to the Haitians who live among us, as well as the rest of the sister people of Haiti.
To give meaning to our words, we must join the rest of the world to do everything that has to be done to help ensure that tomorrow we shed tears of joy, as we see the people of Haiti realise the dreams which inspired the African slaves of Haiti to do what they did over two centuries ago, which affirmed the dignity of all Africans and all human beings, regardless of race, colour, gender or belief.”
At a time when increasing numbers of informed audiences in both scholarly and popular circles have begun to recognize African religious cultures and the rich contributions they have made to African diaspora civilizations, Pat Robertson has made another dubious contribution to America’s fascination with the ‘problem of Haiti.’
As Robertson narrates it, in his latest fiction-disguised-as-revelation, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti,” and that something was Haiti’s vodou heritage. The earthquake, an unfortunate turn of events in Haiti’s unnatural history, presents Robertson, and the Christian cohorts supporting his ministry, yet another platform to characterize Haiti as a reprobate nation destined to suffer one disaster after another under the curse of either the Christian devil or God.
African Religious Legacy
To set the record straight, the varied imperial and stateless civilizations of Africa each had their own established religious beliefs, practices and institutions well before any exposure to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Vodou, a term with endless contemplative meanings and inferences, including “god,” “spirit,” and “deep mystery” is one such religious culture that should not be misconstrued as any devil-dealing clan.
Today, libraries of reliable scholarship confirm Vodou’s credibility as a viable historic and contemporary tradition most prominent in West Africa and Haiti. This religious heritage links Haiti, Benin, Togo, and Ghana through a civilizing legacy where cognate cosmologies, philosophies, languages, medical therapies, diets, rites of passage, codes of conduct, aesthetic norms, artistic conventions, and technologies furnish entire communities with a shared sense of identity and the ritual/theological grammars required to guide their common life and transmission of humanity from one generation to the next.
If God’s Good Nature is Reflected in the Slave Trade, What was the Devil Up To?
American ignorance of Vodou beliefs and practices aside, I am befuddled by Robertson’s lack of reflection on what his tall tale of Haiti’s unpaved road to hell inevitably registers about the nature of the Christian God. Where was the almighty Christian God when Haiti’s founding patriots and defenders of human liberty allegedly “swore a pact to the devil?”
There is something sinister at work when a god who is purportedly all-loving, just and powerful over human history is reconciled effortlessly with the jarringly asymmetrical social and historical arrangements like the transatlantic slave trade and ensuing slave economies in the Caribbean and the Americas. If racial slavery of this sort was an expression of “God’s” good nature, then how should we understand the devil’s nature in this theological schema?
Robertson would say that Haiti’s centuries-long struggle for freedom, sovereignty, and dignity is indeed a demonic project—but it would have been hard for captive Africans in Saint-Domingue to embrace the divine character of their colonizers’ Christian God. What the colonial ruling class understood to be either divine or demonic in the Christian pantheon, the enslaved African laborers had to have understood as one and the same evil force.
Prayers for Protection
While the details concerning how Vodou traditions played a role in fortifying Haiti’s foundational freedom fighters during the revolutionary period are inconclusive, the devil is not in the details of this narrative; and there is no dispute about the fact that Vodou is. Pat Robertson is now reading a page from the same narrative fiction that his White racist Christian predecessors scripted soon after the birth of the Haitian Republic. But the re-naming of Vodou’s divine community with the moniker “devil” only reminds us that twenty-first century North America has no shortage of contemporary counterparts to the slave-breaking masters who claimed the right to re-name the human beings they believed they owned.
Today, white Christian missionaries retain power over representations of African civilizations, often influencing the African and Caribbean sheep among their flocks to condemn ancient African religions and customs. Long after the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean and the United States, Mr. Robertson and others in his camp can’t seem to restrain themselves from trying to beat Haiti’s saltwater heritage into total submission.
Sadly, some Haitians, especially born-again Christians of the Pat Robertson and John Hagee persuasions, have joined their White Christian masters in this seasoning ritual. Though they are determined to interpret Vodou religious services like the legendary Bois Caïman ceremony as conventions with the “devil,” most Haitians need no cues from alien interpreters when it comes to their history and religious heritage: Bois Caïman is one of many Haitian landscapes where the divine Vodou community mercifully answered their founding ancestors’ prayers for guidance and protection during their struggle to liberate the island from slavery and colonial rule.
In all religions, gods are summoned to support their devotees in times of war and peace, tragedy, and celebration. Vodou is no different.
Vodou Priests and Priestesses were First Responders
It is probably futile, and ill-advised, to try and assuage the Western personality’s anxieties about (self-generated) legacies of mythical “voodoos” in the region. Yet many able respondents have followed this course, assuring audiences that Haitians are for the most part tamed and predictable Christians. And yes, most Haitians are self-professed Christians—though we should remain aware of the privileges that accrue to the enslaved and colonized who affiliate with the religions of Empire.
This line of discussion, however, concedes to the fear that behind the portrait of meandering earthquake survivors peacefully singing Christian hymns in the streets of Port-au-Prince is a barbaric “voodoo” ceremony waiting to unfold. It is for this reason that accessible Vodou priests and priestesses who were first responders, providing medical care to wounded victims pouring into their temples in the immediate aftermath of the quake, remain unaccounted for in the US American media’s roll call of international heroes and heroines now at work in Haiti.
Whether strict Vodou practitioners or dually aligned members of Vodou temples and Christian churches, the millions of Haitians whose lives are touched by Vodou in countless ways remain unaccounted for when the primary rejoinder to America’s fear of the “voodoo” it created in the first place is to reassure the world of Haiti’s established Christian identity.
Notwithstanding Haiti’s Christian character, the Haitian personality, if there is one, has been nurtured by a Vodou civilization that any responsible treatment of the subject must disentangle from the Western world’s manufactured “voodoo” culture. To be sure, both traditions exist, but audiences should not confuse one with the other; they are mutually exclusive and distinct.
Given the outrageous mischaracterizations of Haiti’s Vodou heritage that have come to signify the gospel truth for so many over the past few centuries, outsiders desiring reliable information about Haitian Vodou and its West African foundations should consult the ever-growing body of scholarship that gives the topic serious scientific attention.
Body of Christ, Bodies of Slaves
What the “voodoo” of popular America and Pat Robertson actually demonstrates is an index of their very own Christian heritage. More than anything it is a sordid effigy of the Western body of Christ as experienced by commodified African bodies. It is a register of the most pervasive expressions of Western Christian culture encountered by captive Africans and their descendants since the first Christian chapels were erected at Elmina, Cape Coast, Ouida, Gorée, and other commercial slave dungeons along the Atlantic coast of Africa beginning in the fifteenth century.
In the end, I must concur with Mr. Robertson: “Something” did “[happen] a long time ago in Haiti, and people [do not] want to talk about it.” Enslaved Africans asserted their humanity, religious freedom and political sovereignty and, under the influence of sour grapes, Western powers have sent one ‘earthquake’ after another Haiti’s way ever since.
Dianne M. Diakité is associate professor of Religion and African American Studies at Emory University. She is originally from Jamaica and grew up in the Northeastern US. She is the author of Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience.
It is now eight days since an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, along with numerous other places that we do not hear much about—Carrefour Feuille, Léogane, Petit Goave, Miragoâne, Jacmel. My friends in Haiti report that the UN and the U.S. military and the countless humanitarian aid agencies are nowhere to be seen. The United States, in control of the airport and, in effect, of much else, has designated the center of what was once the capital city a “red zone.” In other words, it is a security risk, so the U.S. relief workers remain in the “green zone,” a term that has become all-too familiar to us from the disaster that is Iraq.
Richard Auguste Morse—musician, writer, and beloved manager of the Oloffson, the model for Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s The Comedians—has been tweeting every day since the catastrophe. On January 17 he asked:
How can the UN help the people of Carrefour Feuille if they are prohibited from coming to the neighborhood!! If the UN can’t help poor people then what are they doing in Haiti!!! . . . UN is not staying out of my neighborhood 4 reasons of security. It’s just some kind of warped politic.
Haiti has once again fulfilled its traditional role for the United States and the international media. When I see CNN reporters commenting on the smell of urine and decay, taking viewers through the garbage, through crowds of the injured, the dying, and the dead, I recall other representations of Haiti. They never change. As early as 1853, the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle lamented the destruction of the richest French colony in the New World. He called Haiti “a tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle.” Thirty-five years later, his biographer, the historian James Anthony Froude, would describe his first impression of the “ulcer of Port-au-Prince” as a smell of “active dirt fermenting in the sunlight.”
Amid evocations of a desperate people and festering landscape, the media and the “humanitarian” community continue to ignore the history of the island. Without reference to the foreign occupation, intervention, and exploitation that define the Haitian political experience, we cannot appreciate the sinister politics of Clinton and Bush’s promise of “compassion.”
Haiti was the scene of the only successful revolution by slaves in history, the first black republic in the Americas. The “Black Jacobins”—Toussaint l’Ouverture and his successors, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe—defeated, in turn, the local whites; the remaining soldiers of the French monarchy; a Spanish invasion; a British expedition of some 60,000 men; and the soldiers of Napoleon, led by his brother-in-law, General Charles Le Clerc. Yet at the moment of its birth it was stifled by those who feared its example. France, using warships and heavy cannon, imposed a 150-million franc “indemnity” on the new nation. This was the defeated colonial master’s price for recognition of Haitian independence, compensation for the former slave-holders’ lost “property.” The United States withheld recognition of the ex-slaves’ victory and independence until 1862, lest its own slaves follow their lead.
During the American occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, the U.S. government rewrote the Haitian Constitution to permit foreign investment; dissolved the Haitian army and replaced it with a police force, known as the garde; seized peasants’ land; imposed martial law; and instituted the corvée, a program of forced labor to build roads throughout the countryside. In 1918 the peasantry, under the leadership of Charlemagne Péralte and Benoît Batraville, began a revolt. A year later, more than 3,000 peasants had been killed. Another 5,000 died in labor camps that the garde supervised for the occupying forces. When the United States left, she saddled the country with another foreign debt—a massive $40 million—which destroyed any possibility that Haiti might enjoy a stable financial regime.
And the media, then as now, have acted as faithful water carriers for powerful outside states and their financial interests. Generalizations about criminality and barbarism have always been a good way to avoid the particulars of history. In the gritty world of politics and power, a retrograde Haiti—the portrait of pathos—derails our attention from the real causes of suffering and poverty there.
Analysts and policymakers have never been subtle. Lawrence E. Harrison, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission to Haiti from 1977 to 1979, turned Haitian culture itself into the source of the country’s poverty and an excuse for the imposition of American-style development: Haiti is a “moral void,” he wrote in a 1987 article for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service. “The principal cause of Haiti’s acute underdevelopment is a set of national values and attitudes dominated by voodoo religion and compounded by the experience of slavery.” In the chaos following Baby Doc Duvalier’s departure and dubious “transition to democracy,” Harrison proposed a version of the American dream for Haiti. The program featured “the establishment of assembly industries employing tens of thousands in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.” The workers in these factories, he predicted, would “learn that a combination of organization, cooperation, technology and work can vault them into the middle class—something the voodoo priests have failed to achieve.”
In a New York Times op-ed last week—“The Underlying Tragedy”—David Brooks alluded to “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences” and renewed Harrison’s civilizing mission: replacing Haitian practices with “middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos, and tough, measurable demands.” History keeps repeating itself. So let us be wary of the U.S. media coverage of looting, violence, and chaos in Haiti. The exaggerations serve a purpose: rationalizing the militarization of aid, pushing for a new status for Haiti, that of U.S. protectorate, like Puerto Rico.
When The New York Times questioned the capacities of Frederick Douglass as U.S. Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti in 1889, it described Haiti as “a black mob pretending to be a government.” In 2009 it is still too easy to blame Haiti for bad government, or, as we keep hearing, for no government.
What is perhaps more difficult is to understand is how every disaster and every coup—including the numerous coups abetted by the U.S. government, such as those against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and 2004—never ceases to inspire an old vision for the country: a site for multinational investment. Once a colony, then an occupied territory, then a land under the thumb of USAID and the World Bank.
Their project in the 1980s displaced farmers from the countryside and created a captive labor force in Port-au-Prince. The people lived in the shantytowns on the hillsides, only to become victims of a natural disaster made worse by the endless, quite unnatural programs promoting “democracy.”
The Hate and the Quake
By Sir Hilary Beckles
The University of the West Indies is in the process of conceiving how best to deliver a major conference on the theme “Rethinking and Rebuilding Haiti”. I am very keen to provide an input into this exercise because for too long there has been a popular perception that somehow the Haitian nation-building project, launched on January 1st 1804, has failed on account of mismanagement, ineptitude, corruption.
Buried beneath the rubble of imperial propaganda, out of both Western Europe and the United States, is the evidence which shows that Haiti’s independence was defeated by an aggressive North-Atlantic alliance that could not imagine their world inhabited by a free regime of Africans as representatives of the newly emerging democracy.
The evidence is striking, especially in the context of France. The Haitians fought for their freedom and won, as did the Americans fifty years earlier. The Americans declared their Independence and crafted an extraordinary constitution that set out a clear message about the value of humanity and the right to freedom, justice, and liberty. In the midst of this brilliant discourse, they chose to retain slavery as the basis of the new nation state. The Founding fathers therefore could not see beyond race, as the free state was built on a slavery foundation. The water was poisoned in the well; the Americans went back to the battle field a century later to resolve the fact that slavery and freedom could not comfortably co-exist in the same place.
The French, also, declared freedom, fraternity and equality as the new philosophies of their national transformation and gave the modern world a tremendous progressive boost by so doing. They abolished slavery, but Napoleon Bonaparte could not imagine the republic without slavery and targeted the Haitians for a new, more intense regime of slavery. The British agreed, as did the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. All were linked in communion over the 500 000 blacks in Haiti, the most populous and prosperous Caribbean colony. As the jewel of the Caribbean, they all wanted to get their hands on it. With a massive slave base, the English, French and Dutch salivated over owning it – and the people.
The people won a ten-year war, the bloodiest in modern history, and declared their Independence. Every other country in the Americas was based on slavery. Haiti was freedom, and proceeded to place in its 1805 Independence Constitution that any person of African descent who arrived on its shores would be declared free, and a citizen of the republic. For the first time since slavery had commenced, Blacks were the subjects of mass freedom and citizenship in a nation.
The French refused to recognise Haiti’s Independence and declared it an illegal pariah state. The Americans, whom the Haitians looked to in solidarity as their mentor in Independence, refused to recognise them, and offered solidarity instead to the French. The British, who were negotiating with the French to obtain the ownership title to Haiti, also moved in solidarity, as did every other nation-state in the western world. Haiti was isolated at birth – ostracised and denied access to world trade, finance, and institutional development. It was the most vicious example of national strangulation recorded in modern history. The Cubans, at least, have had Russia, China, and Vietnam. The Haitians were alone from inception. The crumbling began.
Then came 1825; the moment of full truth. The republic is celebrating its 21st anniversary. There is national euphoria in the streets of Port-au-Prince. The economy is bankrupt; the political leadership isolated. The Cabinet took the decision that the state of affairs could not continue. The country had to find a way to be inserted back into the world economy. The French government was invited to a summit.
Officials arrived and told the Haitian government that they were willing to recognise the country as a sovereign nation but it would have to pay compensation and reparation in exchange. The Haitians, with backs to the wall, agreed to pay the French.
The French government sent a team of accountants and actuaries into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands, all physical, assets, the 500 000 citizens who were formerly enslaved, animals, and all other commercial properties and services. The sums amounted to 150 million gold francs. Haiti was told to pay this reparation to France in return for national recognition. The Haitian government agreed; payments began immediately. Members of the Cabinet were also valued because they had been enslaved persons before Independence.
Thus began the systematic destruction of the Republic of Haiti. The French Government bled the nation and rendered it a failed state. It was a merciless exploitation that was designed and guaranteed to collapse the Haitian economy and society. Haiti was forced to pay this sum until 1922 when the last instalment was made. During the long 19th century, the payment to France amounted to up to 70% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Jamaica today pays up to 70% in order to service its international and domestic debt. Haiti was crushed by this debt payment. It descended into financial and social chaos. The republic did not stand a chance. France was enriched and it took pleasure from the fact that having been defeated by Haitians on the battlefield, it had won on the field of finance. In the years when the coffee crops failed, or the sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate, to repay the French government.
Fledgling nation crushed
When the Americans invaded the country in the early 20th century, one of the reasons offered was to assist the French in collecting its reparations. The collapse of the Haitian nation resides at the feet of France and America, especially. These two nations betrayed, failed, and destroyed the dream that was Haiti; crushed to dust in an effort to destroy the flower of freedom and the seed of justice. Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth, both of which continue to have a primary interest in its current condition. The sudden quake has come in the aftermath of summers of hate. In many ways the quake has been less destructive than the hate. Human life was snuffed out by the quake while the hate has been a long and inhumane suffocation – a crime against humanity.
During the 2001 UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, strong representation was made to the
French government to repay the 150 million francs. The value of this amount was estimated by financial actuaries as US $21 billion. This sum of capital could rebuild Haiti and place it in a position to re-engage the modern world. It was illegally extracted from the Haitian people and should be repaid. It is stolen wealth. In so doing France could discharge its moral obligation to the Haitian people. For a nation that prides itself in the celebration of modern diplomacy, France, in order to exist with the moral authority of this diplomacy in this post modern world, should do the just and legal thing. Such an act at the outset of this century would open the door for a sophisticated interface of past and present, and set the Haitian nation free at last.
(Sir Hilary Beckles is Pro-Vice Chancellor and Principal at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)
Filed under: Haiti | Tagged: Haiti, Haiti and the International Community, Haiti: the Hate and Quake, Haitian Revolution, Sir Hilary Beckles, Slave Emancipation, the first black republic | 1 Comment »
Abdul Alkalimat <mcworter@ILLINOIS.EDU>
Haiti Needs Jean-Bertrand Aristide
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is the one contemporary Haitian
who brings the heroic legacies of L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe, and Petion, the four horsemen of Haitian political history, to the current crisis. Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and Haiti’s first democratically elected leader was President of Haiti in l991, and was overthrown by a military coup in September l991. However, he was once again President from l994 to l996, and President from 2001 to 2004. In February 2004, after he disbanded the army because of corruption and its attacks on civilians, a criminal band of less than one hundred men terrorized the nation and Aristide was physically removed from the palace, supposedly for his safety. The American government was complicit in this action and flew the President to Africa. The democratically elected President of Haiti has been forced to live in exile in South Africa.
Yet Haiti has always been on his mind. He is a child of the soil,
the most distinguished image of a fighting Haiti, and at this time of
natural disaster, political instability, and governmental weakness, however much Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to shore up President Rene Preval, the country needs its most potent political figure. Aristide has always been ready to inspire and rally his nation; this time is no different. At this moment when one considers the grim realities of death, destruction, and the enormous need for reconstruction, Aristide, the healer, teacher, philosopher, orator, leader, and the first truly democratically elected president of Haiti should be called upon by the international community. I believe that he is the only Haitian who can command both national and international respect at this time. President Rene Preval, by all accounts, is a good public servant, but he has not been able to grasp the immensity of the situation in Haiti. Furthermore, he has been unable to convey a vision for the future. This has to be done by Haitians.
President Clinton, Secretary Clinton, and General Colin Powell
are not Haitians, however grand their objectives; they do not have the
credibility and the ability to rally Haitians like Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They know it, the Haitians know it, and the world knows it. Before President Aristide was exiled to South Africa from his own nation, he had received more votes than any president in Haiti’s history, and just a gang of thugs supported by the enemies of a progressive Haiti were allowed to threaten the peaceful democracy. In spite of the apocalyptic scope of the earthquake, this is an opportune time for the country to make social, medical, economic, and political progress.
However, we are confronted with what appears to be a leadership
vacuum. Therefore, I call for the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. I am
asking that the UN Head, Ban Ki Moon and the US President, Barack Obama
guarantee the safe and secure return of President Aristide. I believe that President Rene Preval will grow in stature if he agrees to this return. In fact, Preval was once the second in command to Aristide. Perhaps nature has given the politicians what they could not have envisioned themselves, that is, a way to resolve the constitutional issue of two elected presidents. Why can’t President Preval now form a joint presidency as Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah formed in Guinea? This is an African solution to the political crisis and to the moral and psychological issues facing the country. President Aristide, one of the most generous, intelligent, and consistent leaders in Haiti’s history will certainly use his powers to rally the Haitian people once again to resilience and victory. I know President Aristide and I know that he is in pain about the conditions in Haiti. Let the international community call for his return to help minister to and rally his people.