Having broken free of the shackles of French colonial slavery, 210 years ago today Haiti become an independent country and in doing so became the first, and only, country to be born out of a successful slave revolt.
Despite its huge historically significance, the scope of the human ideals upon which Haiti gained its independence from a brutal colonial ruler is often lost in the modern narrative about the country.
In gaining its independence Haiti superseded the French and American revolutions that came before it as it became “the first and most dramatic emergence of the ideal of human rights - beyond race, nation or gender - in the modern world.” Whilst the French Revolution was about social justice and the American Revolution sought to end colonial rule, “Neither seriously considered putting an end to human slavery.” In this sense, Haiti was “the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all its citizens”. Haiti’s abolition of slavery came some fifty-nine years before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect in the United States and that even dedicate humanitarians of the time, by comparison, “failed to recognize the full equality of all persons” as the Haitians had.
The scope of the Haitian revolution was such that has been described as “the most thorough case study of revolutionary change anywhere in the history of the modern world” and that it represents “one of the truly noteworthy achievements in the annals of world history”.
Despite these achievements their historical significance is largely unknown.
Cost of Independence
The modern narrative of Haiti is one of an impoverished country, bedevilled with internal strife, political corruption and instability with Haiti being portrayed as a nation essentially unable to govern itself.(1) Haiti is also constantly referred to as the poorest in the western hemisphere but rarely is accompanied by a historical narrartive that explains the roots of this poverty.
Delve back into its history and one sees that Haiti was in fact once the source of prodigious wealth the world's leading producer of a number of goods that were at the time part of the bedrock of international trade, notably coffee and sugar. Haiti’s sugar production alone in 1742 exceeded all of that of the British West Indies and by 1789 the wealth created by the small Caribbean colony alone was the equivalent to well over twice that of the Britain's entire colonial trade.(2)
Instead of economic prosperity, however, the newly independent Haiti found itself in an international context of isolation and aggressive military moves against it which “aggravated its internal problems and precipitated its economic decline.”(3)
Upon self-liberation Haiti found itself “in a world entirely hostile to the idea of self-governing blacks”(4) as most of the European great powers “had slave based colonies in the Caribbean, and the United States had a sizeable servile population within its own borders.” The Haitian success set a precedent that embolden other slave societies to resist colonial rule and consequently the newly independent country was deliberately undermined by the world powers to “prevent the contagion of rebellion from spreading to other slaves in the New World”.
Haiti’s successful slave rebellion was seen as a dramatic challenge to the prevailing world order and was therefore not to be tolerated.
The world powers refused to recognise Haiti’s sovereignty and prevented it from trading on the world market but the brutality and the destruction of the slave revolt was such that upon independence the country and its people were extremely susceptibility to external pressures, both economic and military: “With its economy ruined by its revolutionary war, Haiti was forced to agree to unfair trading relationships with nations that refused to recognize its sovereignty.”
In 1825, France sent an armada to retake Haiti and a French invasion was averted only when the young nation agreed to pay an indemnity and accept French trading terms. The French indemnity was a demand for reparations but absurdly “not just for the losses of French plantations but for the losses of their slaves, too.”(5)
Even when reduced the indemnity represented “an immense sum” and one that was “far more than Haiti could afford.” As a result, paying off the indemnity “shackle[d] the fiscal operations of Haitian governments” and set the country on a course of development the evidence of which is still visible today. Not only therefore did the indemnity extract a high price for independence but it was also “basis of perennial financial crises in Haiti for the next century.”(6)
By 1900 Haiti “was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments” of loans borrowed to pay the French instead of investing in development and infrastructure. Paying off the indemnity and its interest left Haiti “destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.”
The indemnity itself was not paid off until 1947 and has lasting effects to this day.
Instead of being hailed for the immense human achievement that its self-liberation was, this history is largely forgotten or ignored in the discourse about Haiti.
Today Haiti is seen as a poverty stricken nation that is essentially unable to govern itself rather than being recognised for its rich history and prolonged external subjugation that has so blighted the country’s development. What followed this defiant act of liberation from the shackles of human bondage was international isolation, threats of violence and war, and ultimately a crippling indemnity that has blighted and deprived the Haitian people through the massive and prolonged diversion of resources, casting a potent legacy the burden of which still has a powerful and negative influence to this day.
For the present day narrative about Haiti that apportions its current plight almost entirely to Haiti alone with little or no reference to external forces to change we must remember its history.
Previous Peace News blogs about Haiti are available here:
1. Potter, Amy E., (2009) Voodoo, zombies, and mermaids: U.S. newspaper coverage of Haiti, The Geological Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, pp. 208-230
2. Schmidt, Hans (1971) The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934, Toronto: Rutgers State University Press, p. 20
3. Lacerte, Robert K., (1981) Xenophobia and Economic Decline: The Haitian Case, 1820-1843, The Americas, Vol. 37, No. 4, p. 505
4. Farmer, Paul (1992) AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, London: University of California Press, p. 164
5. Farmer, Paul (2011) After the Earthquake, New York: PublicAffairs, p. 127
6. Schmidt (1971), p. 25