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Haiti: A History in Shadow

Although widely unknown and uncelebrated Haiti's history actually “played an inordinately important role in the articulation of a version of human rights” that promotes universality.

Whilst today is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation it is also the anniversary of another historic event, although one that is little known by comparison, that actually saw the end to slavery, Haitian independence.

It is widely accepted that the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation did not in of itself actually bring about the end to slavery in the US, so not only did the Haitian revolution put an end to slavery some 59 years in advance of even this comparatively limited event, but it also did so on the basis of human ideals that superseded even those of the French revolution; Haiti's revolution had at its heart the notion of universality.

On 1 January, 1804 Haitians officially declared their independence from their French colonial masters that had so brutally enslaved them and in doing so Haiti became the first nation to be born from a successful slave revolt.

To this day, Haiti is the only country in history to have done so, making it a truly unique nation.

Human Ideals

Despite its huge historically significance, the history of the scope of these human ideals is often lost in the modern narrative about the country and is also distinctly uncelebrated for the human triumph that it was.(1)

Following the United States victory for independence against a European colonial ruler in 1776 Haiti, in 1804, become only the second New World republic. Upon its gaining of independence anthropologist Ira Lowenthal has observed that Haiti was more than simply the second New World republic, more than simply “the first black republic of the modern world”.(2) The historical importance of the Haitian revolution is often left unstated, but in gaining its independence Haiti superseded the French and American revolutions that came before it, in the words of Professor J. Michael Dash, the Haitian revolution, above all else, became “the first and most dramatic emergence of the ideal of human rights - beyond race, nation or gender - in the modern world. The French Revolution was about social justice. The American Revolution sought an end to colonial rule. Neither seriously considered putting an end to human slavery.”(3)

The importance of the “frequently overlooked” contribution of the Haitian revolution “lies in its fundamental articulation of the notion of human rights, not just in Haiti but also throughout the world.” Whilst Europeans thought in terms of civil rights rather than general human rights, “the fundamental concept of a common humanity ran deeply through the early Haitian constitutions”, indeed, “Haiti was the first country to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all its citizens”.(4) Consequently, the scale and scope of the revolution is such that has been described as “the most thorough case study of revolutionary change anywhere in the history of the modern world”(5) and that it represents “one of the truly noteworthy achievements in the annals of world history”.(6)

This little known history “played an inordinately important role in the articulation of a version of human rights” that promoted universality and yet because it is little known in modern conceptions neither democracy nor the exercise of human rights are commonly associated with Haiti.(7)

It is perhaps also worth noting again at this point that Haiti's abolition of slavery came some 59 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.(8)

“Haiti’s story is as much about the unthinkable,” Professor J. Michael Dash writes, “of illiterate captive Africans taking hold of the ideals of the Enlightenment and boldly entering modern history - as it is about a terrible and prolonged experiment in neo-colonialism.”(9)

The Long Shadow of Revolution

Historian Donald Hickey recounts that the Haitian slave revolt against the French in the 1790s “cast a long shadow over the history of the New World”.(10) Indeed, upon self-liberation, Paul Farmer succinctly states, “the Haitians found themselves in a a world entirely hostile to the idea of self-governing blacks.”(11) The reason being that 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.”

In concurrence with Hickey, Franklin Knight also notes that the Haitian success “cast an inevitable shadow over all slave societies.” The result of which was that “[a]ntislavery movements grew stronger and bolder, especially in Great Britain, and the colonial slaves themselves became increasingly more restless.”(12) Consequently, having abolished slavery and resisted colonial rule Andrew Pinto outlines that “Haiti was not easily tolerated by European powers or by the slave-owning United States”.(13)

In this regard Laurent Dubois writes that Haiti's slave revolt and subsequent independence was “a dramatic challenge to the world as it then was. Slavery was at the heart of the thriving system of merchant capitalism that was profiting Europe, devastating Africa, and propelling the rapid expansion of the Americas.”(14)

The result of which was that not only did other powers originally seek to prevent the revolt's success but were subsequently determined not to allow Haiti to represent a successful slave uprising which could set what these states saw as a dangerous precedent for slave societies in their own colonies and borders. Indeed, following Haiti gaining its independence Napoleon himself told one of his ministers, “The freedom of the negroes, if recognised in St Domingue and legalised by France would at all times be a rallying point for freedom-seekers of the New World.”(15)

The world powers at the time set out to “suppress the revolt” and in doing so “prevent the contagion of rebellion from spreading to other slaves in the New World”, particularly in theirs own colonies.(16)

Haiti's successful slave rebellion was seen as a dramatic challenge to the prevailing world order and was therefore not to be tolerated and instead be actively countered.

The impact of the success of the Haitian revolution in gaining independence in 1804 resulted in making it increasingly “difficult for the local political and economic elite to continue the complacent status quo of the middle of the eighteenth century” whilst whites in the Caribbean “lost the supreme confidence that they had before 1789 about their ability to maintain the slave system indefinitely.” By 1808 the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in Britain and between 1834 and 1838 the British colonial slave system was dismantled, whilst the French abolished their slave trade in 1818 with their slave system, reconstituted after 1803 in Martinique and Guadeloupe, continuing on until 1848.(17)

Cost of Independence

The modern narrative of Haiti is one of an impoverished country, bedevilled with internal strife, political corruption and instability. The 'failed state' narrative is a pervasive one, with Haiti being portrayed as a nation essentially unable to govern itself.(18) Within this narrative, few historical realities are expressed.

At the same time, the country we see today that is constantly referred to as the 'poorest in the western hemisphere' was in fact once the source of prodigious wealth. Delve back into its history and Haiti was 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. Indeed, Haiti's sugar production alone in 1742 exceeded all of that of the British West Indies and by 1789 wealth created by the small island colony was the equivalent to well over twice that of the entirety of England's colonial trade.(19)

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.”(20)

The Haitian slave revolts which culminated in independence had been raging for years and by the end of 1791, the year that they began, “had reached serious proportions”. The war for independence was both brutal and devastating for its people and the country itself.(21) During the fight for freedom much of the agricultural infrastructure was destroyed and perhaps over 150,000 people were killed.

Upon independence, only under half, 170,000, of the surviving population of 342,000 were capable of the field labour.(22) Beyond the obvious human tragedy, the particular significance of such a rapid and drastic decrease in the labour pool was the fact that Haiti's “plantation economy had built on intensive use of two production factors: labor and capital.”

As such, in the immediate post-revolution period newly freed Haitians found themselves in a position whereby what had made their lands so profitable for the colonial masters where now dramatically absent, the consequence of which was for the free nation to begin its sovereign life not as a prosperous nation but one in ruins; “The wars of liberation completely undermined the viability of the plantation system completely... by dramatically reducing the available stocks of both capital and labor.”(23)

These effects also impacted on Haiti's susceptibility to external pressures, both economic and military. “With its economy ruined by its revolutionary war,” Pinto writes, “Haiti was forced to agree to unfair trading relationships with nations that refused to recognize its sovereignty.”(24)

Unlike other imperial powers at the time, France having done so in 1825 and with Britain following suit in 1833, the US refused to recognise Haiti until 1862. This was the same year that it recognised Liberia and the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the significance of which was that following the Emancipation Proclamation in the US there was a desire within the country to not have the freed black slaves remain within the US and by recognising Haiti and Liberia the US was able to effectively deport many freed slaves to these two countries.(25)

“Absurdly,” Farmer additional points out, following Haiti's liberation “the French demanded reparations, and not just for the losses of French plantations but for the losses of their slaves, too.”(26)

In 1825, France sent an armada to retake Haiti and a French invasion was averted only when the young nation agreed to pay the demanded indemnity and accept French trading terms. The indemnity represented “an immense sum” and even when reduced in 1830 it was, as noted, still “far more than Haiti could afford.”(27) Indeed, “indebtedness to France continued to shackle the fiscal operations of Haitian governments. The initial indemnity, extracted as a price of independence from France, was the basis of perennial financial crises in Haiti for the next century.”(28)

Following the prolonged war for independence, the new Haitian nation, with “its fields burned, its plantation manors pillaged, its towns devastated by apocalyptic war, was crushed by the burden of these astronomical reparations, payments that, in one form or another, strangled the economy for more than a century.”(29)

In relation to the indemnity, particularly its lasting effect on Haiti, Historian Alex von Tunzelmann noted in 2009 that by 1900 Haiti “was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments.” In order to manage the original reparations further loans were taken out, mostly from the United States, Germany and France. The consequence of which was that instead of developing its potential through investment Haiti was instead spiralling into debt and chaos.(30) Indeed, the very first instalment of the indemnity “was paid largely through a French loan”.(31)

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.”(32)

The indemnity itself was not paid off until 1947 and has lasting effects to this day.(33)

Colonial Rule (1492 -1803)

The Colonial period of Haitian history is one characterised by a massive depopulation of the indigenous people, brought on by disease, relocation, murder and hash labour practices, which was then followed by the industrial scale importation of African slaves who in turn also suffered greatly under colonial oppression and exploitation.

Spanish Colonialism (1492-1697)

The island as a whole that constitutes modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic was called Hispaniola, Little Spain, by Christopher Columbus following his arrival there having run his ship aground in 1492. Four years later, in 1496, the Spanish established the first real European settlement in the New World and western hemisphere in what is now the Dominican Republic's capital, Santo Domingo.(34)

Within a generation of the Spanish settlement the island had its indigenous population “virtually exterminated by disease, mass murder, and oppressive labour”.(35) Indeed, by the Spaniard's own accounts of the size of the aboriginal population in 1496 and 1514 there was an almost 88% reduction between the two dates, stemming from disease and various forms of brutal oppression, including murder. According to these Spanish figures, by 1514 only 27,800 of the 2,260,000 aboriginal population in 1492 were left, a staggering toll of well over two million people.(36)

Correspondingly, by as early as 1508 it was necessary for the Spaniards to supplement the indigenous labour pool on the island with 'Indians' from various parts of the Caribbean and from Florida. After 1519, also the year of a smallpox epidemic, Hispaniola's aboriginal population “were no longer a significant labor source for the Spaniards' colonization enterprises, and they were superseded by African slaves.”(37)

The depopulation of the indigenous population under Spanish colonialism was not only all but total, but it also occurred extremely rapidly. “During the course of a single generation, the native population of Hispaniola,” writes Mats Lundahl, “for all practical purposes, had become extinct, as a result of European diseases and forced labor.” Indeed, Ralph Davis, author of The Rise of the Atlantic Economies, comes to the stark conclusion in relation to the Spanish colonial period that “Spain's gift to the New World was the destruction of its people.”(38)

French Colonialism (1697-1804)

Just over two hundred years after establishing its settlement, Spain ceded the western part of Hispaniola, modern day Haiti, to the French in 1697. This was formalised as part of the Treaty of Ryswick, the signing of which settled the Nine Years’ War (or the War of the League of Augsburg), which pitted France against the 'Grand Alliance', consisting of Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Dutch.(39)

Following the Treaty of Ryswick, what was now French Saint Domingue “prided itself, with considerable justification, on being the richest colony in the world.”(40) Haiti became the single largest exporter of sugar, coffee and other tropical produce in the world and in doing so as well as becoming the most profitable colony in the world, “by the 1780s, it was a bigger source of income for its masters than the whole of Britain's thirteen North American colonies combined. No single source of revenue made so large a contribution to the growing prosperity of the French commercial bourgeoisie” than that of Haiti.(41)

By as early as 1742 the sugar production of Saint Domingue “exceeded that of all the British West Indies” and on the eve of the French revolution it alone “accounted for more than one-third of the foreign commerce of France.” By way of monetary comparison, in 1789 £11 million was accumulated from Saint Domingue for its French colonialists whereas the whole of England's colonial trade only amounted to £5 million.(42)

“Economically,” Jon Hanley writes, the “French occupation was a runaway success. But Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade.

Conditions for Haitian slaves were atrocious, a potent signifier of which was that the average life expectancy was only 21 years.(43)


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 blight to country's development.

One of the many elements of Haitian history that is particularly tragic is that in part the modern struggle for a large majority of Haitians has roots in the country's liberation from the bonds of slavery. 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.

Instead of being hailed for the immense human achievement that this self liberation was, it is largely forgotten or ignored in the discourse about Haiti. In its place is a persistent narrative that instead focuses on the dire consequences that followed the act and not the act itself, a narrative which also, in the main, apportions these devastating events solely to Haiti with little or no reference to external forces.

For this to change, we must remember it's history.


1. See, for example, Reinhardt, Thomas (2005) 200 Years of Forgetting: Hushing up the Haitian Revolution, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 246-261

2. Cited in Farmer, Paul (1992) AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, London: University of California Press, p. 163

3. Dash, J. Michael (2004) The Disappearing Island: Haiti, History, and the Hemisphere, The Fifth Jagan Lecture and the Third Michael Baptista Lecture Presented at York University on March 20, 2004

4. Knight, Franklin W., (2005) The Haitian Revolution and the Notion of Human Rights, The Journal of The Historical Society, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 410

5. Knight, Franklin W., (2000) The Haitian Revolution, The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No.1, p. 103

6. Knight (2005), p. 391

7. Knight (2005), p. 391

8. Knight (2005), p. 392

9. Dash (2004)

10. Hickey, Donald R., (1982) America's Response to the Slave Revolt in Haiti, 1791-1806, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 361

11. Farmer (1992), p. 164

12. Knight (2000)

13. Pinto, Andrew D., (2010) Denaturalising “natural” Disasters: Haiti’s Earthquake and the Humanitarian Impulse, Open Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 4, p. 193

14. Dubois, Laurent (2004) Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, Boston: Harvard University Press, p. 347; cited by Farmer (2004b)

15. Cited by Younge, Gary (2010) The west owes Haiti a bailout. And it would be a hand-back, not a handout, The Guardian, January 31, 2010

16. Hickey (1982), p. 361

17. Knight (2005), p. 409 and p. 410

18. Potter, Amy E., (2009) Voodoo, zombies, and mermaids: U.S. newspaper coverage of Haiti, The Geological Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, pp. 208-230

19. Schmidt, Hans (1971) The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934, Toronto: Rutgers State University Press, p. 20

20. Lacerte, Robert K., (1981) Xenophobia and Economic Decline: The Haitian Case, 1820-1843, The Americas, Vol. 37, No. 4, p. 505

21. Chomsky, Noam (1993) Year 501: The Conquest Continues, Boston: South End Press, p. 199

22. Farmer (1992), p. 164

23. Lundahl, Mats (2011) Poverty in Haiti: Essays on Underdevelopment and Post Disaster Prospects, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 5

24. Pinto (2010), p. 193; Also see Hallward, Peter (2007) Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment, London: Verso

25. Chomsky (1993)

26. Farmer (2011), p. 127

27. Henley, John (2010) Haiti: A Long Descent to Hell, The Guardian, January 14, 2011

28. Schmidt (1971), p. 25

29. Danner, Mark (2010) To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature, New York Times, January 21, 2010

30. Von Tunzelmann, Alex (2009) Haiti: The Land Where Children Eat Mud, The Sunday Times, May 17, 2009

31. Lacerte (1981), p. 505

32. Von Tunzelmann (2009)

33. Pinto (2010), p. 193; Hallward (2007); Von Tunzelmann (2009)

34. Deagan, Kathleen A., (1985) Spanish-Indian Interaction in Sixteenth-Century Florida and Hispaniola, p. 282 in Fitzhugh, William W., (eds) Cultures in Contact: The Impact of European Contacts on Native American Cultural Institutions, A.D. 1000-1800, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press

35. Chomsky, Noam (1999a) Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace, London: Pluto Press, p. 229 quoting Davis, David B., (1984) Slavery and Human Progress, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 65

36. Deagan (1985), p. 290

37. Deagan (1985), p. 293

38. Lundahl (2011), p. 4 and p. 3; Later quoting Davis, Ralph (1973) The Rise of the Atlantic Economies, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 55

39. Coclanis, Peter A., (2010) The Hidden Dimension: 'European' Treaties in Global Perspective, 1500–1800, Historically Speaking, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 13; Farmer, Paul (1975) Blood, Sweat, and Baseballs: Haiti in the West Atlantic System, Dialectical Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 83-99

40. Knight (2000), p. 107

41. Hallward, Peter (2004) Option Zero in Haiti, New Left Review, No. 27, May-June 2004, p. 25; Farmer (2011), p. 124

42. Schmidt (1971), p. 20

43. Hanley (2011)

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Topics: Human rights | Haiti