From Thu Feb 5 07:45:18 2004
Date: Thu, 5 Feb 2004 05:53:18 -0600 (CST)
From: Bob Corbett <>
To: Haiti mailing list <>
Subject: 18248: Esser: Past Imperfect: Independence Day (fwd)

From: D. E s s e r <>

Past Imperfect: Independence Day

By William Jelani Cobb, Africana, 3 February 2004

200 years after overthrowing its colonial rulers, Haiti struggles with a dismally familiar slate of third world problems—not to mention a lack of respect.

The storyline is familiar: a ragtag band of revolutionaries, desperately outgunned and facing the best-equipped European power of the day. An 18th century colony staking its claim to liberty and freedom in the face of an exploitative mother country. An economy based upon the labor of thousands of enslaved Africans. And an underdog victory that creates a new independent nation.

But there is a historical plot twist here.

The revolution was a victory—not only for Haiti, but for every enslaved person in the West. In this case the revolutionaries aren't named Washington, Jefferson and Madison, but instead L'Ouverture, Dessalines and Christophe. The year is 1791—not 1776. And the revolution we're speaking of took place in the French colony of San Domingo, not British North America.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Haitian Independence. In 1804, a woefully under-equipped army of ex-slaves under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated Napoleon's Army and declared themselves a sovereign state - making Haiti second only to the United States as the oldest independent nation in the Western hemisphere. But don't expect any grand recognition of its sibling state from these shores. The US relationship with Haiti has been defined during these two centuries by fear, disdain, contempt and, ultimately, disregard. And, sadly enough, those sentiments have not been confined to the elite corners of American power.

The South Queens, NY community where I grew up was a virtual black United Nations, with families representing dozens of Caribbean and Latin American countries and a handful of immigrants from Africa itself. And that community often found itself fractured along ethnic lines: West Indians who were suspicious and distrustful of African Americans, and vice versa. Within the Caribbean community, Jamaicans found themselves at odds with Trinidadians and Trinidadians with Guyanese. But all these segments were united in their contempt for the Haitian immigrants, fueled by ignorant ideas about Haitian religious practices and conspiracy theories about the country's relationship to the AIDS virus. Disdain for Haiti was surpassed only by ridicule for Ethiopia—whose famine was the basis for humor that covered our shame by association.

But unbeknownst to us, both Ethiopia and Haiti had been the two of the most important outposts of the African Diaspora. In 1896, Ethiopian forces defeated the Italian Army at the Battle of Adowa - becoming the sole beacon of African independence during the era of colonialism. And in 1804, Haiti had set the original example of black freedom in the allegedly new world.

The facts are remarkable. Columbus had visited the island (and named it Hispaniola) in 1492; within 50 years, disease and Spanish labor policies had slashed the indigenous population from millions to fewer than 50,000. Nearly 30,000 Africans had been imported to replace them in the island's gold mines and developing sugar plantations. France seized the western portion of Hispaniola 1697 and renamed it San Domingo. Over the next century, the region became the crown jewel of the French colonial empire, producing 3/4 of the world's sugar supply and accounting for nearly a third of France's annual trade revenue.

But this kind of profit did not come easily; sugarcane is a labor intensive crop and, given the vast numbers of Africans being imported into the colony (by the end of the 18th century between 29-40,000 blacks were arriving each year), it was cheaper to simply work slaves to death and replace them than it was to spend money on decent amounts of food and clothing. At its height of sugar production, the life span of the average slave arriving in San Domingo was seven years. The cheapness of life in the colony led to insanely brutal practices by slaveholders. In Black Jacobins, his noted history of the Haitian Revolution, CLR James wrote that:

Mutilation [of] limbs, ears and sometimes private parts was common... their masters poured burning wax on their arms and hands, emptied boiling cane sugar over their heads, burned them alive, roasted them on slow fires, filled them with gunpowder and blew them up with a match...

By 1791, the French Revolution's claims to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity had echoed across the Atlantic and that same year San Domingo saw a series of uprisings. What began with an attempt to gain additional political rights for persons of mixed race (who constituted a distinct social group in the colony) quickly evolved into widespread slave revolts that destroyed almost 200 sugar plantations by the end of the year.

Led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former coachman who had been a slave until age 45, the army of ex-slaves waged a guerilla war against the island's slaveholders—and their colonial reinforcements. In 1796, L'Ouverture shocked the world by abolishing slavery and declaring himself Lieutenant Governor of the colony. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, he resolved to reestablish control over the insubordinate black population declaration, sending his brother-in-law General LeClerc to the island with 28,000 men in 1802. A year later 20,000 of them were dead—wiped out by yellow fever and L'Ouverture's ghost-like guerilla warfare tactics.

L'Ouverture was captured by French in 1802 and sent to France, where he died in prison, but his lieutenant Jean-Jacques Dessalines commanded the forces, vanquishing the remnants of LeClerc's army in November 1803. In January 1804, the territory was declared an independent nation and renamed Ayiti—the indigenous name for the island, which meant high land.

The revolution had been a victory—not only for Haiti, but for every enslaved person in the west because the Haitian uprising hastened the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The US Constitution provided 20 years of protection for the trade, but Haiti raised fears throughout the South—especially in South Carolina, where blacks constituted the majority of the population. Those fears directly influenced the outlawing of the slave trade in the US in 1808.

Haiti's founders found there were consequences to having the audacity to demand freedom. For much of its history, Haiti was treated as a pariah nation, diplomatically ignored by the western powers. The United States did not extend diplomatic recognition to Haiti until the verge of the Civil War, when it was believed that the nation might be a good dumping ground for free blacks in America. In 1915, the United States cited the Monroe Doctrine and invaded Haiti (allegedly to prevent European powers from seizing the country and grabbing a foothold in the western hemisphere during World War I). Though the U.S. cited security concerns as the rationale for the invasion, it was widely believed to have had economic motives—the US remained on the island for the next 19 years, long after the war had ended, and instituted forced labor policies that echoed Haiti's experience with the French 124 years earlier. President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed American troops in 1934, when the Great Depression made it too expensive to maintain a military presence on the island.

In the 1950s through the 1980s, the US backed the successively brutal dictatorships of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. More recently, the first Bush Administration established a policy of granting asylum to Cuban refugees almost automatically, while detaining or returning Haitians—a policy that lasted well into the Clinton years and was not modified until the activist Randall Robinson embarrassed the administration with a hunger strike.

History is full of tragic ironies. And none more than Haiti's legacy as a nation that delivered itself from the shackles of slavery only to struggle against poverty, corruption, debt and foreign powers for the next 200 years. The revolution was one of history's plot twists, but its subsequent storyline is riddled with these clich├ęs of the alleged third world. Freedom, as the maxim tell us, ain't exactly free. And in the case of Haiti, it has been more expensive than even Toussaint might have suspected.