By Robert Parry
January 13, 2010
Announcing emergency help for
devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake, President
Barack Obama noted
Americans understand how important
In modern times, when
consciousness, it's usually because of some natural
disaster or a violent political upheaval, and the
response is often paternalistic, if not tinged with a
racist disdain for the country's predominantly black
population and its seemingly endless failure to escape
cycles of crushing poverty.
However, more than two centuries ago,
one of the most important neighbors of the new American
Republic and played a central role in enabling the
In the 1700s, then-called St. Domingue and covering the
western third of the island of
French colony that rivaled the American colonies as the
most valuable European possession in the Western
Hemisphere. Relying on a ruthless exploitation of
African slaves, French plantations there produced
nearly one-half the world's coffee and sugar.
Many of the great cities of
to the wealth that was extracted from
slaves. But the human price was unspeakably high. The
French had devised a fiendishly cruel slave system that
imported enslaved Africans for work in the fields with
accounting procedures for their amortization. They were
literally worked to death.
The American colonists may have rebelled against Great
Parliament and arbitrary actions by King George III.
But black Haitians confronted a brutal system of
slavery. An infamous French method of executing a
troublesome slave was to insert a gunpowder charge into
his rectum and then detonate the explosive.
So, as the American colonies fought for their freedom
in the 1770s and as that inspiration against tyranny
"liberty, equality and fraternity" resonated with
special force. Slaves demanded that the concepts of
freedom be applied universally.
When the brutal French plantation system continued,
violent slave uprisings followed. Hundreds of white
plantation owners were slain as the rebels overran the
colony. A self-educated slave named Toussaint
L'Ouverture emerged as the revolution's leader,
demonstrating skills on the battlefield and in the
complexities of politics.
Despite the atrocities committed by both sides of the
conflict, the rebels - known as the "Black Jacobins" -
gained the sympathy of the American Federalist Party
and particularly Alexander Hamilton, a native of the
Secretary, helped L'Ouverture draft a constitution for
the new nation.
But events in Paris and Washington soon conspired to
undo the promise of
Thomas Jefferson who owned 180 slaves and owed his
political strength to agrarian interests, looked
nervously at the slave rebellion in St. Domingue. "If
something is not done, and soon done,"
in 1797, "we shall be the murderers of our own children."
Meanwhile, across the
of the French Revolution led to the ascendance of
Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant and vain military
commander possessed of legendary ambition. As he
expanded his power across
of rebuilding a French empire in the
aligned with those of Napoleon. The French dictator was
determined to restore French control of St. Domingue
Through secret diplomatic channels, Napoleon asked
Jefferson if the
traveling by sea to St. Domingue.
that "nothing will be easier than to furnish your army
and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint
[L'Ouverture] to starvation."
But Napoleon had a secret second phase of his plan that
he didn't share with
had subdued L'Ouverture and his rebel force, Napoleon
intended to advance to the North American mainland,
basing a new French empire in
the vast territory west of the
In May 1801,
Napoleon's other agenda. Alarmed at the prospect of a
major European power controlling
the mouth of the strategic Mississippi River,
backpedaled on his commitment to Napoleon, retreating
to a posture of neutrality.
Still - terrified at the prospect of a successful
republic organized by freed African slaves - Jefferson
took no action to block Napoleon's thrust into the
In 1802, a French expeditionary force achieved initial
success against the slave army, driving L'Ouverture's
forces back into the mountains. But, as they retreated,
the ex-slaves torched the cities and the plantations,
destroying the colony's once-thriving economic infrastructure.
L'Ouverture, hoping to bring the war to an end,
accepted Napoleon's promise of a negotiated settlement
that would ban future slavery in the country. As part
of the agreement, L'Ouverture turned himself in.
Napoleon, however, broke his word. Jealous of
L'Ouverture, who was regarded by some admirers as a
general with skills rivaling Napoleon's, the French
dictator had L'Ouverture shipped in chains back to
Infuriated by the betrayal, L'Ouverture's young
generals resumed the war with a vengeance. In the
months that followed, the French army - already
decimated by disease - was overwhelmed by a fierce
enemy fighting in familiar terrain and determined not
to be put back into slavery.
Napoleon sent a second French army, but it too was
destroyed. Though the famed general had conquered much
best troops, in St. Domingue before abandoning his campaign.
The death toll among the ex-slaves was much higher, but
they had prevailed, albeit over a devastated land.
By 1803, a frustrated Napoleon - denied his foothold in
the New World - agreed to sell
made possible despite
collaboration with Napoleon.
"By their long and bitter struggle for independence,
St. Domingue's blacks were instrumental in allowing the
Chester Miller in his book, The Wolf by the Ears:
Thomas Jefferson and Slavery.
But, Miller observed, "the decisive contribution made
by the black freedom fighters . went almost unnoticed
by the Jeffersonian administration."
The loss of L'Ouverture's leadership dealt a severe
scholar Paul Finkelman of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
"Had Toussaint lived, it's very likely that he would
have remained in power long enough to put the nation on
a firm footing, to establish an order of succession,"
Finkelman told me in an interview. "The entire
subsequent history of
Instead, the island nation continued a downward spiral.
In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the radical slave
leader who had replaced L'Ouverture, formally declared
the nation's independence and returned it to its
original Indian name,
fearing a return of the French and a counterrevolution,
Dessalines ordered the massacre of the remaining French
whites on the island.
Though the Haitian resistance had blunted Napoleon's
planned penetration of the North American mainland,
Jefferson reacted to the shocking bloodshed in
imposing a stiff economic embargo on the island nation.
In 1806, Dessalines himself was brutally assassinated,
touching off a cycle of political violence that would
For some scholars,
represented an ugly blemish on his legacy as a historic
advocate of freedom. Even in his final years, Jefferson
remained obsessed with
of American slavery.
In the 1820s, the former President proposed a scheme
for taking away the children born to black slaves in
way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and
black population could be phased out. Eventually, in
seriously and American slavery would continue for
another four decades until it was ended by the Civil
War. The official hostility of the
Haiti extended almost as long, ending in 1862 when
President Abraham Lincoln finally granted diplomatic recognition.
By then, however,
political violence and economic chaos had been long
established - continuing up to the present time.
Personal and political connections between
light-skinned elite and power centers of
also have lasted through today.
Recent Republican administrations have been
particularly hostile to the popular will of the
impoverished Haitian masses. When leftist priest Jean-
Bertrand Aristide was twice elected by overwhelming
margins, he was ousted both times - first during the
presidency of George H.W. Bush and again under
President George W. Bush.
the country is a hopeless basket case that would best
be governed by business-oriented technocrats who would
take their marching orders from the
However, the Haitian people have a different
perspective. Unlike most Americans who have no idea
about their historic debt to
this history quite well. The bitter memories of
Haitians of all classes feel toward the outside world.
country," Aristide once told me in an interview. "We
understand, as we still understand, it wasn't easy for
them - American, French and others - to accept our independence."
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in
the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of
George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam
and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His
two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of
the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'
are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.