Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti and America's Historic Debt

Haiti and America's Historic Debt


By Robert Parry

January 13, 2010


    Announcing emergency help for Haiti after a

    devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake, President

    Barack Obama noted America's historic ties to

    the impoverished Caribbean nation, but few

    Americans understand how important Haiti's

    contribution to U.S. history was.


In modern times, when Haiti does intrude on U.S.

consciousness, it's usually because of some natural

disaster or a violent political upheaval, and the U.S.

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, Haiti represented

one of the most important neighbors of the new American

Republic and played a central role in enabling the

United States to expand westward. If not for Haiti, the

course of U.S. history could have been very different,

with the United States possibly never expanding much

beyond the Appalachian Mountains.


In the 1700s, then-called St. Domingue and covering the

western third of the island of Hispaniola, Haiti was a

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 France owe their grandeur

to the wealth that was extracted from Haiti and its

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

Britain over issues such as representation in

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

spread to France in the 1780s, the repercussions would

eventually reach Haiti, where the Jacobins' cry of

"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

Caribbean himself. Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury

Secretary, helped L'Ouverture draft a constitution for

the new nation.




But events in Paris and Washington soon conspired to

undo the promise of Haiti's new freedom.


Despite Hamilton's sympathies, some Founders, including

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," Jefferson wrote

in 1797, "we shall be the murderers of our own children."


Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the chaos and excesses

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 Europe, Napoleon also dreamed

of rebuilding a French empire in the Americas.


In 1801, Jefferson became the third President of the

United States - and his interests at least temporarily

aligned with those of Napoleon. The French dictator was

determined to restore French control of St. Domingue

and Jefferson was eager to see the slave rebellion crushed.


Through secret diplomatic channels, Napoleon asked

Jefferson if the United States would help a French army

traveling by sea to St. Domingue. Jefferson replied

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 Jefferson. Once the French army

had subdued L'Ouverture and his rebel force, Napoleon

intended to advance to the North American mainland,

basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling

the vast territory west of the Mississippi River.


In May 1801, Jefferson picked up the first inklings of

Napoleon's other agenda. Alarmed at the prospect of a

major European power controlling New Orleans and thus

the mouth of the strategic Mississippi River, Jefferson

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 New World.


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

Europe where he was mistreated and died in prison.


Foiled Plans


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

of Europe, he lost 24,000 men, including some of his

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 New Orleans and the

Louisiana territories to Jefferson. Ironically, the

Louisiana Purchase, which opened the heart of the

present United States to American settlement, had been

made possible despite Jefferson's misguided

collaboration with Napoleon.


"By their long and bitter struggle for independence,

St. Domingue's blacks were instrumental in allowing the

United States to more than double the size of its

territory," wrote Stanford University professor John

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

blow to Haiti's prospects, according to Jefferson

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 Haiti might have been different."


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, Haiti. A year later, apparently

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 Haiti by

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

haunt Haiti for the next two centuries.


Jefferson's Blemish


For some scholars, Jefferson's vengeful policy toward

Haiti - like his personal ownership of slaves -

represented an ugly blemish on his legacy as a historic

advocate of freedom. Even in his final years, Jefferson

remained obsessed with Haiti and its link to the issue

of American slavery.


In the 1820s, the former President proposed a scheme

for taking away the children born to black slaves in

the United States and shipping them to Haiti. In that

way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and America's

black population could be phased out. Eventually, in

Jefferson's view, Haiti would be all black and the

United States white.


Jefferson's deportation scheme never was taken very

seriously and American slavery would continue for

another four decades until it was ended by the Civil

War. The official hostility of the United States toward

Haiti extended almost as long, ending in 1862 when

President Abraham Lincoln finally granted diplomatic recognition.


By then, however, Haiti's destructive patterns of

political violence and economic chaos had been long

established - continuing up to the present time.

Personal and political connections between Haiti's

light-skinned elite and power centers of Washington

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.


Washington's conventional wisdom on Haiti holds that

the country is a hopeless basket case that would best

be governed by business-oriented technocrats who would

take their marching orders from the United States.


However, the Haitian people have a different

perspective. Unlike most Americans who have no idea

about their historic debt to Haiti, many Haitians know

this history quite well. The bitter memories of

Jefferson and Napoleon still feed the distrust that

Haitians of all classes feel toward the outside world.


"In Haiti, we became the first black independent

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 His

two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of

the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost

History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'

are also available there. Or go to


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