History

The Citadel of King Henri Cristophe

The Spanish Period
Haiti is a land of contrasts and contradictions deeply rooted in its past. Poverty and wealth, elegance and degradation, the highest idealism and basest self interest, touching generosity and unspeakable brutality are common elements throughout its history.

On his first voyage to the New World Columbus arrived in what is now Haiti to find a mountainous forested land inhabited by Arawak speaking Taino Indians. The Taino’s were by all accounts a peaceful people and welcomed the newcomers. The first permanent European settlement in the New World was soon established and the western portion of the island of Hispanola became the Spanish colony of San Dominge.

In 1492 when Columbus landed the Taino population has been variously estimated at several hundred thousand. Subject to disease, rape, brutality, enslavement and cultural disintegration the Indian population rapidly declined. By 1507 the Spanish were well established enough to carry out a census. At that point Tainos numbered some 60,000. By 1531 only 600 were left. To make up the shortfall in labor slaves from Africa began to be imported.

The French Period
The Spanish period lasted 185 years. Then in 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick ceded the colony to France and it became Saint-Domingue. By 1791, when the Haitian Revolution began, the population was made up of about 500,000 slaves, 30,000 free "persons of color" (i.e. free blacks and mulattoes) and 20,000 whites. The latter were further divided into two distinct groups, the wealthy planters or grand blancs and the poorer whites or petit blancs. Of the slaves many had escaped over the centuries and tens of thousands lived free in the mountains. These maroons as they were called occasionally raided isolated plantations and provided a ready made base of support for guerrilla warfare in the revolution to come. To assure the maintenance of the racial superiority and distinction of the whites with no blurring of racial boundaries some sixty four named categories of coloredness were recognized among the mulattoes.

In one of the many contradictions which make up Haitian history, the French, unlike the British and Spanish, recognized slaves as humans and with that certain moral obligations to them. Since 1665 the "Code Noir" recognized under French law the equal rights of free blacks and made humanitarian provisions for the treatment of slaves. Despite this slavery in Saint-Domingue was the most brutal in the Americas and recalcitrant slaves elsewhere were threatened with being sold to Saint-Domingue. The death rate was so high and the birth rate so low among the slaves that tens of thousands were imported each year and even after three centuries of slavery most of the slave population was still born in Africa.

When the revolution began Saint-Domingue was the richest colony in the New World. The value of exports of sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, tobacco, cotton, sisal and other crops exceeded the exports of even the newly independent United States. Despite the economic prosperity, however, there was considerable political unrest. Notions of freedom, independence, equality and the brotherhood of man had been unleashed by the American and French revolutions. The grand blancs, captive to the exclusif policy which restricted their foreign trade to France alone, were attracted to the idea of independence but fearful of losing their slaves to republican notions of equality they tended to royalist sentiment. The petit blancs who had franchise but no wealth favored the egalitarianism of the Jacobins but only so far as it applied to themselves. They opposed emancipation of the slaves and any extension of power to the mulattoes. The mulattoes, often themselves wealthy slave owners, opposed emancipation but were eager for political and social equality with the whites. The slaves of course wanted freedom above all whether it came as citizens of France or of an independent nation. The maroons seemed to prefer independence and driving out the whites entirely.

The Revolution
Skirmishes and political maneuvering among the whites, mulattoes and the colonial adminstration presaged the revolution which began in proper in 1791 with a large scale slave uprising. Most of the plantations in the northern and richest part of the colony were destroyed and over 1000 whites were killed. Men were tortured to death in a variety of brutal ways, women raped and murdered, and children impaled on poles to serve as standards of the revolt. Such atrocities were in fact fairly ordinary in terms of routine treatment of slaves which had been going on for nearly three centuries. Nevertheless it was a shock to be on the receiving end and the countryside along with the economic base of the colony was effectively abandoned to the rebels.

The revolution continued for the next 13 years. The shifting alliances and treacheries of the various factions during this period is a complex story beyond the scope of this brief overview. The overall pattern was one of stalemate in which the colonialists retained control of the major towns but were unable to bring their forces to bear against rebels waging guerrilla war in rugged jungle and mountain terrain. The determination of the rebels to retain their freedom was badly underestimated as was their surprisingly rapid development of a genuine military capacity. Toussaint L’Ouverture in particular showed great leadership as well as real tactical, strategic, and diplomatic ability. He is sometimes described as the George Washington of Haiti. In the latter part of the revolution he was in fact afforded some support from the fledgling United States. His one fatal failing was to trust the French to act honorably which resulted in his death in a French prison.

During the course of the revolution European wars brought Britain and Spain into involvement in Haiti. The former invaded and occupied several of the main towns for an extended period. Through dominance of the royal navy in the Caribbean they also impeded logistic support for the French forces. Aside from harassing the French, the British seemed to be interested chiefly in suppressing or containing the threat it presented to their own slave labor based colony in nearby Jamaica. The Spanish provided military support and a safe retreat for the rebels from their adjacent colony of Santo Domingo. This support appears to have been based more on the principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" than any real sympathy with the slaves.

By 1801 Toussaint had gained effective control of the colony and proclaimed a new constitution with himself as governor for life of what was still proclaimed to be a French colony. The British had also withdrawn and many plantations had been put back into production, albeit with forced labor. Early the next year during a break in European hostilities Napoleon launched an invasion in force to re-establish absolute control by France. This proved to be the death spasm of colonialism in Haiti. With some 17,000 fresh troops the French achieved some initial success but yellow fever soon decimated the French forces. Many rebels remained undefeated in the countryside and many more were still under arms and under command of their own generals having ostensibly sided with the French. During the last year of the revolution the war on both sides became one of racial extermination with extreme cruelty as the preferred method. In May 1803 England and France were again at war and the French lines of supply were severed by a complete blockade. At the end of November the French withdrew their last troops and on 31 December 1803 Saint-Domingue was declared the independent republic of Haiti. The name comes from an Arawak word meaning mountainous land. Haiti was only the second colony in the New World to become an independent nation and the only revolt by slaves in history which ended in freedom.

Many Haitians believe that Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti thwarted his larger objective of realizing his imperial desires in the New World and in particular Louisiana. In this view Haiti saved the United States from invasion by France a favor for which the U.S. has never properly acknowledged or shown any gratitude. The ultimate intentions of Napoleon and whether he would have fared any better than the British against the Americans are of course matters for conjecture.

Independent Haiti
After a brief power struggle a capable but ruthless general, Dessalines, emerged victorious and proclaimed himself emperor of the new nation. Initially he followed the lead of Toussaint in encouraging whites to stay or return to re-establish the plantations. In 1805 however he unleashed a massacre of the remaining whites after which the plantation economy was never re-established. After a short reign Dessalines was assinated. He was followed by a King, the former revolutionary general, Henri Cristophe. Cristophe built an elegant palace, Sans Souci and an extraordinary mountaintop fortress the Citadelle Laferrière. After Cristophe there comes a long line of presidents and the emergence of the pattern of life which persists to this day.

A small urban elite, French in language and culture, mostly mulatto in origin, tends to dominate in politics and the money economy. The urban poor and rural peasants make up the vast majority. In race culture and society they are African. Their economy is one of subsistence. Their language is Creole, French in vocabulary, African in grammar and syntax. With rare exception the urban elite has ran Haiti. Only a few Haitian presidents have been replaced by popular election. Most have either died in office or been replaced by a coup. Through a succession of such governments not much has changed politically.

U.S. Intervention
In 1915 a period of particular political unrest in Haiti grew into chaos. In response to this and their own ideas of their rightful role in the hemisphere the U.S. invaded. A military government administered by U.S. marines continued until 1934. The marines though widely respected as soldiers are not noted as great civilian administrators. Although the military occupation provided a period of political calm and some improvement to the infrastructure, mainly roads, nothing of any permanence was achieved. When the U.S. withdrew it was back to business as usual in Haitian politics.

Business as usual however has becoming increasingly difficult. Population has increased from about a half million at the time of independence to around seven million today. With a land area of some 10,000 square miles of mostly mountainous terrain subsistence agriculture is no longer sufficient to support the population. Desperate poverty makes politics more uncertain than ever and Haiti faces the acute necessity of genuine economic and political change.

In 1993-94 political turmoil and poverty lead to an increasing flow of refugees from Haiti to the U.S. With the logic and morality of politics the U.S. imposed an embargo to punish large numbers of the innocent in order to put pressure on the guilty. The result was more refugees and another U.S. invasion.  This was followed by a U.N. peacekeeping mission to provide political security for the government of Haiti to undertake necessary reforms. Large amounts of foreign aid were to be made available but tied to specific reforms or achievements. Ongoing internal political rivalries and disagreements have prevented much of the required reforms.

The Future
Haiti is in many respects a magical land with a rich history and culture, great scenic beauty and a perceptible aura of mystery. Haitians love their country and are proud of their history, their freedom and their independence. What happens next is of broad import. Haiti is in certain respects a glimpse of the future. Over the coming decades more and more nations will begin to reach the limits of their resources and of their environment to support their growing population. Compounding this is an increasing standard of living requiring more and more for each of the ever increasing multitude. The future shape of human life depends on the solutions achieved. Just as it did in its struggle for independence Haiti has gotten there a bit ahead of most others. It’s worth watching.

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