Haiti and America's Historic Debt
by Robert Parry
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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 neckdeepbook.com. 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 Amazon.com.