A Piece Of Africa Transported To The New World

Africa,Colonialism,Democracy,Foreign Aid,Foreign Policy,History,Race,The West


So David S. Landes described Haiti in a 1986 article for The New Republic, entitled “Slaves and Slaughter.” The article harks back to a time when scholarship was more honest. Excerpts:

“Like the United States, Haiti won its freedom by driving out a European power in what Robert Palmer has called the age of democratic revolution. Haiti was known then as Saint-Domingue and was France’s richest colonial possession. Its wealth came from sugar and coffee, above all from sugar, cultivated on large and middling plantations by slave labor. These blacks made up more than 90 percent of the population. Saint-Domingue was in effect a piece of Africa transported to the New World. …

The blacks in the huts and fields, though touched by the white man’s faith, retained a mix of African beliefs and practices that we still know as voodoo, with a strong component of sorcery. Whites and yellows spoke French. Blacks spoke a Creole mix of French and various west African tongues. Two worlds cohabited, both of them brutalized and terrorized by a relationship of power and exploitation. The great mass of sullen, smoldering slaves had to be kept in line by whip and fire. Their white masters, quick to punish, had nightmares of slave revolt. …

Nothing is so ferocious as a race war. It is war to the death. Black bands surged through the land, killing every white they could, from the oldest of invalids to suckling babes. White garrisons sallied forth and returned atrocity for atrocity. Prisoners were routinely massacred, which only discouraged surrender. There was even an anticipation of the Nazi gas chambers. The French fitted out a ship as a mass extermination machine: blacks were driven down into the hold and asphyxiated by noxious fumes. The name of the vessel: The Stifler. It was one of the quieter ways to go. …

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was filled with an immense, unappeasable bitterness. He drove out the rest of the French forces, and on January 1, 1804, proclaimed independence in terms that evoked the crimes of the past and promised more blood to come: “Citizens, look about you for your wives, husbands, brothers, sisters. Look for your children, your nursing babies. Where have they gone?” And then Dessalines personally led a massacre of every remaining French man, woman, and child in the country, excepting only a handful of doctors and clergy. …

Haiti has cherished the memory of Toussaint…

The effect of these barbarities is still being felt. The legacy of fire and blood was a population reduced almost by half and an economy in ruins. Fields and cities were laid waste; the sugar mills were a rusting mass of scrap iron and ashes. The houses were gone, the huts were empty. Nor were reconstruction and resumption possible, because the freed slaves wanted nothing to do with employment. No one wanted to work for another, because that was what slavery was all about. Instead, each wanted his own plot, to grow food for consumption and perhaps coffee for market. …

Sugar was finished. Even coffee exports dwindled, from 77 million pounds in 1789, at the peak of colonial prosperity, to 43 million in 1801, 32 million in 1832. As foreign earnings shrank, Haiti found it ever harder to make up domestic food shortages by imports. In the end, the government had to give up its hope of restoring cash crops and had to encourage subsistence farming. As the population increased, plots grew smaller, the earth poorer, people hungrier–a downward spiral of squalor and immiserization. …

It was a poor basis for a democratic polity. This was a country with an elective presidential regime, but it quickly acquired the characteristics of pillage politics. Poor as Haiti was, there was always some surplus to be appropriated. The property of the ruling elite was there for the taking by any coterie strong enough to seize the reins. So in 150 years, Haiti ran through some 30 heads of state, almost none of whom finished his term or got out at the end of it.

Many of them died to leave office, and their departures were followed by bloody, racist massacres–blacks revenging themselves on yellows, the yellows getting theirs back. In the long run, the blacks had the best of it, if only because there were more of them and they were the standard-bearers of unconditional negritude. …

THE ONLY period of relative tranquility was the 20 years of American presence. From 1915 to 1934, a regiment of United States Marines helped keep order, improved communications, and provided the stability needed to make the political system work and to facilitate trade with the outside. Even a benevolent occupation creates resistance, though, not only among the beneficiaries, but also among the more enlightened members of the dominant society. Progressive Americans, including Paul Douglas (then a professor, later a senator from Illinois), reminded their compatriots that it was the United States, in the person of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, that had bestowed on Haiti its new constitution, which proudly affirmed that “the Republic of Haiti is one and indivisible, free, sovereign and independent.” (FDR said “modestly: “… if I do say it, I think it is a pretty good constitution.”) Douglas went on to warn his countrymen against the “slippery slopes” of imperialism. The United States should teach the techniques of administration and then leave the Haitians to govern themselves. To be sure, Haiti might not be ready for that, but if we couldn’t do the job in 20 years, “there was little likelihood of our ever being able to do so.” …

No doubt. The United States left two years early, under the pressure of popular hostility and government opposition. The legislature then voted a new constitution (so much for Roosevelt’s efforts), which enhanced Presidential authority without improving the assurance of tenure. Coup followed coup, until the election of François Duvalier in 1957.

It would be rash to predict happiness for Haiti. Nothing in history justifies anything but faith and hope. But there are some six million people there and counting–abysmally poor 80 percent illiterate, yet full of expectation–some 700 miles from our coast. We had better find something more potent and productive than charity.

David S. Landes is Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics at Harvard. His latest book is Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Harvard University Press).

5 thoughts on “A Piece Of Africa Transported To The New World

  1. George Pal

    “We had better find something more potent and productive than charity.”

    Why? How? When? Who? Prof. Landes’s history and diagnosis are well and good, the solicitude understandable, the remedy – he doesn’t know or will not say. I’ll say it for him.

    Stop the charity – aid and investment; they are plunder and attract thieves, and, they are a narcotic. Then, either occupy the country or leave it to laissez-faire.

    If it’s to be occupation, then set the country straight. This would take several generations, would be opposed by the population and by those who oppose the occupier. The cost, considering the base, would be too high. This is not an option for any but a superpower – or still believes it’s one.

    If laissez-faire, then let the chips fall. This is probably not an option. Solicitude, being so abundant, and having its own narcotic effect, will not be ignored, which brings us full circle to charity, the efficacy of which is it is balm to the giver.

  2. james huggins

    Let’s do what we are going to do in Haiti and get out. If we want to issue humanitarian aid in the future then let’s do so but send no more cash down there to be stolen by the authorities. (Not a bad idea for most of the countries sucking up American aid.) Looking at the way the US seems to want to move in to third world rat holes and try to make them democracy when they don’t want it, I see Haiti as a permanent albatross hung around our necks. Mostly to placate the black power structure here at home.

  3. Myron Pauli

    Here is what the late, great Warren Harding said on American Haiti policy in 1920:

    “Practically all we know is that thousands of native Haitians have been killed by American Marines, and that many of our own gallant men have sacrificed their lives at the behest of an Executive department in order to establish laws drafted by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. … I will not empower an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to draft a constitution for helpless neighbors in the West Indies and jam it down their throats at the point of bayonets borne by US Marines.”

    The Assistant SecNav was FDR, a great fabricator of constitutions (and not prone to obey our own!).

    Tax-cutter and surplus-generator Harding also said in 1920:

    “America’s present need is…. not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality”

    The trillions of aid given by the West to African dictators have made Africa worse. Our foreign policy should be for self-defense and keeping trade open – that would be far better than the unconstitutional combination of aid, interference, domestic food subsidies, etc. Sadly, I see no solution for Haiti other than internal self-improvement.

  4. Bob Harrison

    “Poor as Haiti was, there was always some surplus to be appropriated.”
    There is always “surplus” to be appropriated when “surplus” is defined by those doing the appropriation.

  5. Stephen W. Browne

    IMHO one of the unexamined questions of the American Civil War, was how much the example of Haiti terrified the South at the prospect of universal manumission.

    And if you like a good true adventure story, you could do worse than find the long out-of-print “and a few Marines…” by Lt. Col. John W. Thomason Jr. USMC, once known as “the Kipling of the Corps.”

    He tells the story of one Sgt. Herman Henry Hannekin, who infiltrated the camp of a Haitian bandit ‘Charlemagne’ in blackface disguise.

    At night when the bandit gang were gathered around a campfire, he threw an explosive into the fire and in the confusion, shot Charlemagne, threw his body over a horse and brought it back to base!

    We all know imperialism is always and forever a Bad Thing – but damn, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

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