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Our Debt to Haiti

The year 2010 saw devastating earthquakes hit both Haiti and Chile. The following was written March 4, 2010, in their immediate aftermath. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti pulled that small island country into the news. We need to try and keep Haiti visible – not just in its current suffering and agony, but in its heroic history of struggle and resistance. That history – almost unknown to Haiti’s neighbours in Canada and the United States – is an indispensable part of the struggle for democracy and human rights in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Most, when asked, will be able to identify the United States of America as the first republic in the Americas to emerge in the struggle against European colonialism. Few know that Haiti was the second. Most, when asked, will know that slavery in the United States ended in the context of the Civil War of the 1860s. Few will know that Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery, accomplishing this indispensable democratic task three generations prior to Abraham Lincoln.

Most, when asked, will know that during the U.S. war for independence from Britain, the U.S. rebels received material assistance from France, which was engaged in its own long competition with Britain for control of overseas markets, trade and colonies. Few will know that at a critical moment in that war – the siege of Savannah in 1779 –a company of volunteers from what is today Haiti, fought alongside the U.S. rebels against the British colonialists. This “Black Legion” according to one historian “saved the patriot army from what might have been annihilation.” Members of this legion of affranchis (former slaves who had been granted their freedom) included people like Jean-Baptiste Mars Belley, Louis Jacques Beauvais, Martial Besse, and Andre Rigaud who would in later years all play crucial roles in Haiti’s own fight for independence.[1]

In an important sense, without Haiti establishing independence in 1804, the trajectory of the independence movement elsewhere in the Americas would have been much different. By 1815, the great leader of the independence movement in Latin America, Simón Bolívar, was up against a massive Spanish military incursion, the “strongest expeditionary force that had ever crossed the Atlantic.” But because the independent Republic of Haiti had already wrenched its sovereignty from European powers, the beleaguered Bolívar had a haven to which he could retreat.

This haven was important in a very practical sense. Bolívar “was given a friendly reception as well as money and weapons.”[2] Those weapons “helped Bolívar mount the invasion that ultimately defeated the Spanish Empire in the Americas.” Haiti’s president at the time, Alexandre Sabès Pétion, gave Bolívar “arms and ammunition” and allowed “hundreds of Haitian fighters, known as ‘françeses’ to sail with him.” Bolívar’s Haitian exile was also important politically. Pétion received something very important in exchange for the military assistance he was offering Bolívar – a promise from the great independence leader “to adopt measures to extinguish slavery in the lands he was to free.” [3] This was not carried out on the continent as thoroughly and swiftly as it had been in Haiti. But the importance of the anti-slavery promise made by Bolívar to Pétion in exchange for military support, should not be underestimated in its role as an accelerant in the process of eliminating that horrendous institution.[4]

It is well known that Haiti is desperately poor. In 2010, its income per capita (in Purchasing Power Parities) was just $1,200, the poorest of any country in the Western Hemisphere, and with a rank of just 206 from all 230 countries in the world. Contrast that with France ($33,300 per capita), Canada ($39,600) and the United States ($47,400).[5] January 12, 2010, the world saw the consequences of this poverty in the catastrophe which unfolded in the wake of the earthquake. This natural disaster shattered the country killing tens of thousands. But the reasons for many of the deaths were anything but natural. Grinding poverty had created conditions where buildings were constructed with concrete, but without rebars (steel reinforcing bars). A much more serious earthquake swept through Chile in 2010. However, through a building code dating back to the early 1970s and President Salvador Allende, the use of rebars was mandatory in Chile. Chile could take this step in large part because it is nowhere near as poverty-stricken as Haiti. As a consequence, the loss of life in Chile in February was much less than in Haiti in January.[6]

What is not widely known is that this extremely poor country was in 1791 “the richest slave colony of the Americas.” [7] But that wealth was drained towards Europe, and meant nothing but misery for the vast majority of people in the colony. In the late 18th century the island that today incorporates Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was home to the French colony St. Domingue and the Spanish colony San Domingo. According to CLR James – Trinidadian scholar and great historian of the struggle for Haitian independence – San Domingo was “the most profitable colony the world had ever known.”[8] In 1789, the value of France’s trade with St. Domingue amounted to two thirds of all France’s trade, and more than twice the value of all the trade from all of Britain’s colonies combined.[9] “The brilliant prosperity of Bordeaux and Nantes derived from colonial commerce. With some 465,000 slaves St. Domingue was the largest and most productive slave colony in the Caribbean.”[10] This extraordinary wealth was entirely the product of a system of the most brutal slave labour. Newly arrived slaves in the Caribbean – kidnapped from Africa – “had a life expectancy of only seven or ten years.”[11]

Two things were critical in both a) the ending of this system of slave labour and b) the establishment of Haitian independence. First and most importantly, there was an extraordinary and successful uprising by the slaves themselves. Second, this rebellion was inextricably linked to the French Revolution, the great product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Europe.

The first months of the revolution in France put in place a “moderate” revolutionary regime which, while opposing slavery in words, was nonetheless too bound up with French commercial interests to challenge the institution completely. So much of France’s wealth was dependent on Haiti’s slave labour, that the commercial class which wanted freedom from the King and feudalism, was at the same time loathe to contemplate freedom for Haiti’s slaves. What resulted was ludicrous. The French Assembly decreed that the almost 500,000 slaves in St. Domingue must stay slaves, unless they could show that their father and mother were born in France. This ended up applying to a mere 400 “mulattos.”[12]

However, small as this concession was, it helped spark an explosion. To contemplate even the possibility of freedom for even a tiny minority of Haiti’s slaves, was a sign of weakness, a sign that there was for the first time, a chink in the armour of the pro-slavery rulers of the French empire. This was an important factor in giving masses of slaves confidence to launch their magnificent rebellion on 14 August 1791, a rebellion which was to last for 12 years. Within months the army of ex-slaves, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had captured all the ports on the north of the island. But in spite of that early success, it would take 12 years of bitter warfare – against France, England and Spain – before the people of Haiti could finally win their independence.

The slave rebellion was strengthened when, in France, forces much further to the left replaced the moderates of the first months of the revolution. By 1793, “the Paris masses were for abolition, and their black brothers” engaged in armed rebellion against slavery and French colonialism, “for the first time, had passionate allies in France.”[13] This found its most profound expression on February 4, 1794 when:

… [T]hree emancipationist delegates … a black freedman, a mulatto and a white colon … presented themselves at the Convention [in Paris]. Dufay, the white deputy, delivered a passionate speech … defending the general liberty that had been decreed in St Domingue and urging that … it be extended to the other French colonies. … Dufay’s declarations were met with rapturous applause. Levasseur of Sarthe proposed that the Convention move immediately to abolish slavery in the colonies … The motion was thereupon carried by acclamation.[14]

This was a crucial turning point in the struggle for independence, and ultimately in 1804, Haiti “declared national sovereignty … the second free nation in the Americas.”[15]

For Haiti, independence faced very specific obstacles. Although having won independence in 1804, it faced continuing hostility from the first “free” nation in the hemisphere, the United States, and Haiti’s old colonial master, France. In both cases, the issue was slavery. This might be difficult for readers in the 21st century to properly understand. In our century, slavery is universally seen with repugnance. But in the 19th century, it was an embedded part of international politics and economics. The United States could be considered a “free” nation, even though for the most of its first century of existence as a “free” nation, plantation slavery was a recognized and major part of its economy.

For the United States, the fact of a state based upon the abolition of slavery was a threat to the vast wealth produced on the cotton plantations of the American south by African-American slaves. Thomas Jefferson – revered in most political history as a democrat and freedom fighter – when it came to Haiti, was anything but. He worked hard to abolish all trade between the U.S. and Haiti to contain the contagion of slave rebellion. Jefferson’s attack on trade with Haiti “decimated the Haitian economy, already weakened by 12 years of hard fighting and much destruction.”[16]

The economic isolation of Haiti continued for years. In 1821, France offered to ease economic relations with Haiti if the Haitians agreed to become a French protectorate. The Haitians, of course, refused. But the Haitian government was desperate for international recognition as a way of opening economic doors. “In return for conditional recognition as an independent nation in 1825, President Jean-Pierre Boyer offered France 150 million gold francs … After a show of force by the French navy in 1825, Haiti swiftly borrowed 24 million francs to pay the first instalment. Full recognition by France followed in 1838.”

It was an enormous price to pay and suspect on many grounds. First, “the money was earmarked to indemnify the slave owners and their heirs for their ‘losses’ during Haiti’s revolution.” [17] In effect, the Haitian former slaves had to resort – under the shadow of the French navy – to buying their freedom, something that today would be considered completely unethical. Second – it was far more than the people of Haiti could afford. “The debt was ten times Haiti’s total 1825 revenue.” Third – it was massively out of proportion to any “non-slave” losses incurred by France, “twice what the United States paid France in 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase, which contained seventy-four times more land.”

This is not just of historic interest. The debt – not paid off until the early 1940s – “calculated at $21 billion in current dollars – dwarfs current aid commitments.” In 2004, in the context of the Haitian bi-centenary of independence, then Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide broached the idea of France repaying that $21 billion which would “allow Haitians to develop their economy without the attached strings that keep poor countries dependent on international aid.” [18] But the big news from Haiti in 2004 was not the repayment of this odious debt, but rather the coup d’état (supported by the United States, France and Canada) which removed Aristide from office.

Our debt to Haiti is immense. The barbaric oppression of its slave population before 1804 helped create the great wealth of the European powers, a wealth of which Canada is a fragment. Its successful independence struggle put the issue of emancipation from slavery on the agenda of the Americas three generations before that horrid institution was abolished in the United States. And in response, the great powers have spent generations extorting wealth at such an extraordinary rate, that Haiti remains today the poorest country in the Americas.

It is time that we paid our debts.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] George P. Clark, “The Role of the Haitian Volunteers at Svannah in 1779: An Attempt at an Objective View,” Phylon, Vo. 41, No. 4, 4th Quarter, 1980: pp. 356-366.
[2] “Simón Bolívar,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (Accessed January 1, 2011).
[3] Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Volume LXIII, Number 4, October 2006, p. 648.
[4] See also Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 255-258.
[5] CIA, “Country Comparison: GDP – Per Capita (PPP),” The World Factbook (Accessed January 1, 2011).
[6] K. Baker, “Engineer: ‘This was not an earthquake disaster.’” Haiti Rewired. January 28, 2010; and Naomi Klein, “Chile’s Socialist Rebar“,, March 3, 2010.
[7] Blackburn, 2006, p. 646.
[8] James, C.L.R. (1963). The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books.: 57
[9] based on figures in James, 1963: 50
[10] Blackburn, 1988, p. 163.
[11] Blackburn, 1988, p. 20.
[12] Blackburn, 1988, p. 187.
[13] James, p. 120.
[14] Blackburn, 1988, p. 200.
[15] TThomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America, Sixth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 335.
[16] G. Dunkel, “U.S. embargoes against Haiti – from 1806 to 2003,” in R. Clark, et. Al., Haiti: A Slave Revolution (New York: International Action Centre), p. 104.
[17] Dunkel, p. 105.
[18] Anthony Phillips and Brian Concannon Jr., “Justice for Haiti,” TomPaine.common sense, September 1, 2006.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this excellent article which Toronto Bolivia Solidarity will be utilizing for its educational session on Sun., Feb. 27. See for more details.
    Suzanne Weiss

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