WELCOME TO THE First LESSON FOR HAITI TODAY,
PART OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS ACADEMY
WELCOME TO THE First LESSON FOR HAITI TODAY,
PART OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS ACADEMY
the Pearl of the Antilles
title: How dafuq did Haiti get here?
At the time of the revolution, 90% of San Domingue’s population were enslaved and 2/3 of these slaves had been born in Africa. This is why the Haitian revolution is often called an African revolution and a good reason why so many African traditions and cultural aspects were retained. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it is important to note that about 40% of those slaves came from the Kongo. Why does that matter? Well there was a big civil war going on in the Kongo at that time over who would be the next Christian King or Queen of the nation. Both sides captured one another’s soldiers and sold them to slave traders in exchange for resources. (Side note: most slaves were not sold for weapons, but this is one case where the old stereotype holds true.) Some scholars such as Linda Heywood and John Thornton have suggested that this meant many of the Kongolese slaves in Haiti were trained soldiers. So not only did you have an island where 500,000 people (90% of the population) were enslaved in a very brutal form of slavery but up to 200,000 of those might have been trained and very angry soldiers. Second, it is important to look at the demographics of the rest of the population. There were about 31,000 whites, some of whom were successful plantation owners (gran blans) and some of whom were just merchants (petit blans.) There were also about 28,000 affranchis, some of whom were in direct competition to the gran blans as plantation owners themselves. Therefore, the affranchis were not necessarily on the side of the slaves but rather you had an island with three populations all pitted against one another. It was a ticking time bomb. And in 1791, it exploded.
August 14, 1791, elite slaves from plantations in the northern plain gathered on the Lenormand de Mezy plantation at a place called Bois Caiman to plot a revolt. They held a Vodou ceremony where they sacrificed a black pig and a slave named Boukman prayed for success. Folklore holds that Boukman’s prayer went, “The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts." While this prayer is very likely not what he actually said, it does reflect the anger and search for justice that many slaves must have felt being ripped from their homes, enslaved in horrible conditions, and being forcibly baptized into Catholicism.
The rebellion in the North soon spread like wildfire and was incredibly violent, but it was not initially well organized. This was in part because some original leaders such as Toussaint Louverture originally wanted to work with France rather than fight. Louverture was born a slave but gained his freedom at age 33 and became a well educated affranchis. He joined the revolution early on rising up from being a doctor to a military commander in a short amount of time. Once the island was fairly secure, he reached out to Napoleon to try and broker a deal. The goal was not to become free from France – just to gain freedom for slaves and become equal citizens. He shocked the French by writing incredibly eloquent letters that justified the revolution using the same philosophies that justified the French Revolution (hence the nickname for him and the other revolutionary leaders as the Black Jacobins.) Unfortunately for him, Napoleon was not the least interested in losing the workforce for his prized colony that was going to pay for his empire’s expansion. So in 1802, sneaky Napoleon sent his brother LeClerc to the island where he lured Louverture in with a dinner invitation, kidnapped him, and then forced him into exile where he died. Unfortunately for Napoleon, however, due to a combination of yellow fever and military losses he was never able to regain control of the island despite the thousands of troops he threw at Haiti. Without his cash cow and with other military engagements looming, Napoleon made the decision to sell the Louisiana Purchase at a famously good price. In 1804, the military leaders of the Haitian revolution declared the island free and independent. Thus, Haiti became the first free black republic in the world.
Now this is not the sole reason Haiti is poor. But it is a very important factor. And I think it is a bit mindblowing that while in America people discuss the US government paying reparations to descendents of slaves in Haiti descendents of slaves had to pay France reparations for their own freedom. 200 years after the revolution, Haitian president Aristide demanded that France’s president Chirac return the money. Not too surprisingly, these requests were denied.
In 1934, the US officially left Haiti and they were able for the first time in 19 years to fly their flag and elect their own leaders. However, on the other side of the island Rafael Trujillo Molina had just recently taken control of the Dominican Republic. He institutionalized antihatianismo (anti-Haitian sentiments i.e. racism) and made it part of the school curriculum. Ever since colonization, the border between the two nations had been porous with families straddling the lines and people freely moving between both countries for work. In October of 1937, Trujillo ordered the ethnic cleansing of every Haitian living in the Dominican Republic. The borders were sealed and for five days ethnic Haitians within the Dominican borders were actively hunted down and murdered with machetes, guns, and clubs. Haitians sometimes call it the Parsley Massacre because soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask people what it was. The Spanish word for parsley is perejil, but most Haitians cannot trill the “r” in the word. If someone could not pronounce it correctly, they were killed. At the end of five days 38,000 ethnic Haitians were murdered, some of whom had been born in the Dominican Republic. President Roosevelt and the current Haitian president eventually convinced the Dominican government to pay reparations of $30 a victim, though most of that never made it to the families. Trujillo remained in power.
In 1957, a medical doctor named Francois Duvalier was elected on a populist and black nationalist platform. It is important to note that in Haiti there is a social divide between the mulattos and blacks, the two local racial types. Mulattos claim heritage from the French colonials and typically are better educated, well off financially, and use French to differentiate themselves from the masses. They are the social and political elite. Blacks make up the majority of Haitians both in the cities and countryside. They tend to be less well educated, poorer, and speak Haitian Kreyol. It would be easy to assign our own racial understandings to these classifications, but in reality it is more complicated than that. They have more to do with class than genetics. A local proverb goes, “Neg rich se mulat, mulat pov se noua" meaning a rich black man is a mulatto and a poor mulatto is black. I’ll talk more about this in another post, but for now it is sufficient to understand that there is a fair amount of resentment from the lower class against the elite upper class. Duvalier was highly educated, but came from the black class and therefore it was a big deal for the people when he was elected in a landslide. Unfortunately, Papa Doc (as his patients had fondly called him) turned out to be an evil dictator.
Now I’m an anthropologist and I don’t use the world evil often. But if Papa Doc wasn’t evil when he was elected he sure became it. In 1958, he turned the military into his own personal army to ensure he retained power and appointed all new chiefs of staff that were loyal to him. He kicked out all foreign born bishops (which initially got him excommunicated) thereby removing any influence from the Church. In 1959, he created the Tonton Macoute a rural militia named after a boogeyman from stories used to scare children into behaving. People joined for a chance to have power for the first time in their lives. This led to the Tonton Macoutes not only carrying out the violent political whims of Papa Doc but also establishing their own little dictatorships in the countryside. Opponents were burned alive, stoned, forced to rape their own mothers, and their corpses displayed as a warning to others. Papa Doc had also studied Vodou as an outsider when he was younger, and he used this knowledge to convince the people that he had a dangerous spiritual power (in local terms he practiced with the left hand meaning he was a sorcerer.) In 1963, he rigged his illegal re-election and in 1964 made himself President for Life. It is estimated that around 60,000 Haitians were killed during his reign for crossing his path.
I will leave details about the aftermath and reconstruction for another post. But to understand the contemporary situation in Haiti, I believe it is important to understand the country’s history. Though my sketch is simple and obviously leaves out some things, I hope it sets the stage. If there is anything missing that you would like to know more about just ask. Next week I’ll talk about the Vodou religion and how it is lived by the people. But for now I’d like to open this up to questions, requests for clarifications, and discussions which I welcome you to post here. Also, below you’ll find a list of books for further reading if you’re interested in doing your own scholarly work.