Most Americans do not give much thought to Haiti. They may know it is a black, French-speaking country, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. From what they see on television they realize it is a poor, violent nation ruled by a succession of dictators, each seemingly worse than the last. They may also associate Haiti with AIDS, crime, drug gangs, boat people and environmental disasters. These are all correct associations but the history of Haiti puts all this in a broader context. It offers one of the most sobering lessons about race in the New World. It is a story that is rarely told, but the grim realities of the Haitian revolution and its aftermath are just as worthy of our attention today as they were 200 years ago. None other than Lothrop Stoddard, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Haiti and later published it as The French Revolution in San Domingo, called the black uprising “the first shock between the ideals of white supremacy and racial equality.”
Haiti is a nation of eight million people packed into an area the size of Maryland. The illiteracy rate is 60 percent, the unemployment rate 65 percent, and the average per capita annual income is estimated at $225-the lowest in the hemisphere and less than one tenth the Latin America/Caribbean average. The United Nations says 60 percent of the population is sexually active by age 12 and the average number of births per woman is 4.8-the highest in the hemisphere. The population is expected to double to 16 million by 2030, and Haiti’s overpopulation is ravaging the environment. At the turn of the century it still had half of its original forests, but today only 1.5 percent are left. Most Haitians depend on firewood for fuel. Every year American relief workers plant six million saplings but Haitians cut down 25-30 million trees, causing the erosion of 15,000 acres of farmland. As a result, 25 of Haiti’s 30 watersheds are essentially denuded. Haiti must import 60 percent of its food, and is teeming with poor, diseased, desperate people eager to come to America. Only the US Coast Guard prevents the nation from moving en masse to Florida. It was not always like this in the land once called “the gem of the West Indies.”
French San Domingo
Columbus discovered the island in 1492 and named it “la Isla Española,” which was later shortened to Hispaniola. For a brief period, until the promising discoveries of Peru and Mexico, it was the center of Spanish colonization. The Spanish did not stay long but their stay was important. They killed most of the Arawak Indians, and when they left for other colonies they set their livestock free. The Spanish maintained a presence on the eastern part of the island but abandoned the west. Other Europeans ignored Hispaniola for nearly 100 years but settlers who came in the 1600s found an island filled with cattle and pigs, and empty of hostile natives. The new arrivals to the western part were mostly buccaneers who preyed on Spanish ships and hunted the abundant wild cattle (the word “buccaneer” comes from the French boucaner, “to barbecue beef”). As the Spanish consolidated their hold to the east, the French slowly took control of the west, which became French San Domingo. By the 1700s the colony was turning from what Stoddard called “a nest of hunters and pirates,” into a thriving outpost of agriculture and trade.
At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, French San Domingo was at its most prosperous. In the rich aluvial Plaine du Nord there were a thousand plantation houses set behind pillared gateways, which sparkled at night with the illumination of elaborate balls. The colony was one of the leading exporters of coffee, sugar, cocoa and cotton, and in 1789 the dollar value of its trade exceeded that of the United States. However, its affluence was based on a fragile racial dynamic of 40,000 whites ruling 500,000 black slaves–the majority African-born. There was also an intermediate class of 27,000 mulattos who had come about because of an initial scarcity of white women, and which would play an important role in the future of the colony.
Even after the arrival of French women, it was common for wealthy whites to keep mulatto mistresses. Still, the color line was well observed when it came to marriage. The few white men who married mulattos were shunned by white society and stripped of many rights-with the French government’s approval. One priest who had refused marriage to a white and a mulatto was commended by a French minister who wrote: “His Majesty’s pleasure is not to permit the mixing of the bloods; your prevention of the marriage in question is therefore approved.”
Officially classified as “free people of color,” mulattos could own land, businesses, and even slaves. They despised the slaves but resented the whites, to whom they were subordinate. Mulattos could not vote or hold office. They were segregated in theaters, shops and churches, and even the wealthiest mulatto was the social inferior of the poorest white.
Whites of all classes as well as the authorities in France considered the color line natural and necessary. Outnumbered 13-to-1 by blacks and mulattos, whites had good reason to stay united in the face of occasional uprisings on rural plantations in which slaves slaughtered all the whites they could catch. Moreover, the French blamed the relative failure of Spanish and Portuguese colonies on miscegenation, and did not want to make the same mistake. Whites would maintain the color line at all costs, but the bitterness of the mixed-race class would soon find a sympathetic ear. In the words of the revolutionary leader Honoré de Mirabeau, whites “slept on the edge of Vesuvius.”
The French Revolution
After the French Revolution and the overthrow of Louis XVI, most whites in San Domingo expected to receive more say in running the colony. This hope turned to terror as they learned of the new regime’s revolutionary racial plans. In 1788 a French pamphleteer named Jacques Brissot had formed the Amis des Noirs (Friends of the Blacks). Patterned after English abolitionist groups, the society soon became far more radical. Most of the future Jacobin leaders such as Lafayette, Condorcet, Mirabeau and Robbespierre were members, and chapters soon spread throughout France. San Domingo was subject to French rule, and colonists began to wonder how far these zealots would take their slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Almost from the beginning, the National Assembly in Paris pushed for full citizenship rights for mulattos. Mulattos were emboldened and whites distressed when the Jacobins announced in 1792 they were sending a civil commission-supported by 6,000 troops-to San Domingo to enforce the rights of mulattos. When the black slaves heard the news they went into open revolt in the hope that they, too, would get freedom. Whites in San Domingo were therefore under siege from slaves, mulattos and their own government. One white who managed to return to France predicted the outcome: “You may announce unreservedly that it is all over with San Domingo. One of three things will follow: the whites will exterminate the whole mulatto caste; the mulattos will destroy the whites; or the negroes will profit by these dissensions to annihilate both the whites and the mulattos. But in any case, San Domingo should be erased from the maps of France.”
The commission arrived and went to work, forcing whites to recognize full citizenship rights for mulattos. The result was chaos and race war. By 1793, most whites had either been killed or fled to France or the United States. (About 10,000 settled in the U.S. where they were received sympathetically. Many soldiers who had accompanied the French commission also left with them rather than help destroy their own people.)
With the defeat of the whites, mulattos expected to rule in their place, exploiting the labor of black slaves, but the blacks, led by General Pierre Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803) and supported by the French government, rose up against the mulattos. Badly outnumbered and without allies, “the yellow caste” soon met the same fate as the whites. L’Ouverture and his troops slaughtered them by the thousand.
By 1801, the former slave was supreme ruler of San Domingo. He strengthened ties with the British, who helped keep his troops well armed in exchange for supplies from the naturally rich island. In 1800 he invited whites back to the island, assuring them they would be well treated. A few thousand returned. He gave many back their plantations and ordered most blacks to work for the whites and for the state. The powerful military made short work of anyone who opposed this neo-slavery. When L’Ouverture’s nephew, a black general named Moyse, led a revolt against these “pro-white” policies L’Ouverture put down the insurrection and executed his nephew. In 1801 he drew up a new constitution and appointed himself “Governor for life” with the right to appoint his successor. Much like post-colonial African leaders, the “black George Washington,” as he is often called, made himself dictator.
Why didn’t the French take a greater role in suppressing the violence after more conservative elements regained control in Paris? In fact, Napoleon wanted to send troops but was stretched thin with campaigns in India and Egypt and war with Britain. In 1802, after peace with Britain, Napoleon did manage to send a force of 12,000 under Charles Leclerc with orders to take San Domingo, restore it to French rule, and arrest L’Ouverture. Napoleon did not at first plan to reestablish slavery but he wanted to restore French sovereignty over a white-run colony. The outnumbered French defeated the blacks, forcing L’Ouverture to surrender in the spring of 1802. Leclerc thought it best to pardon L’Ouverture and let him return to civilian life rather than exile him to France, but kept a wary eye on him. Most of the black soldiers came over to the victorious French side.
What appeared to be a success soon turned to failure. That summer a great many French soldiers, as well as thousands of civilians, caught yellow fever and died. L’Ouverture began to plot an uprising against the weakened French, but blacks loyal to Leclerc managed to lure him within the French lines and capture him. Leclerc packed L’Ouverture off to jail in France where he caught tuberculosis and died. Nevertheless, as disease continued to ravage the white troops, Leclerc began to depend increasingly on the doubtful loyalty of black generals and their followers. To Leclerc’s dismay, Napoleon rescinded the ban on the slave trade and urged the re-establishment of slavery in the colonies. The black soldiers were furious, and many went into insurrection. Napoleon reestablished restrictions on mulattos as well-something completely impossible to enforce in San Domingo-which broke down the strong antipathy between blacks and mulattos and united them against the French.
Leclerc himself died of yellow fever later in 1802 but the death knell of white-run San Domingo was the outbreak in May 1803 of another war with Britain. The British blockaded the island and supported the blacks and mulattos in what was now open race war against the French. In November 1803 the French surrendered and sailed away, leaving San Domingo in the hands of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), a former slave who had been one of L’Ouverture’s generals. It is this combination of yellow fever and support from the British that accounts for the Afrocentric claim that a black army “defeated” Napoleon.
Dessalines, who crowned himself Emperor Jacques I, wanted to break all ties with France. One symbolic step was to change the name of the colony to Haiti, which is what the Arawaks called the island. He guaranteed safety to whites who remained, and even encouraged more to come, but this was a ruse. In early 1805, he ordered their extermination. A French officer who escaped described the carnage:
“The murder of the whites in detail began at Port-au-Prince in the first days of January , but on the 17th and 18th of March they were finished off en masse. All, without exception, have been massacred, down to the very women and children. . . . A young mulatto named Fifi Pariset ranged the town like a madman searching the houses to kill the little children. Many of the men and women were hewn down by sappers, who hacked off their arms and smashed in their chests. Some were poniarded, others mutilated, others ‘passed on the bayonet,’ others disemboweled with knives or sabers, still others stuck like pigs. At the beginning a great number were drowned. The same general massacre has taken place all over the colony, and as I write you these lines I believe there are not twenty whites still alive-and these not for long.”
With this final slaughter, French San Domingo vanished from history and the black nation of Haiti arrived.
Africa in the New World
Haiti was the second nation in the Western Hemisphere–after the United States–to gain independence, and Haitians will officially mark their bicentennial in 2004. It is unlikely that even Afrocentric blacks will celebrate this milestone with much enthusiasm. After 200 years of black rule there is little of which to boast. A United Nations report says Haiti may soon be incapable of supporting human life.
Besides AIDS, crime, drugs, poverty and environmental destruction, Haiti has a form of slavery called restavec. A Haitian Creole term meaning “stays with,” a restavec is a poor child sold to a wealthy family as a servant. The government itself accepts a U.N. estimate of 300,000 such children in Haiti. Jean-Robert Cadet, a former restavec who escaped to America wrote a book in 1999 called Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle Class American. He says restavecs “are treated worse than slaves because . . . their supply seems inexhaustible.” Mr. Cadet says restavecs are often beaten and raped. Despite prodding from the U.N., the European Union, and the Catholic Church, Haitian officials have done nothing to stop this practice.
Many Haitian children are fed by aid from the U.S. and the U.N. Haiti gets by far the biggest slice of U.S. aid in the Western Hemisphere (20 percent). From 1994 to 1999, U.S. taxpayers poured over $2.3 billion dollars into Haiti but relief officials are giving up in dismay at the meager results. Even some in Congress have begun to notice we have little to show for our money. Representative Porter Goss of Florida says, “We’ve been ripped off in Haiti and I don’t see why we should put more money into it. There’s so much corruption that the only way to make sure aid gets to the people is to fly down there yourself with some food, hand it to a Haitian, and watch him eat it in your presence.”
Attempts to bolster the Haitian economy have failed. In 1997 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew to Haiti to launch a new privatization program funded by U.S. investors, and to celebrate the return of a state-run flour mill to the private sector. Miss Albright’s triumphal visit to the mill was scuttled when advance men found it occupied by angry former workers demanding more severance pay.
What could have been a tropical vacation paradise has been ruined, and is so wracked with crime no travel agency will recommend it as a destination. “You’re not looking at a tropical country,” says Ed Scott, a contractor for U.S. aid to Haiti; “you’re looking at a Nevada desert.” Tourists venture in at their own risk. In January 2000 a French couple was stoned to death along with their Haitian driver during a robbery. A few days later an American couple was carjacked at gunpoint and the woman shot dead.
Despite President Clinton’s claim that the 1994 invasion was to “restore democracy,” Haiti has almost always been ruled by strongmen. Of the 40 rulers of Haiti from it’s independence to the 1994 invasion, only four left office peacefully. Most of the rest were either murdered, ousted in coups, or fled into exile (see chart). In 1957 and in 1988 there were four different regimes in a single year. In 1999 then-president René Preval “postponed” elections five times and refused to call Parliament into session. He ruled by decrees enforced by the 6,000-man Haitian National Police. That year the UN accused the police of committing over 500 serious crimes, including 50 murders.
When elections do take place they are a joke. In 1997 only six percent of the voters even bothered to show up at the polls for parliamentary elections. The results were annulled because of fraud. In May 2000 there was finally another parliamentary election. Fifteen people were killed leading up to the vote, two were killed on the day of the vote, and three opposition leaders killed after the vote (one was stoned to death). The government arrested more than 20 opposition candidates after the elections. The balloting itself was rife with fraud. The ruling Lavalas Party of Mr. Preval and former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide controlled the polling stations and thousands of votes were “lost” in transit to the capital Port-au-Prince.
Opponents accuse Mr. Preval of being a puppet of Mr. Aristide, a Marxist former priest ousted in a coup d’état and put back into power after the US invasion in 1994. Mr. Aristide was barred from consecutive terms by the Haitian constitution but still “won” a November 2000 election with 92 percent of the vote, after an opposition boycott. Not even the United Nations could stomach this farce. It announced it was closing its civilian support mission to Haiti, which was supposed to promote democracy and human rights.
Haiti has made one genuinely unique gift to world culture: voodoo. Eighty percent of the population is Catholic, 20 percent are Protestants, and all 100 percent believe in voodoo. Up until the 1950s, Catholics tried to stamp out voodoo but have now adopted some of its rituals.
Mr. Aristide writes in his autobiography, “I do not consider voodoo to be an antagonist or an enemy of the Christian faith,” but rather a vital expression of “a society close to nature, black and Haitian.” He added that “in the veins of voodoo flows a blood that is Christian.” Protestant missionaries report that many of their “converts” are ardent voodoo believers just looking for extra protection.
Mr. Aristide, lapsed priest, is not the first man with a religious background to run Haiti. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier liked to appear in public dressed as the voodoo deity Baron Samedi. Likewise, at the time of the U.S. invasion, the military leaders scoffed at the American threat. Provisional President Emile Jonassaint said the country’s three zombie battalions would crawl out of their graves at the bidding of their voodoo masters and smite the Americans.
What about the Haitians who come here? There are approximately two million Haitians living abroad, mainly in the U.S. and Canada. Since more than eight percent of Haitians are estimated to have the HIV virus, this represents a considerable health risk, but Haitians bring other things with them. In 1998, a Haitian woman on Long Island was almost burned to death in a ceremony by her voodoo priest. He was apparently trying to remove evil spirits from her house when he doused her with a flammable liquid and set her on fire. When authorities charged him with attempted murder local Haitians rallied to his defense. “Like a lot of ethnic groups who’ve migrated here, we’ve brought our culture with us,” explained a community leader.
They have taken the same culture to Canada, where a judge decided it puts a different perspective on certain crimes. When two Haitians took turns raping and smothering a young Haitian woman, Judge Monique Dubreuil gave them only 18 months house arrest and 100 hours of community service. “The absence of regret of the two accused seems to be related more to the cultural context, particularly with regard to relations with women,” she explained. She may be right. In 1997 Miami police were tipped off about a possible wife beating. When they arrived at the address they found a woman tied to a bed and a man swinging a piece of wood. The Haitian couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. “I wasn’t beating someone else’s wife,” he explained. “This is my wife.”
Even a few restavecs have turned up in America. In 1999, Florida police acting on a tip from neighbors removed a filthy, unkempt 12-year-old girl from a Haitian home in upscale Pembroke Pines. She was both a drudge worker and a sex toy for the young man of the house, who had been raping her since she was nine. A trickle of other slaves have escaped, and authorities have no idea how many more restavecs are still hidden among the growing number of Haitian immigrants.
More Haitians live in Miami than anywhere else in America. Their presence does not seem to please Miami’s Cubans or even its blacks. Last year a black activist tried to prevent government funds earmarked for “African-Americans” from being shared by Haitians. This angered Haitians, who reminded Miami’s blacks that Haitians will soon outnumber them. This may not be pleasant. A letter to a Miami newspaper from a newcomer suggests relations are not good: “My experience as a Haitian-American with African-American schoolmates was one filled with racial epithets such as H.B.O. (Haitian body odor), Haitians eat cats, Haitians are boat people, and Haitians have AIDS. These African-American kids were taught at home to despise Haitians.”
Nor is it likely to be pleasant for the rest of America. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere-a perfect little chunk of Africa-lurks just 600 miles off the coast of Florida. A U.S. Embassy survey in November 1999 found that 70 percent of Haitians have given “serious thought” to leaving. As things get worse they won’t just think about it. Former U.S. ambassador to Haiti Ernest Preeg says bluntly: “If we didn’t have a credible Coast Guard interdiction policy-which presently sends these people back-you would be talking about hundreds of thousands landing on our beaches.”
Some people want to let them come. Black and liberal groups complained bitterly last year about a New Year’s Eve operation that sent back 400 Haitian boat people. U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fl) led a group of black protesters waving placards saying “Equal Justice for Haitians,” and demanding the 400 be allowed to “stay.” They want to give Haitians the same rights as Cubans fleeing communism, so that if they set foot in the U.S. they will be let in.
If these groups get their wish we will be importing the descendants of the people who slaughtered thousands of whites and made Haiti unlivable. In sufficient numbers they will have the same effect on America.
Of course, we need not look as far as Haiti to understand the link between race and civilization, and what it means for America. Haiti is nothing more than Camden or East St. Louis writ large, and without the surrounding white society to support it. Africans remake Africa wherever they may go.