Posted on May 24, 2022

The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers

Catherine Porter et al., New York Times, May 20, 2022

Adrienne Present steps into the thin forest beside her house and plucks the season’s first coffee cherries, shining like red marbles in her hands.


Coffee has been the fulcrum of life here for almost three centuries, since enslaved people cut the first French coffee plantations into the mountainsides. Back then, this was not Haiti, but Saint-Domingue — the biggest supplier of coffee and sugar consumed in Parisian kitchens and Hamburg coffee houses. The colony made many French families fabulously rich. It was also, many historians say, the world’s most brutal.

Ms. Present’s ancestors put an end to that, taking part in the modern world’s first successful slave revolution in 1791 and establishing an independent nation in 1804 — decades before Britain outlawed slavery or the Civil War broke out in America.

But for generations after independence, Haitians were forced to pay the descendants of their former slave masters, including the Empress of Brazil; the son-in-law of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I; Germany’s last imperial chancellor; and Gaston de Galliffet, the French general known as the “butcher of the Commune” for crushing an insurrection in Paris in 1871.

The burdens continued well into the 20th century. The wealth Ms. Present’s ancestors coaxed from the ground brought wild profits for a French bank that helped finance the Eiffel Tower, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, and its investors. They controlled Haiti’s treasury from Paris for decades, and the bank eventually became part of one of Europe’s largest financial conglomerates.

Haiti’s riches lured Wall Street, too, delivering big margins for the institution that ultimately became Citigroup. It elbowed out the French and helped spur the American invasion of Haiti — one of the longest military occupations in United States history.


Violence. Tragedy. Hunger. Underdevelopment. These bywords have clung to Haiti for more than a century. Kidnappings. Outbreaks. Earthquakes. The president assassinated — this time in his bedroom.

How is it possible, many ask, that Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, with its underground subway system, health care coverage, public schools, teeming resorts and impressive stretches of economic growth?

Corruption is the usual explanation, and not without reason: Haiti’s leaders have historically ransacked the country for their own gain, legislators have spoken openly on the radio about accepting bribes and oligarchs sit atop lucrative monopolies, paying few taxes. Transparency International ranks it among the most corrupt nations in the world.


Twenty-one years after Haiti’s revolutionary heroes declared their country’s independence, swearing to die before being put back in chains or living under French domination again, a squadron of French warships — equipped with some 500 cannons — loomed off Haiti’s coastline.

The king’s envoy, the Baron of Mackau, issued a daunting ultimatum:

Hand over a staggering sum in reparations to Haiti’s former slave masters, or face another war.

The Haitians had ample reason for alarm. Two decades earlier, Napoleon had tried to destroy them, sending one of the largest expeditions of warships ever dispatched by France, with his brother-in-law at the helm. The Haitians won and declared independence. Napoleon lost more troops than he did at Waterloo and withdrew.

But rich French colonists continued to press to reconquer the territory, and they found another sympathetic ear when the Bourbon monarchy returned to power. One minister of the navy, a former colonist and prominent defender of slavery, even drafted a new plan to put Haitians back in bondage or “crush them” with a still larger army.

No country could be expected to come to Haiti’s defense. The world powers had frozen it out, refusing to officially acknowledge its independence. American lawmakers in particular did not want enslaved people in their own country to be inspired by Haiti’s self-liberation and rise up.

So, Haiti’s president, eager for the trade and security of international recognition, bowed to France’s demands. With that, Haiti set another precedent: It became the world’s first and only country where the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters — for generations.

It is often called the “independence debt.” But that is a misnomer. It was a ransom.

The amount was far beyond Haiti’s meager means. Even the first installment was about six times the government’s income that year, based on official receipts documented by the 19th-century Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin.

But that was the point, and part of the plan. The French king had given the baron a second mission: to ensure the former colony took out a loan from young French banks to make the payments.

This became known as Haiti’s “double debt” — the ransom and the loan to pay it — a stunning load that boosted the fledgling Parisian international banking system and helped cement Haiti’s path into poverty and underdevelopment. According to Ardouin’s records, the bankers’ commissions alone exceeded the Haitian government’s total revenues that year.

And that was only the beginning. The double debt helped push Haiti into a cycle of debts that hobbled the country for more than 100 years, draining away much of its revenue and chopping away at its ability to build the essential institutions and infrastructure of an independent nation. Generations after enslaved people rebelled and created the first free Black nation in the Americas, their children were forced to work, sometimes for little or even no pay, for the benefit of others — first the French, then the Americans, then their own dictators.


Since then, the double debt has largely faded into history. France has repeatedly downplayed, distorted or buried it. Only a few scholars have examined it deeply. No detailed accounting of how much the Haitians actually paid has ever been done, historians say. Even in Haiti, debates over its effect on the country’s economy, development and political destiny continue today.


We found that Haitians paid about $560 million in today’s dollars. But that doesn’t nearly capture the true loss. If that money had simply stayed in the Haitian economy and grown at the nation’s actual pace over the last two centuries — rather than being shipped off to France, without any goods or services being provided in return — it would have added a staggering $21 billion to Haiti over time, even accounting for its notorious corruption and waste.

For perspective, that’s much bigger than Haiti’s entire economy in 2020.


The double debt helped set off a cascade of privation, budgetary shortfalls and onerous foreign loans that shaped the country into the 20th century and beyond.

Though Haiti’s government made the last payments connected to its former slaveholders in 1888, the debt was far from settled: To finish paying it off, Haiti borrowed from other foreign lenders who, in league with a few self-serving Haitian officials indifferent to their people’s suffering, laid claim to a significant share of the nation’s income for decades to come.

Depleted after decades of paying France, Haiti took out even more loans after that. By 1911, $2.53 out of every $3 Haiti took in from coffee taxes, its most important source of revenue, went to paying debts held by French investors, according to Gusti-Klara Gaillard and Alain Turnier, Haitian historians whose accounts are consistent with ledgers found in the diplomatic archives in suburban Paris.


The debt was not shouldered by all Haitians equally. The country’s small elite, who today live in gated mansions and travel regularly for vacations in Paris and Miami, remained largely untouched. It was the poor who paid — and continue to pay, many argue, because the country has never had enough schools, clean water, electricity and other basics.


During slavery, Haiti brimmed with such wealth that its largest and most important city, Cap-Français, was known as the “Paris of the Antilles,” bursting with bookstores, cafes, gardens, elegant public squares and bubbling fountains. The Comédie du Cap sat 1,500 people and put on 200 performances a year — many direct from Paris — as well as regular dances and balls. The town’s slate-roofed houses, with their whitewashed walls and courtyards, rented for four times the price of a ground-floor apartment in central Paris, according to the historian John Garrigus. The harbor, choked with garbage today, was perennially full of ocean-worthy sailing ships.

All this happened quickly. The mountainous colony, tucked into the western part of the island of Hispaniola, was colonized by France later than most of the Caribbean, yet in less than a century its plantations were the leading suppliers of sugar to Europe. Only in the late 1730s were the colony’s first coffee plantations cut into the mountainsides in Dondon, where Ms. Present still farms today.


The enslaved people of Saint-Domingue rose up late one August evening in 1791, starting what some historians call the largest slave uprising in history.


They did it with whatever weapons they could grab or fashion and — most effectively — with fire, burning sugar cane fields and plantation buildings. The cloud of black smoke that engulfed Cap-Français made the sky glow after sunset like the northern aurora, one French surgeon recounted.

Within two weeks, every plantation within 50 miles of Cap-Français was reduced to ash and the rebels, many dressed in rags, organized into three armies, with hundreds on horseback. One leader became infamous for wielding the same cruel punishments slaveholders had used, whipping colonists hundreds of times and hacking off their hands.

After two years, the French commissioners of the colony announced that all enslaved people would be free and become French citizens. It was practical — they needed recruits to defend the colony against attacks, including from Britain or Spain, which controlled the eastern side of Hispaniola. But it was also ideological, some historians say, reflecting the revolutionary ideals that had erupted back home.

Soon after Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined in France, the revolutionary government abolished slavery in 1794, not just in Saint-Domingue but in all French colonies. {snip}

Napoleon, who seized power in 1799, had very different views on slavery. In December 1801, he dispatched some 50 ships to Saint-Domingue to reimpose the French colonial empire and “rid us of these gilded Africans,” as he put it to the commander, his brother-in-law. Napoleon reinstated the slave trade in France’s other colonies and thought it would take three months to vanquish the Haitians.

Instead, as many as 50,000 French soldiers, sailors and colonists died, according to the historian Philippe Girard. Almost two years later, the ragged remains of Napoleon’s forces pulled out of the charred harbor of Cap-Français — later renamed Cap-Haïtien.

The declaration of independence for Haiti — the Indigenous name that revolutionaries reclaimed for their country — offered enslaved people hope from Brazil to South Carolina, noted the historian Julius S. Scott.

But for their masters, it set a chilling precedent.

“The peace of 11 states in this union will not permit the fruits of a successful Negro insurrection,” Senator Thomas Benton of Missouri told his fellow lawmakers in Congress, explaining why the United States should not recognize Haiti’s independence. “It will not permit Black consuls and ambassadors to establish themselves in our cities, and to parade through our country.”

Or, as Senator John Berrien of Georgia said, official relations with Haiti would “introduce a moral contagion” that would make even the most horrifying pestilence seem “light and insignificant.”


Farmers had been growing coffee more or less the same way since the days after the revolution, in very small garden plots where the trees seeded themselves naturally, mixed with banana and orange trees, as well as vegetables. There had never been a serious push by the government to develop the industry with new technology, fertilizers or new varieties of coffee.

The bountiful harvests that continued for generations and paid the nation’s debts were “like magic,” said Jobert Angrand, the former head of the National Coffee Institute of Haiti and a recent minister of agriculture.

By the 1980s, the magic had worn off. Poor farmers began to cut down their coffee trees and plant quicker-growing cash crops instead, leading to erosion. In Dondon, farmers who once couldn’t see the Citadelle from their fields because of the thick foliage above them suddenly had a clear view. Coffee exports began to plummet.


The Americans arrived at the gates of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s house before dawn on Feb. 29, 2004. Flanked by security officers, a U.S. diplomat climbed the mansion’s steps to see the president — and ask for his resignation letter before whisking him into exile.

Mr. Aristide, a former Catholic priest who had railed against the dictatorship from his pulpit in the slums, and the first lady, Mildred Aristide, stepped into a diplomatic car to the airport and boarded an American plane from the tarmac.


And while Mr. Aristide’s demand for financial restitution from France was not the principal reason for his removal, Mr. Burkard said, his ouster had an added benefit: It ended Mr. Aristide’s noisy campaign, which had landed with the force of a grenade, threatening to blow up relations with all former colonies.


With the money Haiti shipped to France for the so-called independence debt back in hand, he said, his country could invest in all the things it had never been able to afford, including schools, hospitals, roads, tractors and water for peasants.

Tallying Haiti’s losses, he presented a bill: $21,685,135,571.48.

The figure, both for its size and its precision, was mocked by French diplomats and denounced by some Haitian intellectuals as an attempt by Mr. Aristide to distract from the country’s woes and maintain his grip on power. But, as the estimates vetted by economists and historians consulted by The Times show, his calculations may have been close to the mark — and possibly even modest.

The Aristide government had hired international lawyers to assemble arguments and a researcher to dig through French archives. On the nation’s 200th Independence Day, Mr. Aristide celebrated before huge crowds on the lawn of the national palace, promising to replace a 21-gun salute with 21 things he would do once the restitution was paid — a retort to the cannons fired by the Baron of Mackau’s fleet centuries ago.

“Why after 200 years, is Haiti this impoverished?” Mr. Aristide asked during a rare interview with The Times at his home office in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, a large gold-painted bust of Toussaint Louverture on a table behind him.

“We were condemned to live in poverty — not just poverty, but misery,” he said. “An abject misery tied to 1825.”

Since his departure, none of his successors have pressed the issue. In 2003, the French government dismissed his claim of restitution. Twelve years later, Mr. Hollande acknowledged that France did indeed owe Haiti a debt — before his staff quickly said it was not a monetary one.

Still, Mr. Aristide argued that he and others had “seeded the field,” noting that while the Haitian revolution started in 1791, it took years before enslaved people became free, and years more until they claimed independence.

“It’s not finished,” he said.