America's Historic Debt to Haiti
by Robert Parry
As Haiti intrudes again on the U.S. consciousness
with a new round of troubled elections, Americans see a violent,
backward, poverty-stricken country run by descendants of African
slaves. There are feelings of condescension mixed with a touch
But what few Americans know is that they
owe this Caribbean nation a profound historical debt. Indeed,
perhaps no nation has done more for the United States than Haiti
and been treated as badly in return.
If not for Haiti - which in the 1700s
rivaled the American colonies as the most valuable European possession
in the Western Hemisphere - the course of U.S. history would have
been very different. It is possible that the United States might
never have expanded much beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
What altered this early American history
was the Haitian slave uprising against France near the end of
the 18th Century. This second great anti-colonial revolution in
the New World both alarmed and ultimately benefited the leaders
of the newly born United States.
At the time, Haiti - then known as St.
Domingue and covering the western third of the island of Hispaniola
- ranked as perhaps the richest colony in the world. Its carefully
cultivated plantations produced nearly one-half the world's coffee
and sugar, and its profits helped build many of the grandest cities
But the human price was unspeakably high.
The French had devised a fiendishly cruel slave system that imported
enslaved Africans for work in the fields with accounting procedures
for their amortization. They were literally worked to death.
The American colonists may have rebelled
against Great Britain over issues such as representation in Parliament
and arbitrary actions by King George III. But the Haitians took
up arms against a brutal system of slavery. One French method
for executing troublesome slaves was to insert explosives into
their rectums and detonate the bomb.
So, when revolution swept France in 1789,
the Jacobins' cry of "liberty, equality and fraternity"
resonated with special force in St. Domingue. African slaves demanded
that the concepts of freedom be applied universally, but the plantation
system continued, leading to violent slave uprisings.
Hundreds of white plantation owners were
slain as the rebels overran the colony. A self-educated slave
named Toussaint L'Ouverture emerged as the revolution's leader,
demonstrating skills on the battlefield and in the complexities
Despite the brutality on both sides, the
rebels - known as the "Black Jacobins" - gained the
sympathy of the American Federalist Party and particularly Alexander
Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean himself. Hamilton, the first
U.S. Treasury Secretary, helped L'Ouverture draft a constitution
for the new nation.
But events in Paris and Washington conspired
to undo the promise of Haiti's new freedom.
The chaos and excesses of the French Revolution
led to the ascendance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant military
commander possessed of legendary ambition. As he expanded his
power across Europe, Napoleon also dreamed of rebuilding a French
empire in the Americas.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson - an owner of
180 slaves himself - became the third President of the United
States. Jefferson, who was deeply troubled by the slaughter of
plantation owners in St. Domingue, feared that the example of
African slaves fighting for their liberties might spread northward.
"If something is not done, and soon
done," Jefferson wrote about the violence in St. Domingue
in 1797, "we shall be the murderers of our own children."
So, in 1801, the interests of Napoleon
and Jefferson temporarily intersected. Napoleon was determined
to restore French control of St. Domingue and Jefferson was eager
to see the slave rebellion crushed.
Through secret diplomatic channels, Napoleon
asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army
traveling by sea to St. Domingue. Jefferson replied that "nothing
will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything
and reduce Toussaint [L'Ouverture] to starvation."
But Napoleon had a secret second phase
of his plan. Once a French army had subdued L'Ouverture and his
slave army, Napoleon intended to move his forces to the North
American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and
settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River.
In May 1801, Jefferson picked up the first
inklings of Napoleon's other agenda. Alarmed at the prospect of
a major European power controlling New Orleans and thus the mouth
of the strategic Mississippi River, Jefferson backpedaled on his
commitment to Napoleon, retreating to a posture of neutrality.
Still - terrified at the prospect of a
successful republic organized by freed African slaves - Jefferson
took no action to block Napoleon's thrust into the New World.
In 1802, a French expeditionary force
achieved initial success against the slave army in St. Domingue,
driving L'Ouverture's forces back into the mountains. But, as
they retreated, the ex-slaves torched the cities and the plantations,
destroying the colony's once-thriving economic infrastructure.
L'Ouverture, hoping to bring the war to
an end, accepted Napoleon's promise of a negotiated settlement
that would ban future slavery in the country. As part of the agreement,
L'Ouverture turned himself in.
Napoleon, however, broke his word. Jealous
of L'Ouverture, who was regarded by some admirers as a general
with skills rivaling Napoleon's, the French dictator had L'Ouverture
shipped in chains back to Europe where he died in prison.
Infuriated by the betrayal, L'Ouverture's
young generals resumed the war with a vengeance. In the months
that followed, the French army - already decimated by disease
- was overwhelmed by a fierce enemy fighting in familiar terrain
and determined not to be put back into slavery.
Napoleon sent a second French army, but
it too was destroyed. Though the famed general had conquered much
of Europe, he lost 24,000 men, including some of his best troops,
in St. Domingue before abandoning his campaign. The death toll
among the ex-slaves was much higher, but they had prevailed, albeit
over a devastated land.
In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the
radical slave leader who had replaced L'Ouverture, formally declared
the nation's independence and returned it to its original Indian
name, Haiti. A year later, apparently fearing a return of the
French and a counterrevolution, Dessalines ordered the massacre
of the remaining French whites on the island.
Though the Haitian resistance had blunted
Napoleon's planned penetration of the American mainland, Jefferson
reacted to the bloodshed by imposing a stiff economic embargo
on the island nation. In 1806, Dessalines was brutally assassinated,
touching off a cycle of political violence that would haunt Haiti
for the next two centuries.
By 1803, a frustrated Napoleon - denied
his foothold in the New World - agreed to sell New Orleans and
the Louisiana territories to Jefferson. Ironically, the Louisiana
Purchase, which opened the heart of the present United States
to American settlement, had been made possible despite Jefferson's
misguided collaboration with Napoleon.
"By their long and bitter struggle
for independence, St. Domingue's blacks were instrumental in allowing
the United States to more than double the size of its territory,"
wrote Stanford University professor John Chester Miller in his
book, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery.
But, Miller observed, "the decisive
contribution made by the black freedom fighters went almost unnoticed
by the Jeffersonian administration."
The loss of L'Ouverture's leadership dealt
another blow to Haiti's prospects, according to Jefferson scholar
Paul Finkelman of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
"Had Toussaint lived, it's very likely
that he would have remained in power long enough to put the nation
on a firm footing, to establish an order of succession,"
Finkelman told me in an interview. "The entire subsequent
history of Haiti might have been different."
For some scholars, Jefferson's vengeful
policy toward Haiti - like his personal ownership of slaves -
represented an ugly blemish on his legacy as a historic advocate
Even in his final years, Jefferson remained
obsessed with Haiti and its link to the issue of American slavery.
In the 1820s, the former President proposed
a scheme for taking away the children born to black slaves in
the United States and shipping them to Haiti. In that way, Jefferson
posited that both slavery and America's black population would
be phased out. Eventually, Haiti would be all black and the United
Jefferson's deportation scheme never was
taken very seriously and American slavery would continue for another
four decades until it was ended by the Civil War. The official
hostility of the United States toward Haiti extended almost as
long, ending in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln finally granted
By then, however, Haiti's destructive
patterns of political violence and economic chaos had been long
established - continuing up to the present time. Personal and
political connections between Haiti's light-skinned elite and
power centers of Washington also have lasted through today.
Recent Republican administrations have
been particularly hostile to the popular will of the impoverished
Haitian masses. When leftist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was
twice elected by overwhelming margins, he was ousted both times
- first during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and again under
President George W. Bush.
Washington's conventional wisdom on Haiti
holds that the country is a hopeless basket case that would best
be governed by business-oriented technocrats who would take their
marching orders from the United States.
However, the Haitian people have other
ideas, much as they did two centuries ago. Their continued support
for the twice-ousted Aristide reflects a recognition that the
Big Powers often don't have the interests of Third World countries
Also, unlike most Americans who have no
idea about their historic debt to Haiti, many Haitians know this
history quite well. The bitter memories of Jefferson and Napoleon
still feed the distrust that Haitians of all classes feel toward
the outside world.
"In Haiti, we became the first black
independent country," Aristide told me in an interview 15
years ago. "We understand, as we still understand, it wasn't
easy for them - American, French and others - to accept our independence."
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty
from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com.
It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History:
Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'