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Research & Thoughts

History Lesson #9: Colonizing Haiti

In 1862, Lincoln became the first president to extend diplomatic recognition to Black nations, such as Haiti and Liberia, but the reason was in part to secure a place to send Black citizens once they were freed:


"I think your race suffers very greatly many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence … if this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated."


Lincoln used the same logic as President Andrew Jackson that sent civilized Indians like the Cherokee across the Mississippi to Indian Territory starting in 1830. 


Haiti's history is turbulent, starting with Columbus's claim of the island for Spain, though it was well occupied by Taino and other tribes. Spain ceded the western third of the island to France in 1697, renamed the island and turned to intense coffee and sugar making. By the time the French arrived, nearly all native tribes had been exterminated, so they imported Africans to work as slave labor to produce goods for the trade market.


There's actually a question as to who destroyed the native population; an article in The Week, July 30, 2021 (12), noted that the French not only denuded the land of timber they also wiped out the indigenous people. I suspect they merely finished what the Spanish started. They learned, as they did in the US, that natives do not care to be enslaved in their own country.


By 1789 slaves outnumbered the free population four to one. The Haitian revolt against the French started in 1791 and lasted until 1804, during which time Napoleon sold the US the Louisiana purchase. When they gained their independence from the French, they changed the name from Saint Domingue back to Haiti, its Taino name.


Haiti is the first black republic and even had an army that fought for the US in the American Revolution. This is perhaps where the idea of revolting against the French came from, as a number of them also moved to the US at this time. Before this, however, slaves had been abandoning the plantations in growing numbers, and established their own communities in remote corners of the island.


This link has a lot more detail but I find this section important:


During the 1790s, the dissolution of the Bourbon dynasty by the French Revolution and France's embrace of an egalitarian ethos emboldened Saint-Domingue's free people of color to press for their rights. In 1790 the National Assembly in Paris granted suffrage to landed and tax-paying free blacks. When the white planter-dominated colonial assembly refused to comply, Saint-Domingue became engulfed in violence.


But white Americans leading up to their Civil War, did not want to recognize Haiti as an independent republic, in part because of their use of slaves. Lincoln's recognition in 1862, then, was a logical step for him toward announcing his Emancipation Proclamation.


Historians today are still reluctant to admit the truth about Lincoln, that he bought into Senator Doolittle's idea of sending freed blacks to other countries. Here's what I found on that 1862 idea:


There were several emigration movements led by leaders such as Martin Delany and James Theodore Holly, who encouraged African-Americans to settle in Haiti. Although the majority of those who moved to Haiti returned to the U.S. due to linguistic and climatic issues, close to 20 percent of free blacks from the northern United States went to Haiti before the Civil War. This migration between Haiti and America forged links between the two countries.


It is interesting, though, to note some black leaders agreed with the idea, although most did not. Delany's experiences are especially interesting, if you want to read further.


Their history after revolution against France is quite distressful, with a number of assassinations of presidents to follow. It was during one of the more peaceful reigns that the US recognized the nation under General Nicholas Geffrard (1859−67).


Relations after that were cordial but distant, until July 1915, when civil unrest surrounding the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam provided a pretext for intervention. It wasn't until 1930 that the US allowed them to resume free elections. Here's something that indicates the long series of unrest there:


The president-elect, Sténio Vincent (1930−41), was a former senator with populist tendencies, and his election set Haiti on the path to reestablishing its autonomy. Vincent engaged in an ambitious program of infrastructure improvement, while insisting that the U.S. Marines end their active occupation. As a show of nationalism, he delivered his state addresses in Creole, rather than in French. Like many of his predecessors, however, Vincent also resorted to using the presidency to increase his own wealth and power.


Before the earthquake of 2010, as many as three million lived at Port-au-Prince. The earthquake killed 250,000 and 1.5 million were left homeless. The UN sent a relief effort, but brought cholera with them. The money that was pledged had no practical distribution management.


Haiti is today considered the western hemisphere's poorest country. The recently assassinated president, Moise, was a banana exporter who was widely detested. Today the US policy is hands off.


Why is Haiti so poor? It's not just environmental disasters. Yes, a series of revolts against their own leadership didn't help. But in their settlement with France in 1804, they had to pay 150 million francs in reparations for lost slaves. This was an impossible number; they spent the next century tolling to repay that debt rather than on their own infrastructure.


France has had a terrible colonial past. It's because of France that the war in Vietnam was fought. I suggest the French today invest that amount to help Haiti rebuild.


The U.S occupation there in 1915 was in fear that the Germans were going to use it as a Caribbean base. What did the US do?


Confiscated Haiti's gold reserves, imposed racial segregation and created a gendarmerie controlled by Marines … consolidated Haiti's debt to France and replaced it with debt to U.S. banks.


As Haitians tried to rebel, US forces fought back, killing 2,000 in just one skirmish. When the U.S. finally pulled out, during the Depression, they left behind a desperately poor and unstable nation.


Oh, but the U.S. wasn't done. In the 1950s they feared it would turn communist and installed Papa Doc and Baby Doc, dictators who stopped at nothing to make themselves richer. In 1990 they got a democratically elected president who was deposed in two coups, supported by both the US and UN.


What does the US owe them today? Along with France, just about everything.

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