Exploring Human Potential

Why, After 200 Years, Is Haiti This Impoverished?

Posted on | June 23, 2022 | 2 Comments

Mike Magee

This Spring, at the President’s College at the University of Hartford, I taught a timely course titled, “The History of Epidemics in America.” By way of introduction, I stated that “Epidemics are social, political, philosophical, medical and above all ecological. They are also narratives – with a beginning, middle and end, and a range of heroes and villains, both human and microbial.”

One of the narratives, which sadly has had no end, is the French colonization of Saint-Dominque (now Haiti), western neighbor of the then Spanish controlled Dominican Republic, which together comprised the island of Hispaniola.

Columbus arrived on the island in 1492. Documents suggest he was greeted peacefully by the native Taino tribe which numbered some 60,000. By 1548, the numbers had plummeted with less than 500 of the indigenous tribe surviving. What had happened? The arrival of Columbus and others, and their subsequent movement back and forth between the Old World and the New World led to an unprecedented exchange of plants, manufactured goods and raw materials, tools and technologies, ideas, and microbes.

In the pursuit of wealth, traders and merchants, with financial inducements by their governments, clear cut and developed large plantation farming of cash crops like sugar, tobacco and wheat for export. These crops demand huge workforces for planting and harvesting under brutal and dangerous conditions.

The explorer’s plan was to enslave the natives they encountered as indentured servants and maintain a system of forced labor. To assist the effort, they also imported large numbers of domesticated animals from Europe including horses, cows, pigs, goats and sheep. At the time, the only domestic animals on the island were llamas and alpaca. But the animals carried with them a wide range of infectious diseases including smallpox, chickenpox, measles, mumps and typhus.

Over hundreds of years, the Europeans had developed immunities to these diseases. But the native Americans were immunologically naïve. By some estimates, 90% of the indigenous population in South and North America perished. Beyond the human tragedy, their demise created an enormous shortage of labor on the plantations. The solution chosen by the English, Spanish, Portuguese and French conquerors was to begin large scale importation of African slaves.

Between 1785 and 1790, nearly 40 percent of human cargo of African slaves crossing the Atlantic listed Saint-Dominque as their destination. The French by then possessed eight thousand plantations producing sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco, indigo and cacao. These were established by clear-cutting forests under the most brutal conditions, explaining why the average lifespan of the enslaved population was just 5 years.

As Yale historian Frank Snowden recently described: “It was said that an acre of land on a Saint-Domingue plantation yielded more wealth than an acre anywhere else on earth. At the same time, the same area enclosed what many regarded the highest concentration of human misery…Men and women who had recently arrived in chains did not regard slavery as natural or permanent.” Those in control however were deeply committed to the status quo for a region whose capital city was called the “Paris of the Antilles.”

What the slaves lacked in freedom, they partially made up in determined defiance and natural immunity as the labored in insect infested fields. One was a mosquito that is the vector of choice for the Flavivirus that causes Yellow Fever. A competitor, the Anopheles mosquito, transmits the protozoa, Plasmodium, that causes malaria. African slaves who had survived these endemic diseases in their homelands often arrived as carriers with the Flavivirus and Plasmodium in their blood, protected from the diseases deadly effects by natural immunity.

By the end of the 18th century, revolution was in full swing in the future Haiti led by the dynamic Toussant Louverture, known popularly as “The Black Sparticus.” Out of the ashes of the French Revolution and the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1794, Napoleon had risen to power in a military takeover of the country. While waging war and skirmishes on his own continent, he watched the colonies closely, both as a source of fabulous wealth, but also with significant holdings in North America which included 828,000 squares miles, containing what would become the middle third of the United States.

He saw in Louverture a direct competitor, and also a potential massive regional destabilizer. If slavery went down in Saint-Domingue, France’s slave colonies in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, and Guiana would also likely collapse. With British and U.S. endorsement, Napoleon took action in 1801, deploying  an armada of 65 ships to the region led by his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc.

The arrival in February was met, at the direction of Louverture, by surprising non-engagement. The “Black Sparticus” was aware that his African former slaves were largely immune to Malaria and Yellow Fever, and that the Europeans were not. He therefore decided to wait for the summer insect infestation to decimate the French troops. The epidemic that engulfed them eventually killed over 50,000 soldiers (90% from Yellow Fever), including Leclerc on November 2, 1802.

In the wake of the defeat, Saint-Dominque formally declared its independence in 1804, a half-century before the Civil War and decades before slavery was outlawed in Britain. As for Napoleon, the loss of Saint-Domingue eliminated his forward base for staging additional North American conquests. In his eyes, these far away lands were now “indefensible liabilities.” In 1803, he sold it all – all 828,000 square miles – for $15 million dollars or 4 cents an acre. That land, which would eventually be segmented into 15 new states, was largely the property of native Americans.

This story should have a happy ending. But it does not. The reasons why have been shrouded by the American and French governments for over two centuries, and only recently exposed in a 2022 landmark investigative study published recently in the New York Times.

What happened to Haiti to account for its impoverished state and an economy only 1/6 the size of its mirror neighbor, the Dominican Republic? To uncover the truth, Times reporters spent several years combing thru dusty archives in three nations to reveal the deeply hidden truth for Haiti’s current impoverished reality.

The story picks up 21 years after its independence, when a new armada of French ships packing 500 cannons appeared off the coast of Haiti on July 3, 1825 with an ultimatum.  American lawmakers, between 1804 and 1825,  had refused to acknowledge the freed slaves nationhood for obvious reasons. Georgia Senator John Berrien at the time said that official recognition would “introduce a moral contagion.”

The ultimatum of newly installed French ruler, Charles X, was clear – pay a ransom of 150 million francs as reparation for the losses of former French slave holders on the island or your ports and trade with France and America will be blockaded as “an enemy of France.” By scale, the financial demand was enormous, twice what Napoleon had been paid for the Louisiana Purchase, but only 1/77 its size in square miles. This then was  Haiti’s “double debt.” As one local leader described, “The slaves fought for our independence. To make them pay for that independence again, it was setting up another form of slavery.”

The price for peace was now clear, to be delivered in 5 payments. But as the New York Times uncovered, to cover just the first payment, it had to empty its national treasury and travel to Paris to secure a bank loan. The bank collective, which included the Rothschilds and was fronted by Credit Industriel et Commercial (the financier of the Eiffel Tower) were more than happy to advance 30 million francs, while pocketing a 6 million transaction fee, leaving Saint-Dominque in the red to the tune of 156 million plus interest. Between 1825 and 1957, international debt consumed approximately 1/5 of the suffering nation’s annual revenue. During the same time the Eiffel Tower’s bankers grew into one of Europe’s largest financial conglomerates.

It took another half-century for Haiti to pay the debt down to 12 million francs, funded by taxes raised from coffee producers. In the meantime, the impoverished nation and its population descended  into what one observer called “the most foul smelling, dirty, and consequently fever-stricken city in the world.” 

The U.S. military takeover, beginning in 1915 and extending to 1934, was by all accounts devastating.  Secretary of State Robert Lansing justified our nation’s actions in 1918 stating,  “The African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization.” The list of offenses was long including “a puppet government, dissolved parliament at gunpoint, entrenched segregation, forced Haitians to build roads for no pay, killed protesters and rewrote the nation’s Constitution, enabling foreigners to own property for the first time since independence.”

During this period, the Haitian people were once again asked to pick up the bill. But this time , the payments went to U.S. bankers, most notably the National City Bank of New York, the predecessor of Citigroup, draining 1/4 of their annual revenue for  over ten years.

What followed was mass corruption, dictatorships, graft, resources diverted to the military, environmental degradation, and social turmoil. The 1998 World Bank report catalogued the misery. “The staggering level of poverty in Haiti is… shocking. Life expectancy is only 57 years compared to the Latin American average of 69. Less than half of the population is literate. Only about one child in five of secondary-school age actually attends secondary school. Health conditions are similarly poor; vaccination coverage for children, for example, is only about 25 percent. Only about one-fourth of the population has access to safe water. In short, the overwhelming majority of the Haitian population are living in deplorable conditions of extreme poverty.”

According to the Times investigators, the U.S. and France are still pulling the strings. On February 29,2004, the U.S. orchestrated a forced exile of Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was engaged in a public “restitution campaign.”. A former Catholic priest, he had loudly lobbied for France’s repayment of the 1825 ransom which he valued at over $15 billion (confirmed by New York Times financial consultants).

From his exile, Aristide circled the loop and raised up Saint-Dominque’s “Black Spartacus” from the dead. Quoting Toussaint Louverture, who himself had been abducted by French soldiers in 1802 at the signing of a peace agreement, he said, “In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of Black liberty in Saint-Domingue. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”

As for the question that has troubled many of us: “Why after 200 years, is Haiti this impoverished?”

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


2 Responses to “Why, After 200 Years, Is Haiti This Impoverished?”

  1. Martha Lewin
    June 24th, 2022 @ 11:02 am

    We’ll done Mike! A history too long not told.

  2. Mike Magee
    June 24th, 2022 @ 11:38 am

    Thanks, Martha. Thought of you and Jack as I prepared this piece. Best, Mike

Leave a Reply

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons