The sacking of Haiti by France
The Haitian Revolution was, without doubt, one of the most interesting and epic events of modern history. Taking place from 1791 to 1804, this moment was indeed fundamental for the country itself, but also had global repercussions that are still being reviewed today. First of all, the Haitian Revolution led to the creation of the first free black state on the American continent. However, the event was completely ignored by academic historians and other “permitted” narrators of the New Continent, and this remains so today to a certain degree with regards to its significance, since the story has always been told from the point of the view of the conqueror and the colony, and still with the cruel, paternalistic European perspective.
We barely talk about it, but the Atlantic Ocean was at the heart of a drastic transportation of people. About 13 million Africans has been taken to the Americas (nearly half of them to the Caribbean) over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries to be reduced to slaves, in what will probably remain the greatest and most troublesome population transfer in history. In the years directly leading up to the Haitian Revolution, 20% of the slaves were new arrivals, a proportion that sheds new light with regards to the profound impact of Central Africa (with its traditions and political workings) on this nation’s history. Even more so than the American and French Revolutions, the Haitian Revolution and its Black Jacobins placed absolutely crucial questions about whether humans have the right to have rights at the centre of the debate. Since it was in Haiti that humans were considered to be – and treated like – livestock, it is in Haiti that the defence of human rights and universal values took on an acutely vital role of a totally different measure than in the US or France.
Whatever the case may be, the story of the Haitian Revolution – which makes up an integral part of the era of Revolutions – was a major political moment in world history that gave universalism its pedigree and standing, but which also transformed what was the most profitable colony in the world into a nation that rebuked slavery at a time when it was ravaging the American continent. With this backdrop, France’s attitude was odious towards the Haitian people, who were forced to compensate the colonising country and the former slave owners for the “losses” they suffered. Having declared its independence in 1804, during the French Monarchy Restoration, Haiti was subject to intense pressure and threats of military action from Louis XVIII, then Charles X, that aimed to compel it, by force if necessary, to pay reparations to France. Sum of which was fixed arbitrarily at 150 million francs at the time, which is 10 times the amount that Napoleon sold Louisiana for in 1803 ! The Haitian President Boyer had no other choice but to give in to this legal pillaging and had to sign a treaty in 1825 with a French squadron of 400 cannons below his palace window ready to open fire on the town if he refused. This sum of 150 million francs was nothing less than extortion, coming to 10 times Haiti’s annual budget at the time. The first 30 million paid under Boyer were borrowed, before the country declared bankruptcy under the weight of this colossal debt.
Renegotiations brought the figure down to 90 million in 1838 via the “Treaty of Peace and Friendship”, the best proof of this friendship being the 12 warships sent by France to force the hand of the Haitians. It was not until 1947 that this illegitimate debt, plus interest, was settled, but ultimately with a sum that was twice what had been agreed. From the height of its indignant attitude towards Haiti, France can boast of being one of the most voracious colonial powers, and also one of the most arrogant for having demanded compensation from its former slave colony, whereas common sense and morality would have supposed the opposite. In the end, this tax has served as a permanent ball and chain, dragging the Haitian economy and development down, over the course of decades and now centuries. It has had devastating effects on the country’s education system, healthcare, and infrastructure that have of course not been the recipients of investment that could have benefited the population.
The triumphalist narrative of this period of history is only beginning to find nuance, and the putting into perspective of the economic implications of slavery reveals many abhorrent abuses. Haiti must be at the heart of the debate, and a priority with regards to the matter of reparations for the harm perpetrated on the enslaved colonies.