Tue | Mar 9, 2021

Myrtha Désulmé | Haiti at the centre of the reparation movement

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2021 | 12:11 AM
Jean-Jacques-Dessalines
Jean-Jacques-Dessalines
Contributed 
Toussaint Louverture Girardin
Contributed Toussaint Louverture Girardin
Myrtha Désulmé
Myrtha Désulmé
1
2
3

In this first article for the New Year, Myrtha Désulmé makes the case for Haiti to be at the centre of the reparation movement. Haiti celebrated its Independence Day on January 1 and its Ancestry Day on January 2, so this article is a timely reminder of the ways in which black liberators in the Caribbean led the fight for freedom. Reparation Conversations is a collaboration between The Gleaner and The Centre for Reparation Research (CRR) at The University of the West Indies.

In 1793, the Haitians were the first to abolish slavery. Period. Though the British have long tried to usurp that distinction, no other country in the world has ever had a successful slave rebellion, which put an end to slavery. But instead of enjoying the admiration and gratitude she so richly deserved for this unparalleled service to the cause of universal human liberty, Haiti fell prey to the most abominable heist in human history, placing her at the centre of the global reparations movement.

The Haitian Revolution was an earth-shattering phenomenon, which shook the very foundation of the Atlantic World. It was the greatest war of liberation and represents the most thorough case study of revolutionary change in the history of the modern world. From 1791 to 1804, in 13 years of heroic and herculean internal and international warfare against the world’s greatest powers – Britain, Spain, and France – a colony populated predominantly by plantation slaves overthrew both its colonial status and its economic system and established a new, independent State of entirely free individuals, with former slaves constituting the new political authority.

The revolution was social, economic, and political and remains the only case in which emancipation and independence were simultaneous. In this glorious revolution, the African Presence stood up for the first time in the New World, and West Indians came to know themselves as a people.

The greatest contribution of the Haitian Revolution lies in its fundamental articulation of the notion of human rights not just in Haiti, but throughout the world. Haiti was the first to articulate a general principle of common, unqualified equality for all of its citizens, something that neither the vaunted French or American revolutions did as they both maintained slavery.

AUTOMATICALLY GAIN FREEDOM

Think about it. It is only in 1948, after the Second World War, a century and a half after the Haitians promulgated a constitution based on the fundamental concept of a common humanity, which affirmed that ALL persons regardless of colour, race, gender, occupation, status, or origin were equal, that the United Nations adopted a charter for human rights, and that is only in response to the Nazi holocaust against Europeans.

As the first independent nation in Latin America, and only the second in the New World, Haiti was surrounded by viciously hostile slave colonies. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of independent Haiti, nevertheless defiantly stipulated in his 1805 Constitution that any African who set foot on Haitian soil would automatically gain freedom, citizenship, shelter, and the protection of the Haitian State, which was the opposite of the Maroon treaty. The Empire quickly realised that through this breach, the entire world economic order, based on plantation slavery, would inevitably collapse as Haiti had created the first haven of freedom for runaway slaves on the continent.

All of the Western powers took France’s side against Haiti. Realising that the indomitable Haitians could not be subdued on the battlefield, they quarantined Haiti to prevent her freedom ideals from escaping. No foreign nation recognised Haiti’s sovereignty or established diplomatic relations with her. Bellicose navies continually menaced the Haitian coast. The slave-owning West was convinced that its peace and security depended on the annihilation of the Black Republic.

The loss of its richest colony was a great shock to France and constituted an insurmountable setback. One out of every seven Frenchmen depended on Saint Domingue for his livelihood. From 1804 to 1825, France tried to negotiate with Haiti to come back into the fold. The Haitians categorically refused. In 1825, deluged by the hysteria of former planters, who, for decades, had been demanding compensation for the loss of their slaves and properties, French King, Charles X, issued a royal ordinance requiring that the former colony pay an indemnity of 150 million gold francs as a prerequisite for France’s recognition of her independence. The astronomical sum was equivalent to five times France’s annual budget, 10 years of Haiti’s revenues, and three times the value of the entire lost colony. In addition, France decreed that her Customs duties should be cut in half, further reducing Haiti’s ability to pay.

The Haitian people were outraged and refused. When has one ever heard of a victor paying tribute to the vanquished? But 21 years after independence, Haiti was living in an extreme state of isolation, still surrounded by a sea of rabidly hostile slave colonies fearful that the revolution would spread to their shores, and awaiting the first opportunity to attack her for daring to be Black and free. This isolation and ostracism, following on the heels of the extensive devastation of the War of Independence, represented a crippling obstacle to commerce, physical rebuilding, and economic development. In 1825, the demands were delivered by 12 warships armed with 500 canons. A desperate President Boyer consequently submitted to the extortion by the French government and signed the treaty.

FORCED TO CONTINUALLY BORROW

Haiti was forced to continually borrow at exorbitant interest rates from French banks, effectively doubling the crushing ransom, which was equivalent to about $40 billion in today’s currency. The momentum of Haiti’s vicious spiral of debt and payments continued until 1947. From 1825 to 1947, Haiti was spending 80 per cent of her public resources on external debt payments rather than the vital domestic investments in schools, hospitals, and infrastructure necessary for a nation at that stage of development. The young nation was shackled to a debt that would take 122 agonising years to pay off, causing continual financial emergencies and political upheavals, distorting and stunting her economy, retarding her development by decades, and chaining her to perpetual poverty.

The social chaos and political instability engendered by the ransom was the pretext used by the United States to invade and occupy Haiti, purportedly to ensure continued repayment. But the oppressive 19-year occupation from 1915-1934 exploited Haiti’s mining resources and trees, exacerbating the deforestation process started by France, to supply the European First World War effort. The US stole Haiti’s gold reserves, rewrote the Constitution to allow land ownership by foreigners, brutally repressed the widespread resistance to the occupation, and left behind a trail of destruction.

The egregious case of Haiti proves better than any other the galling hypocrisy of the anti-reparationists, who, having bled an infant nation for 122 years, after centuries of slavery, torture, theft, and exploitation had already built up the magnificence of France, are now contending that they owe absolutely nothing to the victims of slavery.

Haiti is mankind’s great liberator, the foundational pioneer without whose brave stand many of us might still be walking around in shackles. She was the first country where the Black man asserted his right to be free and was brave enough to fight for his freedom and gain it. She startled slaveholders into the “terrified consciousness” that the heinous system of slavery was ultimately untenable, kicking off the cycle of emancipation and decolonisation. That is what led Britain to abolish the slave trade (not slavery) in 1807. Haiti is not only owed reparations, but a reimbursement of the fortune extorted at gunpoint, which achieved the intended objective of her present devastation. Reparations are due not only to Haiti, but to the descendants of every African whose blood was shed and life was blighted in the project that built the Western world.

Myrtha Désulmé is a network scholar at CRR and president of the Haiti -Jamaica Society. Send feedback to reparation.research@uwimona.edu.jm.