Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Haiti and The White Curse by Eduardo Galeano

The Progressive magazine, June 2004, "The White Curse [Haiti]" by Eduardo Galeano  --  On the first day of his year, freedom in this world turned 200. But no one noticed, or almost no one. A few days later, the country where this birth occurred, Haiti, found itself in the media spotlight, not for the anniversary of universal freedom but for the ouster of President Aristide.

Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery. However, the most widely read encyclopedias and almost all educational textbooks attribute this honorable deed to England. It is true that one fine day the empire that had been the champion in the slave trade changed its mind about it. But abolition in Britain took place in 1807, three years after the Haitian revolution, and it was so unconvincing that in 1832 Britain had to ban slavery again.

There is nothing new about this slight of Haiti. For two centuries it has suffered scorn and punishment. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner and champion of liberty at the same time, warned that Haiti had created a bad example and argued it was necessary to "confine the plague to the island." His country heeded him. It was sixty years before the U.S. granted diplomatic recognition to this freest of nations. Meanwhile in Brazil disorder and violence came to be called "Haitianism." Slave owners there were saved from this fury until 1888 when Brazil abolished slavery-the last country in the world to do so.

And Haiti went back to being an invisible nation-until the next bloodbath. During its brief sojourn on TV screens and front pages earlier this year, the media showed confusion and violence and confirmed that Haitians were born to do evil well and do good badly. Since its revolution, Haiti has been capable only of mounting tragedies. Once a happy and prosperous colony, it is now the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Revolutions, certain specialists have concluded, lead straight to the abyss; others have suggested, if not stated outright, that the Haitian tendency to fratricide derives from its savage African heredity. The rule of the ancestors. The black curse that engenders crime and chaos.

Of the white curse, nothing was said.

The French revolution had abolished slavery, but Napoleon revived it.

"Which regime was most prosperous for the colonies?"

"The previous one."

"Then reinstate it."

To reinstate slavery in Haiti, France sent more than fifty shiploads of soldiers. The country's blacks rose up and defeated France and won national independence and freedom for the slaves. In 1804, they inherited a land that had been razed to grow sugarcane and a land consumed by the conflagrations of a fierce civil war. And they inherited "the French debt." France made Haiti pay dearly for the humiliation it inflicted on Napoleon Bonaparte. The newly born nation had to commit to pay a gigantic indemnification for the damage it had caused in winning its freedom. This expiation of the sin of freedom would cost Haiti 150 million gold francs.

The new country was born with a rope wrapped tightly around its neck: the equivalent of $21.7 billion in today's dollars, or forty-four times Haiti's current yearly budget.

In exchange for this fortune, France officially recognized the new nation. No other countries did so. Haiti was born condemned to solitude.

Not even Simon Bolivar recognized Haiti, though he owed it everything. In 1816, it was Haiti that furnished Bolivar with boats, arms, and soldiers when he showed up on the island defeated and asking for shelter and help.

Haiti gave him everything with only one condition: that he free the slaves-an idea that had not occurred to him until then. The great man triumphed in his war of independence and showed his gratitude by sending a sword as a gift to Port-au-Prince. Of recognition he made no mention.

In 1915, the Marines landed in Haiti. They stayed nineteen years. The first thing they did was occupy the customs house and . duty collection facilities. The occupying army suspended the salary of the Haitian president until he agreed to sign off on the liquidation of the Bank of the Nation, which became a branch of City Bank of New York. The president and other blacks were barred entry into the private hotels, restaurants, and clubs of the foreign occupying power. The occupiers didn't dare reestablish slavery, but they did impose forced labor for the building of public works. And they killed a lot of people. It wasn't easy to quell the fires of resistance.

The guerrilla chief, Charlemagne Peralte, was exhibited in the public square, crucified on a door to teach the people a lesson.

This civilizing mission ended in 1934. The occupiers withdrew, leaving a National Guard, which they had created, in their place to exterminate any possible trace of democracy. They did the same in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. A short time afterwards, Duvalier became the Haitian equivalent of Trujillo and Somoza.

And so, from dictator to dictator, from promise to betrayal, one misfortune followed another.

Aristide, the rebel priest, became president in 1991. He lasted a few months before the U.S. government helped to oust him, brought him to the United States, subjected him to Washington's treatment, and then sent him back a few years later, in the arms of Marines, to resume his post. Then once again, in 2004, the U.S. helped to remove him from power, and yet again there was killing. And yet again the Marines came back, as they always seem to, like the flu.

But the international experts are far more destructive than invading troops. Placed under strict orders from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Haiti obeyed every instruction, without cheating. The government paid what it was told to even if it meant there would be neither bread nor salt. Its credit was frozen despite the fact that the state had been dismantled and the subsidies and tariffs that had protected national production had been eliminated. Rice farmers, once the majority, soon became beggars or boat people. Many have ended in the depths of the Caribbean, and more are following them to the bottom, only these shipwreck victims aren't Cuban so their plight never makes the papers.

Today Haiti imports its rice from the United States, where international experts, who are rather distracted people, forgot to prohibit tariffs and subsidies to protect national production.

On the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, there is a large sign that reads: Road to Ruin.

Down that road, everyone is a sculptor. Haitians have the habit of collecting tin cans and scrap metal that they cut and shape and hammer with old-world mastery, creating marvels that are sold in the street markets.

Haiti is a country that has been thrown away, as an eternal punishment of its dignity. There it lies, like scrap metal. It awaits the hands of its people. [source: The Third World Traveler; Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, is the author of "The Open Veins of Latin America," "Memory of Fire," and "Soccer in Sun and Shadow. " This article is published with permission of IPS Columnist Service.]


  1. Ron, Nice to see you take up the most successful resistance to slavery. I don't agree that slavery was abolished with the founding of Haiti, that feat was accomplished in 1791 when the slaves of the northern plain rose up en masse. The "French Revolution" tried to suppress the uprising and failed to do so. "the French Revolution" did manage to murder Boukman, the original leader of the slaves. "the French Revolution" came around to the idea of emancipating the slaves only after the French hold on the colony became so tenuous that rallying the insurgent blacks to "the French Revolution" side became the only way to maintain French control there. The idea that post independence Haiti was totally devastated is a bit of a fiction. After the murder of the Founder of the Haitian Nation Jean-Jaques Dessalines in 1806, the nation was split into as many as three independent states, nonetheless, in 1807, Henry Christophe's kingdom in the north was able to carry on trade with the UK valued at £1,200,000 or $6,616,560,000 in 2011 dollars. The southern side was able to finance Bolivar, as Galeano states in his article. French pressure on Haiti was resisted for over two decades. Massive forts were built in preparation for the battle expected when the French would try again to return as masters, hell, Christophe even had a French agent executed for daring to come to his kingdom claiming that Haiti owed France something. After Christophe's death The Haitians lost their love of freedom and acquiesced to pay blackmail. When Haiti was ruled by Dessalines and Christophe the nation's motto was liberty or death after these giants died it was whatever you say boss. The only thing we Haitians have to remind us of the heroic age that came to a close with the fall of Christophe's kingdom is this:

    1. Thanks for your comment. Haiti is way too deep for a simple blog post. The history of Haiti and the USA are tidally locked, we Americans are just ignorant on how important to our expansion (the Louisiana Purchase), the potability of our water supply (Philadelphia Yellow Fever Pandemic), the insignificance of the French Military powers interfering with the trade and formation of our country (the Haitian's defeat of Napoleon), the Napoleon defeat at Waterloo kept the British and the French Military tied-up while Andrew Jackson made a powerful land-grab of the southern states (soon to be cotton states) from the Indians that expanded the USA to the Gulf Shore. It's just way too much to explain, since most of Americans don't know Jack about history.

      I'll have to admit full disclosure. This post let me combine two of my favorites: The writings of Eduardo Galeano and Haitian art. Eduardo Galeano is one of my favorite wrtiers, I just wish he'd publish more stuff in English. I use Google Translate, but it never captures the subtleties of his prose. After all Google Translate is just a computer program, it can't possibly translate nuance and irony.

      As far as Haitian art is concerned, I'm a total fan. Why does that small, impoverished island produce some of the best art in the hemisphere. It's paradoxical, for sure.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  2. Ron, There's only one way to tackle a big subject, that is to do it one bit at the time. You could start by doing some posts on such unknown or little known black freedom fighters such as Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita:
    Makandal, and Boukman. Galeano is good but his claim that the "French Revolution" freed the slave leaves out the greater role that blacks played to free themselves. Did you know that the Kongo kingdom converted to Catholicism circa 1506?

  3. Ron, I forgot to add another interesting individual's name to my last comment. You could do a post on the life of Prince Saunders an African American Henry Christophe hired to implement universal education in his kingdom circa 1815. These people should be better known, otherwise, we end up with the sad tale of blacks devoid of the capacity to help themselves.

    1. Thanks for the tips, I'll post something.

      As far as the French Revolution is concerned, you can't negate either the timelines: The French Revolution (1789) vs. The Haitian Revolution (1791). The motto of the French Revolution was Liberté, égalité, fraternité or Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. None of those sentiments can be reconciled with slavery.

      Although Toussaint L'Ouverture was a certifiable badass, the outbreak of Yellow Fever along with the French Military's woolen uniforms in the Tropic of Cancer didn't hurt their war efforts. Add to that the Reign of Terror with the power vacuum after the overthrow of the monarchical rule and the subsequent beheading of thousands of the French Aristocracy. In other words, the ripen fruit of liberty was ready to be picked.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  4. " The motto of the French Revolution was Liberté, égalité, fraternité or Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. None of those sentiments can be reconciled with slavery." Ron, name me a single member of the French Assembly who advocated freedom for the slaves in French colonies as an immediate task of the revolution. The French commissioners, Sonthonax and Polverel, who decreed the abolition of slavery on St-Domingue were initially sent to unite the whites, mulattoes and free blacks against the slaves. I'm surprised that you are so impressed by mottos, Who wrote more eloquently of freedom than that slave owner known as Thomas Jefferson? Funny how yellow fever is dragged in to explain the French defeat, how come yellow fever failed to stop the French from conquering Guadeloupe? The certifiable badass who defeated the French was Dessalines not L'Ouverture. The French army was defeated because L'Ouverture wisely resisted Leclerc's army by burning a lot of the main towns and destroying everything that the French could make use of. The Russians used a similar approach when Bonaparte invaded Russia.

    1. {{The certifiable badass who defeated the French was Dessalines not L'Ouverture. The French army was defeated because L'Ouverture wisely resisted Leclerc's army by burning a lot of the main towns and destroying everything that the French could make use of.}}

      I agree. As I posted in an earlier comment, the Haitian Revolution is way too large of a topic for a blog post. It's more like a 300-500 page PhD dissertation, rather than a 5 paragraph essay. If you take the time to peruse this blog, you'll find very little on Haiti, because the topic is too large and I'm not a Francophone (French speaker).

      But, you'd be a fool to dismiss the connection between disease and conquest. Perhaps there aren't enough books written on the subject, but microorganisms have defeated more nations than guns and bombs. You can't even broach the subject of the island of Haiti without a conscious awareness that it was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Native Taino and Arawak Indians. The Spanish Conquistadors were some blood thirsty mother f*ckers, no doubt, but those nasty bastards brought a ship load of organism like smallpox, influenza, bubonic plague, mumps, measles, and a host of other nasties that the Native Indian immune system had no defense against.

      You just need to connect the historic dots when it comes to the outbreak of Yellow Fever. Remember many French ex-pats escaping from the Haitian Revolution landed in the USA. One of the places where a large number of French refugees along with their Haitian slaves disembarked was in Philadelphia. Without one gun fired, the Haitian Revolutionaries were able to depopulate over 10% of one of the nation's largest cities by the microorganisms that cause Yellow Fever. The epidemic depopulated Philadelphia: 5,000 out of a population of 45,000 died,

      The physicians at that time wrongly thought that black people were immune to Yellow Fever. The black congregations of Richard Allen's AME Church, Mother Bethel along with Absalom Jones church nursed and took care of the whites in Philadelphia. And you already know how they were thanked by the good white people of Philadelphia for their efforts ... with the middle finger.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  5. "But, you'd be a fool to dismiss the connection between disease and conquest." Ron where have I done that? I simply object to the nonsense that the French were felled by yellow fever because that strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. We know that blacks aren't immune to that disease anymore than whites. Again, the French under General Richepanse defeated the free people of Guadeloupe and restored slavery on that island after murdering 10% of the population there. Richepanse died of yellow fever shortly after his feat of heroism. Your example of Philadelphia buttresses my case. I don't think that Washington would have survived the outbreak of yellow fever by going to the mountains if the blacks of Philadelphia had risen and burned the town, he might have died of yellow fever campaigning against the insurgent slaves. I'm not asking you to turn your blog into a Haitian history blog, but I do think that there are enough English sources on the ties between Haitians and African Americans dating back from the beginning of both nations to tell an interesting story.

  6. Ron, I have one bone to pick with you, it concerns the following statement you wrote above. " One of the places where a large number of French refugees along with their Haitian slaves disembarked was in Philadelphia." As I pointed to you several months ago the term "Haitian Slaves" is anachronistic and oxymoronic, Haiti came about because the ex-slaves of St-Domingue refused to be reenslaved.

  7. Interesting read. Thanks for posting!

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  9. You forget 1 thing the largest forced slave trade in history was the Arabs who marched over 120 million African men women and children to their deaths.
    Read the Arab history by Arabs, and in 7th century they invented racism and skin colour.

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