Haiti: History of a Shaken Country

From the 18th-century slave revolution to 2010’s horrific earthquake, Haiti has experienced endless volatility. How is its historical legacy worsening the current crisis?
  • Transcript


Question: What sparked the Haitian Revolution, and why did it succeed where other New World slave uprisings failed?

Laurent Dubois: Well Saint-Domingue, which was the French colony that became Haiti in 1804, was a very profitable sugar plantation economy. In fact, it was probably the most profitable colony in the Americas at the time. It was a colony that was based upon large sugar plantations with African slaves. The pace of importation in from Africa was massive. There were about a million Africans brought to Saint-Domingue during the course of the eighteenth century and the revolution began in 1791 as a result and part of a number of forces that came together. On the one hand you had you know obviously the longstanding desire of people to be free. There was sense of… There had been resistance in the colony before as there had been in other places, but really the historical conjuncture is the one in which the French Revolution opened up some possibilities for action on the ground and that’s pretty vital to understanding how it worked out. In other words the transformations of the French empire itself or of French power structures themselves as well as the emergence of a kind of language of equal rights starting with the American Revolution and the French Revolution provided an opportunity and in some ways connected with other kinds of ground level desires or hopes and ideologies for freedom that were coming out of the plantation regime itself. The reasons for its successor are multiple. It’s not simply that there was a majority slave population because there were other colonies where that was also the case, notably Jamaica, but it’s a kind of long series of events in which not only did the enslaved insurgence organize very well and fight very well, we can talk about that more, but also they found allies and they actually… the abolition of slavery in the colony is the result of an alliance with French allies of various kinds. And then anyway, yeah. Do you want me to continue?

Question: How did the outcome of the Haitian Revolution shape the country's subsequent government and social order?

Laurent Dubois: Right. So the first big dramatic push in the Haitian Revolution was to overthrow the slave regime and we have to remember this was really the first place where there was a large scale emancipation experiment. There had been abolition in some North American colonies, but really on a small scale and not in you know large slave colonies. So what the regime in Saint-Domingue after the revolution had to deal with was how do you move from slavery to freedom on a massive scale, right? 90% of the population was enslaved people. What’s the economy going to look like? What’s labor going to look like? And in many ways that whole tension which happened during the revolution continued on in Haitian history afterwards. In 1802, 1803 the French government decides essentially to crush the kind of autonomous black regime that’s emerged in Saint-Domingue led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the famous general and governor and in that moment essentially they kind of force a choice on the people of Saint-Domingue, which is whether to be you know to be re-enslaved under the French or be free and independent and obviously they fight for and win their independence in order to preserve a liberty they had won before. The result though of that conflict is a kind of both the expulsion of the French and then the creation of a kind of new class of elites, a new order in which the question of who is going to own land, who is going to work for who and all those kinds of questions become very important ones in nineteenth century Haiti.

Question: Why has Haiti experienced so much poverty and instability throughout its history, and how much are France and the U.S. to blame?

Laurent Dubois: Well it’s been up and down. I mean there is obviously a lot of instability, parts of the nineteenth century. There was actually quite long periods of political stability as well in the nineteenth century as well as some in the twentieth century, so it sometimes can be exaggerated. We have to remember in the nineteenth century our country was pretty unstable too at certain moments, but there is a way in which there is some very fundamental tensions I think that do undergird a lot of that… a lot of those conflicts. One is simply the tension between a large number of people who are living in the rural areas whose goal is essentially a kind of autonomy, agriculture that feeds themselves, ability to trade, but kind of on their own terms and then alongside that there is a lot of people who are hoping to kind of continue and revive plantation agriculture, particularly with coffee in order to export to the broader world, so the kind of tension between different economic visions I would say is one of the underlying tensions. You also have to remember that the Haitian state is under enormous pressure from the beginning. Many countries see the emergence of Haiti as a very serious threat. They do have trade with a lot of countries, notably the US and North American, but diplomatic recognition only comes in 1825 from France and actually during the Civil War from the United States, so it’s kind of seen as a dangerous state and Haitian elites are in this kind of perpetual position of kind of trying to sort of prove to the outside world and in some ways you know gain recognition from the outside world. In 1825 they actually are levied a major indemnity by the French who asked that in return for granting recognition that Haitians pay a 125 million francs and that actually creates a spiral of debt in which the Haitian state is still kind of embroiled. So there are a lot of outside forces that weaken in some ways what might have otherwise happened in the country.

Question: What connections can be drawn between Haitian history and the current societal problems that have exacerbated the current tragedy?

Laurent Dubois: Yeah. I mean a lot of what we… We really need to go back I think to the early twentieth century to understand a lot of what is going on today. I mean one point is simply that it’s important to remember there is a 20 year US. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. That represents a major transition in the history of the country and kind of reshaping partly in terms of just their direction of their attention. I mean obviously shifts a lot of connections from France to the US and that occupation sets in motion a number of things that have profound consequences in Haiti. One of them is the formation of the Haitian Army, which had basically been a decentralized militia like army before and which becomes a centralized army. It’s actually created because there is serious resistance to the US occupation in the countryside and the Haitian Army is used with the marines to suppress that resistance. That creates a sort of force in Haitian politics which is going to kind of be a profound force throughout the twentieth century, which Aristide actually disbanded when he returned with… after he was returned by the US in the ‘90s. So the place of the Haitian Army I think is really, really crucial. That’s something to keep in mind and then simply a kind of serious conflict over who is going to kind of speak on behalf of the population of Haiti. Which elites are going to take that role is one that really creates a lot of tensions within the Haitian political elite over the course of time, so if I was to summarize it’s partly that from the very beginning the Haitians state is under tremendous pressure from outside forces that are kind of demanding of it certain things in order to gain recognition and at the same time internally there is a tremendous conflict between very different visions of what autonomy and liberty should mean in the country.

Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen