The Story of the Indemnification of Haiti

In the early morning of July 7th, 2020 the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moise was assassinated by a group of foreign nationals who seemingly had planned an elaborate execution of the president and the First Lady of Haiti. Luckily the First Lady, Martine Moise, survived the attempt to end her life. Several weeks later, an earthquake ravaged Haiti. As I read the details of the news story it brought to mind the actual reason why Haiti has been in a constant state of struggle since just some years after independence.

In the year 1804, Haiti won its independence from its colonizer France. France was a European power who owned many colonies in Africa and in the New World. Its most profitable colony was Saint-Dominique. Saint-Dominique was a French colony located on the island of Hispaniola. Hispaniola was the first island in the Caribbean which Christopher Columbus colonized with the goal of profit and greed. At first, Columbus enslaved the natives of the island which did not prove profitable so Columbus looked to the Africa. Africa became the mecca of the slave trade as the original trade of Gold no longer was as lucrative as the trade of human cargo in Europe. As Columbus’s New World required land to be cultivated, the trade of African slaves nearly tripled in size.

Years later, as the importance of Hispaniola waned in Spain and their focus was more so on the mainland of the Americas, many european pirates set up bases on the island. In 1665, the French base became what would be called Saint-Dominique after King Louis XVI officially recognized it as a part of France and without fight the Spanish gave it away in the treaty of Ryswick. Saint-Dominique became the most profitable colony due to its fertile land and large population of slaves. It was nicknamed the Pearl of the Antilles. In all of the Caribbean, Saint-Dominique had the largest number of African slaves. Due to the unjust treatment and the constant demand for labor, African slaves in Saint-Dominique revolted against the French creating what would be the greatest revolution in history. For years after independence from France, Saint-Dominique which was renamed Haiti became the beacon of hope for all enslaved peoples around the world as a model of successfully removing the shackles of colonization. Famous revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar, received refuge in Haiti, receiving guidance and resources to continue their fight in their countries. Unfortunately by 1825, the once prosperous former colony was again shackled to its oppressor by indeminification.

Born Christophe Henry to a slave woman and freeman, somewhere in the Caribbean, Henry was brought to the colony of Saint-Dominique at some point of his young life. By 1779 Henry fought in the French regiment of Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, in the Siege of Savannah a battle during the American Revolutionary War. As an adult he may have worked several jobs, but still as a slave whose earnings all went to his master. Before the Slave Uprising of 1791, Christophe gained his own freedom. At the beginning of the Slave Uprising of 1791, Christophe distinguished himself as a soldier and rose to colonial status. During the Haitian Revolution Henry fought alongside Toussaint Louverture in the North, and by 1802 (two years before independence) he was promoted to general.

After the French deported Toussaint Louverture to France, the remaining generals kept on the good fight. Jean Jacques Dessalines led the fight to defeat the more than 20,000 new troops that were sent to Saint-Dominique to regain control of the colony and re-establish slavery. In 1804, Dessalines declared independence of Saint-Dominique from the French who were defeated, leading to the withdrawal of 7,000 surviving French troops. Saint-Dominique was renamed the country of Haiti, for its original name of Ayiti which was the original name of Hispaniola by the native people. Christophe Henry was put in charge of the northern division of the country. By 1806, a majority of Dessalines’ senior officers conspired to kill Dessalines as he launched a campaign to kill all white inhabitants of the island. Many Mullato elites like Alexandre Sabès Pétion, did not agree with Dessalines autocratic rule. Therefore, Dessalines was assassinated and as a result, the Haitian leadership divided the country in two divisions. The north would be ruled Christophe Henry, who by that time had renamed himself Henri Christophe and the south, Alexandre Pétion.

As a result of the independence of Haiti, the United States took the new position of the largest importer of slaves. This benefitted the nascent nation and built the foundation for the American economy. Some American slaveowners surpassed the riches that the once wealthy slaveowners of Saint Dominique had with the influx of slaves and slaveowners. Unlike the welcomed hand that the United States gave to slaveowners and enslaved people’s of Haiti to move to the “mainland”, when Thomas Jefferson became president, he decided that the aid that his predecessor John Adams had given to the newly independent Haiti was not needed as it would provide the newly freed former slaves with the means to migrate to the United States. As Haiti now existed as a land of freed enslaved peoples, the colonial powers that would no longer profit from their engagement with Haiti, isolated Haiti by placing embargoes on the young nation and didn’t support their entrance into the world’s stage. France and United States outwardly placed embargoes on Haiti whilst the United Kingdom acted as though Haiti didn’t exist, acknowledging other newly formed nations that were the result of similar revolutions (which probably was due to those revolutions including the creoles unlike Haiti which was primarily all black former slaves. France also did not recognize Haiti as an independent nation for years.

In 1811, Henri Christophe declared the northern division of Haiti a kingdom and named himself King Henri I of Hayti. He was crowned by an archbishop in the north. The following edict gave his new full title as:

Henry, par la grâce de Dieu et la Loi constitutionelle de l’État Roi d’Haïti, Souverain des Îles de la Tortue, Gonâve, et autres îles adjacentes, Destructeur de la tyrannie, Régénérateur et bienfaiteur de la nation haïtienne, Créateur de ses institutions morales, politiques et guerrières, Premier monarque couronné du Nouveau-Monde, Défenseur de la foi, Fondateur de l’ordre royal et militaire de Saint-Henri.

Translated as:

Henry, by the grace of God and constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Sovereign of TortugaGonâve, and other adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.

He further renamed his legitimate son Jacques Victor Henry as his heir, giving him the title of Prince Royal of Haiti. During his reign Christophe built six chateauxs, eight palaces, including the Citadelle Laferrière and famous tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage Site,  Sans-Souci Palace. While in power Christophe increased Haitian nobility from 84 to 134.

In the north, Christophe implemented the corvée plantation system which was a form of forced labor and Pétion in the south implemented a peasant subsistence farming system by providing his citizens with a parcel of land to farm on. Due to the high gross sugar cane profit in the north with the forced labor system and the agreement that was made with Britain to not meddle in its nearby British owned Caribbean islands and increased trade with Britain, the north became richer while Pétion’s south became poorer. Meanwhile the entire country of Haiti as whole spent a lot of money for arms in preparation for an inevitable invasion from France.

In August of 1814, the great Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated his throne in France and the monarchy was reinstated. King Louis XVIII was the new leader of France and he wanted what he thought was his, the colony of Saint Dominique. King Louis sent three commissioners to Haiti to see how willing the Haitian leaders were to surrendering to their once colonial master. By this time Haiti extended to include the other half of the island of Hispaniola which included modern day Dominican Republic. As a result of the restoration of the monarchy in France and the provisions of the Treaty of Paris, Santo Domingo (The Dominican Republic’s original name given by the Spanish) was given back to Spain. Therefore Haiti would retain only the original area of land that was once Saint Dominique. As France tried to make a deal with the Haitian leaders to get back their colony, Henri in the North remained inflexible while Pétion in the south was willing to negotiate. Pétion believed that by negotiating, France would finally recognize Haiti was an independent nation. As France had recently sold Louisiana to the United States for 15 million francs, Pétion proposed the same amount. Unfortunately, Louis XVIII rejected the proposition. Pétion passed away suddenly in 1818 and his successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer kept up negotiations with France. Still Henri in the north opposed to any negotiation with France. Any indemnification of the ex-colonists,” Christophe’s government stated, was “inadmissible.”

As the impending doom seemed to be upon Haiti as the nation could once again become a colony to its oppressor, Henri tried to win international support against France. There were Haitian pamphlets, newsletters, and open letters spread throughout the international world stage. Henri even got the attention of famous British abolitionist, William Wilberforce. Unfortunately as time went on Henri’s leadership was objectified and ridiculed with his antiquated form of feudalism back home in Haiti. At the age of 53 on October 8, 1820, King Henri committed suicide and 10 days later his son was assassinated. Jean-Pierre Boyer was able to reunify Haiti into one republic. For years later, Boyer continued negotiations with France, with no agreement from either side.

By April 17, 1825 the French king, Charles X, finally gave an offer to Haiti that would end up being the final agreement. France stated it would recognize Haitian independence if Haiti paid back 150 million francs (at that time this amount was ten times the amount of the Louisiana Purchase) for its loss in profits that would have been had if slavery wasn’t abolished and if Haiti had remained a colony of France. The message would be sent with the Baron de Mackau whom Charles X sent along with 14 brigs(naval prisons) of war with 500 cannons, as if ready for a fight. If the Haitian government rejected the offer, Haiti would for sure be at war with France. With the threat of war clouding his judgment, Boyer signed the document of indemnification on July 11th, 1825. This absurd debt would plague Haiti for years to come.

The document read:

“The present inhabitants of the French part of St. Domingue shall pay … in five equal installments … the sum of 150,000,000 francs, destined to indemnify the former colonists.”

At that time the payment was ten times the annual budget of Haiti. Many nations around the world believed that it was an absurd amount. Because Haiti didn’t obviously have the money, they had to take out loans from French banks amounting in 30 million francs. Soon after Haiti acquired the loans, the island nation defaulted. In 1838, the next French king made it a point to send 12 warships with his expedition to revise the Haitian indemnification. The revision was named the “Treaty of Friendship” which reduced the outstanding owed amount to 60 million francs. Still a lot to stomach, the Haitian government had to take out further loans with various banks. The actual indemnification amount of 90 million francs was five times the budget of France!

In order to pay back France, Boyer installed excessive taxes on his Haitian citizens. All enhancement projects for the nation were put on hold. This lead to a poor health care system, underfunded education system, and poor infrastructure. By 1947, 122 years later, when Haiti finally paid off its debt to France, the interest that was placed on the loans actually amounted in Haitians paying more than twice the value of the colonists’ claims of the revised 90 million francs. The final loan which Haiti paid off was due to the National City Bank of New York , which is now the American modern day Citibank.

Many years have passed since this great injustice has been done to Haiti, a once rich island nation and every French president since 1947 has acknowledged the same but still have of yet to recompense the Haitians for the loss in what could have been a model country for the rest of the world. In addition, Haiti is situated in a place in the Caribbean that experiences a lot of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, the leadership in Haiti have for years been corrupt (which is the usual case in most third world countries), and international relations continue to be strained as the leading nations of the world treat Haiti as a poor undeserving country and continue to block any improvement that could be had in Haiti. Its sad to see the first successful nation of freedmen continue to be pushed back into despair when the ancestors of Haiti’s bravery allowed the nation to provide hope and strength to those around the world who were tired of accepting the way things were and brought to light the injustices that were done in order for nations like France to become undeserving world powers – off the backs of a strong race of men, NOT SLAVES.

Sources:

https://theconversation.com/when-france-extorted-haiti-the-greatest-heist-in-history-137949

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Christophe

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiti_indemnity_controversy

One thought on “The Story of the Indemnification of Haiti

  1. Felt really sad for the people of Haiti after reading this. How unfortunate that Haiti’s history remains bogged down in tragedy.

    Like

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