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Haiti: a Bloody Beginning

By Anna Gaskell Observer Staff Writer (Editor’s note: A group of mostly Haitian refuges recently landed on Nevis and were detained, which highlights the continuing problems besetting Haiti. Natural and man-made disasters plague the country. Last spring, rising food costs led to unrest that forced the prime minister to resign and political unrest continues to disrupt Haiti. In the coming weeks, The Observer will be looking at the problems of our neighbor nation to the north.) Of all the countries in the Caribbean, Haiti is the one that no one wants to call home. Thousands of Haitians leave their country every year. They risk their lives escaping to other Caribbean islands, to the USA, to Canada, and even to France. They are fleeing the economic and political instability that has ravaged the country for too many years now. Today, according to the World Bank, 80 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line. A few weeks ago, a boat carrying mainly Haitians was discovered just off Long Point, Nevis. This week that same group of illegal immigrants will be sent by boat to St. Martin. What awaits them there, I have no idea. My guess is that each new country they get sent to will shrug them off onto another, until eventually they are all back in their countries of origin. Either that or they will be absorbed into the undocumented population of workers who have no rights to their name. Today, Haitians are risking their lives to leave the country. But there was a time when Haitians were risking their lives in order to stay. They were fighting for their country (then called San Domingo) against its colonial rulers, the French. Most of all they were fighting for the chance to live as free people on their own land. A few years before the war of independence, the leader of the black slaves, Toussaint L”Ouverture, warned the French rulers: “We have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it.” By this point San Domingo had gone from being the most prosperous colony in the world to the most unstable, and in the process its one-time prosperity had lead the jealous British to make its first noises about the abolition of the international slave trade. But in order to understand how a former slave came to write such a bold declaration to the French in 1797, it is necessary to go back a few more years. Welcome to San Domingo, 1787. People came from the underworlds of two continents to make San Domingo their home. Frenchmen, Spaniards, Maltese, Italians, Portuguese and Americans all flocked to San Domingo. Here, their past crimes and failures were forgotten, because their white skin elevated them into the irreproachable upper-class of society. Nobodies in their own countries, they became something in San Domingo. They were the big fish in a small pond. In the hierarchy of the day, below these whites were the Mulattoes, and below them were the blacks. But race prejudice was not as extreme at this time as it would become in the run up to the war of independence. The “Negro Code” policy of 1685 had permitted marriage between whites and blacks. What’s more, if a white slave owner had children by a black slave, they were allowed to get married, and the ceremony freed both the wife and her children. Although in practice, the fate of the woman and her children really depended on the whims of their white father. The mixed-race population continued to grow and the San Domingo whites sought to control it. They made all Mulattoes over the age of 18 join the “marechauss”e”, an almost military organisation created to police the blacks. In particular, the organisation sought to curb the strength of the “maroons” – the gangs of free blacks who had escaped plantation life to live in the mountains. This way the whites ensured animosity between the Mulattoes and the blacks. Animosity also bloomed between the Mulattoes and whites, because Mulattoes who had been educated in Paris returned home to find they had less freedom at home than they had had in Europe. The society of San Domingo in1787 was full of tensions. Resentment between the races and the classes simmered continuously. But on the surface, San Domingo was the “pearl of the Caribbean”: the most prosperous colony the world had ever seen. In 1788, San Domingo supplied half of Europe with tropical produce. Its exports were one third more than those of all the British West Indies combined. But its prosperity was heavily dependent on slavery. Many of these slaves were coming straight from other islands in the Caribbean. William Pitt (British Prime Minister from 1783 to 1801) had been following the progress of San Domingo closely. In 1787, he discovered that 50 percent of the slaves imported into the British West Indies were re-sold to the French colonies. In a sense they were helping their competition. After the loss of the American colonies, the British had less use for the continued importation of slaves, so they decided it was time to clamor for an end to the international slave trade, which would also bring an end to the prosperity of San Domingo. But just as this small West Indian island was affecting the politics of powerful European countries, so the politics of those countries would soon alter San Domingo irreversibly. The prosperous colony that owed everything to the exploitation of slaves was thrown into turmoil by the French revolution in 1789. The masses in France had revolted against their rulers. They had declared all men equal. What would this mean to all the degraded slaves of San Domingo? It meant rebellion. The Mulattoes and the slaves together rebelled against the whites. They rebelled with such force that the whites had to call for a truce. In 1792, the French National Assembly, after altering and reversing its decision several times, finally stated that all free blacks and Mulattoes should have the same political rights as the whites. But this did not please the plantation owners in San Domingo. They knew it would spell the end of their authority on the plantations. So they decided to throw off their allegiance to France in favour of Britain. War broke out between France and Britain a month later, in January 1793. In 1794, the French decreed the total abolition of slavery in the French colonies. The slaves of San Domingo then knew they had a much greater chance of freedom if they stayed with revolutionary France rather than with Britain. France could practically sit back and let the Santo Domingo blacks and Mulattoes fight their fight against the British. The blacks and the Mulattoes forgot their hatred for each other, because now they had a common enemy. The British troops were utterly defeated. In this fight against the British and the plantation owners, Toussaint L”Ouverture had joined the slave rebellion. He was 45 years old. But within 10 years he would become the most powerful man in San Domingo. The morale of his army was high, even though the troops were starving and didn’t have much ammunition. Toussaint distinguished himself in battle as an extremely humane leader. Whites, blacks, and Mulattoes were all in his army. As the revolution continued in France, Toussaint’s army in San Domingo remained faithful to France. The French revolutionaries had abolished slavery, and the San Domingo people weren’t going to forget that. Toussaint’s army had fought off the British, but soon there was civil war breaking out in San Domingo. The Mulattoes had decided they wanted independence from France. The blacks did not, because they thought that France best represented their interests. But the liberal climate in France was slowly changing. By 1797, the revolution was losing its original momentum.” This is when Toussaint wrote to the French warning them that any change in their policy on slavery would be greeted with revolt. By 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte was in power in France. His despotic power marked the end of the revolution. Back in San Domingo in 1800, the civil war between the blacks and the Mulattoes was won by Toussaint’s forces. Many Mulattoes chose to leave San Domingo rather than serve under Toussaint. But those who stay
ed began to think that the civil war had been kindled by the whites in order to weaken both sides and restore slavery. San Domingo was devastated by years of civil and foreign war.” Of the 30,000 whites in the colony in 1789, only 10,000 remained. Of the 40,000 free Mulattoes and blacks there were about 30,000, while of the 500,000 black slaves, perhaps one third had perished. Toussaint set about restoring the country, hoping to boost agriculture again. During the previous wars, he had tried to encourage his followers not to neglect the land; they still needed food. Many former slaves were reluctant to go back to cultivating the land, but Toussaint promised to pay them a quarter of their produce to prove that he was acting in good faith. The revolution in France had taught the San Domingo people that personal liberty was their right. The ex-slave Toussaint, who was now Governor of San Domingo, set about creating a society based on this foundation. He wanted to encourage personal industry, social morality, public education, religious toleration, civic pride, and racial equality. He had a lot of success. Cultivation prospered again, but this time not off the blood and sweat of slaves. Toussaint’s inspections of agricultural progress around the country often came unannounced. He was known to often leave a town in his carriage surrounded by guards, and then some miles away he would step out of it and ride on horseback in the opposite direction. In addition to overseeing everything in San Domingo, he wrote countless diplomatic letters every day and slept only two hours each night. For days he would be satisfied with two bananas and a glass of water. This tireless Governor wrote a Constitution for San Domingo in 1801, which outlawed slavery forever. When the French received a copy of the Constitution they saw that it left no place for any French official in the governance of San Domingo. In fact, it sounded a lot like independence.

Editor :