In Gonaïves, Dessalines proclaims Haiti’s independence, signaling the formation of the world’s first Black republic. He publishes a Declaration of Independence, signed by himself and Christophe, and the colony “Saint-Domingue” is abolished forever. (Christophe would later be president of Haiti 1807-1811 as well as proclaim himself King Henri I 1811-1820 in Northern Haiti.) The original Taino name of Hayti is officially restored.
“The proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of the self-determination of those diverse and ordinary individuals of whom the black masses were composed.”
Though Haiti is independent, Haitians still fear that they will be invaded by outside forces. French troops remain in the eastern part of Hispaniola. France is actively lobbying England, Spain and the United States to isolate Haiti commercially and diplomatically. France emphasizes that Haiti is a threat to the countries’ plantation system and slaveholders. The global community shuns Haiti, a major contributing factor to Haiti’s later impoverishment, with lasting repercussions today.
Following independence, France forces Haiti to pay 112 million francs in reparations in exchange for its independence due to the loss of French life and "property" (property, commercial goods, and of course enslaved Africans):
"This became known as Haiti’s “double debt” — the ransom and the loan to pay it — a stunning load that boosted the fledgling Parisian international banking system and helped cement Haiti’s path into poverty and underdevelopment. [...] The double debt helped push Haiti into a cycle of debts that hobbled the country for more than 100 years, draining away much of its revenue and chopping away at its ability to build the essential institutions and infrastructure of an independent nation. [...]
Haitians paid about $560 million in today’s dollars. But that doesn’t nearly capture the true loss. If that money had simply stayed in the Haitian economy and grown at the nation’s actual pace over the last two centuries — rather than being shipped off to France, without any goods or services being provided in return — it would have added a staggering $21 billion to Haiti over time, even accounting for its notorious corruption and waste." (New York Times 2022)
Image: Haitian Declaration of Independence. Link.
Dessalines orders the slaughter of the remaining French residents in Haiti after promising them protection. Blacks and mulattoes, most of them former slaves, exact revenge on the whites and as many as 4,000 are killed. They are urged on by Dessalines, who famously cried, "Koupe tèt, brule kay," meaning, "Cut their heads, burn their houses."
Dessalines is crowned Emperor Jacques I of Haiti.
Image: the modern-day flag of the Republic of Haiti. Link.
Dessalines ratifies Haiti’s first constitution. To strengthen national unity and bring together the country’s various factions, the constitution proclaims all Haitians black. The constitution also legitimizes Dessalines’ regime, legalizing structures set in place since independence. The constitution reaffirms the permanent abolition of slavery, that all Haitians are free and equal; and above all Haitians’ inalienable right to land ownership.
Upon declaring independence, Haiti claimed a singular place in world history. The Haitian revolution, lasting from 1791 to 1804, culminated in the first independent nation in the Caribbean, the second democracy in the western hemisphere, and the first Black republic in the world.
Since the revolution, over 200 years ago, Haiti has struggled with external and internal dilemmas. The revolutionary wars had destroyed nearly all of the country’s colonial infrastructure and production capabilities. In the 1800s, Europeans and Americans ostracized the fledgling nation politically and economically. This, coupled with France's required reparation payments, contributed to Haiti’s decline from one of the world’s wealthiest colonies to one of its most impoverished countries.
The 20th century ushered in an era of American occupation from 1915 to 1934 and totalitarian regimes under the Duvaliers from 1957 to 1987. After decades of political suppression, Haiti held new democratic elections and in 1991 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took office. He was ousted just months later, and the following years were filled with coups d’état, military regimes, and daily violence.
Throughout this period, Haiti has been commonly misrepresented, often to the benefit of France and the United States. American media, for example, have equated Haitians with savage voodoo ceremonies, HIV/AIDS, and “boat people” refugees beginning in the early 1900s.
In 2006, René Préval was elected president and Haiti experienced a period of relative political and social calm. This stability was shaken in 2008 when Haiti was hit by four successive hurricanes over the course of just weeks. The natural disasters resulted in hundreds of deaths, injuries and lost homes. Famine and disease swept the country, exacerbated by Haiti’s lack of infrastructure or governmental services.
In 2010, Haiti was struck by a large earthquake. The true death toll is unknown, but it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people may have lost their lives. Countless more Haitians have suffered and died due to a long list of misconduct by international and governmental actors. In 2010, UN peacekeeping forces (MINUSTAH) introduced cholera to some of the country's largest water sources, sparking a devastating outbreak. MINUSTAH forces also sexually abused and exploited local Haitians and the mission remains controversial.
Throughout the post-earthquake period, a large international NGO response dominated much of Haiti, particularly Port-au-Prince, often with adverse consequences. The Red Cross infamously raised $500 million from donors, for instance, and could only account for six homes from the funds. More recently, in just the past year, Haiti has suffered from additional natural disasters, the assassination of acting president Jovenel Moïse, and widespread collapse of the country's economy and government.
Anyone who has firsthand knowledge of Haiti is often asked why the country seems so incapable of extracting itself from extreme poverty and instability. I challenge you to reframe this question and instead ask who has benefitted from Haiti's suffering. It cannot be emphasized enough how much Haiti has been manipulated throughout history to benefit foreign powers, from slave owners to bankers. This does not excuse governmental corruption and economic oligarchy, but it provides necessary context. To reduce Haiti down to the tired label of "the poorest country in the Western hemisphere" disregards the complexity and richness of Haiti’s culture, history and people. Haiti is an exceptional nation with a singular place in world history, and it has had a profound impact on the world.
Kona Shen, July 2022
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