The Haitian revolution had created its flash of hope, and Caribbean history was due a slide into disappointment. The villains were the French. In 1825, the restored king Charles X sent warships to encircle Haiti’s coastline. France considered that the land – and the slaves – had been French property. Emancipation had stolen that property. Now it demanded reparations: 150 million francs, in gold.
There could have been no more flagrant breach of the Monroe Doctrine. Haiti had declared and maintained its independence, existing free from European rule for a generation. The demand was an interposition by France, with the intent to oppress Haiti and control its destiny. Yet it was not considered an unfriendly act against the United States, as undoubtedly it would have been in any of the white-ruled republics. The Monroe Doctrine did not apply to states whose independence the United States had not acknowledged, and the United States had refused to afford the black republic the dignity of recognition. And so the American government placidly looked on while French warships, acting for the French crown, extended their colonial power in the western hemisphere.
The ransom demanded from Haiti was ten times its annual national revenue. But, with the guns of the French Caribbean fleet pointed at Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s president was forced to agree that the former slaves should compensate their masters. To make the first payment – 30 million francs – Haiti was obliged to take on loans covering the full sum from Parisian banks. Interest of 20 percent on this loan – 6 million francs – was demanded in advance. To pay that, the treasury was emptied.
For the first liberated Latin American nation, formal independence on 11 July 1825 did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. The chains were not cast off; they were soldered back on. Even after it was reduced to 60 million francs in 1838, the debt was an impossible sum. During the nineteenth century, slavery would be outlawed all over Europe and in the United States. Compensation was paid to slave owners – but by the governments that outlawed slavery, not by the slaves themselves. Yet the French government continued to insist that its own ex-slaves in Haiti pay for their liberty. The slavery reparations would not be paid off until 1947.
– pgs. 14, 15, RED HEAT: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean, by Alex von Tunzelmann, Henry Holt, New York, 2011
Amongst the Europeans, the French are usually considered amongst the most enlightened of the lot. When you consider France’s imperial and colonial history in places like Haiti, Vietnam, and Algeria, however, the behavior of the French was the furthest thing from enlightened.
From the time this newspaper began 47 years ago, we have spoken to you of white supremacy, but perhaps, as a teaching tool, we should have been speaking to you of black distress instead. White supremacy, you see, has been dedicated to disguising itself, following the initial phases of violent conquest, imperialism, and enslavement. Overall, colonialism was supposed to be a more enlightened form of rule, a softer form of imperialism, wherein the Europeans began to integrate into their colonial administrations some specially selected and trained natives. Eventually, in a colony like British Honduras, you actually had native heads of departments in the public service sector. The thing the Europeans could not cover up was the black distress at the base of the socio-economic pyramid which their white supremacist systems occasioned.
Today, you can see black distress in the streets of Belize City, even though our oppressed Belizeans themselves, because of human pride and dignity, try to cover up their suffering within their homes. The thing is, nevertheless and to repeat, that we can see the evidence of this black distress, but it is not so easy to see the face of white supremacy in Belize today.
The visual evidence of black distress is even more so the case regionally, because whenever we Caribbean people look around, the distress of Haiti, once the richest colony in the world where half a million African slaves grew, cut, and processed sugar cane for the French, stares us in the face. There are, of course, cases of extreme poverty and suffering next to us in the Central American republics of Guatemala and Honduras, but not only were these countries never as wealthy as Haiti was, they never featured a successful slave rebellion, as Haiti did.
The Haitians not only won their slave rebellion, under the brilliant leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, defeating, at various times during the course of the 1790s, French, Spanish and British armies, but when Napoleon Bonaparte sent an army to retake Haiti and re-introduce French slavery in 1802, the Haitians, turning to the leadership of the cruel Dessalines, successfully resisted the French forces and declared themselves a free black state in 1804.
The time of the Haitian Revolution and immediately afterwards was a period of great consternation amongst European slaveowners in the Caribbean and in the young United States of America, which had declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776. Our scholars in Belize never discuss the impact of the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791, on the settlement of Belize. But the fact of the matter is that at the precise time of the Battle of St. George’s Caye in September 1798, the most powerful man in the Caribbean was a black Haitian – the aforementioned Toussaint.
It was absolutely imperative, where Spanish slaveowners in Cuba, English ones in Jamaica and Barbados, and American ones in their Southern states were concerned, that the Haitian Revolution be confined, in the first instance, to Haiti. It is known that the leadership of Haiti materially assisted (around 1815, 1816) the South American hero, Simon Bolivar, in his wars to liberate countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and others from Spanish rule. In the American South, frightened whites felt that the slave revolts of blacks like Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser were inspired by the Haitian Revolution. So that, American slaveowners would have welcomed the descent of the French financial hammer upon Haiti in 1825. The first black state in the Western Hemisphere, the home of history’s most successful slave rebellion, was to be made an example of, and Haiti was crushed financially and economically.
The attempt of the white American televangelist, Pat Robertson, to blame Haiti’s woes on voodoo, is wicked, but it is also skillful. Most African Americans are Christians. Most people in Belize who consider themselves black, and who, for that reason, would be tempted to sympathize with Haiti’s situation, are also Christian. White racists like Pat Robertson are attempting to prevent African Americans and Belizeans of color from sympathizing with their Haitian brothers and sisters on the grounds of color, by dividing us from them on the basis of religion.
It is easy for Belizeans to feel ashamed of Haiti and in so doing feel defensive about our color and racial similarities with the Haitians. There is a history here which we are not taught in our schools. Haiti was once the richest territory in the Caribbean. It became the poorest because those on whom Haitian wealth had been built and based, African slaves, fought a revolution to win their freedom. When they did so, their vengeful former French slaveowners dedicated themselves to smashing and victimizing them. In so doing the French were encouraged and supported by the United States of America – “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
If manatees and snakes and parrots have a right to freedom and life, how much more so do not human beings, regardless of their race, color or creed? Come on, Belizeans. What they did to Haiti, they are also doing to us black Belizeans. White supremacy is an international reality. You may claim you can’t see white supremacy around you, but it is for sure you are seeing black distress every day. Our black distress is not because we are inherently inferior: it is, fundamentally, because there have been and there are forces on planet earth which are committed to our exploitation and degradation. Unfortunately, there are some of us Belizeans who collaborate, profitably and unapologetically, with our white supremacist enemies. Call some names for me, Jack, and I’m a-gonna whistle …
Power to the people! Remember Danny.