Sidney Mintz: Whitewashing Haiti’s History

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Sidney Mintz is professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. has studied Caribbean rural life, social history, and the Afro-Caribbean tradition from the time of his first fieldwork in Puerto Rico (1948), through his presentation of the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard (2003)] ...The New World’s second republic has indeed known political strife, bad leadership, and poverty. But to judge Haiti fairly, it is essential to remember that the country won its independence under the worst imaginable circumstances. The Haitians declared their freedom in 1804, when the New World was mostly made up of European colonies (and the United States) all busily extracting wealth from the labor of millions of slaves. This included Haiti’s neighbors, the island colonies of France, Great Britain, Denmark, and The Netherlands, among others. From the United States to Brazil, the reality of Haitian liberation shook the empire of the whip to the core. Needless to say, no liberal-minded aristocrats or other Europeans joined the rebel side in the Haitian Revolution, as some had in the American Revolution.

The inescapable truth is that “the world” never forgave Haiti for its revolution, because the slaves freed themselves.

By using the sword against their oppressors, the Haitian people turned themselves into Thomas Jefferson’s universal human beings. Yet they were feared and reviled for having done so. International political, economic, and religious ostracism, imposed by their slaveholding neighbors, followed and lasted for close to a century. Not until 1862 did the United States recognize Haiti. What country that profited from slavery could dare to be a good neighbor? The Vatican did not sign a concordat with the new nation until 1860....

A country wracked by more than a decade of invasion and revolution, then faced with financial punishment and isolation for scores of years, could not build the internal framework a strong civil society requires. This new, impoverished nation, endowed with a deeply divided class structure and seeking to survive with only the feeblest of institutions, was befriended by no one. Over time, that comfortable phrase—“misrule, poverty, and political strife”—now used to explain everything in Haiti, became more and more applicable....

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