Haiti's History and Our Own Are Intertwined

Roundup: Media's Take

Columnist Jerry Large, in the Seattle Times (March 4, 2004):

Our history and Haiti's are intertwined, and our fates could easily have been different. A turn down one path, and Haiti might have become a thriving democracy. A turn down another path, and the United States might have been just a small neighbor of the French Empire.

If it hadn't been for the success of the Haitian revolution, the United States might never have extended beyond the Mississippi River. Had not the United States turned its back on Haiti, that nation might have thrived.

What did happen is this: The colony called St. Domingue was France's most valuable overseas possession, producing fortunes in sugar, tobacco, coffee and other products for European markets and French profits.

The cash register rang until enslaved people revolted in 1791 and, after years of warfare, gained control of the entire island in 1794.

Toussaint L'Ouverture led the revolution, the second successful revolution in the Americas, and began creating a multiracial society of free white and black people.

President John Adams recognized the rebel government and even sent U.S. frigates as a show of support. But Adams had just lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson, who reversed the U.S. stand as soon as he took office in 1801.

Jefferson even told the French he would help them re-establish control of the island.

The difference between the two presidents is that Jefferson was a slave owner, and slave owners were worried about the example the island revolution held up for enslaved Americans.

As it turned out, the French had grander plans than simply retaking the island. Napoleon wanted to secure a big chunk of what is now the American heartland.

The plan was for the huge army he sent in 1802 to retake St. Domingue, then fortify the territory that stretches west of the Mississippi from Louisiana to Idaho and halt the westward expansion of the United States.

But with the help of yellow fever, the people of St. Domingue defeated Napoleon's army and declared a republic in 1804, and the dictator gave up on North America. He sold the middle of the continent to the United States (technically France had already given the Louisiana Territory to Spain, but, hey, who's talking about ethics?). We called it the Louisiana Purchase, and it was a bargain at $15 million.

The United States doubled in size. We didn't thank the Haitians for their role in this, however. Jefferson established an embargo of the nation that lasted most of the century.

On top of all that, France demanded the new nation pay it $150 million in reparations for its losses if it ever wanted to trade with another nation. The U.S. backed the demand. Most of Haiti's meager budget for years went to pay on that debt.

That is how St. Domingue went from a jewel to the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. ...

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