For a week or so Haiti has been looming large in my mind. Here there are so many public academic/intellectual events focusing on 'things Haitian'. The other day I attended an open lecture whereby it was mentioned over and over again. One participant even queried why is Haiti so important in the history of capitalism and industrialization in the United States of America - 'can't we just leave it?'. Did the US need Haitian commodities, such as cotton and coffee, to industrialize or it had enough of its own from the then 'deep South'? Wouldn't it industrialize anyway? The discussion was centered on Robin Blackburn's (2011) new book on 'The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights'. To the author, Haiti is very important even if one can still argue it is not the 'cause and effect' of industrialization. As an advert from its publisher notes, the "exotic commodities produced by the plantations of the Americas" indeed "also powered a 'market revolution'". This week there will be another public lecture, its title: 'Haiti, Anti-Slavery, and Blackness in the Atlantic Age of Revolution'.
As I digest whatever I am hearing about Haiti I can't help but wonder how little I know of what had been paternalistic dubbed 'This American Africa'. Even though I once read, from cover to cover, CLR James' The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution - a book the famous novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o asserted somewhere that is important for every African student to read - for me making sense of Haiti remains elusive. The relatively recent tragic earthquake that seriously devastated Haitians also opened a big debate on why Haiti is so poor has only managed to confuse me more about the country which the great poet, Aime Cesaire, claimed is "where negritude stood up for the first" time, alluding to what has been referred to as "the only successful revolution in the Atlantic world". To add to this confusion is the ongoing debate on why countries run by Africans or people of Africa's origin are undeveloped/underdeveloped. Luckily enough, I am taking a course that also looks at Haiti. One of its required readings is quite an eyeopener to me. As I read the passages cited below I couldn't help but also resort to the 'iffy' history, that is, what if they could have just left Haiti, and for that matter other African countries, alone in dignity?
"For over 12 years, men and women who began the [Haitian] Revolution as slaves fought with and against the Spanish, the English, and the French to secure their freedom and, eventually, their national independence...From the founding of the [Haiti] nation in 1804 to its occupation by the United States 111 years later, Haitians struggled to establish viable communities at local and national levels and to maintain the security of their freedom and independence. To appreciate the difficulty of these struggles, we must view them in the dual context of internal social divisions and international hostility to domination...Haitians experienced international hostility in several forms, including, most notably, political isolation and the threat of a French attempt to retake the island nation. Economic disadvantages related to the absence of diplomatic representation with trading partners and to the withholding of missionary assistance by the Vatican also raised problems for Haiti...Haiti's political isolation resulted, most directly, from its nonrecognition by France in the wake of Dessalines' ouster of French planters from the new nation. As we have seen U.S president Thomas Jefferson considered his nation's relations with Napoleon when he decided to sever diplomatic relations with Haiti and impose an embargo in 1806, despite the significance of the West Indian trade to American merchants...The new Latin American nations, in turn, acted out of concern for the relations with the United states when they also refused to recognize Haiti until France agreed to do so. As a nation of freed slave in a world dominated by slaveholding nations, Haiti effectively held pariah status...Haiti finally secured French recognition, and the promise of peaceful intercourse with France, in 1825...It came at a cost of 150 million francs, in the form of indemnity to be paid to the former planters of Saint Domingue...Forced to accept French assistance to pay their former masters, Haitian found themselves operating under French domination for the next half century...Economic instability, peasants revolts, factional elite coups, and government corruption increasingly provided the practical basis for foreign domination in Haiti. France maintained control through the manipulation of the indemnity and later the debt that replaced it; Britain exerted control in the guise of protecting British citizens and their property; German merchants financed revolutions and penetrated the Haitian economy, circumventing the prohibition on foreign property ownership through intermarriage with Haitian women; and, with increasing rapidity after the turn of the century, Americans became entrenched in Haitian economic affairs. Throughout the century, Haitian political leaders debated the relative benefits and dangers of using foreign capital to finance Haitian development and increasingly allowed for its introduction, laying the grounds for future interventions. Among the most important economic and political developments leading up to the U.S occupation were those events marking increased foreign investments in Haiti" - Mary A. Render (2001) on 'Taking Haiti: Military Occupation & the Culture of U.S Imperialism 1915 - 1940'