In January 2010, world attention focused on the Caribbean nation of Haiti. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the country, leaving about 300,000 people dead. Several hundred thousand survivors were injured, and more than one out of every 10 Haitians was displaced. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was now in the grip of unimaginable suffering.
Missing Global Aid
After the devastating earthquake in 2010, humanitarian pledges from around the globe to Haiti amounted to billions of dollars. Some observers thought that a cash infusion might help Haiti address its long-term systemic economic struggles. But such hopes were not realized. Instead, thousands of Haitians ended up being permanently relegated to slums and tent cities without running water or sewers. Malnutrition and water-born illnesses remained rampant.
One might wonder where all of the aid pledged by the global community went to if not to rebuild Haiti. Unfortunately, much of it appears to have been lost to waste and corruption. Haiti’s president was accused of embezzling a significant portion of donated funds. And this was not exceptional. For much of its history, Haiti has been plagued by social division, extreme economic stratification, political turmoil, and poor governance.
Haiti: World’s First Black Republic
However, some 200 years ago, Haiti was a trailblazer in the annals of democracy and independence. After more than a decade of revolution and civil war, the former French colony of Saint-Domingue became the world’s first Black republic, and second independent state in the Western Hemisphere. Renamed Haiti, a new government took power under the leadership of former slaves.
The Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791 until 1804. It was even more radical than contemporaneous revolutionary movements in the United States or France. Haiti’s revolution completely upended the small Caribbean country’s political, economic, and social order, and challenged the social limitations that revolutionaries in Philadelphia and Paris had shied away from. It inaugurated a new dimension to the conversation about human rights.
And yet the very factions and factors that catalyzed the Haitian Revolution also prevented it from replicating the sustained successes realized elsewhere. The corruption and extreme inequality that ignited Haitian revolutionary forces remained in place afterward, simply taking other forms. Ultimately, this doomed the democratic experiment.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Extreme Price for Liberty
The struggle for Haitian independence also came at a high economic and diplomatic price. For a time, Haitians alternately allied with Britain, Spain, and with various revolutionary and counter-revolutionary governments of France itself. But when independence was achieved, once-profitable coffee and sugar plantations lay in ruin. And the European powers proved unwilling to disengage from the former colony without compensation.
France of the Bourbon Restoration demanded an exorbitant indemnity in exchange for diplomatic recognition. Taken together, these factors primed the way for the continuing problems of poverty, extreme economic inequality, and political instability that linger to the present day. Formerly one of the wealthiest colonies in the world, Haiti became the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its revolution exacted an extreme price for liberty.
Saint-Domingue: The French Colony
Hispaniola first came into European sights when Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492. Two hundred years later, in 1697, Spain conceded the western side of the island to the French. And from that time forward until independence, Saint-Domingue (Haiti) constituted France’s most lucrative colony. By the second half of the 18th century, it supplied 40% of the world’s sugar and 60% of its coffee. This was big business and that business depended upon slavery.
Consequently, the vast majority of the population of Saint-Domingue was, or had been, enslaved; many only recently so. To galvanize production and maximize profits, Saint-Domingue slaves worked brutally hard. Consequently, new slaves were regularly brought to the colony to replace those who died from over work and poor conditions. In the decade before the revolution, more than 30,000 slaves were forcibly brought to the colony every year.
Divisions in the Saint-Domingue Society
While there was an obvious gulf between slaves and those who claimed them as property, other divisions existed within Saint-Domingue society. At the top of the colony’s social hierarchy were wealthy white planters and merchants. They were known as grands blancs. Many were absentee landlords who spent a great deal of their time in France. Those who remained enjoyed privileged lives. But planters weren’t the only white people in Saint-Domingue. There was also a group known as petit blancs. These were white, predominantly young men, who didn’t own property and worked as artisans and laborers.
Complicating the racial breakdown of Haitian society were the non-slave ‘free people of color’. This group included free Blacks and mixed race individuals. After the slaves, they were the most sizable part of the population. All people of color were expected to show respect and deference to the white population. But as one might expect, limitations on free Blacks were greater than those imposed on the mixed-race population. Some mixed-race persons could own land and even slaves. As a result, the mixed-race population typically lived and worked in cities such as Cap Français and Port-au-Prince.
The strange thing was that many of the free people of color, especially mixed-race persons, were economically better off than the petit blancs. But because of their heritage and skin color, the economic privilege enjoyed by some people of color wasn’t matched by political privilege.
Common Questions about Haiti
The Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791 until 1804. It completely upended the small Caribbean country’s political, economic, and social order, and challenged the social limitations. It also inaugurated a new dimension to the conversation about human rights.
Saint-Domingue (Haiti) constituted France’s most lucrative colony. By the second half of the 18th century, it supplied 40% of the world’s sugar and 60% of its coffee.
In Saint-Domingue society, at the top of the social hierarchy were wealthy white planters and merchants. They were known as grands blancs. Petit blancs were white, predominantly young men, who didn’t own property and worked as artisans and laborers.