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The forgotten story of Haiti

By Bronwyn Winter - posted Wednesday, 3 February 2010

In the three weeks since the Haiti earthquake, many - albeit not nearly enough - have expressed outrage over the US military takeover of this tiny half-island nation (the other half, or rather, two-thirds, being the Dominican Republic). Among the more well-known are John Pilger and Michael Chossudovsky. Media coverage is deplored as exaggerating the violence and being uncritical of the US military. This outrage is then relayed across the internet and over dinner conversations, in Australia and elsewhere.

That this outrage is justified goes without saying, for any of us who are concerned about the militarisation of the world in supposed “peacetime” conditions, for any of us who have visited Haiti, the Philippines, Israel (without even venturing into the occupied territories) or any one of a number of other countries. That the mainstream media coverage is insufficient, biased and sloppy, goes without saying. (Although this needs “nuancing”: it depends which media, and which country they’re based in. Not all media overplayed the violence and looting or failed to report criticism of US militarisation of the disaster.) Yet saying such things is not saying anywhere near enough. Saying them after the earthquake is not saying them anywhere near early enough.

Haiti only ever makes international news when there is a coup d’état, a natural disaster or yet another US “intervention”. Such is the news cycle. Haiti is only newsworthy when the suffering of this embattled nation becomes extreme. And its history, via occasional reference to French colonisation, Basquiat or Papa and Baby Doc, is evoked mainly in passing. On some levels, this is unsurprising. There is an awful lot going on in the world, and it is hard for the general populace - especially located somewhere as far from Haiti, culturally, politically and geographically, as Australia - to keep up. We have wars and tsunamis and bushfires and floods to keep up with as it is. Before we even get near thinking of history. How many Australians even know much about Australian history?


The question must nonetheless be asked: why, if Haiti matters so much to us now, did it matter so little before the earthquake?

Yet, Haiti should matter. For many reasons beyond the obvious. The first reason it matters is that a little over two centuries ago Haiti was the first colonised nation in the modern era of European colonisation to rise up and claim its independence. A nation of slaves claimed the right, encoded in the never-applied French “Jacobin” declaration of the Rights of Man (1793), to “resist oppression” (indeed, for the Jacobins, such resistance was both a right and a duty of citizens). This is a phenomenal event. Anyone in the world who has been enslaved knows this, whether in the plantations and marital servitude of yesterday or today’s Pakistani brickworks, Philippine brothels, Parisian households of the Afro-French or Saudi elites or home-based clothing sweatshops right here in Australia, or any one of a number of other situations of modern slavery. For the enslaved to rise up and break their chains demands a monumental effort of will and powerful resilience - a quality that Haitian people continue to demonstrate. This gives me hope for the world, now as much as 206 years ago.

The second, third and fourth reasons are linked to the first but reveal an even more complex, and far more sombre history. The second is that independence had to be bought, to the tune of some 90 million francs (that is, once France finally recognised Haitian independence in 1825). The world’s first postcolonial nation of modern times was also its first “third world” debtor. Reams of trenchant criticism have been written concerning the construction of “debt” in what it is now fashionable to call the “global south” (although as someone based in “southern” Australia I am uncomfortable with this metaphor also).

We know that the world’s richest nations mostly trade with each other, and what may represent a lifeline in income and imports for the poorer countries they trade with represents an infinitesimal proportion of the richest nations’ trade figures. We know that “debt” has been incurred as a legacy of colonial plunder of now post-colonised nations.

For example, if Haiti, once the “jewel of the (colonial) Antilles” now imports rice from the US, it may have something to do with massive deforestation and erosion caused by the colonial creation of the sugar-cane “jewel”. We know the horror stories of postcolonial debt and dependency. Or should. And nowhere has that story been more horrible, or continued for so long, as in Haiti.

The third reason is that almost immediately upon independence, the world began to ignore Haiti - except for France of course. Haiti became the most isolated country in the world, at the very time when it most needed the world’s solidarity. Where was newly independent US then, with all its revolutionary fervour? It is not only debt that has crippled Haiti, and not only “intervention”. It is also abandonment.


The fourth reason is yet more troubling, and more difficult to discuss. Post-colonised nations carry the legacy of colonialism at several levels. Anti-colonial and postcolonial Martinican poet, playwright, essayist and politician Aimé Césaire (d. 2008) knew this only too well. In his influential Discourse on Colonialism, first published in France in 1950, Césaire wrote that colonisers bring the worst of their civilisations to the colonised and are loath to share the best. He also wrote that even as they aspire to the best, some of the colonised, usually the elites who have been trained only too well in colonial power mongering, internalise and enact the worst. This is one of the more terrible and deeply troubling among the many complex realities of the post-colonised world.

Before independence, the literate elite of enfranchised slaves (slavery was abolished in 1794) and mulâtres (of mixed white and African ancestry, a small minority of the Haitian population) collaborated closely with the French colonial power. After independence, this elite immediately became Haiti’s power base, which is far from surprising: the ruling class never comes from the poor and the illiterate, even if the rulers speak in their name. Language and education accompany money and guns as the tools of power.

Immediately upon independence, black Haitian leader Jacques Dessalines gave himself the title of Emperor Jacques the first. A mulâtre insurrection two years later led to his assassination. In 1807, Haiti became divided between mulâtre-led republicans (after the French model) in the South (under Pétion, for whom Pétionville is named), and the “black” empire of Henry Christophe (after the Napoleonic or even ancien régime monarchic model) in the North, based in Cap Haïtien.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Bronwyn Winter is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, School of Languages and Cultures, Department of French Studies. She is also Director of the Faculty of Arts International and Comparative Literary Studies program.

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