Home / View Point / Guest Columns / How Haiti helped liberate the Caribbean and South America; and their oft-forgotten heroes and heroines

How Haiti helped liberate the Caribbean and South America; and their oft-forgotten heroes and heroines

“[…] The continuous revolts and burning of the plantations by the Africans, following the Haitian Revolution, removed the profits from the sugar industry and forced England to end the system. This culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 August 1834.

“Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, owes Haiti a big debt of gratitude for their contribution to our own Emancipation.

“The same can be said for the Liberation of South America from Spanish colonial rule. For when Simon Bolívar, the iconic Liberator of South America, needed help to launch his campaign, he first asked the British who refused. He then turned to Haiti, arriving in Port-au-Prince in December 1815 to be welcomed by Haitian President Alexandre Pétion…”

Image: An artistic recreation of the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot during the Haitian Revolution.

The following column on the role played by Haiti in the shaping of the Western Hemisphere and their right to justice was submitted to Wired868 by the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC):

Yesterday, 23 August, marked the 230th Anniversary of the start of the Haitian Revolution. This most historic revolution transformed the political, social and economic relations in the world at the dawn of the 19th century. 

It also presents one of the most compelling examples of the human capacity to rise from the lowest abyss and achieve the most miraculous of feats.

In 1791, Haiti was a French colony called Saint-Domingue. With its flourishing sugar cane plantations, tended by enslaved Africans, Saint-Domingue was the richest colony in the world. 

In the book The Black Jacobins, CLR James writes, ‘on no portion of the globe did its surface in proportion to its dimensions yield so much wealth as the colony of Santo Domingo’.

Image: Haitian voodoo priest Dutty Boukman played a key role in the launch of the Haitian Revolution.

By 1791, (the year the Revolution started), Saint-Domingue was exporting 140 million pounds of sugar (50% of the sugar in the entire world), 76 million pounds of coffee (60% of total global output) as well as 6 million pounds of cotton and one million pounds of indigo. 

On the backs of some half a million enslaved Africans, France became the richest, most powerful nation on earth. Under its leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, France was thus able to build the largest European Empire since the Romans.

When Dutty Boukman, the voodoo priest, launched the Haitian Revolution on 23 August 1791, he was actually challenging the most powerful imperialist nation of the era. Even more remarkable is the fact that his men had no military training or formal education. 

Plantation life for the Africans was one of raw brutality in a hopeless existence. Under the legal system of ‘Chattel Slavery’, the slave owner had the right to inflict any punishment, including killing his slave.

Terms and conditions were dictated by the ‘Code Noir’ (the Black Code). The philosophy guiding the Code Noir was based on the premise that it was most profitable to work an African so hard that he survived only five years and then buy a new one from the slave traders.

Photo: A sugar plantation owner oversees the work of his slaves.

African enslavement in Haiti began in 1517 when the first group of 15,000 Africans were imported. Yet, due to conditions akin to genocide, 284 years later about half of the 500,000 Africans in the colony had been brought from Africa. 

Thirty percent of the Africans in the Middle Passage during the 1790s were carried to Haiti. The death and replacement rate was extremely high.

The Africans, however, had highly developed organisational skills. They were versed in executing the entire process from cane cultivation to production of the raw sugar as well as the refined white sugar. 

In his book, Merchants and Planters, Richard Pares describes the Africans as ‘an army of specialists’.

Yet, what the Africans felt most of all was the whip on their backs and a fierce and burning desire for freedom. These are the men who rose up on that decisive August morning, attacked the white planters and began setting fire to the plantations—where it hurt the planters and their system most. 

Image: An artistic recollection of the Haitian Revolution.
(via IBW21.org)

It has been said that such were the fires that raged that for two weeks one could not tell whether it was night or day.

The courage and mental strength of the Africans certainly came to the fore. So motivated were these Africans that even in capture and torture when being burnt over slow fires, they would laugh in the face of their former masters—satisfied to know that they would never be enslaved again. 

In a 13-year period, the former enslaved Africans defeated the military might not only of the French but also of the British and Spanish before declaring Haiti a free and independent nation on 1 January 1804.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was an independent Haiti’s first president. Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Revolution, had already been kidnapped by the French when he boarded a boat to discuss terms with his French counterparts. It is possibly the only occasion in recorded history that a leader was kidnapped during negotiations.

He was imprisoned in France’s freezing Jura Mountains, where he died within seven months.

Photo: A Haitian dresses as a colonial soldier in Port-au-Prince during the 205th anniversary of the Jean-Jacques Dessalines-inspired Haitian Revolution against the French.

Haiti’s contribution to Emancipation within the British Empire and in South America often goes unrecognised. Haiti’s fight for freedom motivated Africans to rebel in countries far and wide. 

It is noteworthy that, in 1807, a mere three years after Haiti’s Declaration of Independence, the British abolished the slave trade as a first step towards ending slavery. 

The continuous revolts and burning of the plantations by the Africans, following the Haitian Revolution, removed the profits from the sugar industry and forced England to end the system. This culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 August 1834.

Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the rest of the Caribbean, owes Haiti a big debt of gratitude for their contribution to our own Emancipation.

The same can be said for the Liberation of South America from Spanish colonial rule. For when Simon Bolívar, the iconic Liberator of South America, needed help to launch his campaign, he first asked the British who refused.

Image: Former Haiti president Alexandre Pétion is also known as the Father of Pan-Americanism.

He then turned to Haiti, arriving in Port-au-Prince in December 1815 to be welcomed by Haitian President Alexandre Pétion. Pétion gave Bolívar 4,000 guns, 15,000 pounds of gunpowder, three boats and a printing press as well as food and other supplies.

When his first campaign failed, Bolívar returned to Haiti for more help, this time receiving training for his men as well as Haitian soldiers. Pétion asked for nothing in return except a commitment from Bolívar to free the slaves in the countries he liberated.

In the second campaign, Bolívar was victorious in liberating Venezuela (his birthplace), Gran Colombia, Panamá, Perú, Colombia and Ecuador. He also established the new nation of Bolivia. 

Very significant as well is the fact that African enslavement was also ended in all the territories which Bolívar liberated. He is quoted as saying: ‘Let future generations know that Alexandre Pétion is the true liberator of my country’. 

Image: Venezuelan Simón Bolívar helped liberate Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panamá from Spanish rule in the early 19th century, with help from Haiti.

Such is the magnitude of the Haitian contribution to African liberation and the advancement of the cause of humanity.

Yet today’s Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world. The question is why. What is often hidden—or ignored—is that, in 1825, several French war boats entered the Haitian capital with a demand from France for reparations for the loss of its colony and slaves due to the Haitian Revolution. 

France demanded 150 million francs as compensation. Faced with French gunboats in the capital, President Boyer signed an agreement for Haiti to pay France.

It is a burden that Haiti carried for 122 years (1825 to 1947). With the inclusion of interest, Haiti actually paid twice the original sum demanded by France (valued in excess of US $40 billion). 

In those 122 years, Haiti, once the jewel in the French crown, was reduced to being the poorest country on earth.

Image: Former France Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte.
(Copyright Ernest Crofts)

For several years, the powers refused to recognise Haiti. It took the United States 58 years to recognise Haiti; some took even longer.

Also of importance was the US invasion and occupation of Haiti in 1915. Following the assassination of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, US President Woodrow Wilson sent marines to occupy the country to prevent a degeneration into ‘anarchy’. 

As a matter of fact, the US had had its eyes on Haiti for a number of years, considering at one point putting a naval base on the island and at another juncture exploring the possibility of incorporating the island into the US so they could have an economic stake in the Caribbean.

The fact is that the US occupation continued until 1934, during which time the democratic process was seriously undermined by the determination of the US to have puppet leaders installed through some very undemocratic methods. 

This determination on the part of the US continues to have a serious negative impact on the right of the Haitian people to self-determination.

Photo: Former Haiti president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, familiarly known as “Titine.”
(Copyright Haitian-truth.org)

Additionally, in 2003, when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide began to make diplomatic and legal moves to recover the US$21 billion (the sum which Haiti had paid to France less interest), he was overthrown and seized and flown out of his country by the US military. 

The government that succeeded him cancelled all initiatives to retrieve the money, calling it foolishness.

Special mention should be made of some of the women who contributed to the success of the Haitian Revolution. We have heard much of the men, but little is said of such heroines as Marie-Jean Lamartinière, an excellent military strategist, who played a brave and courageous role in the defence of Fort Crête-à-Pierrot for 20 days—though outnumbered by the French forces under the command of Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, Charles LeClerc.

Or the voodoo priestess Cécile Fatiman, who set up a communications network to relay information to plantations across Haiti without the knowledge of the planters.

Image: Lieutenant Sanité Bélair fought in the Haitian Revolution in the army of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

There are several other women who served as leaders, nurses, couriers or who displayed courage and loyalty, as did Lieutenant Sanité Bélair, wife of General Charles Bélair, who was executed on Napoléon Bonaparte’s orders after his soldiers failed to get a single word from her despite torture.

The determination, fortitude and valuable contributions of the Haitian people will be always remembered, and will serve as a continuing inspiration to our pursuit of life, purpose and the realisation of the sanctity of the human personality.

The Haitian People continue to cry out for life and justice and, in this defining hour, we owe it to our own Emancipation, our reparations challenges and our enlightened ancestors to raise our minds, hearts and voices for Haiti and for justice.

 

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One comment

  1. Thank you for a great history knowledge that most of the world have forgotten.