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We owe Haiti

Culture | If it weren't for an island slave revolt, the United States might have become a French colony

Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

HAITI IS ONE OF THE SADDEST, MOST HEART-wrenching countries in the world, plagued by unimaginable poverty, political corruption, and what can only be described as demonic oppression. Now their government has descended into anarchy, and the United States-as before-has sent troops to establish order. But why should we? Why should we bother ourselves with Haiti?

The fact is, we owe Haiti. Historians agree that the little island had a huge impact on the United States, making possible our borders, our economic greatness, and very possibly our national identity and our freedom.

Haiti in the 18th century was France's most lucrative colony. Known then as Saint-Domingue, this island in the West Indies had rich plantations that produced sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton. It has been estimated that at one point up to 50 percent of the gross national product of France came from its West Indies possessions. These plantations were worked by brutally treated slaves.

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Then came the French Revolution. An educated Haitian slave by the name of Toussaint L'Ouverture, among others, took the slogan "liberty, fraternity, equality" seriously, and in 1791, the slaves staged a revolution of their own. Under the leadership of L'Ouverture, a slave army defeated their French masters and in 1800 declared their country to be an independent republic.

Then came Napoleon. France had obtained Louisiana-that is, much of the land west of the Mississippi River-and, as he was beginning his conquest of Europe, he very much wanted the income from the Haitian plantations. And his global ambitions included the Americas.

It is common now in the United States to make fun of French military prowess, but in those days, Napoleon-a military genius-and his armies seemed invincible. He would conquer nearly all of continental Europe and much of Russia, with only England, protected by the sea and by its navy, holding out.

Napoleon decided to send an army under General Charles Leclerc to sail to the West Indies, retake Haiti, and reestablish the colony, including enslaving the population once again. And after that little job was done, which did not seem particularly difficult, the army was to continue on to New Orleans. They would begin the occupation of those lands in America that France had won from Spain.

What was Napoleon planning with his armies in the New World? Historians debate what he may have had in mind. Many Americans at the time were in a state of panic, seeing the arrival of French troops west of the Mississippi as an invasion. Certainly, the Federalists, led by John Adams, believed that Napoleon might well march on the United States, adding the new, fragile nation to his conquests.

Thomas Jefferson and his party tended to be pro-French, but he too was nervous about what Napoleon might do. The French navy began preying on American shipping, which fought back. Many believed a war with France was inevitable.

The consensus of historians today is that he was likely going to use his Louisiana possessions as a base for supplying and controlling the Haiti plantations. At least that was probably his immediate plan. Who knows what he might have done later in his quest to conquer the world?

But all of his American ambitions were predicated on first subduing Haiti-and Leclerc could not defeat the liberated slaves. Through a combination of guerrilla warfare and yellow fever, the French army was utterly destroyed. Some 50,000 Frenchmen perished in the attempt to take back Haiti, mostly from disease, and there was no army left to go to New Orleans.

Napoleon, ever practical and deciding to concentrate his resources on the conflict in Europe, cut his losses and gave up his plans for the New World. In 1803, he agreed to sell his holdings to the United States. This was the Louisiana Purchase, which turned the United States into a continental power.

So we owe Haiti. At the time, though, we did not pay back the debt. We were afraid of Haiti's successful slave rebellion spreading to our slaves. We refused to trade with them or have any contact with them, as did the British who feared what might happen to their slave colonies in Jamaica. The country, completely isolated, spiraled down into poverty, dictatorships, and the occult neopaganism of voodoo.

Now we have an opportunity to repay the debt, which must include building an economic, political, and-most important-spiritual infrastructure that can enable Haiti to rejoin the rest of the world.

If it were not for the Haitian slave revolt, the United States might have ended at the Mississippi River. At the very worst, we might have been conquered by the (shudder) French. By now, we might even be French.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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