By Peter Hallward
The Haitian people overthrew slavery, uprooted dictators and foreign military rule, and elected a liberation theologian as president. The west has made them pay for their audacity
Independent Haiti was surrounded by slave colonies in the Caribbean and flanked by slave-owning economies in northern, central and southern America. The three great imperial powers of the day – France, Spain and Britain – sent all the troops at their disposal to try to crush the uprising; incredibly, Haitian armies led by Toussaint l’Ouverture and then Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated them one after the other. By late 1803, to the astonishment of contemporary observers, Haitian armies had managed to break the chains of colonial slavery not at their weakest link, but at their strongest.
This extraordinary victory provoked an extraordinary backlash. The war killed a third of Haiti’s people and left its cities and plantations in ruins. When it was finally over, the imperial powers closed ranks and, appalled by what the French foreign minister called a “horrible spectacle for all white nations”, imposed a blockade designed to isolate and stifle this most troubling “threat of a good example”.
France re-established the trade and diplomatic relations essential to the new country’s survival only when Haiti agreed, 20 years after winning independence, to pay its old colonial master enormous amounts of “compensation” for the loss of its slaves and colonial property – an amount roughly equal to the annual French budget at the time.
With its economy shattered by the colonial wars, Haiti could repay this debt only by borrowing, at extortionate rates of interest, vast sums from French banks, which did not receive the last instalment until 1947. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s request that France pay back some of this money, in the run-up to the bicentennial celebration of independence in 2004, encouraged the former colonial power to help overthrow his government that year.
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