The white man killed my father
Because my father was proud
The white man raped my mother
Because my mother was beautiful
The white man wore out my brother in the hot sun of the roads
Because my brother was strong
Then the white man came to me
His hands red with blood
Spat his contempt into my black face
Out of his tyrant's voice:
"Hey boy, a basin, a towel, water."
—David Diop, "Le temps du martyre," quoted in Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Mask, Grove Press, New York, 1967. p.136
"Europe is literally the creation of the third world. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves. So when we hear the head of a European state declared with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: 'it's a just reparation which will be paid to us.'"
—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, Grove Press, Inc. New York. p.102)"The United States is destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty."
—Simon Bolivar (1783-1830)
(Swans - February 22, 2010) It has been almost two months since Haiti was devastated by a huge earthquake that left over two hundred thousand people dead and resulted in the virtual collapse of the machinery of the Haitian state. The presidential palace was among the destroyed buildings.
We have shed our tears and contributed our donations. Haiti is already fading from the radar screen of the news correspondents who rushed to bring us the gory details of mangled lives and collapsed buildings.
Two things struck this writer as odd in the Western media reportage about the Haitian earthquake -- that is apart from "Reverend" Pat Robertson's racist vitriol. First, when the 9/11 catastrophe occurred in the U.S. and about three thousand people were said to have been killed, not once did all the media in the West show a mangled white body. The deaths in 9/11 were treated with all the dignity that most cultures afford the dead. But when it came to Haiti, we were shown all the horrific details with unnecessary flourish. Was it because Haitians are poor or was it because they are black?
The second thing that struck me as odd was the inability of any Western reporter to mention Haiti without the suffix: "poorest country in the Western hemisphere." Of course, we know Haiti is materially poor but what these not-so-clever Western reporters failed signally to tell us is how it happened that Haiti came to its sad state.
What these lazy Western reporters continue to promote is part of the grand racist propaganda that the black man is incapable of governing himself without the benevolence of his white superiors. Of course, we are poor, we are under-developed, but give us four hundred years to export your best and brightest to slavery in our plantations, and just another hundred years to directly colonize you and sunder your lands and let's see how you will fare. That's just by the way.
History attested that Haiti was once the richest country in the Western hemisphere. So rich was the colony that it was called various names, among which were the "Pearl of the Antilles" and "The Sugar Island." Former Santo Domingo was the richest colonial possession and it made France stupendously rich. It was France and the United States of America that reduced Haiti and Haitians to penury.
Haiti (Land of High Mountains) is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere because France and the U.S. made it so. This is a story that needs to be told in greater details than this essay can permit.
The Island of Hispaniola, which Haiti today shares with the Dominican Republic, was captured from the native Arawak people about 500 years ago. It was a land rich in, among other things, gold that the Spaniards ruthlessly forced the indigenous people to mine. People who are interested in reading up on the type of barbarous cruelties the Spaniards visited on the native population can read the 1552 account of Bishop Bartolome de la Casas.
African slaves were imported to replace the indigenous people who had been virtually wiped out. The Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 gave France the western part of the island which later developed into France's richest possession in the New World.
The French Revolution in 1789 proclaimed the doctrine of "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity/Brotherhood), but as in all things these lofty ideas were reserved for only white people.
The revolution did not emancipate the slaves but it gave them the idea and the impetus to start their own, which was launched two years later. Toussaint Louverture led the very successful slave revolt and later he beat back both the British and Spanish invaders bent on destroying the nascent republic. Naturally slavery was abolished in the new republic.
Napoleon Bonaparte sought to re-conquer Haiti but the invasion force led by General Leclerc was beaten back. The French tricked Toussaint into a conference where he was arrested and sent to France, where he was imprisoned and died in 1803.
The war almost bankrupted the French treasury. To finance it, France was forced to sell its enormous 828,800 square mile New Orleans territory to the USA for US$15 million -- the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
Toussaint's successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defeated the French at the battle of Vertières and proclaimed the birth of the new nation in 1804. Haiti thus became the second black nation in the world to declare independence (the first was Quilombo dos Palmares in northern Brazil which declare its in 1595, also after a slave revolt). After ten long and arduous years, the people of Haiti won their war and declared their independence. It is necessary to situate this in its proper historical context in order to fully understand what the Haitian revolt meant. The economies of the U.S. and the European powers were based on slavery. The very idea of a successful slave revolt was very bad news indeed, at least to the slave owners. Now Haiti was free and audaciously proceeded to craft an Independence Constitution guaranteeing any person of African descent who arrived on its shores full rights of citizenship. It was not something the wicked powers would countenance.
The repercussions of the Haitian revolution were felt throughout the world. In his speech, Dessalines uncompromisingly told his enthusiastic audience:
The Independence of St. Domingo is proclaimed. Restored to our primitive dignity, we have asserted our rights; we swear never to yield them to any power on earth. The God who protects us, the God of free men, bids us to reach out towards our conquering arms. Never again shall a colonist or a European set his foot upon this territory with the title of master or proprietor. This resolution shall henceforward form the fundamental basis of our constitution.
Naturally, Dessalines's defiant proclamation was not good music to the ears of the powers-that-be. Slave holders and Plantocrats everywhere were affronted by the effrontery of the uppity Negro and they resolved to do everything in their considerable power to wreck the Haitian Project lest it be replicated elsewhere.
The United States joined France in refusing to recognize the new nation and declared it a pariah state. Western powers, in solidarity with their French cousins, imposed economic and diplomatic embargos on the new nation.
Haitians had gained their independence but the new country, groaning under embargo, was bankrupt. Twenty years later, Haiti had to capitulate in order to gain acceptance into the world economy. The cabinet invited the French government to negotiate for recognition.
We still see the same thing at play today, whereby the West would slap embargos on a nation and few years down, Western reporters would be mouthing nonsensical about poor governance. Does anyone remember Zimbabwe?
French officials duly arrived and "negotiation" commenced. Of course it was one-sided, with France, with the unflinching support of its Western allies, dictating the pace. To gain acceptance by France and its allies, Haiti was forced to pay compensation and reparation. This meant that people were forcibly stolen from their lands, made to work as slaves for several years, and when they managed to free themselves were forced to pay for their freedom. Talk about pound of flesh.
Poor Haiti, with nowhere to go and with its back pressed firmly against the wall, agreed to the usurious and extremely wicked demands of the French. Teams of French accountants and actuaries soon descended on Haiti to place a value on all physical assets including land, animals, properties and -- wait for this -- the 500,000 former slaves who were now citizens of the new republic. Members of the Haitian cabinet were not exempted as they were also properly valued as properties of their former owner!
The French were totally merciless as they descended on the hapless country with sharpened knives. They came up with the sum of 150 million gold francs (calculated to be the equivalent of today's US$22 billion). Haiti was told to pay this reparation to France in return for national recognition. In addition to the 150 million francs payment (reduced to 90 million in 1838), France decreed that French ships and commercial goods entering and leaving Haiti would be discounted at 50 percent.
The Republic of Haiti used 70 percent of its income to pay these vast sums to France. The last installment was made in 1922.
Haiti was forced to deplete much of its forest reserve to raise the money and when that was not enough, it resorted to borrowing money from French banks at usurious rates. Depletion of the forest is the reason why Haiti is ecologically destroyed and why the country is prone to devastating erosion. It also explains why Haiti's development was arrested. As Leslie Voltaire, a Haitian cabinet minister put it: "The main reason we are poor today is because we have to pay France that money."
When Haiti celebrated its 200-year anniversary as an independent state, the then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide officially demanded back the US$22billion from France. President Jacques Chirac promised to set up a commission. As French historian Christopher Wargny told the Commission presided by Régis Debray, "France owes that money to Haiti. We need only discuss how this reimbursement must be done."
Sadly, Monsieur Debray's commission only succeeded in muddling the water.
Independence or no independence the U.S. has, since the beginning, treated Haiti shabbily. Uncle Sam militarily interfered in Haiti at least 27 times until, finally, in 1915 President Woodrow Wilson ordered American troops to take over the country, ostensibly to protect it from European influences. The occupation lasted until 1934 and Haiti was never the same again.
In his book War is a racket US Marine Major-General Smedley D. Butler famously recounted his exploit in Haiti (among other places) in these flowery words:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
By virtue of the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. has always regarded Haiti as coming under its sphere of influence and did everything to ensure that the country remain under its orbit. The sad history of Haiti, as well as that of much of South America, is one that's constantly plagued by the gringos from the North. In addition to direct intervention, the U.S. has supported all the coups and all the violent dictators in Haiti. The brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier ("Papa Doc") and his son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc) enjoyed broad American support.
The first democratically-elected Haitian president in ages, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, recounted in his passionate book, The Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization, how Haiti was subordinated to the dictates of global finance and corporate greed under the guise of "globalization," "development aid," and "free trade."
Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth, both of which continue to have a primary interest in its current condition.
The sudden quake has come in the aftermath of summers of hate. In many ways the quake has been less destructive than the hate.
Human life was snuffed out by the quake, while the hate has been a long and inhumane suffocation -- a crime against humanity.
—Sir Hilary Beckles, pro-vice-chancellor and principal of the Cave Hill Campus, University of the West Indies.
* * * * *
You tear out a man's tongue and then explain that his dumbness is his own fault -- the man is tongueless! Imperialists conquer peoples; turn their lands into dungeons; prevent industrialization; shore up all the feudal and native reactionary elements; distort the whole economy by forcing concentration on particular cash crops or strategic minerals; super-exploit the colonial working population; grow sleek and fat on the wealth robbed from the colonies, and then -- shame on you non-technical and non-industrial peoples for your "backwardness!"
—Herbert Aptheker, Laureates of imperialism, Masses and Mainstream, p.67.
A voice from Africa worth hearing... Please consider a
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About the Author
Femi Akomolafe (see his profile on Swans) is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/. (back)