Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Haiti on the Eve of Revolution

Love this bit from French Historian Paul Fregosi about the French colony of Saint Domingue, before the outbreak of the revolution that established Haiti:

Whites, mulattos and blacks loathed each other. The poor whites couldn't stand the rich whites, the rich whites despised the poor whites, the middle-class whites were jealous of the aristocratic whites, the whites born in France looked down upon the locally born whites, mulattoes envied the whites, despised the blacks and were despised by the whites; free Negroes brutalized those who were still slaves, Haitian born blacks regarded those from Africa as savages. Everyone—quite rightly—lived in terror of everyone else. ...Haiti was hell.

It endured because of the profits earned by growing sugar and coffee, which made Haiti by the numbers one of the richest places in the world and the source of most of the profit France earned from its colonies.

The sugar islands of the Caribbean were one of the most brutal human societies I know of, an empire of suffering. Because of disease and the brutal conditions life expectancies were short for everyone, even the rich whites. Violence was constant: revolts by the enslaved, raids by maroons who built villages in the mountains, and savage retaliation by the whites against both, to which one must add constant low-level war among the colonial powers and, when war was not official, a plague of piracy. As Fregosi says, the whole society was characterized from top to bottom by mutual loathing and a savage contest for social superiority.

The Haitian revolution of 1791 was a bloodbath; best estimates are that at least 20,000 were killed in just the first year. But it went on and on, with intervention by warring European states, scorched earth tactics that destroyed vital infrastructure, division among the black rebels, etc., etc., (One episode of conflict among the black rebels is known as the War of Knives.) It was not until 1801 that Toussaint Louverture was sufficiently in control to issue a constitution for an independent Haiti, inaugurating a great Latin American tradition by proclaiming himself President for Life. AND THEN in 1802 Napoleon sent a strong force to recapture the island, which led to two more years of war before the Haitians, with British help, finally defeated the French. Obviously records of this period are not great, but historians estimate that by 1805, 400,000 people may have died. The Haitians celebrated their victory by massacring most of the surviving whites on the island, to the total of about 5,000.

The state that emerged after the revolution banned slavery but was far from just and equal; the French-speaking, mixed-race elite completely controlled the island for the next century, treating the patois-speaking blacks with contempt. The European powers effectively cut off trade to Haiti, which kept their economy from ever recovering, so that from one of the richest place in the world in 1790 it became one of the poorest.

All in all it is a great illustration of where brutality leads when pushed to its limits: evil follows hard upon evil, and we reap what we sow.


David said...

I don't think that last sentence is really true. In fact, in history, sometimes evil follows from evil, and sometimes there's really not much price to be paid for brutality. And sometimes there's a price to be paid for doing the right thing ("no good deed goes unpunished"). Morality is not immanent in historical consequences.

Shadow said...

"Because of disease and the brutal conditions life expectancies were short for everyone, even the rich whites."

Same was true in Virginia the first 50 years or so. Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and brackish drinking water took their toll. For a while the colony couldn't replace the dead and dying fast enough.

G. Verloren said...


Agreed. It's far too easy, and insidiously dangerous, to adopt a "Moral Universe" kind of argument where we ascribe fitting consequences to every human act.

The Haitian Revolution was bloody and full of awful things, but that doesn't mean that the European powers that conspired for centuries to prevent it from recovering economically were justified in doing so. It also doesn't mean that the awfulness of the revolution itself wasn't justified, since the alternative would have been perpetuating what John admits was one of the most brutal societies ever to exist.

If anything, I feel the Haitian Revolution emphasizes how easy it is for people to be turned against each other to maintain an unjust status quo. Every single group was trained and encouraged to hate the others, because it made it easier for the people at the top of the society to control things - right until it all fell apart. Free Blacks and mulattoes were encouraged to look down upon enslaved and African descended blacks, because that prevented a solidarity forming.

The whites were ALWAYS a tiny minority in Haiti, and they knew that they needed the Free Blacks and the mulattoes to buy into the system of oppression - because if they instead united with the other non-whites in a single cause and purpose, the entire system would fall apart overnight. To maintain control, they had to play their "lessers" off each other, and teach some of them to view themselves as "superior" to others. It's the oldest trick in the book. Divide and conquer. And it works today.