Thursday, January 14, 2010

What We Owe Haiti

Were it not for Haiti, the dirt poor nation from which heart-rending pictures and descriptions of earthquake destruction are filling our news, the United States might not exist in any form near what we know today. Certainly the United States should respond to the need of this hemispheric neighbor with the massive and immediate aid that only the United States has the capacity to provide and the means to deliver. Whether that aid will significantly improve the lot of the Haitian people in the long run is another question. However, that is besides the point. The United States owes its very existence to the actions of the ancestors of present day Haitians.

The history of Haiti is perhaps one of the most interesting of all of the lands in the Western Hemisphere. The island of Hispaniola, on the western end of which sits Haiti, was occupied by the Arawakan Taino when Columbus and his crew of misfits and mercenaries blundered ashore in 1492. Within a few generations, due to European diseases and depredations, the Taino all but ceased to exist on the island. The gold and silver, after which the Spanish scoured the island, turned out to be much more prevalent on the New World mainland and the majority of Hispaniola was largely abandoned and left to serve as a base for Caribbean piracy.

While British and Dutch brigands also used Hispaniola, it was French pirates who established the first permanent settlement on the nearby island of Tortuga. In 1652, King Louis XIV commissioned an official French settlement on Tortuga; and in 1664, the French West India Company took over administration of the Tortuga colony and claimed control of the Western portion of Hispaniola. In 1697, Spain ceded this part of the island to France. French plantation owners imported West African slaves to work their fields and by the end of the 18th Century maintaining the over half a million laborers in Haiti accounted for a third of the Atlantic slave trade.

To maintain control over a slave population that outnumbered them 20 to 1, French planters employed the most ruthless and inhumane methods imaginable to discipline and terrorize their charges. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to the interior where they formed their own communities, supported in large part by raiding their former masters.

On the heels of the revolution that plunged France into bloody chaos, slaves on Hispaniola began a rebellion in 1791. The French attempted to regain control of the island by declaring emancipation in 1793. Turmoil at home and war with Great Britain resulted in French neglect of their colony and former slave leaders filled the power vacuum. The most prominent of these, Toussaint Louverture, led an army of former slaves in turning back a British invasion, and by 1801 had brought the entire island under his control.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had seized power in France, and in 1802 sent a huge force to reclaim French control of the island. His intent was to rapidly subdue the island and then use it as a base for invasion of North America via New Orleans. For all his military genius, Napoleon never did quite learn to take the environment into account when embarking on one of his campaigns (see his experience in Egypt and Russia). Within a year of landing on Hispaniola with the mission of re-enslaving the black population, nearly half of the forty thousand French troops were dead from malaria and yellow fever. The remainder of the French invasion force was destroyed by the former slave army and they declared their independence on January the 1st, 1804.

As Napoleon's dream of Western Hemisphere conquest died, he attempted to salvage what he could and sold his claims in North America to the United States in order to finance his ongoing war with Great Britain. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 more than doubled the territory of the United States and allowed the great westward expansion that changed the former colonials into masters of nearly an entire continent. Were it not for the freedom-fighting former slaves whose descendants are clawing their way out of the rubble in Port-au-Prince today, our nation might very well be nothing more than an asterisk in European history.

Of course, the re-United States paid Haiti back in the early 20th Century by sending Brigadier General Smedley Butler and a brigade of Marines to sort things out for them. But that's grist for another post.
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