Ian Thomson: Haiti: Enslaved by Its Dark History





[Ian Thomson’s 'Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti’ is published by Vintage]

By any standards, Haiti represents a very great concentration of misery and dashed hopes. In January 1804 – a key date in the history of a bedevilled country – the African slaves overthrew their French masters and declared the world’s first black republic. Haiti became an emblem of slavery’s longed-for abolition. And the slave leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, was hailed by William Wordsworth, among other Romantics, as a “morning star” of the Americas.

Since independence, however, emperors, kings and presidents-for-life have misruled the Caribbean nation through violence and theft of public funds. The constitution is made of paper, they say, but the bayonet is made of steel....

Haitians say they are hard to understand, but all nations enjoy that vanity. The truth is, Haiti is a country that was never meant to be. Forged in the crucible of French colonialism, it was once the most profitable slave colony the world had ever known. The glittering prosperity of Nantes and Bordeaux, Marseilles and Dieppe, derived in part from commerce with this sugar-rich dependency of the ancien regime.

The prospect of a free black state founded on the expulsion and possible murder of its white community by Toussaint L’Ouverture horrified French colonials, as it did the whole of the Western world. As Talleyrand wrote to a French general in Washington: “The existence of a negro people in arms, occupying a country which it has soiled by the most criminal acts, is a horrible spectacle for all white nations.”...

Two centuries after independence... Haiti is the battered pauper of the Americas and unimaginably destitute after the earthquake. The world’s first black republic – only 17 years younger than the United States – remains in many ways a police state....

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