The West's Centuries-Old Debt to HaitiRoundup
tags: Haiti, Caribbean history, Haitian History
Howard W. French, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, set to be published Tuesday.
The treatment of Haitian refugees at the U.S. border last month — some chased by horseback agents, others huddled by the thousands under a bridge — is tragic. For reasons that are less obvious, it is also ironic. Although Americans’ centuries-long debt to the Haitian people is untaught in our schools and unacknowledged in our public discourse, the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people created the United States we know today.
Even the capsule version of Haiti’s successful fight to end slavery and for independence at the turn of the 19th century is riveting. C.L.R. James, the late Trinidadian political leader and historian of the Caribbean, wrote six decades ago:
“In August 1791, after two years of the French Revolution and its repercussions in [Hispaniola], the slaves revolted. The struggle lasted for 12 years. The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. The defeat of Bonaparte’s expedition in 1803 resulted in the establishment of the Negro state of Haiti which has lasted to this day.”
It’s one of the most remarkable stories of liberation that we have as a species: the largest revolt of enslaved people in human history, and the only one known to have produced a free state. But even this sweeping account understated the extraordinary role that Haiti’s rebellious enslaved played in world history.
Their success in freeing themselves in the face of the stoutest European hostility imaginable ironically made Haiti the first nation to fulfill the most fundamental values of the Enlightenment: freedom from bondage and racial equality for all. These principles were enshrined in Haiti’s first constitution, in 1804, decades before they were embraced by the United States.
And that was just the beginning.
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