Class notes on the History of Haiti

  1. Haiti’s revolution profoundly affected the development of the early United States and 19th-century Europe. It was a major consideration in US relations with England and France, was a direct cause of the Louisiana Purchase and contributed to Napoleon’s downfall. It struck fear in US slaveholders, snd led Denmark Vesey to ask for Haitian military support for his 1822 slave revolt.
  2. The leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Overture, a former slave, was a literate French-speaking Catholic who was profoundly influenced by Voltaire and other writers of the European Enlightenment.
  3. Vodou, the religion practiced by many Haitians, is a distinct religious tradition of African origin. Its practice was suppressed under French rule, and various Haitian regimes, as well as the Catholic church, have tried to stamp it out as well. However, the practice of Vodou has not only persisted, it  absorbed elements of Catholic theology and liturgy. Although missionaries still evangelize against Vodou, many contemporary Haitians profess belief in both Vodou and Catholicism. Retired  Webster University professor Bob Corbett’s 1998 notes on Vodou report that evangelical Protestants working in Haiti vocally condemn Vodou as “devil worshipper.”
  4. Haiti was forced to bankrupt itself for more than 100 years to meet France’s demands for reparations as a result of its war for independence. The effort to pay those reparations drove Haiti into hundreds of millions of dollars in additional debt.
  5. The European struggle to make sense of the Haitian revolution challenged the leading thinkers of that age, and might have led Hegel to his theory of the master-slave dialectic. (See Susan Bucks Morss, “Hegel and Haiti” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer, 2000), pp. 821-865. Published by: The University of Chicago Press
  6. The American occupation of Haiti from 1915-34 had disastrous results for that country’s economy and political institutions. (Read JW Johnson’s 1920 pamphlet, Self-determining Haiti, to understand the role of the Monroe Doctrine and US financial interests in precipitating the occupation.
  7. After the 1915-34 occupation, the United States supported the brutal dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. The Duvaliers, who ruled the island from 1957 to 1986, were supported for their reliable anti-communist stance. The US trained Haitian security forces, in addition to providing financial support. As Prof. Claire Potter points out, because the Duvalliers looted the Treasury, requiring even more borrowing.
  8. Haiti’s economic crisis has been aggravated by decades of deforestation — a combination of short-sighted government policies and actions taken by desperate peasants who eke out a living through farming. Today, only 4 percent of the country is forested, as this graphic shows (.pdf)
  9. Some American corporations, such as Disney, have come under fire for alleged labor abuses at plants in Haiti.
  10. Even before the earthquake hit, Hait’s children were in crisis. poverty rate is so stark that parents routinely give their children up to work in the homes of wealthier people. These children, known as restaveks, are frequnntly abused.

Here’s my Jan. 31, 2010 report for BlogHer on the context behind the emerging narratives from Haiti: