This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April21 2013
The Haitian National Truth and Justice Commission was created on December 1994 by an executive order issued by President Jean Bertrand Aristide. The nation now known as Haiti has the great misfortune to occupy a location far too close to the nation now known as the USA. December 5, 1492 was a bad day for the Taino, an Arawakan people. Christopher Columbus, who was looking for India, stumbled upon the island the Taino called Ayiti. Columbus claimed the island for the Spanish Crown, naming it La Isla Española (“the Spanish Island”) which was later changed to Hispaniola.
The Spaniards did not bring their own women with them. They took Taíno women for their wives. Rape of Taino women was common. The 1518 smallpox epidemic killed 90% of the natives who had not already perished. By 1548 the native population was under 500. Spanish interest in Hispaniola began to wane in the 1520s, as more lucrative gold and silver deposits were found in Mexico and Peru. Nevertheless, up to the 1550s, the Spanish imported large numbers of black African slaves to labor in the gold mines and sugar plantations. Dutch traders/pirates joined their English and French brethren trading on the remote coasts of Hispaniola.
In the 18th century, it became France’s most valuable possession; on the eve of the French Revolution, it was supplying two-thirds of all of Europe’s tropical produce. Santo Domingo, as it was then called, was a brutally efficient slave colony.
Peter Hallward, of King’s College Cambridge, wrote in New Left Review: “The structural basis of Haiti’s crippling poverty is a direct legacy of slavery and its aftermath.” By 1681, there were 2,000 slaves. A hundred years later there were 500,000 slaves and perhaps 700,000 offspring of masters and slaves. A third of new arrivals died within a few years. There were only 40,000 whites who had to use harsh measures to keep control over such large numbers. Religion was important. All slaves had to practise Catholicism and native African religions were suppressed.
Voodoo ceremonies with animal sacrifices were conducted in secret and fomented revolt. According to tradition, after a ceremony on August 14, 1791, a slave overseer and hougan (voodoo priest) called Dutty Boukman gave the signal and slaves from a dozen plantations slaughtered their masters and their families. The revolt spread. The slaves had learnt cruelty from their masters. In her fine book The Rainy Season, Amy Wilentz writes: “The masters had stuffed gunpowder into slaves’ rectums and exploded it. They had rolled their slaves in spiked barrels down hills, they had whipped them and tied them to boards and left them in the swamps to be eaten alive by ants and mosquitoes. The slaves repaid these favours in 1791 by decapitating the masters, raping their wives on top of their bloodied corpses, chopping off their arms and legs, sawing them in half, impaling their infants on proudly carried spikes”.
There had been a revolution in France also. In 1792, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was sent by the French Legislative Assembly to maintain French control of Saint-Domingue, stabilize the colony, and enforce the social equality recently granted to free people of color by the National Convention of France. In 1793, Sonthonax proclaimed the freedom of the slaves and in 1794 French National Convention abolished slavery by law in France and all its colonies.
White colonists continued to fight Sonthonax with assistance from the British. They were joined by many of the free men of color who opposed the abolition of slavery. Toussaint Louverture and his corps of well-disciplined, battle-hardened former slaves came over to the French Republican side in early May 1794.
With the colony facing a full-scale invasion by Britain, the rebel slaves emerged as a powerful military force under the leadership of Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. Louverture successfully drove back the British and by 1798 was the ruler of the colony. He asserted enough independence to persuade Napoleon to send forces in 1802, under his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to increase French control. Word began to reach the colony of the French intention to restore slavery. The French burned alive, hanged, drowned, and tortured black prisoners, reviving such practices as burying blacks in piles of insects and boiling them in cauldrons of molasses. After one battle, Leclerc’s successor, Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur, Vicomte de Rochambeau, buried 500 prisoners alive; Dessalines responded by hanging 500 French prisoners. Rochambeau’s brutal tactics helped unite black, mulatto, and mestizo soldiers against the French.
Revolution and Republic
Louverture was kidnapped and taken away to a prison in the Jura. He died of exposure and tuberculosis in 1803. In November 1803, the former slaves won the war’s final battle, and on January 1, 1804 Dessalines declared independence, reclaiming the indigenous Taíno name of Haiti (“Land of Mountains”). Hemmed in by slave colonies, Haiti had only one non-colonised neighbor, the slaveholding United States, which refused to recognize its independence.
Dessalines massacred 2,000 Frenchmen at Cap-Français, 900 in Port-au-Prince, and 400 at Jérémie. He issued a proclamation declaring, “We have repaid these cannibals, war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage.”