Haiti's Tradition of Curious Tyrants

By Dewar, Robert | Contemporary Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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Haiti's Tradition of Curious Tyrants


Dewar, Robert, Contemporary Review


THERE had been a French presence on the western third of the island of Hispaniola since the early seventeenth century. In 1697 Spain ceded this western part of the island to France. With an economy based on sugar and forestry, Saint Dominique (later to be known as Haiti), became one of the wealthiest Caribbean colonies, but the wealth was founded on a plantation system, in turn reliant on black slaves imported from Africa.

In 1791 an educated, Haitian-born black slave, who became known as Toussaint L'Ouverture, led the almost half a million slaves of Saint Dominique in a revolt against France. Fired by the French revolutionary doctrines of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, this exceptional man reacted against the French Revolutionary government's re-affirmation of slavery in its colonial possessions, following a brief period when it seemed that the institution of slavery was to be abolished. Toussaint overcame French forces, helped by the yellow fever which swept through their ranks. He also repulsed Spanish and British forces. Plantation owners fled the colony; the French colonial presence evaporated; by 1793, when France abolished slavery in its colonial possessions, Toussaint L'Ouverture had become de facto governor of Haiti.

Napoleon (whose Empress, Josephine, came of Caribbean slave-owner stock) sought to re-establish the slave-driven plantation system in Haiti, and the island's black saviour faced a French re-occupying force of 20,000 veteran troops in early 1802. (Interestingly, it took President Clinton about the same number to re-instate Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti in 1994). Toussaint L'Ouverture was a military genius, no mere leader of a rag-tag rebel mob, and Napoleon's forces failed to regain the island for France. Toussaint remained as Haiti's ruler, and he began to dress and act the part. Having been kept as a house slave by his planter-master, who had taught him to read and write, he had acquired refined, civilized tastes. By 1803, Napoleon had more pressing concerns closer to home to occupy his mind; he decided to recognize Haitian independence from France, if Toussaint were to retire from public life. Toussaint was lured to a meeting with the French, and Napoleon (who never forgot nor forgave a besting) had him taken into custody and shipped to France, where Toussaint was incarcerated and systematically mis-treated by his captors. He died in prison. One of Toussaint's lieutenants, Jean Jaques Dessalines, took over the leadership of Haiti, and in 1804 (when France divested herself of her American and Caribbean possessions), the Republic of Haiti was declared.

Haiti is the oldest black republic in the world. It is also the possessor of the cruellest political history and most widespread poverty in the Caribbean. It is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Upwards of 80 per cent of its people survive on subsistence farming, and in terms of generally accepted economic measurement they live in poverty.

Although no military genius, the recently ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (a de-frocked Salesian priest, who at the time of his 1990 election still lived in and ran an orphanage for boys) shares many similarities with Toussaint L'Ouverture. Inspired by Haiti's early freedom-fighters, Aristide consciously sought to emulate Toussaint, and his successor Dessalines. Both Toussaint and Aristide were charismatic leaders who came to power on the back of a sweeping wave of popular acclaim, and both lost their peoples' support. Both were idealists who failed to translate their idealism into reality. Toussaint did not take 'freedom' far enough, as he sought to cling to France for the sake of her superior governance, her trade, and what he was certain was her civilizing influence. Aristide, in abolishing the army in 1995, went too far, alienating an entire caste and sowing a field of dragons' teeth from which would arise his present enemies. Both were known towards the end of their rule for the instability of their characters.

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