Marlene Daut, professor of African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia, in the article entitled “When France extorted Haiti — the Greatest Heist in History,” presents the meticulously argued case for France to return cash taken from the Haitian people and, further, offer compensation for their impoverishment.
Her work, published in the academic journal The Conversation, in June 2021, makes the best case yet for reparations. In the well-argued presentation, the author posits: “What France did to the Haitian people after the Haitian Revolution is a particularly notorious example of colonial theft.”
Making the case for reparations, Daut quotes French economist Thomas Piketty, who says that France should repay at least US$28 billion to Haiti in restitution.
Haiti, originally known as Saint Domingue and regarded as the “Pearl of the Antilles”, was once the richest colony in the world, as chronicled in historic documents held by the John Carter Brown Library. Saint Domingue was a leader in the production of sugar, coffee, indigo, cacao, and cotton.
The 1817 work Voyage to Saint Domingue, comprised of the writings of Alexandre-Stanislas, Baron de Wimpffen, indicates that Haiti’s early history was characterised by “remarkable economic output”.
“On the eve of the Haitian Revolution, Saint Domingue had become the most lucrative colony on earth. It was the world’s top producer of sugar and coffee and among the global leaders in indigo, cacao, and cotton (which was rising rapidly in importance). Indeed, Saint Domingue, occupying only a small territory, outproduced the entire Spanish empire in the Americas. One in eight people in France derived their living from the enormous trade joining France with this small and distant place, 4,800 nautical miles away.”
Baron de Wimpffren says the reasons lay in the qualities of land and climate, government support, and “more than anything, the presence of a huge number of enslaved Africans who propelled this extensive economic system with their labor.” About 8,000 plantations were in operation during the eighteenth century operated with the labour of enslaved Africans.
The nation’s legacy of debt and the start of impoverishment began shortly after slave revolt against the French, and when the formerly enslaved Africans gained their independence from France in 1804. France and other colonial powers colluded to place an economic chokehold on the new nation, now led by a black and another leader of mixed heritage.
After Haiti declared its independence from France in 1804, the country was split in 1806, with Alexandre Pétion in the south and Henry Christophe in charge in the north. Christophe, having made himself a king in 1811, declined to compromise with the French who threatened to bring back African enslavement. Pétion, in the south, was more cooperative with the French and other powers.
President of the United States Thomas Jefferson, aiming to stop the spread of revolt to the US — stopped sending aid and pursued international isolation of Haiti. In 1803, Napoléon had sold Louisiana to the United States for 15 million francs. Pétion proposed the same payment. Louis XVIII rejected the offer. When Pétion died in 1818, new leader Jean-Pierre Boyer, made the same offer, but the French delayed, waiting on Christophe to give in as well.
“What France did to the Haitian people after the Haitian Revolution is a particularly notorious example of colonial theft”— Marlene Daut, professor of African American studies, University of Virginia
Christophe died in October 1820, and Boyer united the two sides of the country, but was still unable to get French recognition of independence. France, meanwhile, pursued a policy that prevented Haiti from participating in trade, resulting in financial desperation on the part of the new nation’s leadership
International isolation resulted in desperate decisions taken by the island nation’s leaders. France cemented an economic stranglehold when it sailed to Haiti in 1825 and demanded that Haiti compensate France for its loss of slaves to the tune of 150 million francs. The European power said it was compensation for slaveowners, who had lost once profitable sugar and coffee estates.
Boyer agreed. The debt was financed by French banks and the American Citibank, and finally paid off in 1947 after a few defaults along the way. France, meanwhile, also demanded that Haiti provide a fifty per cent discount on its exported goods to them, making repayment more difficult. In 1838, France agreed to reduce the debt to 90 million francs to be paid over a period of 30 years, a sum valued around US$21 billion today.
Researchers note that subsequent to this, changes in land tenure contributed significantly to falling agricultural output in Haiti, worsened by economic mismanagement, and disappearing state resources. As Professor Daut outlines, over time, “a corrupt Duvalier dynasty added to the country’s debts and is believed to have used the money to expand their power and for their personal benefits.”
In 1838 a new French king sent another expedition of 12 warships to “negotiate” a revised demand for 60 million francs. Once again, the Haitian Government was ordered to take out unmanageable loans to pay the balance. Daut relates how the Haitian people suffered the consequences, as Boyer levied heavy taxes to support payment.
After the earthquake in 2010, the World Bank and some other governments forgave the remaining parts of Haiti’s debts. France forgave a more recent loan with a balance of US$77 million but has refused to consider repaying the independence debt, Daut outlines. The researcher says, “Newspaper articles from the period reveal that the French king knew the Haitian Government was hardly capable of making these payments, as the total was more than 10 times Haiti’s annual budget. Early loans taken were soon defaulted on.” Projects such as a national school system were put on hold. Daut and other researchers assert that the independence debt resulted in the underfunding of education, health care and public infrastructure.
The interest from all the loans, which were not completely paid off until 1947, resulted in Haitians ended up paying more than twice the value of the colonists’ claims. The result in modern times is the deep disparity in development, Daut states, noting, “whereas the median annual income of a French family is US $31,112, it’s only US $450 for a Haitian family. “These discrepancies are the concrete consequence of stolen labour from generations of Africans and their descendants.”
It is noteworthy that the country’s elites, on whose behalf black Haitians were impoverished, by the telling of some other researchers, were never displaced by the succeeding black rulers, but have tenaciously manipulated State control in collusion with the United Sates as that nation sought, over time, to secure its geopolitical interests.
The resulting instability has also affected economic development.
For more on this, there is research by Jeffrey W Sommers, whose paper, “The US Power Elite and the Political Economy of Haiti’s Occupation: Investment, Race, and World Order,” was published in the Journal of Haitian Studies (Vol 21, No 2, Special Issue on the US Occupation of Haiti, 1915–1934 (Fall 2015).
Daut rightly concludes that as the indemnity Haiti paid to France, “is the first and only time a formerly enslaved people were forced to compensate those who had once enslaved them, Haiti should be at the center of the global movement for reparations.