I was so relieved when Hurricane Matthew went west and avoided Jamaica on Monday October 3, 2016. It spared us the grief, loss of life and damages that a hurricane can do. However, I was saddened when I saw what Hurricane Matthew did to Haiti, our neighbor. So imagine my chagrin when I noticed many Jamaicans being annoyed that they had spent thousands of dollars preparing for a hurricane that didn’t come. The Haitians, I am sure, would have been more thankful and appreciative than us if the hurricane had slipped them by.

Adding injury to insult, these same ungrateful Jamaicans and misguided folks also blamed Haiti’s calamity and poverty on dubious things such as voodoo practices. Yet, the truth is that although Jamaica was the star in the crown of England during the heyday of sugar and slavery in the Caribbean, according to Adam Smith in 1776, Saint Domingue (Haiti) was “the most important of the sugar colonies of the West Indies.” Beating out even its neighbour, Santo Domingo.

It does beg the question though: what went wrong? Why is Haiti so impoverished, disease ridden, and suffering so much? It seems that even God and man is against them. Nature in the form of earthquakes, floods and wind and man as Nations have plundered, rape, robbed, killed and kidnapped them repeatedly. This may justify ignorant onlookers ludicrously believing that Haiti’s poverty and lack of development are because god is against Haiti.

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HISPANIOLA: One island 2 countries. Haiti, formerly St. Domingue and Dominican Republic formerly Santo Domingo.

The fact is that Haiti is suffering because its people are Black and it became a nation of free blacks and coloured people in 1804 at a time when blacks in the west were seen as slaves or “people of a lesser god”.  Using bullets instead of ballots, it defeated France’s army and this embarrassment to the white psyche of Napoleon Bonaparte and France in 1803, is not easily forgiven, and could not go unpunished, not by god but by man. Yes, their calamity is for being free blacks.


Before the Europeans came to the Americas, the Caribbean were striving economies with great peoples such as the Incas, Mayas, Aztecs, Arawaks and Tainos. December 1492, Christopher Columbus sponsored by Spain landed on an island which he called La Isla Española, or the “The Spanish Island,” . The name was eventually Anglicized to Hispaniola. The original Taino inhabitants called  the island Quisqueya (or Kiskeya), which means “mother of the earth”.  It was also called “Ayti,” (Haiti) meaning “mountainous land.”

The Spaniards mistreated the indigenous  Taino population, pillaging their villages, seizing their women and committing acts of violence. By 1514, the killing and maiming of the Taino were so widespread that a priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was sympathetic  and  shocked by the treatment of “this most lovable and tractable people,” unwittingly suggested  that Africans were better made for enslavement. Here began the enslavement of Africans in the west.

Spain halfheartedly continued its rule of the Island but France and Britain also had expansionist ideas and in the early 1600s, the first French settlers began to occupy western Hispaniola as the Spaniards stuck to the eastern part. The three nations battled each other for control of Hispaniola.


September 1697, with the Treaty of Ryswick, Spain recognized France’s presence on Hispaniola and ceded the western third of the island. The French called their new territory Saint Domingue and the Spanish called theirs Santo Domingo. In essence, the island of Hispaniola now became two countries on one island.Saint-Domingue, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” became France’s most lucrative colony, holding world production records for sugar and coffee by the end of the 18th century. Santo Domingo, on the other hand was neglected by the Spaniards.

Large-scale and labor-intensive sugar production necessitated large labor force, and the colonists begin importing more slaves from Africa into St. Domingue. According to a study by the American Library of Congress, by the end of the 18th century, there were about 40,000 white landowners, 25,000 black or interracial freedmen and 60,000 slaves in the Spanish colony (Santo Domingo) compared with approximately 30,000 whites, 27,000 freedmen, and at least 500,000 black slaves in its French counterpart (St. Domingue).

This outnumbering of Blacks to whites by more than 10 – 1 had a profound effect on the colony of St.  Domingue. The Free blacks and many mullattoes acquired plantations, and according to an 18th century French Communiqué:

“These men are beginning to fill the colony and it is of the greatest perversion to see them, their numbers continually increasing amongst the whites, with fortunes often greater than those of the whites . . . Their strict frugality prompting them to place their profits in the bank every year, they accumulate huge capital sums and become arrogant because they are rich, and their arrogance increases in proportion to their wealth. In many districts the best land is owned by the half-castes. . . These coloreds imitate the style of the whites and try to wipe out all memory of their original state”
— Colonial administrators writing to the Ministry of the Marine


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The 1791 Haitian Revolution secured Black independence and freedom in the former French colony and sounded the death knell for the European slave trade, in 1838.

Despite and maybe because of the increase in the wealth and importance of Free Blacks and Mullattoes, the French settlers  mistreated the Blacks and in 1757 François Makandal, a maroon leader, conspired to poison all the whites, including other slaves who couldn’t be trusted, in a plot intended to spread to “all corners of the colony.” This revolt though suppressed, officially started the Haitian Revolution. Indeed, “Maroons who were fugitive slaves were crucial to the fight for Haiti’s independence.

The French administrators responded by fighting fire with fire and in May 1771, Louis XV, the monarch of France, set new restrictions which elaborated on the Code Noir of 1685 and mulattoes found that they were stripped of many of their freedoms and privileges in the colony.

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During this period, Dutty Boukman (Boukman Dutty) who was an African man, enslaved in Haiti, was one of the most visible early leaders of the  Haitian Revolution. It is believed Dutty Boukman was a self-educated slave born on the island of Jamaica. He was later sold by his British master to a French plantation owner after he attempted to teach other Jamaican slaves to read.  His large size, warrior-like appearance, and fearsome temper made him an effective leader and helped spark the Haitian Revolution.

According to some contemporary accounts, on or about 14 August 1791 Boukman presided over a ceremony at the Bois Caiman in the role of houngan (priest) and Cecile Fatiman (priestess) prophesied of an upcoming resistance movement and revolt that would free the slaves of St. Domingue. Boukman was killed by the French in November 1791, just a few months after the beginning of the revolt and his head publicly displayed in an attempt to dispel the aura of invincibility that Boukman had cultivated.

Toussaint L’ouverture.

General Toussaint Louverture, the Blackman that embarrassed Napoleon

If one of the most dangerous things in the world is an educated man, imagine an educated Free Black man. In 1791, such a Free Black man by the name of Toussaint L’ouverture, inspired by events of the American Revolution of 1776 came to power.The American Declaration stated “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

While Toussaint was fighting for Independence in St. Domingue, the French Revolution (1789 until 1799) began and far-reaching social and political upheaval took place in France. The Revolution overthrew the French monarchy, established a republic and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon that rapidly brought many of its principles to Western Europe and beyond. You can imagine the inspiration these developments were giving to Toussaint and the Blacks: ” Liberty, equality and fraternity”

Although L’Ouverture and his successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, succeeded in re-establishing order and renewing the economy of Saint Domingue, which had been badly devastated, the new leader in France, Napoleon Bonaparte, could not accept having France’s richest colony governed by a Black man. Succumbing to the complaints of former colonists who had lost their plantations in the colony, a large expedition was mounted to conquer the Blacks and re-establish slavery. Led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, General Leclerc, the expedition turned into a disaster and napoleon suffered his Caribbean Waterloo.

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Napoleon Bonaparte met his first “waterloo” at St. Domingue when he encountered Toussaint in 1802.

The newly independent United States under President Thomas Jefferson reassured the French (new independent state) that he opposed independence in Saint-Domingue and pledged to support Napoleon’s agenda. France still lost the war and in April 1803, The Louisiana Purchase Treaty is signed and Napoleon ceded its North American territory to the United States and withdrew from the western hemisphere.

Toussaint Louverture successfully defeated the French but was tricked and deported to France where he died in jail in 1802. As he was being transferred to France, he famously warned his captors that the rebels would not repeat his mistake:  In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.


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The evolution of Haiti’s flag since independence in 1804. Dessalines had ripped out the white from the French flag.  Seems the white colour got back in, subtly.

Indeed, on January 1, 1804, Dessalines proclaimed Haiti’s independence, signaling the formation of the world’s first black republic and becoming the first independent nation in the Caribbean, and the second democracy in the western hemisphere. Dessalines created the new republic’s flag by simply ripping out the white fabric from the French tricolor of red, white and blue, with the remaining red and blue representing the unity of blacks and mulattoes

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French Flag

against the whites.

He published a Declaration of Independence, signed by himself and Henry Christophe, and the colony “Saint-Domingue” is abolished forever. The original Taino name of Hayti “land of mountains,” is officially restored.

The independent Republic of Haiti that eventually emerged in 1804 was never an equal among the fraternity or brotherhood of Western nations. French troops remained in the eastern part of Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) and France actively lobbied England, Spain and the United States to isolate and ostracized the fledgling nation politically and economically. France emphasized that Haiti was a threat to the countries’ plantation system and slaveholders. The global community shunned Haiti, and boycotted its merchants which is a major contributing factor to Haiti’s later impoverishment.

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Great heroes of Haiti whose efforts taught us that real freedom can only exist when both the captors and the captives are free

To make a bad matter worse, France, the spurned former colonial ruler, fumed at its losses and in 1825, crippled by an international embargo with a French flotilla of war ships threatening invasion, Haiti was compelled to pay a king’s ransom or “independence debt” of 150 million gold francs — estimated to be ten times the country’s annual revenues. Haiti, in effect, was forced to pay reparations for its freedom and to compensate French settlers and slaveowners for their lost plantation lands and slaves. Although the indemnity was later reduced to 90m gold coins, the debt crippled the Caribbean nation, which did not finish paying it off to French and American banks until 1947.  It further set the stage for many decades of Haitian economic misery and underdevelopment and becoming one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere

“We Haitians know that a big reason why we are suffering today is because we were forced to pay France for our freedom. If we were not punished for our independence long ago, we would have had a better time,” water seller Jean-Marc Bouchet said on a dusty, unpaved street in Port-au-Prince. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/13/hollande-haiti-visit-france-former-colony)

Whilst this is true, the revolutionary wars also contributed to the country’s demise as it had destroyed nearly all of  Haiti’s colonial infrastructure and production capabilities. Noticeably too, the big estates were divided among the population and soon, almost every Haitian owned some land but hardly anyone could live from it since the allotments were too small and the new owners struggled to agree on a shared management of the land.

The problem was compounded by Haiti’s ethnically diverse population. “The slaves came from over a hundred different ethnic groups and originally had nothing to do with each other”.

The 20th century ushered in an era of American occupation from 1915 to 1934 and totalitarian regimes under the Duvaliers from 1957 to 1987. After decades of political suppression, Haiti had new democratic elections and in 1991 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide took office and was ousted just months later, reinstated and ousted again. In 2003, Haiti became the world’s first former colony to demand reparations (in the form of debt restitution) from a former colonial power. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government conservatively calculated the value of the restitution due at some $21.7 billion. Although in 2001, the French parliament had unanimously approved a law recognizing the slave trade as a crime against humanity, France responded to Haiti’s petition with fury. It angrily rejected the lawsuit and joined with Washington in brazenly fomenting a coup d’état against Aristide, who was ousted on Feb. 29, 2004. http://www.globalresearch.ca/haiti-independence-debt-reparations-for-slavery-and-colonialism-and-international-aid/5334619.


In 1795, in the Treaty of Basilea, Spain had ceded the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo to France and as such both Western and Eastern Hispaniola were under French Rule. After its losses to Haiti (Saint Domingue) in 1804, the French in 1809 returned it to Royal Spanish rule. The Spaniards not only tried to re-establish slavery in Santo Domingo, but many of them also mounted raiding expeditions into Haiti to capture Blacks and enslave them as well. In 1822, fearful the French would mount another expedition from Spanish Santo Domingo to re-establish slavery, as they had threatened to do; Haiti’s President Jean-Pierre Boyer sent an army that invaded and took over Santo Domingo; abolished slavery and incorporated it into the Republic of Haiti.

For the next 22 years the whole island of Hispaniola was unified under Haitian control. Due to their loss of political and economic control, the former Spanish ruling class deeply resented the occupation by these former slaves. Dominicans call the period “The Haitian Occupation”,

Religious and cultural life also suffered under the Haitian occupation. The Haitians, associated the Roman Catholic Church with the French colonists who had so cruelly exploited and abused them before independence, confiscated all church property in the east, deported all foreign clergy, and severed the ties of the remaining clergy to the Vatican. For Dominicans, who were much more strongly Roman Catholic, such actions seemed insulting.

As a result, during the late 1830s, an underground resistance group, La Trinitaria, was organized under the leadership of Juan Pablo Duarte in Santo Domingo. After multiple attacks on the Haitian army, and because of internal discord among the Haitians, the Haitians eventually retreated. On February 27, 1844, the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola was officially declared independent and the name República Dominicana (Dominican Republic) was adopted.

Strife between (as well as within) Haiti and Santo Domingo was constant. While both countries struggled with democracy, economically they began to diverge and the two countries’ fortunes got reversed. Haiti which was once the Pearl of the Antilles was boycotted, burdened by heavy reparation payments and becoming impoverished while the  lighter-skinned Dominicans started to look down on the darker-skinned Haitians  as Dominica’s economy prosper as the world embraced them.

Haiti’s challenges and grief despite Acts of God (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes) and Acts of Man (deforestation and cholera), stem not from voodoo but from the fact that they are Africans who “rudely” changed their lots in life and dare to be free in 1803. So as we criticize Haiti, let’s remember that, fortunately or unfortunately, when Haiti got its independence in 1803, and took a road to being hungry yet free, we in Jamaica were slaves, well fed but chained and was a colony.

A POEM FOR HAITI – Clifton “NOTCLIF” Neil (Written on Oct. 16, 2016 @ Tuff Gong, Jamaica while waiting  for my daughter rehearsing for a concert)

NOTCLIF hanging out at Tuff Gong Studios, Jamaica, Oct 16, 2016

As you all belittle the impoverished island Haiti

Be sure to know you making their burden much more weighty.

Remember that there were times when they were free

And we were slaves, well fed but living in a colony.

As you all undermine the first free black nation in the west

Be sure to know they deserve to be put among the best,

Remember that nations and nature have treated them merciless

And as their cries pierce your hearts, don’t be void of tenderness.

As you all doomed Haiti  and claimed they are living in sin

Be sure to know their only wrong was having too many blacks within.

Remember if their people were brown or white, many would join in

But being all Black is their curse and also their blessing.


NOTCLIF is an avid reader of Caribbean History and a Marketing Lecturer at a university. Contact: cneil@wordfoodmusic.com. Website http://www.wordfoodmusic.com

3 thoughts on “HAITI: NOT AN EASY ROAD

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