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The Tumultuous Historyâ"From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation
By Philippe Girard
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Philippe Girard
All rights reserved.
The Pearl of the Caribbean: Haiti in Colonial Times (1492–1791)
In 1492, during his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas, then headed south for the coast of Cuba. Upon hearing that an island due east abounded in gold, pearls, and spices, he made his way across the Windward Passage, thus becoming the first European to land in Haiti. Columbus's first taste of Haiti was as bitter as it was sweet. Leaving a young boy in charge of his admiral ship so that he could take some rest on Christmas Eve, he awoke to the sound of crashing wood. The Santa Maria had hit a reef and soon foundered. Columbus left some crewmembers on the shore, where they built Fort Navidad, the first European settlement in the Caribbean; but these men met a tragic end, killed by the native Tainos after Columbus's departure. Luckily, Columbus noted with interest, the natives he had seen wore gold trinkets, looked submissive enough, and could presumably be enslaved without too much difficulty. As for Cuba and Haiti,
All these islands are fertile and this one is particularly so. It has many large harbors finer than any I know in Christian lands, and many large rivers. All this is marvelous. The land is high and has many ranges of hills, and mountains incomparably finer than Tenerife [in Spain's Canary Islands]. All are most beautiful and various in shape, and all are accessible. They are covered with tall trees of different kinds which seem to reach the sky.
The island was large at 29,321 square miles (present-day Haiti occupies its western third, or 10,641 square miles; the rest forms the Dominican Republic) (figure 1.1). Most of it was mountainous. Centuries later, when questioned by Napoléon Bonaparte about the terrain French troops were likely to encounter during an expedition to Haiti, a French officer would take a piece of paper, crumble it in his hands, and answer: "this, sir, is the terrain." Five main mountain ranges crisscrossed Haiti, which the French would later name Massif du Nord in the north, Montagnes Noires and Chaîne des Matheux in the west, and Massif de la Hotte and Massif de la Selle in the South. Plains—the Plaine du Nord in the north, the Plaine de l'Artibonite and the Plaine du Cul-de-Sac in the west, and the Plaine de Jacmel in the south—were few and far between. Haiti's mountains and westward orientation protected its interior from the oceanic trade winds, resulting in a climate that was dry, arid even for a Caribbean island, except in the rainy months of the summer and fall. In later years, enterprising French settlers would learn to dam the Artibonite River and irrigate the fields in Haiti's interior.
Columbus first landed on Haiti's northern coast, in a magnificent natural harbor he named Môle Saint-Nicolas, then made his way east, passing by the bay where Cap Haïtien—Haiti's largest city in colonial times—would later be built. Further south, the island resembled a giant claw. In its middle part, the coastal plain where Port-au-Prince would one day rise faced the beautiful island of La Gonâve. What lay in the interior and in the south—mountains for the most part, one of them capping at 2,680 meters (8,793 feet)—Columbus did not see. He named the island Española (Hispaniola) in honor of his Spanish patrons. The French would later rename the western part Saint-Domingue. In 1804, when the country declared its independence, it reverted to the pre-Columbian, native name for the island: Hayiti; Haiti.
Tainos and Spaniards
Columbus's voyages are usually labeled voyages of discovery, but he was not the first human being to lay his eyes on Haiti. The island was inhabited by approximately half-a-million native Indians called Tainos. The Amerindians of Haiti are not as famous as the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas of Central America, and the Incas of the Andes. Their architectural achievements were limited—thatched roof huts called caney, along with large ball courts for the island's most popular sport—but they had an elaborate social structure organized around local chiefs, or caciques. And, unfortunately, they had some gold (figure 1.2).
Columbus and later Spanish colonists were not settlers in the traditional sense of the term. They did not intend to acquire empty land, build a log cabin, and become farmers. They were conquistadors: they were ambitious nobles and merchants who looked down on manual labor and dreamed of conquering a strange civilization, killing its leaders, enslaving its natives, and exploiting a quick windfall of gold and spices. Killing the Taino leaders, or caciques, they did: the tragic story of Anacoana illustrates this well. Anacoana was a Taino Haitian princess whom the Spaniards asked to organize a big feast for Governor Nicolas Ovando. When she and other caciques gathered for the festivities, Spanish soldiers set the meeting hall on fire and wiped out Hispaniola's leadership; Anacoana survived the fire, only to be put on trial and hanged. Taino commoners were subsequently forced to work on gold mines and plantations.
Hatuey, another Taino cacique, was so revolted by the Spaniards' mistreatment of his people that he fled Haiti for Cuba. Led by Diego Velasquez de Cuellar, the persistent Spaniards landed in Cuba to pursue him. In 1512, after years of guerilla warfare, Hatuey was captured and sentenced to be burnt alive. A Franciscan friar suggested that should Hatuey repent and convert to Catholicism, his captors might show mercy and substitute garroting for the agony of death by fire. Plus, the Franciscan added, Hatuey would spend eternity in heaven. When questioned by Hatuey if Spaniards also went to paradise, the Franciscan responded that the best Spaniards did. "The best are good for nothing," Hatuey snapped back, "and I will not go where there is a chance of meeting one of them." Hatuey opted for fire and hell. Bartolome de Las Casas, a young Spaniard who had initially benefited from Taino forced labor as an encomendero (plantation owner), was so profoundly shaken by the episode that he embraced the religious orders and spent the rest of his life defending the cause of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Within two generations, Spain's cruel exploitation of local laborers, combined with the plight of European diseases the Tainos had no immunity against, had resulted in the complete disappearance of the Taino population. Genocide, a word destined to become sadly notorious in the twentieth century, met its first incarnation in fifteenth-century Haiti (Spain did not intend to kill all Tainos, only to exploit their labor). By the seventeenth century, Haiti was worth nothing. Spain had killed off the natives, exploited what little gold there was, and moved on to the more promising riches of Mexico and Peru. All that remained was a small Spanish presence in the east, where the city of San Domingo presided over a hinterland backwater of cattle ranchers and colonial administrators who dreamed of leaving for the continent. Devoid of any meaningful human presence, the western part of the island was now one large tropical forest in which the cows and pigs initially introduced by Spanish colonists pullulated. Nothing remained of the native civilization that once thrived there, save for words borrowed from the Taino language and culture such as hammock (hamaca), hurricane (huracan), savanna (sabana), canoe (canoa), barbecue (barbacoa), and tobacco (tabaco). Haiti's first two hundred years of colonial rule symbolized one important rule of economic growth that Haiti was to encounter numerous times in its history: the reckless search for quick riches, with its complete disregard for individual human suffering, may result in a short-term creation of wealth, but not in long-term development.
Boucaniers, Corsaires, and Frères de la Côte
The Tainos were not the only ones to lament Spain's newfound power. Other European countries—France, England, and the Netherlands most prominently—looked in envy as galleons loaded with American gold and silver entered the ports of Cádiz and Seville. European rivalry for control of the Caribbean marked the seventeenth century, and Haiti, because of its centrality, found itself in the eye of the storm. The first French settlers were a mixed lot composed of gentlemen desirous to distance themselves from French courts, naval deserters, runaway indentured servants, and ambitious young men. Women were few in those early days; settlers formed same-sex unions, a practice inherited from the French navy and thus called matelotage (after matelot, "sailor"). Like standard brides and grooms, matelotage partners looked after each other, inherited from each other, and slept with each other (occasionally, they shared any available female mate); Haitian pirates later borrowed this practice. Many French settlers chose Saint-Domingue partly because Spanish presence in western Hispaniola was negligible, and partly because the wild pigs and cattle provided an inextinguishable supply of fresh meat. Hunting eventually brought more meat than they could handle. The French thus adopted the Taino tradition of slow-cooking venison on an open fire, or boucan, and selling beef jerky to the ships that passed by. These professionals of the art of barbecue called themselves boucaniers—buccaneers.
The islands of the West Indies form a long arc, stretching from Venezuela to Florida, that seals off the Caribbean Sea. To access Mexico and Panama (on the road to Peru), Spanish galleons thus had to make their way through one of the main channels dividing the islands. The Windward Passage that lies between Haiti and Cuba was one of them. The boucaniers, after years of seeing ships pass by their hunting grounds, reached the conclusion that seizing a Spanish galleon might provide more income than a lifetime of hunting ever could. Their main line of work subsequently switched from French cuisine to high-seas robbery. The French monarchy, still seething at Spain's newfound wealth, gave these daring men a lettre de marque (an official document specifying that they were on the king's service) that condoned all future violence as long as it was directed at France's enemies. These naval mercenaries, called privateers in English, were called corsaires in French.
French and British harassment eventually took its toll. The Spanish hold on northwestern Hispaniola became so tenuous that in 1665 France named Bertrand d'Ogeron as first governor of the French settlements in what remained, in name only, a Spanish colony. Spain finally yielded some of its Caribbean islands (whose value was limited anyhow) to European competitors and, in 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick officially gave France the western third of Hispaniola. Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as the French called their colony, was born.
For the French and the British, relying on corsaires was a brilliant strategy in the age of Spanish domination. Once these two countries became colonial rulers in their own right, however, their enthusiasm for privatized warfare diminished. After years of being on the predators' side, they now were likely to become the prey. They thus established their own trade routes, protected them with a national navy, and tried to forbid privateering, at least in peacetime. Abandoned by their patrons, the corsaires became flibustiers (pirates). Their lives still consisted in capturing merchant vessels, but they did so without being commissioned by a state and could expect merciless treatment if captured.
Even if their existence revolved around the sea, pirates needed a safe haven in which to spend their loot and resupply. La Tortue (Tortuga), a rocky island a few miles off Saint-Domingue's northern coast, was an ideal base. Initially, Tortuga was dominated by the Providence Company, a group of Puritans who imaginatively mixed religion and piracy. Jean le Vasseur, a dictatorial Frenchman, followed. Under his rule, Tortuga became an independent pirate state protected by a large fortress and quickly acquired a legendary status in the literature of this turbulent era. Money that had come easily was as quickly gone. Rum, women, fortunes lost in a night's gambling: the fantastic sums seized from Spanish ships did not make any lasting contribution to Haiti's economy. All that remains from this era is an interesting synonym for "pirates" that illustrates the key role Saint-Domingue's northern coast played during the age of piracy: frères de la côte, the brotherhood of the coast.
White Slaves and Sugarcane
After acquiring Saint-Domingue, France set up an economic model more stable than the state-sanctioned robbery prevalent in Spanish and privateering times. Settlers cultivated African and Middle Eastern crops likely to flourish in the tropical climate and fertile soil. Cotton, indigo, and coffee were among them; but none equaled sugarcane. At a time when sugar beet was not yet in wide use, sugarcane was the most efficient way of sweetening European palates. Unable to grow sugarcane at home, Europeans flocked to the Caribbean.
Sugar was the oil of the eighteenth century; all principles yielded to its needs. Major European powers fought seemingly senseless wars over controversies surrounding tiny sugar islands such as Saint Lucia and Barbados. When France lost the Seven Year War (known as the French and Indian War in the United States) in 1763, she lost virtually all her North American possessions, including Canada and the immense plain between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. But, French philosophers such as Voltaire reasoned, they had saved what mattered most: Guadeloupe and Martinique. Saint-Domingue, because of its size, was the greatest and most profitable of all the sugar islands.
France also strove to attract residents more suited to the needs of empire building than the male hunters and pirates then composing the bulk of the colony's population. Attracting settlers proved to be a difficult task. Saint-Domingue was famed for quick riches, but also for tropical diseases and hard work in the sugarcane fields. Another problem was money. Traveling across the Atlantic was expensive, and Frenchmen willing to bet their lives on hopes of far-flung wealth were generally penniless. When the supply of adventurous men and women willing to pay their way proved inadequate, France resorted to an imaginative system. Colonial authorities sent engagés or trente-six mois, indentured servants who received free passage to the colonies in exchange for a three-year period of voluntary servitude.
The system led to many abuses. Drunken revelers in French ports sometimes awoke in ships bound for Saint-Domingue, having unsuspectingly signed away their freedom during a night of carousing. The king himself was known to round up criminals, orphans, and prostitutes and ship them away to clean up the streets of Paris (amateurs of French literature should refer themselves to Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut). The colony was so short on women that husbands could not afford to be too finicky about their wives' checkered past. As soon as a boatload of women landed in Saint-Domingue, men who could afford to do so purchased a bride. "I take thee without knowing, or caring to know, who thou art," the standard marriage vow went. "Give me only thy word for the future. I acquit thee of what is past." Leniency had its limits. Musket in hand, the groom added "if thou should prove false, this will certainly prove true to my aim."
Even in the 1780s, at a time when the colony's financial success started attracting better citizens, Saint-Domingue continued to harbor a colorful mix of Parisian prostitutes, descendants of pirates, undesirable elements of French society, priests expelled by their national clergy, and war captives from Africa. Not surprisingly, the colony had a well-deserved reputation for being long on money and short on principles.
The rapid growth of Saint-Domingue's economy created an acute labor shortage. A coffee plantation employed dozens of workers; a sugar plantation required hundreds. Work was hard. To grow sugarcane, one needed to clear the land of its ancient forests, then prepare the soil (originally with an antiquated hoe, later with the more modern plow), plant the seedlings, and weed them. Ambitious irrigation projects were also required in Haiti's dry interior. Harvest time was the most strenuous season. Armed with machetes, workers made their way through canes taller than they were, razor-sharp leaves, insects, and snakes, cutting the cane as they moved along. Sugarcane sours fast, so workers then rushed to crush the cane and boil the juice, the fire adding to the tropical heat. European indentured workers could not withstand such hard work. They died by the thousands.
Excerpted from Haiti by Philippe Girard. Copyright © 2010 Philippe Girard. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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