Upholding Haitian Dignity: On Briefly Contextualizing The Ongoing Crisis in Haiti, Part One
During the wee hours of June 7, 2021, Haiti’s 58th president, Jovenel Moïse, a 53-year-old father of three, two sons and a daughter, suffered a painful death. And Moïse’s killing transpired as his wife of 25 years, Martine, clung to life, gravely-injured, some distance away.
Per the details reported, and validated, by Le Nouvelliste, a French-language newspaper located in Haiti, Moïse sustained a multiplicity of injuries. The newspaper’s anatomical summary of the late President’s remains enumerates a broken femur and fractured skull. It also details a gouged left eye and thoracic gunshot wounds, with possible stippling, searing, or muzzle stamping, among other signs of trauma.
Though Haitian authorities are still determining Moïse’s manner of death, and how he came to sustain the above injuries, news networks and law enforcement authorities, in Haiti and beyond, have reported that a hit squad, composed of highly-armed, and partly U.S.-trained, Colombian nationals had descended upon the Moïse residence, moments before the death of the Haitian head of state.
Below, and beyond, through a three-part history, this piece will, at first, highlight the effects of foreign intervention on Haitian history. Thereafter, it will pinpoint the compounded obstacles that Haitian leadership must surmount in placing Haiti on a path toward prosperity.
Before tackling the influence of foreign powers, some additional facts, and an admission, are worth raising.
First, other significant actors involved in Moïse’s assassination, at his suburban home near Haiti’s capital, allegedly included various Haitians and Haitian-Americans. Figuring among these presumed co-conspirators, and alleged murderers, are a sexagenarian and medically-trained pastor; anti-corruption ex-official and engineer; ex-senator and business leader; ex-U.S. informant and convicted smuggler; security detail staff; and private contractors.
Second, and of relevance to what follows, a two-pronged, and even-handed, analytical approach is needed in not only gainsaying any notion that Haiti’s current problems are derivative of inherent, and peculiar, societal defects, but also in acknowledging improvement areas for Haitian governance.
In providing a much-abbreviated outline of the overarching context for Haiti’s ongoing crisis, a helpful starting point for dissection entails the late 1400’s.
That period, and subsequent decades, were defined by Haiti’s reception of two major groups of Africans, racialized by Europeans as “ladinos” and “bozales.” Route restrictions brought about by the Fall of Constantinople had motivated Spain’s Catholic Monarchs to fund Genoese merchant Christopher Columbus’s two-pronged search for new trade routes, to lands east of Europe, and new souls for Spanish priests to convert, out of a belief in evangelism (the spreading of the belief in Jesus Christ’s resurrection).
In other words, by the time Columbus had unexpectedly arrived to the Americas, African slaves had been brought to Spain’s several kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. And the Spanish Empire had procured these slaves through the Arab slave trade, or via slave-trading efforts that had been carried out by Castilian, or proto-Spanish, and Portuguese slave traders.
After months, or years, on Spanish soil, this group of Africans —referred to as “negros ladinos” (Spanish for “Latinate, civilized negroes”) and numbering in the thousands during the 1400’s —had undergone acculturation, exemplified by their having to learn the Spanish language.
After Spanish explorers had introduced illnesses (such as smallpox, typhus, and measles) and inflicted other harms that eventually decimated Amerindian populations, Spanish settlers, at first, imported slaves from Spain to occupy Hispaniola, the Spanish-named, 30,000-square-mile island of which Haiti is one territorial, mostly-mountainous third.
Then, starting at the dawn of the 16th century, Spaniards abducted hundreds of Africans and shipped them across the Atlantic, in brutally inhumane conditions, to work as slaves. A number of them were forced to toil away as miners in Hispaniola.
The Spanish referred to the above, second group of imported slaves as “negros bozales” (Spanish for “wild, untamed negroes”), given their African faiths and little, if any, familiarity with Iberian languages and cultures.
Another contextual clue that is crucial to understanding the making of early Haiti encompasses an understanding of the econo-cultural factors that gave rise to, as well as supported, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, through which Europeans had procured the African slaves that they later shipped to Haiti, and across the Americas.
Involving actors and locations in Western Europe, West and Central Africa, along with North and South America, this triangular trade system, which lasted from the 16th to the 19th centuries, facilitated an amalgam of transactions. At African ports, European traders swapped prized goods, such as guns, beads, and precious metals, for captive Africans who had been brought, partly by fellow Africans, to coastal locales, from deep within Africa’s inland.
As part of this intercontinental process, countless African captives lost their lives, with survivors facing confinement in fortified slave castles on their way to the New World.
Spanish colonists who had originally taken over Hispaniola’s eastern region eventually found themselves grappling with a conflux of obstacles on, and off, the island.
Back in Europe, Dutch subjects who had found themselves suffering under the yoke of the Habsburg King Philip II of Spain revolted. In dealing with the difficulties that arose, Spain could neither squash the rebellion nor prevent Dutch merchants from traveling to Hispaniola’s coasts to trade.
As a last resort, Spain decided to resettle its colonists and slaves, away from the island’s coasts.
While relocating to inland Hispaniola, many lives perished, leaving cattle abandoned and affording African slaves the opportunity to escape. More importantly, Spain’s relocation decision eventually led to significant French invasion of the island’s western territory.
Subsequently, having settled various parts of Hispaniola’s western third by the mid 1600’s, French colonists earned formal recognition from Spain of their control of the rough equivalent of present-day Haiti, via the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick.
Throughout the latter half of the 1700’s, bearing the name Saint-Domingue, Haiti would become the world’s richest colony, producing unsurpassed yields of sugar and coffee, prized cash crops of the day.
Eventually, in 1791, enslaved Afro-Haitians decided to revolt against French rule. They started what would become the Haitian Revolution with a celebration at the Bois Caïman (“Caiman Woods”) ceremony.
At its core, Bois Caïman symbolized revolt politically, as well as religiously. In marking a turning point during which Afro-Haitians pneumatologically, or spiritually, relied on Haiti’s vodou religion to incite rebellion, Bois Caïman resulted in a formalized rejection of Catholicism.
France had sought to impose Catholicism on all of the Afro-Haitian slaves that its colonists had imported to western Hispaniola, invoking, for instance, Article II of French King Louis XIV’s Code Noir (“Black Code”). This Article required that “All the slaves who will be in our Islands [to] be baptized and instructed in the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion.” In deviating from this mandate, and the Catholic Church’s hamartiology, or views on sin, Bois Caïman signified resistance, in putting into practice vodou’s African-derived liturgy, or form of worship.
On the world stage, Haitian independence proved significant for at least three reasons.
First, the Haitian Revolution inspired slave revolts in the U.S., throughout the Americas and beyond.
Second, and of relevance to American readers, Haitian independence also played a key role in motivating France’s 1803 sale of the near 900,000-square-mile Louisiana Territory to the U.S., almost doubling the size of America.
By implication, had the Haitian Revolution not taken place, the U.S. —now the world’s third-largest country —would be confined to its eastern seaboard, an area much smaller than its current 3.8 million square miles.
Third, achieving sovereignty allowed Haiti to majorly contribute to the international struggle against slavery.
More than a decade after independence, Haiti developed a “free soil” principle, enacted via Article 44 of its 1816 Constitution, allowing thousands of African-Americans, and other escapees from slavery as well as free Black persons in the Americas, to settle in Haiti.
Part Two of this series will analyze how foreign states’ financial, political, and discriminatory actions have sought to undermine Haitian sovereignty. Part Three will highlight Haiti’s cross-generational trauma before, briefly and conclusively, identifying some issues that must be resolved in leading Haiti toward meaningful change.