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Haiti's slavery, voodoo uprising and heavy price paid for freedom

A protester holding a sign demanding the departure of de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry in front of the Canadian Embassy, March 7, 2024. [Courtesy, AyiboPost]

The island of Haiti is located in the Caribbean, where it occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic taking the remaining two-thirds on the eastern side.  

When Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola on December 6, 1492, he found a kingdom ruled by a Taino Indian chief.  

It is documented in history books that the Taíno, were subgroup of the Arawakan Indians from northeastern South America, and they inhabited the Greater Antilles that now form Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. 

Early Spanish sailors like Gonzolo Oviedo who sailed to the Islands in 1514 on the first of his many journeys to America compiled detailed descriptions and illustrations of products and goods he found in the New World occupied by the Taino.  

It is said the Spaniard took back to Europe an enormous variety of previously unheard of way of life including eating the pineapple, riding the canoe, smoking tobacco, the existence of manatee mammals and the use of hammock beds.  

After their arrival in the seventeenth century, the French named the country Saint-Domingue and continued with European exploration and exploitation in the Western Hemisphere leading to the near extermination of indigenous Indian population.  

International commerce

As a result, Africans from West Africa were shipped into the Islands for slave labour to produce raw goods for international commerce and that is why Haiti was considered France’s most important colony. 

Shortly before the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue produced roughly 40 per cent of the sugar and 60 per cent of the coffee imported to Europe. 

Celebrated Haitian writer and poet Jean Bertrand Brierre wrote that the colonial economy of Saint-Domingue was based almost entirely on the production of plantation crops for export.  

“Enslaved African workers grew sugar in the northern plains around Cap Français and coffee in the mountainous interior. The slave system in Saint-Domingue was regarded as one of the harshest in the Americas,” wrote Brierre. 

The violence on the slaves resulted in high levels of both mortality and violence in the plantation system. The French farm owners had brought in almost 800,000 Africans to the colony. 

It is out of such harsh treatment that the black population led a revolution against their masters leading to Haiti becoming the only nation to have emerged as the result of a successful slave rebellion.  

Protracted revolution

The uprising began from 1791 until 1804, when the enslaved people and their allies in Saint-Domingue sustained a protracted revolution to win their independence from France.  

It was the most successful rebellion that took 13 years to win, starting from a simple voodoo ceremony that was held by the Africans at the Cayman plantation in 1791. 

Within a few weeks, the insurrection grew to include more than one hundred thousand participants who destroyed hundreds of plantations.  

In 1792, the French Assembly sent troops to quell the rebellion and succeeded in regaining control of most of the island the leadership became increasingly divided with other whites in the colony also expressing discontent. 

On February 4, 1794, after a lengthy discussion the National Convention in France, the country took a decisive step and became the first European colony to officially outlaw slavery in all its colonies.  

The independence of Haiti, however, came at a cost because it was forced to pay reparations to France, which demanded compensation for former slave owners.  

The 19th Century independence debt was, however, not paid until 1947 but Haiti has continued to protest against that debt, demanding that France repays the money. 

One of the most important outcomes of the revolution in Haiti “the pearl of the Antilles” was that it forced Napoleon Bonaparte to sell Louisiana in 1803, resulting in a major territorial expansion of the United States.   

It was after the Haitians won their independence in 1804 that they changed their colonial name from Saint Domingue to its Taino name of Haiti or Ayiti in Creole.  

The island sits on an area of about 17,242.564kms square with its major cities in Cap-Haïtien, Jérémie, Les Cayes, Hinche, Gonaïves, san Domingo, Citi Soleil, Delmas, Petionvillle and Jacmel.  It has two official languages, Haitian Creole and French. 

Resilience amid adversities 

Before the earthquake of January 12, 2010, that killed an estimated 300,000 people, injured over 200,000, and left more than 1.5 million homeless, it was estimated that about three million people lived in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.  

Despite slavery, multiple coups, various occupations and militarisation, Haiti has resiliently fought hard to remain a strong country.  

An article in the University of Kentuky archives says the ties that bind Haiti and the US go back to the time when the US was fighting for its independence.  

It says a group of more than 500 Haitians, known as Les Chasseurs Volontaires de Savannah, fought in the 1779 Battle of Savannah and a monument was in October 2009 erected in downtown Savana to commemorate those who fought in that battle. 

As the first black independent country with a story of a successful slave revolt, Haiti was a ray of hope for African-Americans in the United States during the nineteenth century.  

It is also documented that like France, the US did not recognise Haiti’s independence until 1862 because white Americans were worried that Haiti’s existence could challenge their slave-driven economy.  

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