Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Over the course of the past decade, Canada's leading officials and most prestigious commentators have learned how to approach Haiti in the spirit of cynical power politics and racist condescension (or worse) while maintaining a posture of national self-flattery. With attention again riveted on Haiti following the horrific tragedy inflicted by Tuesday's earthquake, this ugly mixture is once again on display. The need for emergency aid is, without question, urgent. But established patterns of "help" for Haiti need to be overcome if the destructive impact of this catastrophe is to be somehow limited.

From the article: Relief Efforts in the Shadow of Past "Help": Moving from crimes-as-charity to actual support for Haiti by Dan Freeman-Maloy

For the past 10 days since January 12th we have been inundated with heartbreaking images of a devastated Haiti, the result of a massive earthquake. The lurid headlines and many skewed articles about Haiti and Haitians in the white newspapers are not surprising given the history of Haiti. The Globe and Mail in its January 13th editorial described Haiti as the "basket case of the Western hemisphere." Haiti was once known to the international white community as the “pearl of the Antilles” when the labour of enslaved Africans provided untold wealth for France and the French. Since the Africans in Haiti successfully seized their freedom and declared their home a free Republic (January 1, 1804) the international white community has never forgiven them. It has been more than 200 years since the Africans in Haiti overthrew the sadistic French plantation owners and slave holders and defeated the French army.

Haiti’s history as recorded by the Europeans who invaded, settled and colonized the island began on December 24, 1492 when Christopher Columbus having lost his way attempting to reach India, stumbled upon the island Ayiti, home of the Taino. Although he found people on the island, Columbus claimed the island for Spain, renaming it La Isla EspaƱola (Hispaniola.) Many scientists believe that the Taino were living on the island since around 5000 BCE. There were five caciquats (kingdoms) on the island; Magua, Marien, Xaragua, Maguana and Higuey governed by a cacique and a council of elders called the Nytaino. It is estimated that when Columbus landed on Ayiti the Taino population was close to a million. Within 50 years of the arrival of Columbus and his cut-throat crew the Taino population was almost extinct. Apart from infecting the native population of the island with European diseases including smallpox and tuberculosis to which they had no immunity, the bloodthirsty and covetous Spaniards, slaughtered, enslaved and worked the Taino people to death in their quest for gold.

There was Taino resistance including the Battle of Santo Cerro in 1495 and the resistance of the famous Taino warrior Anacaona, queen of Xaragua who was murdered by the Spanish in 1503. In A Voyage long and strange: rediscovering the new world published in 2008, Tony Horwitz writes: “In 1503, Anacaona called together eighty of her principal subjects to entertain Hispaniola’s Spanish governor. After three days of dancing, feasting and games he ordered his men to surround a building where the Taino leaders had gathered. The governor had heard rumours of an impending revolt, and was determined to crush Taino resistance once and for all. The Spanish set fire to the place burning alive everyone inside. Queen Anacaona was hanged.”

After decimating the indigenous population the Spanish resorted to enslaving and transporting Africans to provide free labour in their mines and on their plantations. Beginning in 1501 the Spanish brought Africans to provide free labour on Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti.) The Africans were taken from the great African empires of West and Central Africa including Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, Ghana, Angola, Benin and Kongo. Many of these Africans were skilled trades people and farmers and their knowledge and labour were exploited to enrich the Spanish and later the French who began to settle on the island in the early 1600s and gained control of the western part of the island in 1697 with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick. The French named their part of the island Saint-Domingue; where the enslaved Africans grew sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo and cocoa on 8,500 plantations. By 1789 approximately 4,100 ships were registered leaving and entering the ports of the French colony carrying the fruits of the labour of the enslaved Africans to Normandy, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Dieppe and Orleans in France. Two-thirds of the French colonial wealth, estimated at 400 million francs in the late 1780s, came from the free labour provided by enslaved Africans on Saint-Domingue (Haiti.)

Ironically, today Haiti is considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere and we need to know the history of why that has happened. In his 1973 published book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney includes a quote from a presentation made in 1791 by Cardinal Maury, a member of the French National Assembly:

If you were to lose each year more than 200 million livres that you now get from your colonies; if you had not the exclusive trade with your colonies lo feed your manufactures, lo maintain your navy, lo keep your agriculture going, lo repay for your imports, lo provide for your luxury needs, lo advantageously balance your trade with Europe and Asia, then I say it clearly, the kingdom would be irretrievably lost.’

Bishop Maury (of France): Argument against France’s ending the slave trade and giving freedom to its slave colonies. Presented in the French National Assembly, 1791.

With the devastation of the capital of Haiti by an earthquake and the subsequent media feeding frenzy which morbidly concentrates on the poverty of the Africans living in Haiti, they have lost sight of the role that Europe and Europeans including those living in the USA and Canada have played in the state of Haiti today.

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