“The navigation of the Mississippi will be ours unmolested…To the deadly climate of [Haiti] and obstinate resistance made by its black inhabitants are we indebted for the obstacles which delayed the colonization of Louisiana…the real truth is,…the United States, by the unforeseen operations of events, gained what the feebleness…of its miserable system of measures could never have acquired…” – Alexander Hamilton, July 5, 1803
“The design of reducing [Haiti] by force was a great error. I ought to have been satisfied with governing it through the medium of Toussaint…With an army of from 25,000 to 30,000 blacks, what might I not undertake against Jamaica,… Canada, the United States themselves,… With such important political interests, could the difference of a few millions more or less of revenue to France be placed in competition?” – Napoleon Bonaparte
It has taken a natural disaster and a compassionate President of the United States to recognize a common humanity between Americans and Haitians that should have been self-evident over two hundred years ago, when they, like we, successfully defended their freedom against the British Empire.
In 1795, according to British Army records, 50,000 soldiers were lost in an unsuccessful attempt to detach Haiti from the French. But it wasn’t just malaria that did the job.
The British were opposed by a well-organized force of Haitians, former slaves mobilized and led by the remarkable Toussaint L’Ouverture, and sustained by human earthquakes known as the American and French Revolutions.
In 1794, the chief legislative body of France, the Convention, had abolished slavery and instituted full human rights for adult black males in France and its Empire — mainly because of the successful slave rebellion in its richest sugar colony, Haiti.
The Convention didn’t stop there. It also gave full citizenship to adult black males, an accomplishment not matched with any finality in the United States until 1964.
In so doing the French announced that they were ending “aristocracy of the skin,” a term that begs for greater usage in the U.S.
The performance of the Haitians against the British was so impressive, that Congress, under the John Adams administration, voted to lift an economic embargo against Haiti and engage in de facto diplomatic recognition of fellow revolutionaries.
Haitians repeated their fight for freedom by destroying a Napoleonic Army of 30,000 in 1802, thereby depriving the French Emperor of his only deep water port between France and New Orleans. This geopolitical nightmare, rather than his need for money, is what really motivated Napoleon in his sale of Louisiana to the United States in 1803.
Since it was also self-evident at the time that Haitians were black, the slave-owning President, Thomas Jefferson, in 1801, immediately reversed pro-Haitian policies of the Adams administration and began a century long economic boycott of that nation, as much its undoing as its own domestic foibles.
Instead of being a nation, whose freedom was earned at arms like the Thirteen Colonies of the United States, Haiti was exploited like many another “banana republic” in Central America and the Caribbean down to the present time.
North Dakotans, like all other Americans who have celebrated the exploits of Lewis and Clark in the last decade, should be aware that they owe an historical debt to Haitians that has scarcely been acknowledged by professional historians for reasons that I still find difficult to understand.
If we in North Dakota consider ourselves to “be our brother’s keeper,” we should at least understand, in addition to President Obama’s appeal to recognize a “common humanity” in our own hemisphere, that Haitians have been our brothers and sisters in the fight for freedom for over 200 years.