1820 -- 1843: The rule of Jean-Pierre Boyer

Bob Corbett
July, 1995

Quick overview of thesis and point:  Earlier in my treatment of the rule of Alexander Petion from 1807 until 1818, and now in continuation of the spirit of that period with the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer, I want to present a picture that says that these years were among the most important in establishing the social, political and economic structure of the Haitian State. Further, after trying to make this point now with Boyer (already having done so with Petion) I will argue against a common popular view in the U.S. today, that the international community has almost single handedly determined the Haitian reality. I will give the reasons why I believe that this 1807-1843 period is at least as important as any other phenomenon in Haitian history, if not the singly most important set of events, in shaping contemporary Haitian history.

A preamble to this section which has less to do with this period that a sketch of the background for why I think the views presented, were they accurate, would have an important place in understanding the present.

Ah, I seem to have a penchant for putting my head on the chopping block. But the above overview represents how I see the history and development of Haiti, and whether it coincides with the political needs of the moment I don't know. Nor do I really care. I may well be wrong about the historical analysis, and I welcome discussion of that. I am quite aware that one cannot write an idealized value-neutral historical analysis. But, I do work hard at abstracting from the present in trying to understand the past. History, which is not my field of specialization, has always been a tremendous love of mine. I have gone to history to try to understand the present and because it is simply interesting and fascinating in its own right. But I try very hard not to go to history to justify my desires for the present.

I don't mean to suggest that the past does not influence my views of how to understand the present and even what is best for the future. More than most people I've ever met, I am convinced that to understand the present one must see it in it's genesis. But what I am saying is that I don't believe in shaping my view of the past to justify current political needs and desires, no matter how noble those needs and desires may seem to me.

Why do I take time out to say these things? I worry that in some contemporary historical analyses of Haiti there is a tendency, as I see it, to read Haitian history in a way that is particularly scaled to serve current political views of what is good and not good for Haiti, even if those historical views don't quite fit the facts and events of that history.

I know that some of you were upset and unhappy with my review of Paul Farmer's book since I charged him with that sort of history. Perhaps I was too harsh on Farmer and took out on him, concerns that were wider than Farmer himself. If I did this, and I may well have, I apologize to him and his book. But, in general this tendency of using a carefully selected past to support particular ideas of the present, where it seems to me the analysis of the present precedes the analysis of the past and shapes the latter to the purposes of the present, is a major factor in how many people analyze Haitian history.

On to the history of this period.

Perhaps the primary concern during the rule of Boyer was security. Perhaps his greatest failure was security. He manifested his concern for security in three notable ways.

  1. After the death of Henry Christophe, Boyer was quite worried about the rebellions military leaders in the north. He moved quickly and forcefully against them and neutralized them, either killing them or bringing them into his sphere of interest. He got his security there.
  2. On November 30, 1821 Santo Domingo declared its independence from Spain and became "Spanish Haiti." This relieved a weak threat to Boyer, since he was concerned about Spain's presence just over his border. However, this was an opportune time to be certain that Spain would not come back, and a way to keep some of Christophe's officers busy. Boyer led an invasion of Spanish Haiti, quickly conquering it and thus holding the entire island in the name of Haiti.
  3. This left the biggest nut for Boyer to crack in his search for security -- France. Boyer and all of Haiti lived on the edge, dreading and fearing the return of the French, their colonial rule and slavery. Boyer wanted to get the French threat off Haiti's back forever and to formally join the company of nations of the world. He sued for recognition from France. After many years of on and off again negotiations, Boyer finally agreed to an outrageous French proposal. Haiti would pay: 150 million francs within 5 years. Actually by the time it came down to this point in the negotiations Haiti had little choice. This "offer" was given with 14 French warships in Port-au-Prince harbor, supported by nearly 500 guns. It was clear to Boyer that were he not to concede to this "indemnity" that France would immediately re-open hostilities. There was no realistic way for him to defend against this force. He signed on July 11, 1825 and France recognized the existence of Haiti.

It is hard to describe the level to which this debt crippled Haiti. After a few years when Haiti couldn't pay, the debt was renegotiated down to 60 million francs without interest, but even this debt strapped Haiti far beyond her means.

Between this debt and the Petion/Boyer land distribution system and the resulting subsistence agriculture, Haiti's future was relatively fixed into a pattern of simple and primitive life.

Boyer seemed to have finally gotten the security that he wanted. But, in actuality, he had gravely undermined it. Instead of finally vanquishing his last source of insecurity, France, he had unleashed a new and much more dangerous one -- his own people.

Outraged at paying an indemnity to the former slave masters, and unwilling to be taxed, the masses turned on Boyer and his mulatto government. Responding to the pressures to repay the debt, on May 1, 1826, Boyer tried to generate income and returned to the basic plan of fermage which Toussaint, Dessalines and Christophe had used earlier. Boyer had a new Rural Code passed which bound cultivators to their land and placed production quotas on them.

This was an impossible plan.

The only real impact of the Rural Code was a very negative one, the recognition of Petion's fait accompli. By giving the army the role of overseeing the new code and exempting the towns from it, Boyer gave implicit recognition of the two Haitis.

The basic class and color division of Haiti's different worlds was solidly in place. The very social and economic structures that Boyer tried to change by means of the Rural Code, he solidly reinforced.

Boyer's days were numbered. The formal revolt began on Jan. 27, 1843 under the leadership of Charles Riviere-Herard, a black leader from the south. The revolt, however, was wide spread and didn't only represent black discontent with the state of things, but included young rising mulattos who wanted into areas of power and wanted changes in the structure of the country.

The revolt was quick and successful and on Feb. 13, 1843 Boyer fled first to Jamaica and later settled in France.

The end of the first phase of Haiti history came with the fleeing of Jean-Pierre Boyer. However, the basic social, economic and social structures of Haiti were fixed, and remain basically the same today as they were then.

Haiti's first 39 years produced a country that relied on subsistence farming on small plots of land by the rural masses, controlled by an almost wholly black army. A small urban elite, almost totally mulatto, controlled what economy there was and the government. The economy was adequate to supply that small elite with lifestyles of considerable wealth and ease.

Haiti today is in great struggle. There is a vehement call for fundamental changes in the basic structures of government, privilege, economy and social values. What is it that the increasingly vocal and powerful mass wants hanged? It is basically the social system that the 1807-1843 rule of Alexander Petion and Jean-Pierre Boyer nurtured into existence.

Many historians have pointed out that the international community has played a crucial role in the shaping of Haiti's present. This is certainly true. It is difficult to calculate the impact of the fact that from 1804 until 1826 no foreign nation recognized Haiti's existence and that it was until the 1860s until Haiti came more fully into the world of nations. How many investors were discouraged by this situation, and how many were discouraged by the internal lack of security in Haiti? How many trading partners turned away from Haiti who might have stirred a desire for production? My own view is that there were plenty of markets for Haiti's goods, but that the decisions of Petion and Boyer encouraged and acquiesced in a form of life which produced few goods for export.

The French debt was a major factor in the inability of Haiti to dig out from under this economic weight and to recover anything like a normal economy. However, the basic form of life as subsistence farming was already well entrenched before the impact of the French debt was felt. The primary negative impact of that debt came after the time of Boyer, or at least very late in his regime, after the form of the economy and social system was fixed.

Lastly I want to return to the question: Isn't this system what the Haitian people really wanted? And if so, shouldn't they have had what they wanted, regardless of the consequences for later generations? I don't know the answer to either question with any firm assurance, but I strongly suspect an answer of yes to both questions. I've argued this case earlier.

Does democracy mean that people should be free to have what they want out of life, whether or not it meets certain criteria of utility, or certain values of material progress? Should people be free to choose to not progress, or to have a different concept of progress than material progress? When is peace and tranquility more important that keeping one's nose to the grindstone? Is a lack of desire to work hard for material progress a sign of ignorance or backwardness? I don't think so. It just seems to me a different set of values, conditioned not by some ideal choosing in a vacuum, but a group of people looking around at the actual conditions facing them in 1804 and choosing that course of action that looked best to them.

For me the issue is not: Did they choose rightly. The issue is: Did they make their own choice. I think they did, not from a position of power and strength, but they chose what they thought was best for them given the situation they had inherited.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu