Bob Corbett 6/4/95

There are certain questions is certain groups that are simply impolite to ask. Sometimes it is even worse than that, the questions are totally unacceptable and will bring a vehement and often nasty attack on the questioner. I don't even like to give clear examples of it, but one can imagine those questions in areas of race, gender or sexual preferences. Trivial and less controversial (but therefore less illustrative) examples might be something like asking a Catholic if, perhaps, Martin Luther wasn't right after all, or wondering if, perhaps, Adolf Hitler didn't have some good ideas for the German state.

Well, alas and alack, I have several of those sorts of heretical questions about many standard beliefs about Haitian history. But, first a word about how I view historical scholarship and thinking. I have this image of people gather data about a particular time period -- the events, the people involved, the writings, the analyses of scholars and popular writers after the events. Then, someone puts this all together into some coherent view. This is the historical story of the events, A. Someone else will do it differently and we get history B, then C and so on. Then scholars come to argue less about the history of the period than about the views A, B and C.

Out of this sort of reflection, often a few views of the situation tend to become "THE" history and the disagreements recede into the background, seen as things that concern scholars and technicians, requiring a great deal of knowledge to participate in such discussions and not a matter for the average person.

Well, I guess in relation to Haitian history I'm sort of in a middle ground. I think I know most of the standard lines of Haitian history -- the A, B and C of it, so to speak -- but also know just enough of the primary sources, the events, the documents etc., to have difficulty accepting any one of the standard views as the right one. Yet I am not knowledgeable enough to do much at the ground floor of research to solve the questions in a decided manner. I think my questions are better than my answers.

There is, amidst the various views of Haitian history, enough common agreement among all the views, that one can sort of paint a rather bland Haitian history which steers clear of the controversial overarching "views" of Haitian history and presents the flow of details -- this happened, then this, next that and so on. But one does not have an overarching view of a coherent "picture" a general stand on Haitian history.

Such a view is useful and the ground of a later richer understanding. But I think history is so much more. It is getting into the story of some past events in such a way as to understand not merely the "events," but the meanings and significance, the place of it all in the story of...... the story of whatever -- the place of World War I in world or western history; the role of the crusades in Medieval history and so on.

As I see Haitian history there are several standard views which have been used to frame Haitian history, and all of them seem to me to oversimplify Haitian history and to be views that suggest the history of Haiti is being "used" for some anterior purpose. These various popular views of Haitian history seem inadequate to me in part, and I want to raise questions with them. Two of the views I will put forward are quite well criticized and held by few today. Thus my objections to them are in no way "heretical," or impolite, or wicked. But, my suspicions and doubts about the third view -- the most popular view among modern "friends" of Haiti, among "progressive" people, will be seen by many as down right heretical, perhaps even pernicious. But, my suspicions are what they are, and I will try to indicate some of them.

First, two older views of Haitian history which seem to me to be grossly inadequate and known to be so by virtually all observers today -- thus, I think, no heresies in this section.

  1. Haitian history as the story of inept savages destroying a country.

    On this view, Saint-Domingue was a profitable and well managed colony of France. Yes, it is allowed, it was a slave society and one with some grave excessives of cruel human treatment, but, nonetheless, it was an orderly, function and economically successful society run, in the main, by white Frenchmen. Then illiterate and savage blacks revolted, defeated the French and proved themselves totally incapable of ruling. From 1804 to 1915 the country deteriorated economically, socially, politically and morally into decay and anarchy.........

    Enough. You get the picture of this view. I think virtually no one holds this view today. It is recognized that the situation was much more complicated and that there was an enormous role played by the international community in the difficulties that Haiti experienced in the 19th century, most especially from three sources:

  2. The second view is closely related to the first, but much more specific and race centered. It claims that Haiti is the story of an inferior race -- black Africans -- trying unsuccessfully to do something there are not, by nature, capable of doing -- run a modern nation.

    This was a common view until relatively recent times, certainly well into the middle of the 20th century, but, I think, not held serious by any today, or if so, they don't write openly about it.

    There are two other common views which have many supporters today, but about which I am most suspicious. In regard to these two views I may well be asking heretical questions. But, as I read Haitian history the questions are not decided for me, and I ask them in good faith, whether they serve proper interests of people's political wishes or not.

  3. Is Haiti the story of a nation "written in blood." Certainly most readers of English know of the famous history of Haiti written by Robert and Nancy Heinl in the early 1970s and carrying the title WRITTEN IN BLOOD. Fewer people are aware that the phrase appears much earlier in the 1931 book by Edna Taft A PURITAN IN VOODOO LAND. (See p. 180). Nonetheless, the sentiment is widespread and dominates many views of Haitian history. On this view, it is a country who's history is dominated by bloodiness.

    This is a view that I have a hard time seeing if we do any sort of comparative analysis with almost any other nation on earth. Certainly the most bloody war of Haiti's history was her war of independence (1791 - 1803). Yet the best estimates I've seen of this war is that the Haitians lost 80,000 people. In the 19th century there is an enormous amount of cruelty, meanness, oppression, squalor, declining living standards, unsanitariness, human violation of other humans, lack of human rights and on and on and on, but not, as best I can tell, a significant degree of bloodiness -- at least not by international standards.

    During the American Occupation the U.S. marines fought a nasty mine-war with Haitian rebels to their occupation. Most accounts suggest that there were about 2500 Haitians killed in this major struggle against a foreign oppressor. The most generous account I've seen, that of Paul Farmer, suggests perhaps as many as 3500 Haitians killed. My goodness, compare that with European wars of the 19th century or Asians wars or any place of major international trouble -- it is many things -- cruel, oppressive, violations of rights and on and on and on, but not particularly bloody.

    Since the horrible and destructive coup d'etat of 1991 the news of the world has carried the disgusting killings and violations of Haitians, the most liberal serious accounts suggesting around 5,000 people killed, most in terrible fashions. Compare this with over a million and a half in Rwanda, or with Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya or other bloodletting in Central America of the past 15 -20 years in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala -- Haiti is simply NOT the land of BLOOD!

    It is many things in the area of oppression, and these things should be named, described and understood. But to put forward the central image of Haiti as a nation "Written In Blood," seems to me to totally mis-describe the reality of Haiti.

  4. Which brings me to my last difficulty, and the one most likely to be a heretical question. The common view of Americans who are friendly toward the progressive movement in Haiti (as I like to view myself), is that Haiti is a country in which Haitians have had virtually no role in shaping their national destiny (a view I do not share with the common view.) I think of this view of Haiti history of the view of HAITIAN HISTORY WITHOUT ANY HAITIANS. Or, put differently, a history of Haiti where Haitians are almost entirely passive victims of international forces writing their history.

I can see that this view is a counter-foil to the views # 1 and # 2 above, where Haitian history is seen as a story of Haitian evil and incompetence without any contribution from the international community. But it seems to me that an equally false view is that Haitian history is the story of the international community, especially the U.S. since Haitian independence, using Haiti without any significant input into her own history of Haitians. Perhaps the most popular such view that is current today is Paul Farmer's THE USES OF HAITI.

As I see Haitian history it is a very complex mix of Haitian causal activities, especially the division of the country into two dominant classes, a tiny class of powerful elite and a huge class of the masses, and the influences of the international community, especially the U.S. (at least since Haitian Independence). But, to over emphasize either of those two main categories of influence is to oversimplify Haitian history and to yield a misleading picture of the whole.

Further, these two major causal shaping forces are not the only ones. Other important factors enter in which are not solely shaped by the other two -- such things as overpopulation, lack of education, ecological and natural disasters, the influence of particular persons and the power of their personality and many other factors. To not give these other factors their proper due is again to oversimplify Haitian history and to give an unfair picture.

What I worry about is that history, when in the service of a particular political ideology (which I think is the case with the sorts of history described in numbers 1,2,3,4 above, distort Haitian history for particular political purposes. I am not claiming that there is some pure value free method of history. But, I do think one can attempt to describe a historical understanding, even framing it inside a larger explanatory system, that is as fair as it can be to the actual experiences of the events in question.

This is the sort of historical ideal that my heretical questions address.

Some particular questions:

  1. It is often said that the U.S. "led" the embargo on Haiti in the period just after her independence in 1804. However, P and Wilson claim that France and Spain "urged" the U.S. to participate in such an embargo. Further, Paul Farmer, for one, says that the U.S., while maintaining the embargo at some level, traded significantly with Haiti nonetheless.

    Thus, how is one to accurately describe the US's role in holding Haitian trade down during the period under question.

    Perhaps more to the point, to what extend did the fact of Haitian production levels and the methods of using land contribute to this decline in international trade?

  2. The Cacos are celebrated primarily as resisters who were not bandits, but freedom fighters.

    Yet, today, the resisters of the current U.S and UN occupation are denounced as evil Macoutes.

    What are the similarities and differences between the Cacos and Macoutes which justify this curious different analysis.

  3. Just how justified is the claim that Haiti's history is such a bloody history -- especially comparing it with the bloodiness of other histories which are not described that way.
  4. It is often said that one of the primary reasons for the success and even the occurrence of the Haitian revolution is the disproportionate ratio of slaves to free (approx. 10 - 1 in 1791). Yet higher ratios of difference were experienced in other Caribbean areas and they didn't have such a revolution. How are we to understand this seeming discrepancy?


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