The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Slavers

In 1789, before the slave rebellion, the Marquis purchased 21 newly kidnapped Africans before leaving for France. But he did not indicate where he put them to work, so the commission valued them at an average rate, to the cent: 3,366.66 francs.

In the end, it gave Cocherel’s daughter, a newlywed marquise, average annual payments of 1,450 francs, or about $280 in the 1860s, over dozens of years, according to government publications on the commission’s decisions.

By contrast, coffee growers in Haiti earned about $76 a year in 1863, Edmond Paul, a Haitian economist and politician, wrote at the time, barely enough to cover one meal a day of “the least substantive foods.”

It was reminiscent, he said, of slavery.

The Haitian government immediately ran out of money. To finish his first payment, he emptied his state coffers, sending it all to France on a French ship, sealed in bags inside nailed boxes reinforced with iron bands. That left no money for utilities.

The French government threatened war to collect the rest.

“An army of 500,000 men is ready to fight,” the French chancellor wrote in 1831 to his consul in Haiti, “and behind this imposing force, a reserve of two million.”

In response, President Boyer passed a law requiring all Haitians to be prepared to defend the country. He built the leafy suburb of Pétionville, now the stronghold of the Haitian elite, up the hill from the port, out of gun range.

Even French diplomats acknowledged that his threats had led the Haitian government to invest money in its army, instead of sending it to France.

“Fear of France, which naturally wants to be paid, does not allow it to reduce its military status,” says an 1832 letter from a French diplomat.

Late in 1837, two French envoys arrived in Port-au-Prince with orders to negotiate a new treaty and get payments flowing again. The so-called independence debt was reduced to 90 million francs, and in 1838 another warship returned to France with Haiti’s second payment, once again swallowing much of Haiti’s income.

The military absorbed another large part, according to French abolitionist writer and politician Victor Schœlcher. After that, very little was left for hospitals, public works, and other aspects of public welfare. Education had been allocated just 15,816 gourdes, less than 1 percent of the budget.

From the beginning, French officials knew how disastrous the payments would be for Haiti. But they kept insisting on getting paid, and for decades, with a few exceptions, especially during periods of political turmoil, Haiti got the money.

The Times traced every payment Haiti made over the course of 64 years, from thousands of pages of archival records in France and Haiti, along with dozens of articles and books from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including that of the minister of Haitian finance Frédéric Marcelin. .

Credit…Cannaday Chapman

In some years, payments from Haiti to France absorbed more than 40 percent of total government revenue.

“They do not know which way to go,” a French captain wrote to the Baron de Mackau in 1826 after picking up a shipment of gold from Haiti.

“After trying internal loans, patriotic subscriptions, forced donations, sales of public property, they have finally settled on the worst of all options,” the captain wrote: 10 years of exorbitant taxes that were “so disproportionate to the attainable resources of the country, that when each one sells everything he owns, and then sells himself, not even half of the sums demanded will be collected.

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