Six Facts about Haiti’s “New Beginnings”

As we head into 2022, January signifies a fresh start, a new beginning. And Haiti is no strangers to “new beginnings”. Let’s go back in time to the very beginning of Haiti, the various periods the nation went through, and its involvement in the “new beginnings” for other nations.

 

  • Before Christopher Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola in 1492, the island’s principal inhabitants were the Taíno, a subgroup of the Arawak people. Ayiti (“land of high mountains”) was the indigenous Taíno name for the mountainous side of the island of Hispaniola, which has retained its name as Haïti in French.1 Columbus was welcomed by a Taíno chieftain named Guacanagaric who was later described as a leader of a group of people who “are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil”.1,2 These people were easily conquered by the Spaniards, and under their cruel colonization conditions and the arrival of New World diseases, the Taíno were declared extinct shortly after 1565. This is demonstrated by a census showing just 200 Indians living on Hispaniola.2 Recent DNA studies have shown that most of the descendants of the survivors have intermarried with other ethnic groups and are now residing in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.2

 

  • While speaking of the leaders of the most successful slave revolt in history, names like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and Alexander Sabès Pétion often comes to mind.4 However, another lesser-known name, Boukman Dutty, also played an indispensable role at the beginning of the chapter on insurrection for the Haitian people.5 Originally born in Senegambia, Boukman is credited to have been both a leader of the maroons and a Vodou houngan (priest). On August 14, 1791, Boukman presided over a ceremony at the Bois Caïman in the role of houngan together with priestess Cécile Fatiman.5 This was the event described by Gothenburg University researcher Markel Thylefors, as “the event that … forms an important part of Haitian national identity as it relates to the very genesis of Haiti”.5 A week later, 1800 plantations were destroyed, and 1000 slaveholders were killed. In an attempt to discourage other slaves from daring to revolt against them and to dispel the aura of invisibility emboldened in the slaves by Boukman, the French severed and publicly displayed his head.5

 

  • As the man that laid the groundwork for the eventual liberation of Haiti, Toussaint was also an instrumental figure in the liberation of Haiti’s neighboring country, Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) from its former colonial ruler, Spain. 6 In 1793, Spain and England (both enemies of the French) decided to invade Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and Toussaint was instrumental in this decision by befriending both empires.4 However, as France granted freedom and citizenship to all blacks in the Empire in 1794, Toussaint reversed his allegiance with Spain and joined forces with the French against Spain.6 He was able to capture Santa Domingo and forced the Spanish to cede its former colony to France in 1795. Eventually, he declared himself as the Governor-General for Life of the entire island of Hispaniola.6 In 1822, Santa Domingo entered into formal union with Haiti under Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer for 22 years before it declared its own independence as the Dominican Republic.7

 

  • Did you know that soldiers from Saint-Domingue fought for U.S. Independence? The Battle of Savannah, Georgia, which occurred between September 16 and October 18, 1779, was one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolutionary War.8 At the time, France had agreed to ally with the American Revolutionary forces to fight off the British’s attempt to regain the port of Savannah.4 800 troops from Saint-Domingue, known as Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, were part of the 3500 French soldiers led by First Lieutenant Count d’Estaing.8 On October 8, 2007, a memorial statue was unveiled in Savannah dedicated to the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue during the Battle of Savannah. The memorial pays tribute to the significant role these soldiers played during the Revolutionary War and recognizes the support they gave to the founding of the United States.8

 

  • Other than Haiti’s involvement in the independence of the United States, Haiti also “profoundly influenced one of the greatest diplomatic and political decisions in United States history, the Louisiana Purchase” as described by John E. Baur, a history professor from the University of California State University.9 As Napoleon attempted to develop a New World empire in the Americas through the restoration of French military and economic power, he had planned to send troops to Louisiana to take over the colony.10 He had received the colony from the Spanish through a secret treaty in 1800 in the hopes of using the territory as a trading venue for the commodities produced in Haiti.10 As President Thomas Jefferson and his cabinet members began their negotiation with France in 1802 to purchase New Orleans due to the fear of having France as their neighbor, France was being defeated by Haitians and yellow fever until 1803.9 This led to France offering the entire territory of Louisiana for sale and thereby allowing the United States to double in size. This purchase increased the probability of the USA’s eventual great-power status.9

 

  • Another “new beginning” that was made possible by Haitian assistance was the liberation of northern South America, led by Simón Bolívar (hailed as the Liberator). He was a South American soldier who was instrumental in the continent’s revolutions against the Spanish empire.11 In 1815-1816, during a dark period in his struggle for the independence of northern South America (what is now Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador), the Liberator received from Alexandre Sabes Pétion, President of Southern Haiti, a considerable aid.9 In addition to the place of refuge after Bolívar’s first defeat by Spain, ammunition, weapons, and manpower were given by Pétion to help with his cause in South America.4 In February of 1816, a letter was written by Simón Bolívar to Pétion to request permission for the title Liberator.4 A statue of Pétion was erected in Caracas, Venezuela as a tribute to the contributions from the Haitian President.4

 

References

  1. Taíno: Indigenous Caribbeans. (2016). Black History Month. Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/pre-colonial-history/taino-indigenous-caribbeans/
  2. Meet the survivors of a ‘paper genocide’. (2019). National Geographic. Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/meet-survivors-taino-tribe-paper-genocide?loggedin=true
  3. Haiti profile – Timeline. (2019). BBC News. Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-19548814
  4. Haiti History 101: The Definitive Guide to Haitian History. (2017). Kreyolicious. Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B076MFP94P&language=en-US
  5. The head of this prominent Maroon leader was severed by the French in 1791 for leading the Haitian revolution. (2019). Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://face2faceafrica.com/article/the-head-of-this-prominent-maroon-leader-was-severed-by-the-french-in-1791-for-leading-the-haitian-revolution
  6. Toussaint L’Ouverture Biography. (2014). A&E Television Networks. Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://www.biography.com/political-figure/toussaint-louverture
  7. Dominican Republic declares Independence. (2019). A&E Television Networks. Retrieved on January 6, 2022: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/dominican-republic-declares-independence
  8. Haitian soldiers at the Battle of Savannah (1779). (2018). Blackpast.org. Retrieved on January 7, 2022: https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/haitian-soldiers-battle-savannah-1779/
  9. International Repercussions of the Haitian Revolution. (1970). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on January 7, 2022: https://doi.org/10.2307/980183
  10. The Louisiana Purchase Was Driven by a Slave Rebellion. (2018). A&E Television Networks. Retrieved on January 7, 2022: https://www.history.com/news/louisiana-purchase-price-french-colonial-slave-rebellion?li_source=LI&li_medium=m2m-rcw-history
  11. Simón Bolívar Biography. (2014). A&E Television Networks. Retrieved on January 7 2022: https://www.biography.com/political-figure/simon-bolivar

 

Written by Jennifer ShuPing Chen

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