Greg Dunkel, Haitian History: What U.S. textbooks don’t tell

Greg Dunkel, Haitian History: What U.S. textbooks don’t tell


By Greg Dunkel, Haiti Progres, This Week in Haiti, Vol.21 no.27, 17–23 September 2003

Publisher’s note: This document combines the two parts of the original publication. The second part appeared in Haiti Progres, Vol.21 no.26, 24 September 2003.

Looking at how Haiti’s history is presented in high-school textbooks in the United States gives an insight into why many North Americans know so little about Haiti and how this limited knowledge has been distorted, muffled, and hidden behind a veil of silence.

The successful revolution in Haiti against the French slave owners is a singular event in world history. It is the only time that slaves managed to rise up, smash their oppressors, and set up a new state and social order that reflected some of their hopes and aspirations.

In 1790, Saint Domingue was a French colony where 10,000 people made fabulous profits from owning almost all the land and from brutally oppressing 500,000 slaves, entirely African or of African descent, with some 40,000 people in intermediate positions. Fifteen years later, in 1805, the slave-owning colony was gone, replaced by the Republic of Haiti, whose citizens were mostly subsistence farmers who had their own weapons.

It was the first successful national liberation struggle in modern times. When Haiti declared its independence in 1804, it was the only state in the world to have a leader of African descent. In fact, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the governor-in-general in 1804, was an ex-slave who had survived a cruel master.

One widely used U.S. high school textbook, World History: Perspective on the Past, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., presents this struggle in just a few sentences: Toussaint drove the French forces from the island. Then, in 1802, he attended a peace meeting where he was treacherously taken prisoner. He was then sent to France, where he died in prison. However, the French could not retake the island. (p 536) About 30 pages later, when the subject of the Louisiana Purchase comes up, a little more is said about Haiti: Toussaint’s fighters and yellow fever all but wiped out a French army of 10,000 soldiers. Discouraged, Napoleon gave up the idea of an American empire and decided to sell the Louisiana Territory. (p 562). (Actually, the 10,000 soldier figure is an error according to C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, p 355).

Another common high school textbook World History: Connections to Today, published by Prentis-Hall, devotes almost a page to Haiti, but sums up the struggle against the French attempt to re-enslave Haiti in 1802 in just a few words: In 1804, Haitian leaders declared independence. With yellow fever destroying his army, Napoleon abandoned Haiti.

On Feb. 3, 1802, Gen. Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, arrived at Cap Français (currently Cap Haïtien) with five thousand men and demanded entrance. Toussaint’s commander, Henri Christophe, was out-numbered and out-gunned. Rather than surrender, Christophe burned down the city (starting with his own house), destroyed the gunpowder plant, and retreated into the mountains. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, under orders from Toussaint Louverture, seized the French fort called Crête-à-Pierrot in the center of the country with 1,500 troops, held off the 12,000 French troops that besieged it through two attacks, and then cut his way through the French forces to escape.

By the end of April, Louverture had been seized and sent to France, and all his lieutenants had either been deported or incorporated into the French army. But the popular resistance continued and intensified. The French continued losing large numbers of soldiers to yellow fever as well as small-scale but persistent attacks. Cultivators, fearing the reintroduction of slavery, continued to flee to the mountains as maroons and to form small armed bands.

By the end of July 1802, when news spread that the French had re-instituted slavery on Guadeloupe, reopened the slave trade, and forbade any person of color from claiming the title of citizen, resistance turned to insurrection.

Greg Dunkel, Haitian History: What U.S. textbooks don’t tell

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