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

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.

French reprisals were terrible but only seemed to strengthen the conviction of the masses that they would rather die fighting than be re-enslaved. And they insisted on dying with dignity, no matter how cruel the French were. In one instance, when three captured Haitian soldiers were being burned to death, one started crying. Another said Watch me. I will show you how to die. He turned around to face the pole, slid down, and burned to death without a whimper. A French general watching the execution wrote to Leclerc: These are the men we have to fight!

In another case, a mother consoled her weeping daughters as they were marched to their execution:Rejoice that your wombs will not have to bear slave children. (Carolyn F. Frick, The Making of Haiti, p 221)

In September, shortly before he died of yellow fever, Leclerc wrote to Napoleon that the only way France could win was to destroy all the blacks in the mountains — men, women, and children over 12—and half the blacks in the plains. We must not leave a single colored person who has worn an épaulette.(Officers wore épaulettes.) This means that the commander of the French expedition saw no way to win other than genocide.

By the end of October 1802, the insurrection was so strong that Toussaint’s officers who had disingenuously joined the French, deserted and began a counter-attack. The struggle took a more organized military character, while the popular insurrection intensified.

By mid 1803, the French were being mopped up in the south. Jérémie was evacuated in August, and Cayes fell on October 17. Then Dessalines decided to move on the French in Cap Français.

Since he didn’t have enough artillery or the logistics to support a long siege, Dessalines decided to take le Cap by storm. He assigned a half-brigade, commanded by Capois La Mort, to storm the walls covered by the mutually supported positions, Butte de la Charrier and Vertières. Meanwhile, two other brigades maneuvered to seize batteries protecting the city from an attack from the sea. Although grape-shot cut swaths through the brigade led by Capois, the soldiers kept pressing forward, clambering over their dead and shouting to each other To the attack, soldiers. On Nov. 18, their combined assault took Charrier, which opened the city to Haitian artillery. The French general agreed to leave immediately and was captured 10 hours later by the British. On Nov. 19, 1803, the French army left Haiti for good.

Those are the reasons why the French could not retake the island and why Napoleon abandoned Haiti—the French were decisively defeated. The masses refused to return to slavery and their leaders organized a people’s army that crushed the French.

World History: Perspective on the Past (Houghton Mifflin Co.) and World History: Connections to Today (Prentis Hall) don’t treat Haiti’s history from 1804 to 1860. That was before U.S. capitalism had matured enough to aggressively expand into the Caribbean, as it did a few decades later.

In 1825, France forced Haiti to begin paying reparations amounting to 90 million gold francs (worth about $3.3 billion in today’s currency) for freeing the slaves. Those are the reparations that Haiti is demanding France restitute today.

Although the U.S. did not recognize Haiti until 1862, Haiti still did surprisingly substantial trade with both France and the U.S.

With the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, the Caribbean soon became a cockpit of imperialist interventions and maneuvering. The two high school textbooks under examination mention Haiti from time to time as part of a laundry list of countries where the U.S. intervened.

But the U.S. was not the only imperialist power splashing around the Caribbean. In the years leading up to the first U.S. military occupation of Haiti in 1915, warships of Spain, France, Germany, and the U.S. invaded Haitian territorial waters more than 20 times. Even Sweden and Norway got into the act.

Germany, an imperialist latecomer, aggressively pursued its interests in Haiti because it was restricted in other colonized parts of the world. Columnist Fleurimond Kerns, in a recent article in Haïti Progrès (Vol. 21, No. 10, 5/21/2003), described one typical incident. Let us recall the case of two German businessmen established in Haiti in Miragône and Cap-Haïtien, he wrote. After going bankrupt during the period of instability under the governments of Fabre Geffrard [1859-1867] and Sylvain Salnave [1867-1869], these two Germans asked Berlin to demand immediate payment from the government of Nissage Saget [1870-1874] of an indemnity of US $15,000. The Haitian government had to give in faced with the inequality of forces posed by two German warships, the Vineta and the Gazella, under the command of Captain Batsch. When the Germans left, they returned Haiti’s captured warships in a sorry state. For example, the national bicolor was smeared with excrement. The date was June 11, 1872.

While historians and some textbooks do list imperialist interventions in Haiti and the larger Caribbean, finding descriptions of resistance is much harder. In her 294-page book Haiti and the United States, Brenda Gayle Plummer has a paragraph on what happened in Port-au-Prince on July 6, 1861. The Spanish navy was threatening to bombard the city if Haiti did not offer a 21-gun salute and pay a big indemnity. The people of Port-au-Prince were so upset when their government capitulated that they came out into the streets. The government had to declare martial law to control the situation (p. 41).

The case of Haitian Admiral Hamilton Killick is another outstanding example of Haitian resistance. At the start of the last century, both the U.S. and Germany deployed Caribbean naval squadrons. The United States was planning to build the Panama Canal to tie its Pacific coast to the Eastern seaboard and further penetrate into Latin America. Germany wanted to project its military power to reinforce its commercial and financial push into Haiti.

In 1902, Germany was meddling in a Haitian power struggle, backing one leader while Admiral Killick backed another. Kerns describes what happened on Sep. 6 of that year. There was a major political struggle going on at the time between Nord Alexis and Anténor Firmin over taking power in Port-au-Prince, after the precipitous departure of President Tirésis Simon Sam [1896-1902], Kerns wrote.Admiral Killick, who commanded the patrol ship La Crête-à-Pierrot, supported Firmin and consequently had confiscated a German ship transporting arms and munitions to the provisional Haitian government of Alexis… [which] ordered another German warship, the Panther, to seize the Crête-à-Pierrot. But it didn’t realize the determination and courage of Admiral Killick. At Gonaïves, the Germans had the surprise of their life. When the German ship appeared off the roadstead of the city, Admiral Killick, who was then ashore, hurried on board and ordered his whole crew to abandon the ship. The Germans did not understand this maneuver. Once the [Haitian] sailors were out of danger, Admiral Killick together with Dr. Coles, who also did not want to leave the vessel, wrapped himself in the Haitian flag, like Captain Laporte in 1803, and blew the Crête-à-Pierrot up by firing at the munitions. The German sailors did not even dream of an act so heroic.

Through his self-detonation, Killick not only denied the Germans possession of a Haitian ship and the German munitions it had seized, he also came close to blowing up the Panther, according to one German crewman who wrote a postcard home

German influence in Haiti waned after the U.S. Marines invaded Port-au-Prince on Jul. 28, 1915 and began their 19-year occupation of Haiti. At that time, the U.S. had not officially entered World War One, but it wanted to stop any attempt by Germany to set up a base in Haiti. It also wanted to protect the Panama Canal, which had opened for business the year before. The U.S. occupation also ended the close financial and commercial ties between Haiti and France, though not the cultural ones. (France was a U.S. ally at the time, but also an imperialist competitor in the Caribbean.)

The U.S. occupation met with four years of fierce armed resistance from guerillas known as cacos, who were led by Charlemagne Péralte and, later, Benoît Batraville. The occupation of Haiti caused great controversy in the U.S., and deep resentment in Haiti.

But the only mention that Perspective and Connections make of the U.S. Occupation is to say how President Franklin D. Roosevelt was true to his word and to his Good Neighbor Policy when he withdrew the U.S. Marines in 1934.

U.S. textbooks don’t mention that Roosevelt’s needed to wind down Washington’s expensive military interventions since the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. They also don’t mention that Haiti had an anti-occupation nationwide strike and a series of demonstrations in 1929, one of which the Marines put down with deadly force (Nicols, From Dessalines to Duvalier, p 151). Over the next five years, the U.S. pull-out was hastened by growing agitation, outcry and popular bitterness.

These two textbooks, Perspective and Connections, ignore and obscure the important role that the Haitian people played in Haiti’s history, and the important role Haiti played in the hemisphere’s history. They camouflage the imperialist interests behind U.S. and European military interventions by giving only brief and simplistic descriptions of major events. Even though the word imperialism does appear in them, the textbooks give U.S. students no real understanding of the racism, violence, and greed that the U.S. used to repress and exploit the Haitian people for almost two decades.