Hello, Columbus, by Pooja BHATIA

Marlene Daut's picture

Hello, Columbus

Pooja Bhatia

Last weekend, the New York Times published an extraordinary investigation into one of history’s most odious debts: the payments Haiti made to French slaveholders in return for recognising its independence. The idea of compensating slaveholders for the loss of ‘their property’ – i.e. the people they could no longer enslave – was offensive and mind-boggling from the moment it was floated. In rejecting such a proposal in 1809, the Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe asked:

Is it conceivable that Haitians who have escaped torture and massacre at the hands of these men, Haitians who have conquered their own country by the force of their arms and at the cost of their blood, that these same free Haitians should now purchase their property and persons once again with money paid to their former oppressors?

France mustered an answer in 1825. It sent fourteen ships to the coast of Haiti, threatening war, while a royal envoy went ashore to make the demand. Christophe was five years dead. With guns almost literally to his head, President Jean Claude Boyer chose to pay.

Haiti could not afford the price France set, even after it was reduced from 150 million to 90 million francs. France obligingly lent the money – at high rates of interest and with exorbitant fees. Haitian officials found ways to ensure that smallholder farmers bore the brunt of the debt, which entrenched the divide between rich and poor and consolidated a pattern of state predation that continues to this day. By the time Haiti finished paying the descendants of French slaveholders, in 1888, it had missed out on the public investment boom of the second half of the 19th century: sewer systems, transit networks, schools, hospitals.

The Times investigation (headlined ‘The Ransom’) documented every payment Haiti made on what it calls its ‘double debt’ (the reparation demand plus the loans to pay it), calculating that Haiti remitted 112 million francs, the equivalent of $560 million. The economic loss was far greater: between $21 billion (if the economy had grown at Haiti’s historical pace) and $115 billion (if, as is more likely, it grew at the same rate as its Latin American neighbours). The latter amount is many times bigger than Haiti’s GDP.

Read the rest here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/may/hello-columbus