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Beloved Haiti Descends into Familiar Chaos

Beloved Haiti

By Charmaine A. Nelson


On 7 July 2021, Jovenel Moïse, the 43rd president of Haiti, was assassinated at his residence in Port-au-Prince. His widow (Martine Moïse), an ex-prime minister (Claude Joseph), and the former chief of Haiti’s National Police (Léon Charles), were all implicated in his murder.  On 3 March 2024, the Haitian government declared a state of emergency after armed gangs stormed a major prison, freeing over 3,000 inmates. Mere days later, heavily armed gangs tried to seize control of Haiti’s principal international airport. Tragically, this is not the first time that this resilient Caribbean nation has descended into utter chaos. Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, has been plagued by political, military, and social problems since before its birth as a democratic nation in 1804. In fact, Haiti’s birth was marred by seismic violence that mirrored the widespread brutalities of slavery under the French Empire.

While Transatlantic Slavery was characterized by the profound and ubiquitous resistance of the enslaved, slave uprisings and rebellions (although typical in the Americas), were often contained by white military and police forces. In stark distinction, Haiti is the first transatlantic colony where the enslaved successfully defeated their white enslavers and claimed freedom for the entire colony. But while the Caribbean Island nation has stood as a beacon of freedom for the Black Diaspora, Haiti’s birth was characterized by institutional violence, deadly political rivalries, clandestine deal-making, and rapacious manoeuvring by white and black male leaders. While many people have heard of the martyred, formerly enslaved leader Toussaint Louverture, the successful uprising of the enslaved against the French colonialists was orchestrated, not by one man, but by a group of generals including several black and mixed-race men who led many of the island’s tens of thousands of enslaved people (who were scattered across the colony’s plantations) in a coordinated uprising.

Fig. 1: Anonymous, Toussaint Louverture, leader of the insurgents of Santo Domingo (19th. c), coloured engraving, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Photographer: Agence Bulloz.


Then known by the names Saint Domingue and Santo Domingo, today’s Haiti comprises one third of the western portion of the island of Hispaniola which it shares with the nation of the Dominican Republic to the east. The eastern two-thirds of the island was the site of the first European colony in the Americas after Christopher Columbus claimed the inhabited island for the Spanish crown. By the eighteenth century, St. Domingue had been nick named “the pearl of the Antilles” due to its position as France’s richest colony; a status largely gained through the sugar cane cultivation of the enslaved.[1] The revolt of enslaved Africans against their white French enslavers had far-reaching repercussions for blacks and whites across the transatlantic world.

Fig. 2: Anonymous, Map of Hispaniola (nd).


On January 1st, 1804, one of the black generals – Jean-Jacques Dessalines – issued an official Declaration of Independence from France, restoring the island’s original indigenous name of Hayti, refusing the practice of slavery, and making Haiti the first nation born of a slave rebellion.[2] But while Dessalines’ declaration and his earlier proclamation (19 November 1803) promising loyalty and security to inhabitants of all races were intended to deconstruct the deep-seated French Dominguan practice of racism, the emergent naming practices of his own generals indicate how dangerous colonial hierarchies had infiltrated enslaved communities.

Fig. 3: L. Rigaud, Dessalines (1848), painting, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA.


While the generals who were free prior to the revolution were known as ancien libres, those generals freed by the abolition of 1793 were referred to as nouveau libres. That the lighter-skinned mulattoes were also commonly the ancien libres and the darker-skinned “noires” the more recently freed nouveau libres, meant that this social hierarchy was also, clearly, a racial and complexion one. Tragically, these groups became official enemies by 1806 when upon the assassination of Dessalines on October 17, Haiti was divided into two republics led by generals Henry Christophe (considered unmixed or dark-skinned) who presided over the north and Alexandre Pétion (so-called mulatto or mixed-race) who ruled over the south.

Haiti’s internal upheaval led to the flight of the French planters who escaped to locations throughout the Caribbean and North America.[3] Sensing the impending defeat of the French army, local planters and other whites tried to flee the social, material, and physical consequences of a military loss. But their destinations were not necessarily what one would expect. While the British and the French were mortal enemies who routinely battled for territory, although a British colony, Jamaica’s proximity to Haiti (only 537 km or 334 miles to the west) made it a desirable haven for escaping French whites.[4] But while many French enslavers made Jamaica their initial stop, the political designs of the white Jamaican ruling class did not benefit the displaced French colonialists.[5] Indeed, British politicians attempted to play both sides of the revolution to their advantage, signing several secret treaties with Toussaint Louverture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But while the treaties aided Louverture’s army, the cost was stiff.

The Haitian leadership was forced to contain the revolution in exchange for its newfound “friendship” with white Jamaicans. Meanwhile, Jamaica opened its doors to the fleeing white French planters who had long brutalized enslaved Africans in Haiti.[6] Scholars of Haitian Slavery position it as one of the most violent slave regimes in the transatlantic world. While Transatlantic Slavery was lethal – maintained as it was through physical brutality, psychological manipulation, material deprivation, cultural prohibitions, and terror – Haitian Slavery was catastrophically so. On the eve of the Haitian Revolution, newly arriving enslaved Africans died at a rate of 50 percent within their first three to five years of labour in the colony.[7] Put bluntly, the enslaved in Haiti were worked to death in part because French planters had made the economic calculation that it was cheaper to purchase newly enslaved African-born people than to treat those already enslaved humanely. This equation opens the difficult and often unasked question of what white people became as a direct result of their inhumane participation in slavery across four centuries.

Fig. 4: S. de Beauvernet, Arrival of a Lady in a horse-drawn Carriage; detail of map of the housing facilities of Févret de Saint-Mémin with vignettes of daily life on the plantation, Haiti (Saint-Domingue) [late 18th c.], watercolour, Musée de la coopération franco-américaine.


British intervention in the Haitian Revolution extended beyond mere policy to military action. In late July 1803, the British naval squadron at Jamaica blockaded the Haitian port settlement of Cap François. Their disruption of business in one of the island’s major trading ports prevented the French army from receiving necessary supplies, hastening their defeat. However, a seeming contradiction of this manoeuvre was the Jamaican Governor George Nugent’s documented concern for French colonialists. In 1803, Nugent was in the rare position of having been solicited for aid by all three of the competing factions of Haiti, the French army, the white planters, and the revolutionaries. Sending his emissaries James Walker and Hugh Cathcart to Haiti from the 27th to the 30th of August 1803 to negotiate a treaty with General Dessalines, the pair conveyed the Jamaican governor’s two stipulations, the first that whites be allowed to retain possession of their plantations. Second, trying to seize an upper hand in their war with France, Nugent also demanded that the British should be allowed to take over military bases in Haiti (Tiburon and Môle Saint-Nicolas) for the duration of the war to disrupt privateering from Cuba. While allowing for whites to return to the towns, fearing a return to the structures of slavery that the revolution had dismantled, Dessalines astutely blocked the return of whites to the colony’s plantations. On the second point, Dessalines wisely (and prophetically) also rejected the idea of a foreign military presence in and occupation of Haiti. While he clearly advocated for Haitian sovereignty and resisted British interference in their military and commercial affairs, he also made it clear to Nugent that a free Haiti could co-exist with a slave colony, Jamaica, so long as the two were joined in their shared hatred of France. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Fig. 5: Anonymous, George Nugent, Governor of Jamaica (1801-1805) [nd].


But Nugent was not just busy scheming to establish a military foothold in Haiti. He rather astutely surmised that what had transpired in Haiti was inspirational to enslaved and free black people across the Black Diaspora, and if unchecked, he understood that the revolution would spread to other parts of the Americas.[8] But if the French whites were a source of unease for the Jamaican white ruling class, how much more so were the free and enslaved black people of Haiti? While many enslaved Africans were able to escape their white oppressors, remain in Haiti, and align themselves with the revolutionary cause, others less fortunate were forced to accompany their fleeing white enslavers as they escaped the colony. Still other free blacks were able to escape alongside whites. Like Nugent, many white Jamaicans considered black Haitians to be inherently contaminated by ideals of liberation, resistance, and rebellion, a “contagion” that they feared would spread to the enslaved population of Jamaica.

At the end of the revolution, fearing the depletion of the Haitian labour force, Dessalines petitioned Nugent to return the people of colour to Haiti. Instead, Nugent sent back the free people of colour (numbering about one hundred and seventy) but refused to return the enslaved black people who had been forced to accompany their white French enslavers to Jamaica. So, while actively seeking to secure Britain’s territorial rights to Haiti, Nugent’s political manoeuvering also upheld the property rights (to humans as property) of the white Haitian enslavers within Jamaica. But for many of these unfortunate enslaved people, Jamaica was not the end of their forced migrations. Large numbers of them were made to accompany their French enslavers as they departed Jamaica, this time for Cuba, the United States, and yes, Canada.[9] These multiple dislocations although typical for the enslaved often go unrecognized and unexamined, even by scholars of Transatlantic Slavery.[10]

Although the Haitian Revolution was a beacon of freedom, it also resulted in several tragedies. Neither Louverture nor Dessalines seemed to learn from the avarice and despotism of the white French and Spanish plantocracies. After overthrowing the rule of the white Spanish-held, eastern portion of the island, Louverture assumed the role of governor-general of Hispaniola for life with near absolute authority. Later Dessalines, first appointed governor-general by his council, proclaimed himself emperor. Louverture died of pneumonia and malnutrition in 1803 after being imprisoned at Fort-de-Joux by Napoleon Bonaparte in the Jura Mountains between France and Switzerland. Within three years, Dessalines was assassinated by black rivals in 1806. With the death of these revolutionary leaders, the British unilaterally implemented their articles of the proposed 1804 treaty and did not formally acknowledge Haitian Independence until 1826, only after France’s acknowledgement of 1825. However, the French recognition was contingent upon a large penalty, paid to reimburse French enslavers for their economic losses. Those debts total between $20 and $30 billion in today’s currency.

Fig. 6: Time Magazine cover, September 26, 1994.


Since the tragic missteps and dire power-grabs of the nineteenth-century, Haiti has proven a target for nations and individuals (foreign and domestic) looking to dominate its shores. Invaded by the United States in 1915 and occupied until 1934, the Caribbean nation was then governed by the Haitian dictator François Duvalier (Papa Doc) from 1957 to 1971 in a tenure known for its corruption, repression, and violence. After the military coup orchestrated by Raoul Cédras against the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, both U.N. peacekeeping forces and the United States military returned in 1994 (the latter with 20,000 troops) through Operation Restore Democracy which lasted until 2000. However, American duplicity was exposed in the CIA’s payments to at least one member of the “death squads” that terrorized and murdered Aristide supporters. Adding to Haiti’s problems is vast deforestation (resulting in a loss of biodiversity and wildlife, soil erosion, desertification, landslides, and flooding), the product of an impoverished population that relies upon wood for fuel and deforested land to grow food. Thus, while the well-managed tourism infrastructure and agricultural resources of the Dominican Republic yield $10 billion USD and $2.25 billion USD respectively, Haiti’s cycles of violence have decimated the nation’s natural resources and ensured that it is presently far too unstable (and comparably unaesthetic) to establish a vibrant and competitive tourist infrastructure like its thriving island neighbour.


Fig. 7: Luxury Resort, Sanctuary Cap Cana (by Marriot), Dominican Republic.


So how does Haiti move forward? The energy crisis must be solved with alternative sources of fuel which do not contribute to the decimation of the Haitian environment. As the cost of solar and wind energy infrastructures continue to fall, it seems obvious that Haiti’s way out of its energy crisis is also its way in to the ecologically-friendly energy, and perhaps one day, tourism industries. Unsurprisingly, the Dominican Republic is already a regional leader in renewable energy with ten wind farms, nine solar plants, and one biomass plant already in operation as of 2023.

Fig. 8: Matafongo wind farm, Dominican Republic (nd).


Obviously, the gangs must be contained, and a degree of law and order that allows the citizens to live their lives without constant threat of extortion, rape, torture, and murder must be restored. Given the extraordinary violence of the gangs and the decimated state of Haiti’s civil, judicial, and legal systems, this likely means a level of foreign military intervention to reclaim control of essential infrastructure like hospitals, prisons, seaports, and airports.

Haitians must follow such an intervention with the creation of a robust democratic governing infrastructure which can provide the checks and balances to stave off incursions by power-seeking individuals and collectives, both internal and external. This will not be an easy task given the nation’s history of following liberatory interventions with authoritarian rule. But if the promise of the Haitian Revolution is to be fulfilled, the path forward is not in home-grown despotism or foreign corporate or military interference, but in a system of democratic governance that finally denounces and obliterates the race, complexion, and class hierarchies that undergirded French imperialism.




[1] Julia Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica in the Remaking of the Early Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World,” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 3 (July 2012), p. 587.

[2] Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica,” pp. 596, 597, 611.
For more on this class-racial hierarchy see also, Philippe R. Girard, “Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Atlantic System: A Reappraisal,” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 3 (July 2012), p. 555.

[3] Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica,” p. 590.

[4] Besides Jamaica, the closest neighbouring established colony to which white Haitians also fled was Cuba. Recalling the common ground of recent mixed-race exiles who had settled in Cuba, Dessalines’ second in command, Nicolas Geffrard (himself mixed race), wrote the Spanish governor in Santiago de Cuba in 1803 encouraging Spanish commerce in Dominguan ports by promising the containment of the revolution. The Spanish did not respond. Dessalines’ letters to US president Thomas Jefferson likewise went unanswered.
Girard, “Jean-Jacques Dessalines,” pp. 568-69.

[5] According to Gaffield, in the first half of 1803, French planters made up the majority of people arriving in Jamaica.
Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica,” pp. 590, 594.

[6] Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica,” pp. 587, 591, 593-95, 604, 613, 614.
For more on Dessalines’ position on Jamaica see: Girard, “Jean-Jacques Dessalines,” pp. 554, 567.

[7] Malick W. Ghachem, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 36. Ghachem aptly notes that this extraordinary loss of life in Saint Domingue in the 1780’s did not include the mortality rates of the Middle Passage, which he estimates for French ships at the rate of 13%. At the time, the transit time between Africa and the French Caribbean was an average of seventy days.

[8] Gaffield, “Haiti and Jamaica,” p. 590.

[9] Girard, “Jean-Jacques Dessalines,” pp. 575-76.
For an exploration of the forced migration of the enslaved black female Marie-Thérèse-Zémire from St. Domingue through Philadelphia to Montreal in 1791-92, see: Charmaine A. Nelson, Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica (London: Routledge/Taylor Francis, 2016)

[10] For more on how these dislocations resulted in African-born people being forcibly (re)located to Canada, see: Charmaine A. Nelson, “A ‘tone of voice peculiar to New-England’: Fugitive Slave Advertisements and the Heterogeneity of Enslaved People of African Descent in Eighteenth-Century Quebec,” Atlantic Slavery and the Making of the Modern World:  Experiences, Representations, and Legacies, Current Anthropology, guest editors Ibrahim Thiaw and Deborah Mack, vol. 61, no. 22 (September 2020), 14 pages.