According to Pat Robertson, when the Haitian slaves were battling the French for their freedom, they “swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French’… so the devil said ‘OK, it’s a deal,’ and they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free, but ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” In spite of the absurdity of Pat Robertson’s claim that the devastating earthquake in Haiti was a sign of God’s curse on that peaceful people for some abominable sin their ancestors committed in the late 18th century, there has, in fact, been a pernicious shadow beclouding that nation’s horizons since its historic military defeat of its French colonial masters. And the opaque object causing that shadow can be traced directly to the United States.
Robertson, just to be clear, was referring to the fact that the first leader of the Haitian revolutionaries, a man named Boukman, employed Vodou (Anglicized, and broadly misunderstood, as “Voodoo”), to galvanize the slaves into rebelling against their masters in 1791. Vodou is a religion, just as Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions. Vodou is a New World synthesis of African religions that slaves from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the Fon people of Dahomey, and the Bakongo from Congo and Angola brought with them on the slave ships, and melded together, over time, in the crucible of slavery. Think of Vodou’s relation to Ifa somewhat like the Greek Orthodox Church’s relation to the Roman Catholic Church, and you will begin to understand its origins and evolution.
Christian missionaries, as is their wont, denigrated this religion created by black people by characterizing it, in a binary relationship with Christianity, as “devil worship.” (They did the same thing with Ifa and Vodun in Nigeria and Dahomey, by the way, and lots of other religions.) Rev. Robertson is just the most recent example of this ignorant and manipulative tendency; and he should know better.
Actually, Robertson, and many other observers going back to the time of the Haitian Revolution, couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the sons and daughters of African slaves could ever possibly defeat a European nation in a war without supernatural intervention, without, in other words, a pact with the devil himself. That is a sign of how profoundly deep the currents of anti-black racism run in Western culture, and bubble up, in the most unexpected places, even today.
If there is a curse on Haiti, we don’t have to sully another person’s religious beliefs to find it. Perhaps curses, like charity, start at home. And the first two places to search for the source would be the White House and Congress, especially those historically dominated by Dixiecrats. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and continuing in a steady march that only really began to end when President Bill Clinton sent General Colin Powell to broker the deal for the generals to “retire” and restore Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a succession of American presidents and Congresses have systematically undermined the independence and integrity of the Haitian Republic. I thought about this ignoble, shameful history as President Obama proclaimed, for one of first times in the history of both republics, that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south,” they “who share our common humanity.” It was a noble sentiment, long overdue.
But before we go there, let’s be clear about something: It is not that Haitian governments have been models of liberty, fraternity and equality; light-skinned privilege has marred the internal stability of Haiti from its very beginnings, just as surely as have repression, greed and the knee-jerk mimicry of some of the very worst aspects of European monarchical feudal societies (first, historically) and laissez-faire capitalism, later, along with various reigns of terror, most notoriously that of the Tonton Macoutes, the product of the tortured mind of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, one of the most sadistic leaders in the history of the hemisphere.
America’s ambivalence about a black republic of former slaves in this hemisphere manifested itself at the time the revolt broke out in 1791. St. Domingue (the indigenous people called it “Haiti”) was “the pearl of the Antilles;” trade with the island “accounted for a third of France’s external commerce,” as Donald Hickey argues. “When news of the slave revolt reached the United States,” Hickey writes, “the first impulse of the Federalist administration was to aid the white planters.” The government, led by George Washington, advanced the French planters $726,000, sold them arms and ammunition, American merchants sold them food, and some Americans even fought against the rebels. But “the official government aid, however, came to an end in 1793 when the planter regime in the colony collapses and the blacks established control over most of the island.” And in 1798, at Toussaint’s request, the Congress even authorized President John Adams to reopen trade with Haiti, a provision embraced by the Federalists, even southerners, and opposed by Republicans. All of that began to change when Thomas Jefferson became president.
Jefferson was terrified that the creation, and flourishing, of a black republic in the New World would serve as a model for the rebellion of America’s own slaves; and that, at all costs, would be unacceptable. As early as 1793, Jefferson wrote to James Monroe that “Never was so deep a tragedy presented to the feelings of man … I become daily more and more convinced that all the West India Island will remain in the hands of the people of colour, and a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly, and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac), have to wade through and try to avert them.” Two years later, in a letter to Aaron Burr, Jefferson compared the Haitians to assassins and referred to them as “Cannibals of the terrible republic.”
Jefferson feared that a successful Haitian revolution would threaten the stability of slavery: “If something is not done, and done soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” By 1802, Jefferson’s worst fears had come true: the “course of things in the neighboring islands of the West Indies,” he wrote to Rufus King in July, “appears to have given considerable impulse to the minds of the slaves….a great disposition to insurgency has manifested itself among them.”
Despite his abhorrence of even the idea of a black republic, Jefferson cleverly used the war to America’s advantage. When Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, to suppress the rebels in 1802, Jefferson adopted an official neutral policy, which enabled U.S. support to go to Toussaint. American public opinion turned against French brutality; Jefferson threatened an alliance with the English if the French occupied New Orleans.
Jefferson hoped that Toussaint would prevent the French from expanding into Louisiana. After the French treacherously captured Toussaint in 1802 and imprisoned him in exile in France (where he died a year later, perhaps of poisoning), he predicted a war of extermination: “Some other black leader will rise,” he said, “and a war of extermination will ensue: for no second capitulation will ever be trusted by the blacks.” He then sent James Monroe to France to negotiate for the purchase of New Orleans. Jefferson realized that “St. Domingo delays their taking possession of Louisiana and they are in the last distress for money,” so he struck, making the largest land acquisition in American history, the Louisiana Purchase. It was a brilliant move, but at the expense of Haiti. Finally, after a devastating war for emancipation and independence that lasted between 1791 and 1803, Haiti declared its independence in 1804, on the very spot where Toussaint had been captured by the French. As W.E.B. Du Bois, himself of Haitian descent, put it, “The effect of all of this was far-reaching. Napoleon gave up his dream of American empire and sold Louisiana for a song,” thus transforming the shape and destiny of America forever.
By 1804, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he was determined to end trade with Haiti. Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862.
Abraham Lincoln signed the bill to recognize Haiti, at long last (and Liberia, too, by the way) in June 1862. The bill passed both houses of Congress only after long and heated debate. James Redpath, the head of the Haitian emigration bureau and an abolitionist, had pressed Massachusetts statesman Charles Sumner to introduce this legislation, for one reason: to encourage the emigration of freed slaves and free blacks to both countries, which remained a dream of Lincoln’s even a month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The American occupation of Haiti lasted between July 28, 1915, and August 15, 1934. As James Weldon Johnson concluded as early as 1920, “If the United States should leave Haiti today, it would leave more than a thousand widows and orphans of its own making, more banditry than has existed for a century, resentment, hatred and despair in the heart of a whole people, to say nothing of the irreparable injury to its own tradition as the defender of the rights of man.” As W.E.B. Du Bois, ever the speaker of truth to power, put it in a debate over American foreign policy 1930, the United States invaded Haiti to protect the financial interests of the National City Bank. The audience demanded that he be “thrown out.”
The curse on Haiti has a long history, one in which our country has been inextricably and inexcusably involved. We can only hope that this devastating crisis will allow us to begin to make amends for our role in policies that have severely hampered the development of democratic institutions and a free market economy, just as Thomas Jefferson hoped.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.