The Corpus Callosum

What Hath Geology Wrought?

The earthquake in Haiti is only the most recent in a series of
catastrophes stretching back over two centuries.  It was not
always like this.  Haiti, in fact, was once the most prosperous
colony in the New World.  When it was a French colony, known as St. Domingue (
also called The Pearl of the Antilles), it generated
more wealth
that the 13 British colonies that were to become the
United States.   

Foreign Policy magazine has a timeline of the modern-day disasters that
set the stage for the current
humanitarian disaster

Unluckiest Country

The second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere has been
wracked by coups, dictators, and foreign interventions throughout
nearly its entire history. But you don’t have to agree with Pat
Robertson to agree that even by Haitian standards, the last few decades
have been particularly tragic.


The FP chronology describes: the Duvalier dictatorship, which was
backed by the USA because of Duvalier’s staunch anti-communist stance;
the Aristide fiasco, also orchestrated by the USA; the 2004 floods,
which the USA had no role in causing; the food riots of 2008, which
arguably were partly due to USA policies; and the 2008

What they do not mention, however, is the deeper background.  How
did Haiti get to be so poor, so lacking in wealth and resilience?

Anthropology Works
gives an introduction:

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of
Hispaniola. Following the island’s discovery by Columbus in 1492,
Spanish colonialists exterminated the island’s indigenous Arawak
Indians. In 1697, the French took control of what is now Haiti and
instituted an exceptionally cruel system of African plantation slavery.
In the late 1700s, the half million slaves revolted. In what is the
only successful slave revolution in history, they ousted the French and
established the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere.

This would seem to be promising.  The throw off the oppressors and
take control of the wealth for themselves.  The problem was, most
of them were illiterate.  This is ironic.  When France was a
Roman colony, so to speak, the commoners were prohibited from learning
Latin.   This effectively kept them from having any chance of
engaging in business, and limited their educational
opportunities.  When St. Domingue was a French colony,
the slaves were kept illiterate, which had the same effect as what the
French commoners had experienced.

James Williams, writing in Discovery News, elaborates on this, drawing
form the work of Dr. Bryan Page, Professor of Anthropology at U Miami:

Is Haiti So Poor?

By James

Wed Jan
13, 2010 08:08 PM

they became independent, they ended up in a situation where – number
one – they were considered a threat by the entire rest of the region
because the rest of the region, especially the United States, owned
slaves. A slave rebellion is not a good thing to have so close to a
nation that owned several million slaves of their own…
says that post-1804, Haitians were discriminated against by not only
the United States, but all the European powers…That discrimination
meant no availability of resources to educate the
Haitian population, no significant trade with any polity outside of
Haiti. Also, the break up of the plantations into individual land
parcels meant there’s no longer a coherent cash crop activity going on
within Haiti…

He goes on to describe the occupation of Haiti by the USA in 1915,
followed by the abrupt withdrawal of US forces in 1935.  Howard
provides some background to the interest the USA had in
Haiti.  The US Navy was interested in establishing a base in
Haiti.  Also, the National City Bank of New York (precursor to
Citibank) wanted to take control of the Haitian banking system. 
In 1914, the USA tried to persuade Haiti to turn over control of their
customs houses, which were the Haitian government’s only source of
revenue.  They refused; the US invasion followed.  US Marines
took a half-million dollars from Haiti, and gave it to the National
City Bank of New York for safekeeping. 

It is difficult to build a country when people do things like

Meterological and geological phenomena seem to have conspired against
Haiti.  But geopolical concerns (i.e. greed) have played a role,


  1. #1 mr
    January 15, 2010

    Thanks for this. There’s no such thing as a purely natural disaster. I think most Americans are pretty unaware of Haiti’s complicated and fascinating history, or the long-term history of US involvement there. I’d really recommend Mary Renda’s book Taking Haiti for anyone interested in a cultural history of the 1915-1935 occupation.

  2. #2 janus
    January 18, 2010

    The entire eleventh chapter of the book COLLAPSE, by Jared Diamond, is dedicated to the history of Haiti and Dominican Republic.

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