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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La rançon, les chaînes et la servitude

by Rosa Moussaoui

Ransom, chains and servitude

Translated Thursday 11 June 2015, by Jess Garner

Francois Hollande arrived in Haiti yesterday in the midst of the debate surrounding the debt claimed by France after independence.

14 warships, 528 cannons: the armada that brought the decree of 17th April 1825 left the governors of the former French colony of Saint-Domingue with little choice. Under threat of a naval blockade, the Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to the heinous deal proposed by Charles X: recognition of the Haitian Republic’s independence in exchange for an indemnity of 150 million gold francs in damages to the colonies. After all, had the Haitian revolution not robbed France of extremely profitable “assets”, as the slaves were defined by the code noir? Haiti was thus forced to part with an inordinate sum, the price of a freedom nonetheless won by the shedding of blood.

At the dawn of the French Revolution, Saint-Domingue was the richest and most prosperous of the colonies. Sugar, ‘white gold’, had allowed for the accumulation of outrageous fortunes in mainland France. The exploitation of slave labour – 550, 000 humans – was such that life expectancy for Africans transported to the island was less than 15 years on the sugar plantations. The shockwaves of 1789 echoed as far as the plantations, shaking this colonial society and sparking a slave revolt under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture. “These events are inseparable. The ideals of the Revolution, taken to their extreme – when it had never been a question of abolishing slavery – fostered the abolition of slavery by the slaves themselves, by the strength of arms. This situation is unique in world history,” says historian Marcel Dorigny.

“Citizens of colour, the true sans-culottes of the colonies”

After two years of war, on 16 Pluviôse Year II (4th February 1795), Louis-Pierre Dufay addressed the French Convention. Dufay was the deputy of Saint-Domingue, a Parisian bourgeois who supported the abolitionist ideas of the civil commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel. He was standing in defence of “citizens of colour, who are the people, the true sans-culottes of the colonies”. “Legislators, we slander the blacks, we poison all their endeavours, because we can no longer oppress them,” the delegate declared, referring to the traitorous actions of colonial counter-revolutionaries ready to hand their territories over to the English or the Spanish to regain their privileges. The representatives of Saint-Domingue won the support of the Assembly, who voted in favour of abolishing slavery. But the counter-revolution got the better of this historic step: the re-establishment of slavery in 1802 by the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, reignited war in Saint-Domingue, where former slaves, unwilling to resume their chains, faced down Napoleon’s troops. Toussaint Louverture was captured and deported to France, where he died in captivity in 1803. On 18th November that same year, the battle of Vertières saw the defeat of Rochambeau’s troops by General Dessalines’ Haitian rebels, who fought while singing the Marseillaise. It was the epilogue for a long and bloody battle for freedom. On 1st January 1804, Haiti proclaimed its independence. Although defeated, France could not come to terms with the loss of a precious colony it hoped sooner or later to bring back into its bosom.

As governments came and went, France refused to recognise the independence of the first black republic, shunned by other nations. That was until Charles X made the unilateral decision to “concede” independence to the fledgling state, in return for economic chains that would mortgage Haiti’s future, with tragic consequences. To ensure payment of the colossal sums demanded, Paris devised a complex financial plan, involving French banks. Haiti, cornered by debt, took out loans in order to pay off the first of five annuities of 30 million gold francs imposed by France. Strangled by the falling price of coffee, its main source of revenue, Haiti was unable to honour the next four deadlines. “In 1838, Louis-Philippe’s government negotiated two separate treaties with Haiti. The first recognised Haiti’s independence, unconditionally; the second was financial, and brought the debt to 90 million gold francs payable over 30 years. This meant that all should have been settled by 1868, but in reality, Haiti couldn’t come up with such a sum in this time. The country continued to pay France while being forced to borrow, with interest, from banks, most of which were French,” continues Marcel Dorigny. “The debt endured until 1883, but it still remained to pay back the loans taken out from the banks. In 1915, when the Americans landed in Haiti, the country was still paying foreign debt.” The ransom that France imposed on its ex-colony is equal to 17 billion euros in today’s money.

“When I come to Haiti, I will, for my part, settle the debt we have,” asserted François Hollande on Sunday in Pointe-à-Pitre, the first stop on his Caribbean tour, as he officially opened Mémorial ACTe, a museum dedicated to the memory of slavery. The president’s entourage appear keen to set things right, evoking not a financial but a “moral” debt. But this unprecedented story of the liberated prisoner made to compensate the hangman raises, two centuries after Haitian independence, the thorny question of reparations, crucial to the recovery of a country scarred and among the poorest in the world.

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