Caribbean Project: Victor Schoelcher on Haiti

French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher travels to independent Haiti
French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher travels to independent Haiti in 1841

Haiti

Victor Schoelcher, the most famous French abolitionist of the 19th century, whose life work culminated in the final abolition of slavery in the French West Indies by the Second Republic in 1848, visited Haiti in 1841.

Schoelcher later published his impressions of Haiti in his bookLes colonies étrangères dans l’Amérique et Hayti. He was the first European abolitionist to visit independent Haiti … 47 years after the triumph of liberty and equality.

According to Schoelcher, the free negro in Haiti had retrograded into an “animalistic” existence. He declared that “the crime of Haitian barbarism is not only mortal for your Republic” but it was also “universal crime” and said that nothing had come from the tree of liberty planted in Haiti but “bitter and disappointing fruit.”

Schoelcher describes his arrival in the ‘Paris of the Antilles’:

“There is something fearful, especially for the abolitionist, in the first step one makes upon the soil of Hayti. When you approach, by the Cape, this colony, once so powerful, the question arises, ‘Where is the city of which colonial history has spoken so much, and which was called the Paris of the Antilles? You fancy that you are entering a place suffering from a long siege. The pavements are broken, removed, and destroyed; the spacious streets are deserted; there exists the silence and inanimation  which follow great public disasters, and only the clothing stretched upon the ground to dry in the sun, announces that the inhabitants are not fled, as at the approach of a plague. Hardly will the traveler meet with a person of whom he can inquire his way. The princely mansions, three stories high, and built of stone in a style surpassing that found in any other island in the Archipelago, unprotected from the weather, are falling into decay, and are no longer occupied, except by vigorous trees, whose green branches pierce through the dismantled windows, whence are falling the magnificently worked iron balconies which adorned them. No one here is sufficiently rich to even preserve these vast ruins; and it is only by penetrating the interior that you may perceive, leaning against the old wall, a hut where a miserable family dwells, and plants bananas in spots which served as vestibules to the lordly planters.

To day Hayti contributes to commerce a little coffee, a little cotton, a little tobacco, and a few other trifles; and yet this island is perhaps the point of the globe to which Providence has been more bountiful than any other. It abounds in riches of every description. Its soil, of an inexhaustible fertility, besides sugarcane, coffee, tobacco, and cocoa, produces the spices of India, all the fruits of America, and almost all those of Europe; its forests contain timber for building, for veneering, and for dying; and its mahogany, which is superior to that of any other country, is so abundant that its inhabitants use it for firewood. Many of its rivers roll golden sands along their beds; it contains mines of copper, of iron, of coal, and also, it is said, of quicksilver; it has mountains of sulphur and quarries of marble, or porphyry, and of alabaster; it possesses jasper, agates, fossils, crystals and agrillaceous soils; its mineral kingdom is not less immensely wealthy than its vegetable; birds of brilliant plumage and sweet song are not wanting, nor or game and the honeybee. In short, this luxurious isle is a promised land, a paradise on earth.”

Schoelcher on the state of morals in Haiti in 1841:

“Marriage is almost the exception … Many of the Haytian mothers appear utterly dead to all moral considerations, and leave their children to grow up as they please, the victims of wayward passions and of conduct without restraint”

Schoelcher on the living conditions and work ethic of Haitians:

“The huts of the poor are nothing more than slave cabins. Some branches of trees, interwoven together and plastered with mud, often leaving the interior exposed to the weather, composed dwellings inferior to those of the Indians; they are without furniture, without household utensils, without chairs, with bamboos for water-pitchers, and calabashes for glasses and plates … the negroes have become entirely ignorant of the necessities of life, or go without them without the slightest regret; they live upon a little water and five or six bananas, a species of food for which they have such a predilection, that, upon learning of the death of someone, they say, in their particular language, ‘Pauvre diable, la quitté bananes!’ (Poor devil, he’ll get no more bananas!)”

“The Haytians are a people badly clothed, guarded by soldiers in rags, living with perfect indifference in houses tumbled to ruins, and disputed the possession of filthy streets with horses, asses, hogs, and chickens, who seek food in cities without police. The people have fallen almost into a complete torpor. They are no longer conscious of the ruin of their cities and the misery of their firesides. They do not suspect that they are wanting everything. I have seen their senators dwelling in straw houses, their instructors and deputies walking the streets with their coats worn out at the elbows. In a word, everybody suffers from a sort of general atomy, which from material, passes, by an intimate connection, to spiritual things.”

Schoelcher accuses Haitians of perpetuating slavery in the Western hemisphere by giving comfort to defenders of slavery:

“Have you not thought about what you are doing? Have you not considered the responsibility that weights on you? Are you not afraid that one day the voices of four million of your brothers will be raised against you in the universe’s tribunal, accusing you of having slowed down their emancipation?”

24 Comments

  1. Very good selection, Hunter!

    But Schoelcher was wrong about several things: (1) ‘Its soil, of an INEXHAUSTIBLE fertility’ was incorrect. ALL soils in subtropical and tropical climates are more easily exhausted than northern soils. Haiti had some naturally fertile volcanic soils, but nearly everything has been deforested, eroded and exhausted by now. (The best soils in Hispaniola are, I believe, in the highlands of the Dominican Republic. Mennonite colonies are located there, which never fail to occupy the best soils.) (2) He calls the increasingly natural lifestyle of the Haitians a ‘universal crime’. But it can’t be crime if they are doing the best they are capable of. (3) He says they have a responsibility to set a better example, to help millions of Africans still enslaved elsewhere make their case to receive emancipation. But they are already setting the best example they can.

  2. “Haiti had some naturally fertile volcanic soils, but nearly everything has been deforested, eroded and exhausted by now.” – this was 1848, not 2014, obviously an extra century and a half of population growth + resource mismanagement has taken its toll on the island. But the fact remains that even at that date it was a premium piece of realestate that even the haitians were able to economically exploit.

  3. Amazing, that an otherwise intelligent man, cannot see the dichotomy between statements such as ” Utterly dead to all moral considerations;” “the negroes have become entirely ignorant of the necessities of life;” “the people have fallen almost into a complete torpor;” and “living with perfect indifference” to ANY method of his own, or any White Man’s, for that matter, to CHANGE the Negro- which Jeremiah said was an impossible task, over 2400 years earlier! [Jer. 13:23]

    But because this Frog (like all messainic Aboltionists) believes in the Negro, more than God, he doesn’t realize the Negro is congenitally predestined to be this way!

    Excellent post, HW.

  4. I know it was said long ago, but it was still mistaken then. Tropical and subtropical soils, unlike most northern soils that are podsolised, have short-lived fertility when used for cultivated crops, even on level areas where erosion is unlikely. Many tobacco and cotton planters in the warm parts of the southeastern states ‘wore out’ their soils in a few years and had to keep moving inland and westward to clear new ground.

    The perennial tree crops (coffee and cacao) that the Haitians switched to after independence were a better choice because they are much easier on the soil.

  5. Hey Hunter, are you sure this is Hayti in the 1850’s? Sounds like Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, and the south side of Peoria, Il. in the 2010’s!

  6. Stephen,

    Yes, we are going to see in greater detail through the eyes of foreign travelers how Haiti was becoming “blighted.” It’s the same process that has unfolded more recently in Detroit and Birmingham.

  7. Re: Mosin

    1.) The Haitians didn’t “switch” to coffee. There were over 3,000 coffee plantations in colonial Saint-Domingue. After the demise of slavery, Haiti’s most important export was the wild coffee beans growing among their ruins.

    2.) The abrupt collapse of the sugarcane industry in Haiti had nothing to do with soil erosion. It was caused by the damage of the Haitian Revolution, the unwillingness of free blacks to work on the plantations, the ban on foreign capital and property ownership, and Cuban competition.

    3.) The deforestation started in earnest after logwood became an important export in independent Haiti, but it didn’t really become the problem that it is today until well into the twentieth century.

  8. Look at the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Google Earth. One side is brown, the other green. At the beginning of the twentieth century both were equally poor. The Dominican Republic industrialised and purchased imported fossil fuels, and preserved its remaining forests, while Haiti cut down its remaining forests, for lumber revenue and to make charcoal, its main energy source.

  9. Hunter, I knew they did not INITIATE a coffee ‘industry’ after independence, but they did switch in the sense of giving up sugar cane for the tree crops to earn revenue. I know their coffee cultivation was very primitive, until recently. I was reading some research reports from the 1950’s on their coffee and cacao ‘methods’ at that time probably little changed from a century earlier.

  10. ‘The abrupt collapse of the sugarcane industry in Haiti had nothing to do with soil erosion. It was caused by the damage of the Haitian Revolution’

    Obviously so. My response was to the Schloecher comment implying ideal fertility, which is never true in hot climates. Haiti had some good soil but high yields of cotton and sugar cane on plowed and cultivated land would not have been sustainable in the LONG TERM, even on the best soil with the best management. But then, planters and their slaves all live and die in the short term, don’t they?

  11. ’19th century agriculture in general was wasteful which is why Yankees who practiced the “free labor” system moved to the Midwest’

    ‘Yankees’ is a broad term. Which ‘Yankees’ did that? Scots-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania tended to ‘wear out’ several farms in their lifetimes, slashing and burning and then pasturing or plowing between all the stumps and boulders that were left in place until the virginal fertility and yields declined. By contrast, colonial-era German settlers in Pennsylvania ‘stayed put’ on their first farm that they cleared from the wilderness, completely, removing all the stumps and boulders BEFORE planting and building their houses. Ben Franklin said ‘When a German finds a fertile place he looks down and never looks up again’. It is an established fact that much of the soil in Lancaster and surrounding counties that have been farmed for many generations are actually more fertile than their virginal condition — and this is also true of soils in the Netherlands, and some other places in Europe. MORE fertile after thousands of years of liming, manuring, silting and crop rotation. White people do not always waste the land.

    Africans who are naturally suited to jungle permaculture become wasters when they are handed to Jethro Tull’s inventions.

    SOUTH of the Line, large areas of soil in eastern Kentucky are infamous for being ruined permanently by planting corn on too-steep slopes, often with the rows made the EASIEST way, up and down the slopes.

    More on coffee: Haiti produced half of the world’s coffee prior to independence, but after Louverture’s effort to increase production (1801) averaged about half of the pre-independence level, to reach a peak in the 1850s. By the 1940s, Haiti was producing about one third of the world’s coffee, followed by another decline. During the U.S. embargo of the dictatorship in the 1990s, without a good market for the product, many growers were forced to cut down their coffee trees to make charcoal.

    Coffee (and cacao) is a better, ‘permaculture’ crop for Africans, since it doesn’t require more than simple hand tools to yield well even with minimal management and no special equipment or high intelligence needed to produce an exportable product.

  12. ‘handed to Jethro Tull’s inventions’ should have been: ‘handed Jethro Tull’s inventions’ and while we’re at it, ‘infamous for being ruined’ would have been ‘famous for being ruined’ if I had only read it before posting. Sorry. I’m done for today.

  13. “Obviously so. My response was to the Schloecher comment implying ideal fertility, which is never true in hot climates. Haiti had some good soil but high yields of cotton and sugar cane on plowed and cultivated land would not have been sustainable in the LONG TERM, even on the best soil with the best management. But then, planters and their slaves all live and die in the short term, don’t they?” – While that is true in general for tropical land, look at Cuba. Sugar production there went strong for another century, only taking a hit due to the communists driving out skilled laborers and shifting Cuba’s geopolitical alignment. Haiti was likewise one of the pieces of premium realestate that several empires fought over.

    “Look at the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Google Earth. One side is brown, the other green.” – which would suggest that there is nothing wrong with the land itself right?

  14. It’s impossible to build a successful society when the population has a mean IQ of 70. Depressing racial inferiority is the beginning and end of the African problem. All else is semantics.

  15. ‘While that is true in general for tropical land, look at Cuba. Sugar production there went strong for another century’

    But Cuba has been using modern fertilisers on a large scale. It is much easier to maintain fertility and high yields now than it was a century or two ago, since large scale global transportation of lime and fertilisers, including trace elements such as zinc and molybdenum, makes it possible to keep up with replacing what has been removed by the crops or erosion. Oxidative loss of humus and carbon is the greatest problem of all in tropical and subtropical soils, but there are conserve it even on tropical soils so they can be used intensively, not abandoned or fallowed (as our ancestors used fallowing, which works well in cooler climates) but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Haiti WOULD eventually have faced fertility-related decline in yields on its longest-used soils, with or without the slave rebellion.

  16. “But Cuba has been using modern fertilisers on a large scale. ” – And this would have been prevented to Haiti? We’re talking about the same time frame for both.

  17. Yes, Anon, I agree the same ‘not something for nothing’ principle applies to both Haiti and Cuba, and everywhere else. Commercial fertilisers became available in large scale affordable amounts in the mid- to late nineteenth century (guano and nitrates from South America were some of the first commercial materials) in time to reverse many declining yields — and especially since the ‘Green Revolution’ it’s been even easier to maintain yields instead of natural decline, fallowing or shifting to new land. It was a minor point, though, that Haiti might have not continued to be number one sugar producer, even if slavery had continued.

  18. Haiti didn’t have to retain #1 status, they simply had to retain the ability to generate wealth for themselves.

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