This book is a sequel to his magnum opus, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, which is his own account of the Haitian Revolution in French Saint-Domingue. Dubois has another book about the French Revolution in Guadeloupe in the eastern Caribbean, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804.
Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, which is Dubois’ narrative of the last 200 years of Haitian history, is an apology written for a general audience in the same advocate style as Avengers of the New World and A Colony of Citizens. Writing in 1886, Sir Spenser St. John expressed doubt in Hayti, or the Black Republic that a book on Haitian history would “prove interesting for the general reader” because hitherto it had been nothing “but a series of plots and revolutions, followed by barbarous military executions.”
The chief merit of Aftershocks is that Dubois brings our story up to date: among the highlights, Cincinnatus Leconte, who died when the National Palace exploded in 1912; Vilbrun Sam, who was ripped to shreds by a mob in 1915; Élie Lescot, forced into exile in 1946; Dumarsais Estimé, driven into exile in 1950; “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who ruled Haiti with an iron fist from 1957 to 1986; Jean-Bertrand Aristide, overthrown in a military coup in 1991, and later driven into exile again in 2004.
Dubois wants his readers to know that Haiti has suffered from the “aftershocks” of the Haitian Revolution:
“In the midst of a brutal plantation system, they imagined a different order, one based on freedom, equality, and autonomy. But they did more than imagine it. They built it out of nothing – with fury, solidarity, and determination. Out of a situation that seemed utterly hopeless, they created a new and better world for themselves.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.370)
The gradual emergence of this “new and better world for themselves” is a subject that Dubois dances around throughout the book. He occasionally refers to it as the “counter-plantation system” or the “lakou system” which had became established in Haiti by the 1820s. This system of cooperative subsistence agriculture was “at the core of the Haitian struggle” to achieve “real autonomy, dignity, and freedom.”
The average person who reads a book like Aftershocks is driven by a single question: how did a place like Saint-Domingue, which under French colonialism was known as the ‘Paris of the Antilles’, evolve over the course of two centuries into this hopeless abyss of poverty on television that is modern Haiti?
Glimmers of the truth appear throughout Aftershocks:
Haiti’s earliest rulers – Toussaint L’ouverture*, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and Jean-Pierre Boyer – all struggled, unsuccessfully as it would turn out, to revive the colonial plantation based export economy. By the 1830s, they had definitively lost that battle with the Haitian people.
Reviving the sugar industry in Haiti would have required massive capital investment to repair the damage to Haiti’s sugar plantations – the mills, irrigation systems, and transportation infrastructure – as well as the ports caused by the Haitian Revolution. It would have required a willingness on the part of Haitians to work on the plantations as wage laborers. It would have also required a cooperative relationship with France to provide a market for exports and especially the capital, experience, and labor management skills of the exiled French planters.
Instead, the French planters who remained behind in Haiti were exterminated at the outset by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and ‘whites’ in general were banned from owning property in Haiti under the 1805 Haitian Constitution. Thus, there was no chance that the sugar plantations would ever rebuilt in Haiti, and the result of that was the migration of the sugar industry to Cuba, which by 1860 was exporting a billion pounds of sugar thanks to the introduction of American railroads and steam-powered sugar mills.
In the Haitian countryside, the former slaves began to exercise their freedom to create a radically “different order” from the world of slavery: they squatted on state owned land, shifted their energies to growing useful subsistence crops, and began to cut down logwood and harvest wild coffee beans to generate a cash income. Gradually, the large plantations of the colonial era fragmented and gave way to a true African peasantry.
In this New World Order, the former slaves created a new problem which hadn’t existed in colonial Saint-Domingue: as one might expect, they married and reproduced, and a colony which had previously been a demographic sinkhole under slavery turned around and began to experience rapid population growth. Haiti’s demographic success was celebrated by abolitionists as proof of the economic inefficiency of slavery.
For a long time, the system worked reasonably well for Haitians who enjoyed a higher standard of living than blacks in other parts of the Caribbean, but it ultimately wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle. By the 1880s, deforestation had begun to take its toll on exports of logwood. In the 1890s, the world price of coffee plummeted due to overproduction in Brazil, and the revenues of the Haitian state collapsed at a time when it had grown heavily indebted due to servicing multiple foreign loans.
Haiti’s population crept upward through the 19th century (there were 335,000 at independence), but it truly began to soar after 1900, rising from around 1.7 million in 1900 to 10 million people by 2012. In the absence of rapid export growth, Haiti’s population explosion led to a Malthusian catastrophe that gradually immiserated the population while destroying the environment.
The Haitian state, which was generally ruled by a predatory mulatto elite, seems to have existed to make matters worse in a number of ways:
“Each new president brought to power by insurrection incorporated a new group of officers into his regime, and they often stayed on even after their benefactors were overthrown. “The only thing left to do,” one president quipped, was to “issue a decree making everyone a general.” In 1867 there were about 20,000 soldiers in Haiti (in a population of 700,000 or so), and of those, a startling 13,500 were officers.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, pp.169-170)
When the long awaited US invasion finally came in 1915, a single Haitian soldier took up arms in defense of the homeland. In the 19th century, Haiti’s military (the source of large budgetary outlays) was used primarily as an instrument to 1.) distribute patronage to favored supporters, 2.) repeatedly attack the Dominican Republic, and 3.) to oppress the 95 percent illiterate rural population.
By 1900, there was almost 2,250 km of railroad track in Cuba. Such was the devotion of Haiti’s political class to maintaining and developing the country’s infrastructure that there was only 37 km of railroad track in Haiti at the time:
“By 1900 there were still only 37 km of railway in Haiti, and for all intents and purposes the network played no part in the development of the export sector. Haiti did have ports, at least nine able to handle international trade, but transport to those ports from the interior was exceedingly costly. As late as 1900, for example, it took two days by horseback to travel the short distance of 62 km from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel across the mountains or three days by coastal vessels. It took four days on horseback to go 288 km from the capital to the second city of Cap Haitien.” (Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars, p.144)
Nearby Jamaica had excellent roads thanks to the British government:
“By the end of the century, the network had reached nearly 300 km and crossed the island south to north. This was still very small for an island of Jamaica’s size and might have been a serious deterrent to export diversification were it not for investment in public roads. These had been woefully neglected under the old assembly government, but they would be a priority after Jamaica became a Crown colony in 1865. By the end of the century Jamaica had nearly 6,000 km of all-weather roads.” (Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars, p.143)
In Haiti, the independent minded peasantry attacked James MacDonald’s effort to build a railroad connecting Port-au-Prince with Le Cap in 1911:
“Soon, desperate farmers began fighting back. With cries of “Down with MacDonald!” and “Down with the railroad!” they attacked the buildings of the U.S. company, destroying sawmills and lumberyards, smashing tools, and trying to intimidate Haitian workers into abandoning the construction sites.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.208)
The Haitian resistance to the construction of railroads is celebrated by Dubois who neglects to mention that rail transport ceased to operate in Haiti by the 1970s. The lack of infrastructure is the primary reason why the Haitian economy was unable to respond to price signals and reorient toward other exports.
Even more tellingly, Dubois glamorizes the event that finally brought about the end of the US occupation of Haiti in 1934:
“In June 1929, the resplendent new agricultural school was inaugurated in Damien, a suburb north of Port-au-Prince. It was outfitted with laboratories, a geological museum, a collection of Haitian plants, and a dairy farm where imported Jersey and Holstein cows cohabited with a few “indigenous” ones. Haitian and American teachers provided instruction in zoology, botany, agronomy, physics, chemistry, and political economy, physics, chemistry, and political economy, and the students got exercise playing soccer, volleyball, and basketball. The school was the crown jewel of a decade-long effort by the United States to transform education and agriculture in Haiti, meant to demonstrate unequivocally that the occupation was a force for progress and civilization. Instead, however, it ended up doing the opposite. Within a few months, the Damien school became the launching pad for a mass student uprising, which eventually helped to do what Péralte’s Cacos could not: send the U.S. forces home.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.265)
Ignorant liberals cite the Service Technique as an example of “America’s Sorry History With Haiti.” This “student uprising” would have been the equivalent of an uprising in the former Confederacy against the U.S. occupation for establishing Texas A&M, Auburn University, Mississippi State, and Clemson University.
Every country in the world is a product of the “aftershocks of history.” Puerto Rico, which was poorer than Haiti for most of the 19th century, is now significantly wealthier thanks to the “aftershock” that was the Spanish-American War. Cuba’s plunge into a poverty, a recent development, is an “aftershock” of the Cuban Revolution. Guadeloupe, where the average per capita income is 20x higher than in Haiti, is an “aftershock” of the success of the Richepance expedition in restoring slavery and colonialism.
Like the Cayman Islands, Haiti’s present condition is ultimately an “aftershock” of being free to make its own decisions.
* Haiti under Toussaint L’ouverture was nominally independent from France.