In the Crossroads Haiti Debate, I came across the myth that Western countries essentially ganged up on Haiti and strangled its economy out of “racism.” Disingenuous White Liberals really believe this stuff.
I’ve spent the last week researching the trade policies of the United States and Western European countries toward Haiti during the early 19th century.
Here’s what I have learned:
– It’s true that the United States briefly passed an embargo on Haitian exports in 1806 to appease the French, but US trade with Haiti was thriving before, during, and after the embargo, which was never taken very seriously by US merchants. (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p. 138)
– Haiti’s trade relations with France were normalized by the 1825 agreement, but even if this had occurred at an earlier date and under more favorable circumstances, trade with France and Western Europe would have been disrupted anyway by the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental System. Even before the 1825 indemnity, France was responsible for 17 percent of Haitian imports. (Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars, p.117)
– Great Britain established trade relations with Toussaint L’ouverture even before Haitian independence in 1804 and this relationship was reaffirmed under Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe.
– Generally speaking, the 19th century was a time of falling trade barriers and soaring demand for tropical commodities in Western Europe and the United States which were undergoing strong population growth:
“Of all the centuries to be specialized in primary product exports, the nineteenth century was probably the best. Demand for many commodities was growing strongly, income elasticities were high, navigation laws were in decline, trade barriers in the core countries were coming down, transport costs were falling and trusts and cartels among the importers only began to have a negative impact at the very end of the century.” (Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic War, p.96)
The real threat to Haiti’s economy in the 19th century can be seen in the graphic below. It wasn’t US or European trade barriers:
During the 19th century, Western Europe and the United States acquired colonies in other parts of the world, and the supply of tropical commodities soared as global production shifted away from the Caribbean and toward new frontiers like the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In South America, Brazil and Colombia became important coffee producers, which caused the world price of coffee to collapse in the 1890s. Eventually, British and American consumers developed a preference for cheaper Brazilian and Colombian coffee over Haitian coffee.
In such a world, Haiti’s independence was a liability. If Haiti had been colonized like Hawaii, Louisiana, or Puerto Rico, Haitian sugar – if such a thing existed at the time – would have been treated more favorably in the US market. Similarly, Guadeloupe and Martinique were favored in the French market because of their colonial relationship with France, and so was the British Caribbean in the British market until the 1840s.
Haitians fought a war of independence to be free of the White man. In doing so, they put themselves at a severe competitive disadvantage to Cuba and Brazil and later to other tropical countries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Note: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic were poorer than Haiti through most of the 19th century. The growth of the “American Sugar Kingdom” changed this.