The year is 1899.
Hesketh Prichard, a British explorer, adventurer, and travel writer, has arrived in Haiti to see with his own eyes the land where “the law of the world is reversed, and the Black man rules.”
It has been 105 years since the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1794. Nearly a century has passed since Haiti won its independence from France. In Haiti, the negro inherited “a wide land sown with prosperity,” a “made country,” where he was “turned loose to work out his salvation.”
In 1789, there were 58 heavily irrigated sugar plantations covering around 36,000 acres in the Cul-de-Sac plain that surrounds modern Port-au-Prince. The lush fields of the plain were connected to its port by a straight and well-maintained road system.
Once upon a time, the Cul-de-Sac and Artibonite plains in the Western Province around Port-au-Prince – where there had been a total of 314 sugar plantations – were the Detroit of capital intensive, export-based plantation agriculture:
“On my way to San Domingo, I rode out of the capital toward the plain of Cul-de-Sac, which in the days of French occupation had contained many flourishing plantations, the soil being rich and productive beyond the average even in prolific Hayti.
“Yes, sir, you are right plumb in the centre of the most fertile district in Hayti – in the world. Do you know how much the revenue from this Plain of Cul-de-Sac totted up to in the time of the French colony a hundred years back? It was 20,000,000 francs, and what would you put it at now?”
I had overtaken the speaker. I looked round. We were riding up a steady but hardly perceptible incline, and were in the heart of the plain. Ever since the first streak of dawn I had been passing ruined walls patted with vegetation, a few irregular patches of corn, a few clumps of Guinea grass about each solitary palm-thatched hut, yet mangoes, bananas, and tamarinds bore witness to the soil’s unaided fruitfulness. As we went on the surroundings grew more lonely. Save for the town of Pompadette no village broke the desolate ranges of forest on either hand.
Here among wild and hardy trees some hint of the old time occupation of man might be traced in the existence of gentler-bred shrubs, but the splendid country houses of the French period had apparently been absorbed by the jungle, which had closed in about them when man ceased to dwell there. Mules, bred between the parrot and the blackbird, chattered in the riotous foliage, and droves of lean pigs eked out a precarious existence on the land that the forest had reclaimed from the dominion of man.
“The present revenue? I had not an idea,” I replied.
My questioner laughed. “Not a red cent, sir! Each year the forest comes forward, and no effort is made to keep the ground clear, much less to cultivate it. There is a proverb in this island which you may have heard – ‘In Hayti, there are only three classes who work: the white man, the black woman, and the ass.’ …
The Plain of Cul-de-Sac is, roughly, twenty-seven miles by twenty-four. Port-au-Prince lies at one end of it, and there the ships of all nations offer a ready outlet to its wealth. And yet, for all practical purposes, its wealth is not. A few huts, primitive enough to cost the labour of but half the day, lie scattered over its surface, but the occupiers are satisfied to subsist on the produce of the land as Nature gives it into their hands. The very sugar-boiling pans of a hundred years ago lie rusting where the dawn of slave-emancipation found them, and in these evidences of a bygone prosperity the lizard has its dwelling-place.” (Hesketh Prichard, Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti, pp. 53-54)
Pompeii was buried in ash by a volcanic explosion.
Following the Haitian Revolution, the prosperity the Cul-de-Sac and Aritibonite plains was laid low by the immutable laws of the Visible Black Hand of Economics. In 1904, Cuba exported 1.1 million tons of sugar. In spite of the Spanish-American War, Cuba still exported 345,000 tons of sugar in 1899.
In Haiti, it was a national proverb at the time that there were only three classes who worked: the white man, the black woman, and the ass. Is that why Haiti is always referred to as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere?