In 1791, the slaves of France's most profitable Caribbean colony, Saint Domingue, revolted. The uprising was kindled by the appalling exploitation and abuse of the colony's enslaved African population, and stoked by the same Enlightenment values championed by white anti-monarchic revolutionaries in the United States and France itself.
But the independent republic of Haiti that eventually emerged in 1804 was never an equal among the brotherhood of Western nations. To the north, the United States, a nation of slaveowners, regarded Haiti, a nation of free blacks, with unvarnished horror and boycotted its merchants.
Meanwhile, France, the spurned former colonial ruler, fumed at its losses. In 1825, with a French flotilla threatening invasion, Haiti was compelled to pay a king's ransom of 150 million gold francs — estimated to be ten times the country's annual revenues — in indemnities to compensate French settlers and slaveowners for their lost plantations. The sum would be later reduced to 90 million gold francs, but that was little consolation: Haiti, in effect, was forced to pay reparations for its freedom.
This history is not as distant as it may seem. It set the stage for many decades of Haitian economic misery and underdevelopment to come—the country, one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere, did not finish repaying its 19th century debts to France and the U.S. until the middle of the 20th century.
And the legacy of the past was very much alive this week, as French President Francois Hollande landed on Tuesday on a historic visit to Haiti.
On Sunday, Hollande had made remarks in the Caribbean island of the Guadeloupe that he would "settle the debt that [the French] have" with Haiti—a declaration that was rapidly back-tracked by aides, who insisted Hollande was referring to a "moral" debt, not an actual financial one.
In Haiti, Hollande promised large-scale French assistance, including a plan to help modernize the country's education system. He acknowledged that a "moral debt exists," but skirted whether the wrongs of the 19th century would be more directly addressed through reparations.
"You’re not asking for aid, you want development," Hollande said, addressing an audience of Haitian dignitaries in Port-au-Prince. "You’re not asking for welfare, you want investment."
But many in Haiti want more than that, including a group of protesters who greeted Hollande's arrival with placards and chants. France's hollowing out of the fledgling nation's coffers is seen by some as the original disaster, one that underlies the myriad Haitian dysfunctions and tragedies that followed.
While France belatedly offered a public apology for the history of slavery that shaped the Caribbean, and also canceled Haiti's $77 million debt following the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake, activists say that the indemnities unjustly forced on Haiti more than a century ago must be reversed. Some calculate that returning all those 19th century gold francs would add up to about $17 billion.
Separately, a bloc of 15 Caribbean nations has embarked on a joint quest to obtain reparations from Europe's slave-trading and owning empires, and optimistically seek to win accords with the British, French and Dutch governments.
But such an understanding regarding reparations from Europe is still distant, not least because of the tricky politics that would follow for the former colonial power. There are many skeletons in the closets of Europe's lapsed empires, and one formal act of reparation would likely beget calls for others.
Haiti's President Michel Martelly appeared to recognize this. "No negotiation, no compensation can repair the wounds of history that still mark us today," he told Hollande on Tuesday. "Haiti has not forgotten, but Haiti is not stubborn."
An article in Haiti's main newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, cited by France 24, shrugged off the question of reparations. France, concluded editor Frantz Duval, will have to reckon with its own demons for many years to come:
The moral debt that is owed is for having enslaved the blacks who were uprooted from Africa to transform every drop of their sweat and blood, and each parcel of land on Saint Domingue, into wealth for the imperial center. For this moral debt, Haiti does not seek compensation. We agree that it is irreparable. We leave it to be a stain on the civilized world.