Attackers killed Haitian President Jovenel Moïse at his home early Wednesday, leaving the country poised for more violence and discord. This moment comes amid ongoing turmoil and suffering, poverty and hunger. Many had called for Moïse’s removal from power after he refused to leave office when his term ended in early 2021, putting the Haitian constitutional order at risk. When Haitians protested, they faced threats and arrests.
But as American readers assess this news, it is critical to understand the history of Haiti. Too often, the Caribbean nation tends to exist at a distance for many White Americans: a tropical tapestry for tales of dictators and political dysfunction, of poverty and adversity, of stories and tropes that exist in an ever-present now, ready to be deployed in fundraising materials and political campaigns. These stereotypes are steeped in anti-Black racism and mask an important truth: The histories of Haiti and the United States are intertwined and reach back centuries.
President Biden pledged on Wednesday that the United States stands “ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti.” But instead of rushing in with quick fixes and silver bullets, the United States and the international community should instead allow Haitians, including civil society and pro-democracy organizations, to take the lead. As Monique Clesca put it, “Certainly [do] not invade us. … Let us deal with the issue and find solutions rather than impose one on us.”
Haiti, whose name is a remembrance of the island’s Taíno inhabitants, was the site of Christopher Columbus’s first expedition. The next century of Haitian history was the history of colonization condensed: the exploitation of Indigenous labor and the destruction of Indigenous lives, the kidnapping and importation of enslaved African people, cultural and linguistic influences on the world (hurricane, barbecue and hammock all come from Taíno) and armed resistance from Black and Indigenous people. For example, in 1522 a group of 20 African enslaved people liberated themselves from Diego Columbus’s plantation and joined the rebellion already in progress being led by the Taíno prince Enriquillo.
The Spanish and French spent the next two centuries trying to control the island and its people, even as Black Haitians pushed for liberation. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were forced to produce sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton. By the 1740s, French enslavers had established a contraband trade linking their colony, called Saint Domingue, with merchants in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Newport, exchanging sugar, molasses and indigo for wheat flour and other foodstuffs.
These contraband networks — the smuggled molasses that played a role in the American Revolution — also worked as avenues for news. The newspaper in colonial Saint Domingue was controlled by the French government and was largely devoted to commercial bulletins and advertisements seeking fugitives from slavery. But it also published news about the American war for independence.
Ship captains from the American colonies brought news to colonial Haiti for over a year before France formally joined the war: Their tales highlighted George Washington’s brilliance as a commander, magnifying and exaggerating his victories at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-1777. Reports of the victorious colonial army would be read aloud in taverns and homes, passed from hand to hand, reaching well beyond White enslavers to free people of color and the enslaved.
After France formally entered the American war for independence, the French military attempted to recruit two units out of colonial Haiti, one White and one composed of free men of color — individuals of African or mixed African and European ancestry. The latter was more successful, with 545 men ultimately joining the French expedition to Savannah, serving under the command of White officers. These Chasseurs are commemorated in a monument organized by the Haitian-American Historical Society, completed in 2009, recognizing the largest Black regiment fighting on the American side in the war.
Trade grew even more after U.S. independence. When Philadelphia was the national capital (1790-1800), between 9 and 35 percent of the foreign ships arriving in the city came from colonial Haiti. These ships brought sugar and coffee, but also news of the civil strife among White colonists and free people of color on the island.
The French Revolution, which began in 1789, had created a political opening for the colony’s residents. Different factions sought to define and steer how they wanted French rule to change or, perhaps, end. When enslaved men and women began a fight for their own liberation in August 1791, White Philadelphians became concerned about the implications for the United States, both for the future of slavery and American trade with Saint Domingue.
This fear of Black liberation drove how the American press covered events in Haiti. Even with frequent direct contacts between the two locales, newspaper publishers and politicians in Philadelphia flattened their telling of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). The events were remarkable. Black Haitians forced the French Republic to declare universal emancipation and then defended their liberty against Napoleon’s invasion to become the second independent state in the Americas.
Yet, eager to translate the story for a White audience that denied Black humanity, U.S. commentators deprived Haitians of agency and oversimplified the complex story. Political philosophers even reconstructed their thinking about the universality of liberty to praise the American Revolution while condemning the Haitian one.
Despite this racist thinking, after Haiti’s independence, U.S. merchants continued to show up, exchanging various goods for Haitian coffee and other products. But disrespecting the Haitian quest for freedom, enslavers fled to U.S. ports, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston and especially New Orleans, denying the enslaved the emancipation that Haiti would enforce.
The Haitian Revolution had profound impacts on the United States. Most famously, it enabled the Louisiana purchase in 1803. African Americans read Toussaint L’Ouverture’s constitution, Jean Jacques Dessalines’s proclamations and early Haitian state papers published by Prince Saunders in 1816. Haitian intellectuals wrote some of the first critiques of colonialism and the white-supremacist order that had created the 19th-century world. These writings helped inspire enslaved African Americans to demand their own freedom — just as White American enslavers feared.
In 1825, France forced Haiti to pay a substantial indemnity for “property lost” during the Haitian Revolution, including the value of the workers who had freed themselves from slavery. Haitian leaders, pursuing official recognition and worried about the devastation another French invasion would bring, agreed. “The French money,” as it was called, reached the former enslavers or their heirs in exile, including some in the United States.
Trade, travel and mutual influences among Haiti and its neighbors continued. Haitians held an elaborate funeral in absentia for the abolitionist John Brown, who they saw as a kindred spirit. The nation welcomed its first U.S. ambassador during the American Civil War. And legendary African American historian and activist W.E.B. Du Bois — the son of a Haitian father — worked with Haitians Anténor Firmin and Benito Sylvain at the First Pan-African Conference in Paris in 1900 to pen “To the Nations of the World,” which called on the United States to end Jim Crow and European powers to cease their imperial efforts in Africa and the Caribbean.
Yet, most of these ties remained invisible to White Americans and how they perceived Haiti.
Instead the island nation next burst into the headlines in 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson used the assassination of the Haitian president (the last until 2021) to justify U.S. invasion and occupation. The U.S. tested air power and counterinsurgency tactics against the Haitians. Even after ending the occupation in 1934, the United States propped up the brutal Duvalier regime during the Cold War.
Media outlets in the United States continued to present a distorted view of Haiti as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” one that ignored Haitian history or agency. Humanitarian interventions have had their own shortsightedness, including the Clinton administration cratering the Haitian rice market in the mid-1990s and a U.N. peacekeeping force reintroducing cholera in mid-2000s.
Writing after the 2010 earthquake about the ways U.S. writers and other foreigners often distort Haitian realities, the Haitian author Gina Athena Ulysse reminded us that “perceptions of [economic poverty and artistic wealth] actually incarcerate Haiti — restricting it to dystopian narratives that obscure the republic’s complexity. In so doing, these views come dangerously close to dehumanizing Haitians.”
With Haiti again making headlines, amid, as Ayibo Post is reporting, uncertainty about who should succeed Moïse, the United States must not repeat the same patterns of interference and denials of Haitian agency and capacity. These patterns have contributed to the poverty and struggles in Haiti. Fixing the current situation will involve ameliorating their effects and recognizing Haitians as fellow human beings, our neighbors with whom we share a long history.