Defend Truth


The howling ghosts of colonialism haunt Haiti as violent anarchy and gang rule escalate


Bryan Rostron has lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, New York and London. He has written for The New York Times, the London Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Spectator and was a correspondent for New Statesman. He is the author of the recently published ‘Lost on the Map: a memoir of colonial illusions’ (Bookstorm) and six previous books, including ‘Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues’ and the novels ‘My Shadow’ and ‘Black Petals’. He lives in Cape Town.

Haiti’s current unrestrained gang rule after the recent resignation of the unelected prime minister is widely portrayed as a case of hopeless Third World incompetence, rather than two centuries of pitiless Western extraction which has condemned the country to perpetual impoverishment.

There’s no more shocking proof of the lingering consequences of colonialism than the violent anarchy devastating Haiti. Brutal gangs now control most of the country.

This is the end result of European powers ruthlessly squeezing the tiny Caribbean republic dry — and the subsequent amnesia about a systematic crime against humanity, especially among the Western nations most implicated in that mobster-style extortion of a poor country: France and the United States.

What was once called Saint-Domingue was so profitable, producing 60% of the world’s coffee and 50% of its sugar, that it is estimated one in eight people in France depended on trade with that distant Caribbean colony.

But in 1804, after an astonishingly successful slave revolt, the world’s first black republic, Haiti, was declared. Clearly colonial powers felt that the shock of such a massive loss of revenue and the scandalous example of an independent black republic could not be tolerated. So they set in motion measures, right up to the 21st century, to crush such a show of independence.

The initial strike was the arrival in 1825 of a squadron of 15 French warships in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Faced with the bargaining power of 500 cannons, Haiti was forced to agree to pay 150 million francs in compensation for the loss of France’s profitable plantations and all their human chattels.

This debt, though later reduced to 90 million francs, was not paid off until 1947. In fact, it was a “double debt”, as to pay it off Haiti was compelled to take loans, at interest, from French banks — which also helped to finance the construction of the Eiffel Tower. By 1914, 80% of the Haitian government’s budget went to pay off this debt at the expense of an increasingly impoverished population.

In that same year, a United States warship anchored at Port-au-Prince, and a team of marines marched to the so-called Haitian National Bank, from where they removed gold reserves worth $500,000 (approximately $15-million today). This was taken back to New York “for safe-keeping”.

The following year the Americans invaded with the standard justification of “restoring order and maintaining stability”. That occupation lasted until 1934, and during some of those 19 years, more was spent from the national budget to pay the US officials enforcing the occupation than on the then two million population.

If this was an individual, the actions of France and the United States would be denounced as “debt bondage”. In a major investigation in 2022, The New York Times established that most of Haiti’s developmental potential — many billions of dollars — was siphoned off by the West. Haiti has been strangled from the start.

Historical injustices ignored

Even so, almost no reporting of the current turmoil makes reference to this callous saga of exploitation. The unrestrained gang activity after the recent resignation of the unelected prime minister is widely portrayed as a case of hopeless Third World incompetence, rather than two centuries of pitiless Western extraction which has condemned the country to perpetual impoverishment.

Nor has that history ever been taught in French schools. The amnesia is almost complete. While proposals for reparations for slavery are largely scoffed at, the New York Times found an almost total loss of memory today among those French elite whose wealth stems from Haitian “reparations” for the loss of slaves.

In South Africa too, Thabo Mbeki’s visit to Haiti in 2004 for the bicentenary of the world’s first black republic was generally greeted with baffled scorn by our commentariat. This reflected widespread ignorance of the significance of a great slave rebellion which defeated the armies of France, Spain and Britain.

Its monumental importance was captured in The Black Jacobins by the radical Trinidadian writer CLR James: “The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement”.

Begun in 1791, the revolt was led by the extraordinary Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave until 45. James recounts how the slaves overthrew the shackles of their own minds: ‘The slaves defeated in turn the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of 60,000 men and a French expedition of similar size under (Napoleon) Bonaparte’s brother-in-law.”

It was an astonishing military triumph against staggering odds. Perhaps that’s why brutal attempts have been made ever since to destroy that achievement and ensure the real crime is forgotten.

The Black Jacobins was first published in 1938, and in the preface to the 1980 edition, the author recalled meeting young South African exiles in Ghana in 1957 who told him how important this book was to them: typing out pages in order to circulate them covertly back home.

CLR James’ conclusion also stands as a perceptive assessment of the balance of violence during the Struggle against apartheid, noting: “cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetrating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased”.

In Haiti, aside from Western extortion and occupation, there have always been local elites ready to do the bidding of others for their own profit. Here we had Jacob Zuma and his flunkies; in Haiti there was the infamous “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1957-1971), with his infamous Tonton Macoute goons, then his equally vicious son “Baby Doc” (1971-1986).

Whenever a reforming leader comes to power, entrenched local and international interests move quickly to undermine them.

The current crisis should be seen as a syndrome which Tolstoy accurately identified as: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means — except by getting off his back”. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alan Salmon says:

    Always blaming colonialism, ensures no one will ever get out of the long ago grip. So convenient for Western journalists to make a buck, for others to excuse their atrocious behaviour on.

  • peter selwaski says:

    Are there any native run countries that are successful? Haity was run by the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier followed by his son Baby Doc. Natives. The USA gave them many millions of dollars which were never used for the people. Not much different than SA.

  • ST ST says:

    Yes it is not nice to hear that your heritage brought so much everlasting pain and misery. But it’s better to acknowledge and seek to be part part of the solution like others did/do.

    But sadly some, too much in denial and maybe shame, instead go into offensive overdrive and or want to bail. Orania, Cape exit, blacks have a low IQ, are corrupt, infact…they themselves are colonisers! Talk about insult to injury!

    Why is so important to disempower another?! In any relationship, one does that because one is feeling threatened and insecure in themselves, or selfish or can’t maturely deal complexities. Understandable but undesirable.

    Historical people did horrendous things to each other. We must learn, grow and do better. Yes the past can be blamed for the future. Pain carries, same as if you’re bullied as a child. You may become self destructive and your future generations may be defined by it

    It’s easier to blame an individual than a system. Individuals can be blamed. But often the system makes it harder to choose or do otherwise. Some may escape but it often takes extraordinary attributes. Otherwise there’ll be no 1%. Same as most people aren’t rich, corrupt, or psychopaths.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Very interesting article.
    Which made me read up on the other country of the Hispanic island, Dominican Republic.
    As horrific a colonial past.
    Yet a completely different outcome today – DR is a fairly stable multi party democracy for the last few decades. With modernizing infrastructure, globally connected and successful.
    The difference couldn’t be more stark.

    It seems that the Dominican Republic’s success is also routed in its colonial history.
    Spanish colonization was different in that there were more intermarriages with the native population of the island. Also the Spanish king/government were far less rigid and provided a loser trading environment.
    In Haiti, the French were far fewer, less inclined to intermarry, and far more exploitative.
    The population in Haiti was always more homogeneous and one would think that this would be a positive in creating a stable country.
    Turns out not so at all.

    So, a long way around to say that the article might blame colonialism too much for the present Haitian implosion. Right next door is another colonial victim but the citizens there simply made different, better choices with the cards they were dealt.
    At some point people have to take responsibility for their lived lives.

  • Wayne Stepanik says:

    While the Western colonial behaviour is a travesty, a great evil I must ask how the evil of others can be used as an excuse for the moral bankruptcy of its subjects? Just like the ANC the saviours of Haiti had no intention of building a great nation. Their goal was simply to acquire power for themselves and thus facilitate plunder under their control. That in my opinion is a far greater evil than anything any former colonial power inflicted on any of its subjects. I therefore reject the continued narrative of third world victimhood.

  • George 007 says:

    Colonialism has nothing to do with Haiti’s situation today. Nothing.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Another article detailing the never ending evils of colonialism. Unfortunately anybody who even tries to point out the many positive aspects of colonialism gets pilloried by the woke left.

  • Alan Downing says:

    After the successful slave revolt of 1791, Haiti was ruled by megalomaniac emperors who maintained the slave economy and built elaborate palaces and forts at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. In 1822 Haiti invaded the eastern part of the island. In 1844 civil war broke out.

  • Peter Relleen says:

    If the facts presented in this article are truthful and correct, and I have no reason to think otherwise, I have been educated and enlightened.
    For this, I’m most grateful to Bryan Rostron.
    Thank you.
    I’m confess to being surprised by the adverse reaction by, I think, the majority of readers comments.
    I suppose their point of view tallies with the governments, past and present, that involved themselves in the affairs of Haiti.
    So the majority view wins, right or wrong.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    So, in 1825 the French navy arrived to claim reparations. In 1821, four years before, Haiti launched an invasion into the Dominican Republic. 23 years later, Dominican forces eventually defeat Haiti in 1844 and get their own independence. Between 1849 and 1859 the Second Empire of Haiti made repeated attempts to conquer the Dominican Republic. Do you perhaps feel these very expensive military interventions may have contributed to Haiti’s impoverishment? The political upheavals and disturbances since then are legion – including Guillaume’s order to execute hundreds of political opponents in 1915, to the deadly Papa Doc / Baby Doc bloody regimes, to Aristide’s landslide win in 1990 in a presidential election, Haiti’s first free and peaceful polls (!), only to be deposed a year later in a military coup. Then there were the hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and coups combined with corruption and incompetence. And here you are Mr Rostron, asking us to swallow your story that none of this has had any contributory role in the impoverishment of Haiti? All the woes of Haiti can be nailed to the claim for reparations by France and a subsequent Western colonial conspiracy to make sure these uppity slaves never succeeded. It is unfortunate that we no longer receive paper editions of DM, because this page would surely have found some use on a nail in an outhouse on our cousin’s Karoo farm.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted