As many of you know, on Jan. 12, 2010 the nation of Haiti suffered through an earthquake with a magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale. This earthquake basically destroyed the city of Port au Prince leaving an estimated 150,000 people dead. My wife and I were particularly interested because we sponsor a 13 year old Haitian girl name Lossile Joseph, with whom we have been corresponding for the last 5 years. Even though, we sponsor Lossile, I have to admit that I know little about the culture and history of Haiti, so I thought what better opportunity to learn about Haiti than by giving a Toastmasters speech. As I was doing research about Haiti, I kept asking the question “Why is Haiti so poor?” So today, I would like to answer that question as I take you through the history of Haiti, during the first recorded settlement, the slave revolution, and finally the condition of Haiti after the slave revolution.
The First recorded history of Haiti, started in 1492 when the Spaniard Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” and landed on the island of Hispanola. The Spanish colonized on Hispanola migrating to the Eastern side of the island which is present day Dominican Republic. Around 1697, the French also had interests and settled on the western side naming the colony, Saint-Dominique, which is present day Haiti. Because the land was so fertile, the French eventually started plantations which grew sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cocoa and needed laborers to work. Therefore, hundreds of thousands of slaves were imported from Africa and literally worked to death. At the height of production near the end of the 18th century, Haiti produced 40% to 60% of Europe’s sugar and coffee. This was a highly profitable business for the French, but it was at the expense of many African slaves lives.
This brings us to the slave revolution. In 1791, during the time of the French revolution, word of the French revolution got to the slaves in Haiti, and over 480,000 slaves rebelled against the French colonists. History Professor Natasha Lightfoot of Columbia University estimated that the slaves outnumbered the colonists 10 to 1. This revolt was lead by General Toussaint Louverture that eventually turned into a 13 year war ending with a last unsuccessful effort by France’s Napoleon to stop the revolt. The war ended on January 1, 1804 when General Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the nation to be no longer Saint-Dominique but Haiti. It was the first and only successful slave revolution. An interesting side note was pointed out by CBS correspondent Anthony Mason about the new Haitian flag, “Its new flag was derived from the French tricolor, which was turned on its side - and the white stripe symbolically stripped off.”
Unfortunately, the years that followed after the independence of Haiti did not see the same prosperity as before. The French felt their land was stolen and demanded reparations before they would trade with Haiti. Other European countries and the US joined France’s boycott to Haiti mainly due to the downright prejudice. Another possible reason the US did not trade with Haiti was stated by Professor Page of Miami University, “After they became independent, they ended up in a situation where – number one – they were considered a threat by the entire rest of the region because the rest of the region, especially the United States, owned slaves. A slave rebellion is not a good thing to have so close to a nation that owned several million slaves of their own.” Haiti was not even able to begin trade with the rest of the world until 1838, and this was at a high price. This restriction of trade devastated Haiti. Haiti was also plagued by an unstable government and numerous despotic heads of states, which ruthlessly ravaged the people and the resources of the country. Haiti could never recover and may never recover because according to Professor Page 80%-90% of Haiti is illiterate and is unable to neither innovate nor attract industries. This is why Haiti is so poor.
In conclusion, I have given you a brief history of the nation of Haiti and because of the harsh treatment of the Haitian people before and after the slave revolt, what we have left is a predominately poor nation. Lately, there have been many futile attempts to get Haiti prosperous, but all attempts have failed, probably due to ulterior motives or probably due to an underestimate of the true scope of the problem. The earthquake in Haiti was a tragedy, but out of this tragedy can be optimism. More Americans and the rest of the world are being educated about the economic climate in Haiti and we can only hope that action can come because of this interest.