Slavery in Haiti
|By country or region|
|Opposition and resistance|
Slavery in Haiti has existed since Christopher Columbus established a fort on the island since his arrival in 1492. During the French colonial period, the economy of Haiti (also known as Saint-Domingue) was based on slavery, and the practice there was known as the most brutal in the world. The Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in human history, precipitated the end of slavery not only in Saint-Domingue, but in all French colonies. However, forced labor was employed by heads of state shortly after the revolution as well as by the United States during the US occupation between 1915 and 1934.
Slavery is still practiced in Haiti today. As many as half a million children are unpaid domestic servants called restaveks, who are at severe risk for physical and sexual abuse. Additionally, human trafficking, including child trafficking is a significant problem in Haiti; trafficked people are brought to, from, and through Haiti for forced labor including sex trafficking.
Spanish Hispaniola (1492–1625)
The natives living on the island that would come to be called Hispaniola were peaceful and not trained in military tactics. In the Pre-Columbian era, other Caribbean tribes would sometimes attack the island that would become Hispaniola to kidnap people into slavery. However the arrival of Columbus quickly turned slavery on the island into a massive business; the practice would become a key feature of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
When Columbus arrived in what is today Haiti in December 1492 and met the native Taino Arawak people, they were friendly, exchanging gifts with the Spaniards and volunteering their help. But Columbus was already planning to enslave them. He wrote in a letter to Queen Isabella of Spain that the natives were "tractable, and easily led; they could be made to grow crops and build cities".
When Columbus returned to Europe in 1493 and 30 of his soldiers stayed to build a fort there called La Navidad, they began stealing from, raping, and enslaving the natives. In some cases they held native women and girls as sex slaves. Finding gold was a chief goal for the Spanish; they quickly forced enslaved natives to work in gold mines, which took a heavy toll in life and health. In addition to gold the slaves mined copper, and they grew crops for the Spaniards. In response to their brutality, the natives fought back; the Spanish responded with severe reprisals, for example destroying crops to starve the natives. The Spaniards brought to the island dogs trained to kill the natives and unleashed them upon those who rebelled against enslavement. In 1495 Columbus sent 500 captured natives back to Spain as slaves, but 200 did not survive the voyage, and the others died shortly afterwards. Some Taino escaped into remote parts of the island's mountains and formed communities in hiding as "maroons", who organized attacks against Spaniards' settlements.
It is not known how many Taino people were on the island prior to Columbus's arrival—estimates range from several thousand to eight million. Between 1492 and 1494, one third of the native population on the island died. Two million had been killed within ten years of the Spaniards' arrival. By 1514, 92% of the native population of the island were killed by enslavement and European diseases. By the 1540s the culture of the natives had disappeared from the island; by 1548 the native population was under 500. The rapid rate at which the native slaves died necessitated the import of Africans, for whom contact with Europeans was not new and who therefore had already developed some immunity to European diseases. Columbus's son Diego Columbus started the African slave trade to Haiti in 1505. Some newly arrived slaves from Africa and neighboring islands were able to escape and join maroon communities in the mountains. In 1519 Africans and Native Americans joined forces to start a slave rebellion that turned into a years-long uprising which was eventually crushed by the Spanish in the 1530s.
Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas spoke out against the enslavement of the natives and the brutality of the Spaniards. He wrote that to the natives, the Christianity brought by the Spaniards had come to symbolize the brutality with which they had been treated; he quoted one Taino cacique (tribal chief), "They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters." Las Casas commented that the Spaniards' punishment of a Taino man by cutting off his ear "marked the beginning of the spilling of blood, later to become a river of blood, first on this island and then in every corner of these Indies." Las Casas' campaign led to an official end of the enslavement of Tainos in 1542—however it was replaced by the African slave trade. As Las Casas had presaged, the Spaniards' treatment of the Tainos was the start of a centuries-long legacy of slavery in which treatment such as cutting off body parts were commonplace.
French Saint Domingue (1625–1789)
The Spanish ceded control of the western part of the island to the French in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, and the new colony was named Saint Domingue. The colony, based on the export of slave-grown crops, particularly sugar, would become the richest in the world. In 1681 there were 2,000 African slaves in Saint Domingue; by 1789 there were almost half a million.
African slaves were worked so hard by French plantation owners that half died within a few years; it was cheaper to import new slaves than to improve working conditions enough to increase survival. The rate of death of slaves on Saint Domingue's plantations was higher than anywhere else in the western hemisphere. Slaves were forced to work 12-hour days. The three main crops were sugar, coffee, and tobacco. Over the French colony's hundred-year course, slavery killed about a million Africans, and thousands more chose suicide. Slaves newly arrived from Africa, particularly women, were especially likely to kill themselves. Some thought that in death they could return home to Africa. It was legal for a slaveholder to kill a slave who hit a white person, according to the 1685 Code Noir, a decree by the French king Louis XIV regulating practices of slaves and slavers. Pregnant slaves usually did not survive long enough or have healthy enough pregnancies to have live babies, but if they did the children often died young. Food was insufficient, and slaves were expected to grow and prepare it for themselves on top of their already crushing workload.
Torture of slaves was routine; they were whipped, burned, buried alive, restrained and allowed to be bitten by swarms of insects, mutilated, raped, and had limbs amputated. Slaves caught eating the sugar cane would be forced to wear tin muzzles in the fields.
The Catholic Church condoned of slavery and the practices used in the French colony, viewing the institution as a way to convert Africans to Christianity.
About 48,000 slaves in Saint Domingue managed to escape; slaveholders hired bounty hunters to catch these maroons. Those who were not caught and re-enslaved established communities away from settled areas. Maroons would organize raids called mawonag on plantations. They would steal supplies that their communities needed to survive, such as food, tools, and weapons. One famous maroon, François Mackandal, escaped into the mountains in the middle of the 18th century and went on to plan attacks on plantation owners. Mackandal was caught and burned at the stake in 1758, but his legend lived on to inspire rebellion among slaves—and fear among slaveholders.
In addition to escaping, slaves resisted by poisoning slaveholders, their families, their livestock, and other slaves—this was a common and feared enough occurrence that in December 1746 the French King banned poisoning in particular. Arson was another form of slave resistance.
The rapid rate of death of slaves during this period set the stage for the Haitian revolution by necessitating the import of more slaves from Africa. These were people who had known freedom, and some of whom had been captured as soldiers and had military training. Before the beginning of the French Revolution there were eight times as many slaves in the colony as there were white and mixed-race people put together. In 1789 the French were importing 30,000 slaves a year and there were half a million slaves in the French part of the island alone, compared to about 30,000 whites.
Revolutionary period (1789–1804)
Sex between male masters and female slaves was so common in Saint Domingue that a separate class emerged consisting of the mixed-race children of these encounters. It was standard for fathers to free these children, leading them to become a new class more privileged than slaves but less so than whites; they were called gens de couleur, "free people of color". Some of these free people of color were quite wealthy and some owned slaves.
The French Revolution in 1789 presented an opportunity for Haiti's middle class, who organized a revolt—a slave revolt followed. By 1801, the revolt had succeeded, putting Toussaint Louverture into power as Governor General of Haiti. Although slavery was outlawed, Louverture, believing that the plantation economy was necessary, forced laborers back to work on the plantations, using military might to enforce the edict.
With a view towards re-establishing slavery, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc to regain control of Haiti, along with a fleet of 86 ships and 22,000 soldiers. The Haitians resisted the soldiers, but the French were more numerous and better positioned, until the rainy season brought yellow fever. As French soldiers and officers died, black Haitian soldiers who had allied themselves with the French began to defect to the other side. In 1804, the Haitian military under leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated the French. France officially gave up control of Haiti, making it the first successful slave revolt in the world and the second independent country in the Americas (after the US).
After the revolution, newly freed slaves were violently opposed to remaining on plantations, but Dessalines, like Louverture, used military might to keep them there, thinking that plantation labor was the only way to make the economy function. Most ex-slaves viewed Dessalines' rule as more of the same oppression they had known during de jure slavery. Dessalines was killed by a mob of his own officers in 1806.
Dessalines' successor was King Henry Christophe, another general in the revolution. Christophe, fearing another French invasion, continued in Dessalines' footsteps fortifying the country. For the construction of one citadel, La Citadelle Laferrière, Christophe is thought to have forced hundreds of thousands of people into laboring on it, killing an estimated 20,000 of them.
Also like his predecessors Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Christophe used military might to force former slaves to stay on the plantations. Plantation workers under Louverture and Christophe were not unpaid—they received one quarter of what they produced, paying the rest to plantation owners and the government. Under Christophe's rule it was also possible for black people to rent their own land or work in government, and agricultural workers on plantations could make complaints to the royal administration about working conditions. These ex-slaves may also have sometimes had a choice about what plantation they would work on—but they could not choose not to work, and they could not legally leave a plantation they were "attached" to. Many ex-slaves were probably forced to work on the same plantations they had worked on as slaves.
In 1825 France sent an armada to Haiti and threatened to blockade the country, preventing trade unless its head of state, Jean Pierre Boyer, agreed to pay France 150,000,000 francs to reimburse it for losses of "property"—mostly its slaves. As part of the agreement, France would recognize Haiti as an independent nation, which it had so far refused to do. Boyer agreed without making the decision public beforehand, a move which met with widespread outrage in Haiti. Haiti was saddled by this debt until 1947, and forced to forgo spending on humanitarian programs such as sanitation. In 1838, an estimated 30% of the country's yearly budget went to debt, and in 1900, the amount had risen to 80%. Haiti took out loans from Germany, the US, and France itself to come up with this money, further increasing its debt burden and those countries' centrality in the Haitian economy.
Under new pressure to produce money to pay the debt, in 1826, Boyer enacted a new set of laws called the Code Rural that restricted agricultural workers' autonomy, required them to work, and prohibited their travel without permission. It also reenacted the sysem of corvèe, by which police and government authorities could force residents to work temporarily without pay on roads. These laws met with widespread resistance and were difficult to enforce since the workers' access to land provided them autonomy and they were able to hide from the government.
The United States passed laws to keep Haitian merchants away from US soil because slaveholders there did not want their slaves getting ideas about revolt from the Haitians. However the two countries continued trade, with Haiti purchasing the weapons it needed, albeit at disadvantageous prices for Haiti.
In July 1915, after political unrest and the mob murder of Haiti's president Vilbrun Sam, United States marines invaded Haiti. Prior to the occupation peasants had staged uprisings to resist moves by US investors to appropriate their land and convert the style of agriculture in the area from subsistence back to a plantation-like system—the idea of going back to anything like the plantation system faced fierce resistance from Haitians. Haitians had been afraid that US investors were trying to convert the economy back into a plantation-based one since US businesses had been amassing land and evicting rural peasants from their family land. Rural Haitians formed armies that roamed around the countryside, stealing from farmers and raping women. The motivation of the US occupation of Haiti was partly to protect investments and to prevent European countries from gaining too much power in the area. The occupation lasted until 1934.
As had occurred under the regimes of Dessalines and Christophe, unfree labor was again employed in a public works program ordered by the US Admiral William Banks Caperton. Haiti's 1864 Code Rural allowed for a system of forced laber called corvée which the US occupiers employed until 1918. The Cacos, Haitian resistance fighters, hid out in remote, mountainous areas and waged guerrilla-style warfare against the marines, so marines needed roads built to find and fight them. People were taken from their land and forced to work, primarily building roads. They were paid for their labor and given food, working near their homes.
Corvée was highly unpopular; Haitians widely believed that whites had returned to Haiti to force them back into slavery.
Poverty is rampant in Haiti, with over half the population living on less than a dollar a day, and over three quarters living on less than two dollars a day. The Haitians at gravest risk of victimization by human traffickers are its poorest people, particularly undocumented Haitians, who are thought to make up 10% of the population.
Human trafficking in Haiti is a significant problem, and child trafficking is a substantial part of that. People are tracked into, through, and out of Haiti, with a common destination being the neighboring Dominican Republic. The numbers of children smuggled into the Dominican Republic are not known, but a UNICEF estimate placed the number at 2,000 in 2009 alone. Haitian officials report that there are three main fates met by children trafficked out of Haiti: domestic work, prostitution, and organ harvesting.
A 2009 study reported that up to 225,000 Haitian children are forced to work as domestic servants, and are at grave risk of sexual violence at the hands of their captors. The children, known as restaveks, are traded into other households by their families, exchanging the children's labor for upbringing. A 2012 report placed the number of restaveks in Haiti at between 150,000 and 500,000. The term restavek comes from the French "to live with", rester avec. The practice, considered by the UN to be a form of child slavery, has been around since the end of the revolution but became common in the 20th century as a way for rural people to cope with poverty. About 19% of Haitian children ages 5 to 17 live away from their parents, and about 8.2% are considered domestic workers. In one survey, restaveks were present in 5.3% of households by their heads' own admission. A 2003 law prohibited use of children as servants and outlawed human trafficking, but efforts to curtail trafficking in children are hindered by political instability and lack of resources. The Haitian government made a hotline for people to call and report cases of abuse of restaveks.
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