Posts Tagged ‘January 1st’

Why the Haitians Don’t Speak Spanish

Posted in General on January 14th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Televangelist Pat Robertson said Haiti has been “cursed” because of what he called a “pact with the devil” in its history. His spokesman said the comments were based on Voodoo rituals carried out before a slave rebellion against French colonists in 1791.

Of course, it seems probable that any pact with the Devil would be in French.  Nonetheless, Rev. Robertson may have overestimated the number of Haitian slaves who were graduates of the Sorbonne.  (At Robertson’s Regent University, the French philosophy curriculum consists of a cassette of “Gigi.”)  So, how did the French end up in Haiti?

The Spanish were the first Europeans to introduce themselves to the island.  If the natives did not fully appreciate the employment benefits of slavery, they did have the popular alternative of dying from European diseases.  While the Spanish traditionally used rape to replenish the labor force, on the newly-christened Hispaniola the Castillian “recycling” could not keep pace with the epidemics.  With the native population near extinction, the Spanish began importing Africans for all those annoying little tasks around the house and the plantation.

So, that explains the Dominican Republic.  What about Haiti?  Hispaniola was nominally Spanish, but in the 17th century French pirates seized the western end of the island.  (Remember Basil Rathbone’s accent in “Captain Blood!)  Another French pirate of the time, Louis XIV, wanted to seize Belgium and Alsace.  His efforts triggered a war with Austria, Spain and Great Britain.  (Spain owned Belgium, Austria controlled Alsace and Britain’s William III just liked fighting France).  The War of the Grand Alliance–the French certainly had a more profane term for it–lasted from 1689 to 1697.  The French actually were doing quite well; they now had most of Alsace and had even seized Catalonia from Spain.  Barcelona could have been part of the French Riviera.  But Louis already was anticipating the next war–for the Spanish Succession–so he was eager to settle this conflict and offered generous terms to Spain.  The French returned Catalonia and, as a token of appreciation, Spain formally ceded western Hispaniola to France.

Saint-Domingue, as the French named it, proved a very profitable colony.  Its rich soil and slave-cheap labor produced sugar, coffee and cacao.  The salons of Paris depended upon it.  According to a census taken in 1789, Saint-Domingue had a population of 32,000 Frenchmen and 500,000 slaves.  Of course, that census was not the most memorable event of 1789.  In fact, those 500,000 slaves assumed that the Revolution entitled them to be free, too.  In 1791, they began an insurrection for their emanicipation. (Pat Robertson would say that the French Revolution was caused by the Devil).  France, soon at war with all of Europe, was in no position to crush a rebellion in a distant colony.  Furthermore, a number of the French revolutionaries–including those vile Jacobins–actually agreed with the idea of abolishing slavery.  If only a triumph in principle, in 1794 the laborers of Saint-Domingue were promoted from slaves to peasants.  However grateful, they did not feel exactly French and soon were agitating for self-government and political independence.

In 1801, François-Dominique Toussaint L’ouverture, an educated former slave and leader of the insurrection, issued a proclamation of independence for Saint-Domingue.  Unfortunately, the French government was no longer controlled by devout liberals.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s response was to send a military expedition of 20,000 men to maintain French control.  Toussaint was captured and sent as a prisoner to France, where the northern climate quickly killed him.  But the island’s climate would have its revenge.  Most of the French expeditionary force died of Yellow Fever within a year of their arrival; the meager few who survived the disease then were overwhelmed by the rebel forces.  Accepting the inevitable, in 1804 France granted independence to a land that the natives called Haiti.

There was another consequence to the success of the Haitian rebellion.  By 1803 Napoleon realized that the colony was lost.  If France could not hold Saint-Domingue against poorly armed peasants, how could it hold New Orleans and Louisiana against the encroachments of that new America Republic.  Napoleon decided to make a deal as quickly as possible.