Haiti - a history of intervention, occupation and resistance
by Andrew N. Flood
As predictions for the death toll from the Haitian earthquakes rise over 200,000, ABC News have reported that planes carrying medical equipment and relief supplies are having to compete with soldiers for the valuable slots at Port-au-Prince airport which was taken over by the US military after the quake. Since the start of the great anti-slavery republican insurrection nearly 220 years ago, Haiti has been presented as a dangerous place incapable of running its own affairs and requiring foreign intervention. Yet the reality is its people were the first enslaved population to deliver themselves from slavery and also carried out what was only the third successful republican insurrection on the planet. The threat of this good example was rewarded with centuries of invasion, blackmail, the robbery of Haiti's natural resources and the impoverishment of its people. This articles summarizes that history of intervention and the resistance to it in order to put into context what is happening in Haiti after the quake.
This is not an academic exercise. The propaganda methods that were used during the Haitian revolution to frighten off support for the rebels from radical organisations elsewhere - like the London Corresponding Society - continue to be used to the present day. Right after the earthquake, Time Magazine was writing, "As Haitian and international officials try to coordinate an effective relief response to what is probably the worst disaster to ever hit the western hemisphere's poorest country, they'll need to be mindful of the human rats that come out of the capital's woodwork at times like these", under the scary headline 'Will Criminal Gangs Take Control in Haiti's Chaos?' Yet aid workers on the ground, in contrast, were reporting the stoicism and solidarity of the people in desperate conditions and even the UN Commander said the streets were safer than before the quake. An Irish doctor from Médecins Sans Frontières confirmed on radio that they were working in Cité Soleil were operating unguarded and unhampered inspite of the areas reputation. This idea of Haiti as riddled with (poor, black) terror gangs waiting to pounce on naive (white) visitors goes back to the rebellion and, in the context of the earthquake, is resulting in additional deaths, as has been made clear by a London Times' article titled 'Fear of the poor is hampering Haiti rescue.'
Conquest, slavery and resistance
Foreign intervention goes back to the time before the Haitian revolution. Haiti is the western 1/3 of an island which Columbus came across on his first voyage to the Americas and claimed for Spain, ignoring the fact it was already populated by an estimated 4-500,000 Taino people. He called the island Hispaniola, the people who lived there called it Haiti - the name that was restored when the republic was declared. Columbus had heard there was a lot of gold on the island so he left 39 of his crew there who built a fort with Taino help called La Navidad, the crew were ordered to explore the island and gather gold. He recorded that "I have ordered a tower and fortress to be constructed and, a large cellar, not because I believe there is any necessity on account of [the natives] .. I am certain the people I have with me could subjugate all this island … as the population are naked and without arms and very cowardly." However, when he returned the following year on his second voyage he discovered the fortress destroyed with the corpses of his men on the beach as the Taino population had risen up against them in response to mistreatment, which included the kidnapping of Taino women.
His second voyage included 17 ships and 1200 settlers and with this force Columbus demanded that every Taino over the age of 14 deliver a hawks bell full of gold every three months. If they failed to do so they had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death. On or before 1511 a Taino Cacique (chief) called Hatuey left Hispaniola for Cuba with 400 others in canoes to warn the people that a Spanish expedition was under way to conquer them. Bartolomé de Las Casas the radical Spanish priest who had previously been a plantation owner in Hispaniola wrote that Hatuey showed them a basket of gold and jewels and told them "Here is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea... 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." Hautey bust in CubaHatuey conducted a guerrilla war against the Spaniards before being captured and burned alive on February 2 1512. In 1522 another Taino Cacique led a revolt of as many as 3000 in the Bahoruco mountains on Hispaniola itself which forced a treaty from the Spaniards.
Within 30 years so many (up to 90%) of the Taino had been worked to death in the gold mines or died of starvation or disease that the Spanish started transporting enslaved Africans to replace them. This was the pattern across the Spanish-occupied Caribbean; according to Bartolomé de Las Casas "it was a general rule among Spaniards to be cruel, not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings. As they saw themselves each day perishing by the cruel and inhuman treatment of the Spaniards, crushed to the earth by the horses, cut in pieces by swords, eaten and torn by dogs, many buried alive and suffering all kinds of exquisite tortures." The Tainos however were never completely wiped out, a couple of hundred survivors set up free settlements with escaped Africans in the mountains. The first significant insurrection of enslaved African also occurred in 1522 when Wolof people on the sugar plantation of Columbus's son rose with many escaping to the mountains after the rebellion. These 'Maroon' communities continued to resist the Spanish, by the 1530s Plantation owners had to travel in large armed groups. They referred to the communities as Cimarrones or 'wild animals', a striking similarity to Time Magazine's use of the term "human rats" for Haitians today.
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