Haitians paid a steep price to France for independence and were forced to make reparations for their own freedom that historians now refer to as “the greatest heist in history”.
The Caribbean nation has one of the most dismal economies in the world, with a per capita income of $2,916 in 2022 that ranks it No. 164 out of 194 countries.
Haiti has suffered devastating natural disasters such as the earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2017. These and sociopolitical upheavals pushed thousands of refugees to seek asylum in the U.S.
But how did Haiti get here?
Self-liberated slaves rebelled against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, in a war that lasted from 1791 to 1804, when the former colony won independence. The revolution was the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a country free from slavery and ruled by Black former slaves.
In 1825, Haiti was forced to pay millions of francs to France in exchange for recognition of its sovereignty. These payments, and a loan to cover them, became known as the “double debt” and made Haiti the only nation of Black slave descendants ever to pay reparations to their former masters.
It is estimated that Haiti was pushed to pay France as much as $21 billion barely two decades after winning its independence against all odds.
An investigation by The New York Times into these reparations ransom payments shows that these amounts were far beyond Haiti’s meager means, with the first payment alone worth six times the country’s annual revenue at the time, according to the prominent 19th-century Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin.
Here are five things to know about how France held Haiti ransom, forced it to pay reparations and devasted the economy of one of the first independent, Black-ruled nations in the world.
Haiti, with the aid of the British, gained independence from France in 1803, which made it the first-ever Black nation to break the shackles of slavery. While the new country was still fledging, the fact that it was a republic formed and led by Black people who had revolted against the institution of slavery, threatened the status quo of a world dominated by white masters.
Haiti’s independence was viewed as a threat by all slave-owning countries, the U.S. included, and its very existence rankled racist sensibilities globally. It had little choice but to accede to France’s reparations demands.
The amount demanded by France was too much for the young Haiti to raise, and so it had to take out loans with hefty interest rates from French bankers Ternaux Grandolpe et Cie and Lafitte Rothschild Lapanonze. That added the burden of repaying the loan, with interest and commissions to the government of France, thus the phrase “double debt”.
Over the next century, Haiti paid French slaveholders and their descendants the equivalent of $20 billion to $30 billion in today’s dollars. It took Haiti 122 years to pay it off. The payments continued for a total of 122 years from 1825 to 1947, with the money going to more than 7,900 former slave owners and their descendants in France. By the time the payments ended, none of the originally enslaved or enslavers were still alive.
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Investigations by the New York Times found out that in total Haiti paid about $560 million to France over seven decades after Paris agreed to reduce the amount to 90 million francs. Haiti made payments totaling 112 million francs, which, if it had remained in the country rather than being shipped off to France, would have added some $21 billion to Haiti’s economy.
Amidst decades of Haiti’s struggles to make payments to France and cut down on the double debt, a French bank Crédit Industriel et Commercial arrived on the scene in 1880. The bank controlled all payments made to and from the Haiti Treasury and forced the Haitian government to pay commissions on deposits and withdrawals. That French bank made so much profit that at times it exceeded Haiti’s entire public works budget.
Photo: Factory workers protest to demand a salary increase in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)
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