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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Did You Know? Part 4- Haiti Shaped America

     Haiti...it is not a country we often think about in our day to day lives in the United States. But if it was not for the events that occurred in that nation in 1802, America would likely be very different today socially, economically, and indeed geographically. That is because from 1791-1804 Haiti was the only nation in the history of the world to have a successful slave revolt, and it was only the second nation to shake off a colonial power in a bid for independence. This small one half of the island of Hispaniola shaped events that led to a change of course in the Napoleonic enterprise for French world domination and the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United State in 1803. And here is why...

     While we don't think of it as a HUGE cash crop today, back in the 19th century and before, the sugar trade was big business for the British and French colonial empires. British Jamaica and French Haiti were responsible for almost 80% of cane sugar production at one point. Indeed there was so much money to be had in sugar cane production that it was the original reason for the implementation of the plantation slavery system by European powers. Long before the United States used slaves imported from Africa for tobacco or cotton, The Spanish, British, and French used them for sugar cane harvesting and processing. Why? Because before the mechanization of harvesting and processing it was backbreaking work. There was no such things as corn syrup and beet sugar was a new thing only in 1801 with the first processing plant opening in Europe. However, North America and Europe simply could not grow enough sugar beets if they wanted, and even today beet sugar is only about 20 percent of the sugar market. It is also considered inferior to sugar cane. In 1791, word of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man reached the colony and the African slaves rose up for their individual freedom. Like the revolution in France, the affair turned bloody and was soon out of control. The leaders of the rebellion had taken the the entire island (including modern day Dominican Republic), freeing the slaves in the Spanish eastern half. Efforts by the British to take the island were repelled and eventually the leaders returned control to France under Napoleon, believing him to be an "enlightened" and modern ruler. However, Napoleon had other plans.

     France was not interested in a Haiti that was free as part of their empire. Napoleon dispatched a huge force of ships and men to the island with instructions to reestablish slavery in at-least the former Spanish half of the island, but preferably all of it, and then continue on to Louisiana so he could begin to rebuild an empire for France in North America (he had swindled Spain out of the territory early, returning Louisiana to France). However, in 1802 the mission went badly. French troops and indeed the French general in charge suffered badly from tropical disease. The entire venture in Haiti was full of violence and illness to such an extant that France had to abandon the idea of continuing on to New Orleans as their numbers were decimated. By 1804 they would leave Haiti defeated and Haiti would be an independent nation. The financial burden of the disaster left France strapped for cash, and it was only at this point did France, needing money to rebuild and fight their European foes, decided to sell the territory to the United States.

    While the Haitian rebellion certainly allowed the United States to double in size overnight with the conclusion of the deal in 1803, it had a negative effect also. Many in the United States saw the violence of the slave uprising and decided to clamp down on the slave population in the United States. Fears of similar uprisings in America literally extinguished the growing idea of many to abolish slavery in the United States. Cotton was not yet king, and Tobacco could be harvested with paid labor easily. Indeed President Thomas Jefferson, a man who struggled with balancing his enlightenment ideals with the face slavery was legal had been one such person who considered ending plantation slavery in America. He saw it as a relic of British rule, however seeing how former slaves brutally murdered their former masters and free whites in Haiti, he became afraid and mortified, forever burying the idea of emancipating the slave population. Had Haiti not exploded in rebellion, we might have well seen slavery end a half century before it did in America, and at a much lower cost both financially as well as in blood. There would have been no Civil War most likely. However, the United States would be about 1/3 the size it is today, extending westward only as far as the Mississippi River. Had Napoleon's plans come to fruition we might have had much uglier wars and a much less stable continent. Britain and France would both be in North America and share borders with us. And with two nations vying for power, conflict would have been assured, and it leaves me little doubt the United States would have been pulled in, as it was in the War of 1812 even without a renewed French empire in North America.



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