Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti: The Heartbreak of Colonialism

In 1492 the Spanish crown made a fateful decision. Europe was in need of a water route to Asia, now that the Turks had turned Constantinople (once the capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity) into Istanbul (now the capital of a Muslim empire). Portugal was experimenting with rounding the cape of Africa; Spain decided to chance crossing an unknown ocean. Of course, when Columbus landed in the Bahamas, met by dark lean natives who greeted him with generosity and warmth, he thought he had made it to India (which he insisted upon until his dying day).

On that first voyage to the New World, Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on the western side of a large island that he named Hispaniola (which translates to "The Spanish Isle," but which was home to thousands of Taino people). The native Taino called their land Ayiti, meaning "land of mountains," and eventually this name became Haiti.

With the timbers from his wrecked ship, Columbus and his men built Fort Navidad---the first military base in the Western Hemisphere. Then he left two dozen men behind, with instructions to find gold, and sailed back to Spain with some captive natives to show to the king and queen. The Spanish government granted Columbus a second voyage, with seventeen ships and twelve hundred men, and when they returned to Navidad, he found that the men he'd left behind had been killed. After raping and plundering the Taino in search of gold, these outnumbered Spaniards were finally killed by an otherwise peaceful people. This would be the last time this balance of power occurred; within a hundred and fifty years of Columbus's "discovery," through mass murder, mass suicide, and enslavement, the island of Hispaniola had not one Taino left. The genocide was complete.

Of course, now that the Spaniards had established a lucrative plantation system, growing sugarcane for export, they imported thousands of Africans as slave labor. Today 95% of Haitians are of African descent; they practice a mix of voodoo and Catholicism, the religion of the slaves and of their oppressors. The French came next, and under their rule, Haiti became the most profitable slave colony in the world.

But here is where history turns. In 1791 Boukman Dutty, a voodoo priest, urged his fellow citizens to take up arms against the plantation owners, with the words "Throw away the thoughts of the Whitegod who thirsts for our tears, listen to freedom that speaks from our hearts." This incited the only successful slave revolt that led to independence, the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the USA), and the very first Black Republic. But the venom of colonialism continued to spread, though the snake had slinked away.

For decades the people of Haiti have seen their government vacillate between corrupt dictatorships, military coups, violence, rigged elections, and martial law. In 1915 Haitian law prevented foreign ownership of Haitian land or businesses, which prompted the U.S. to invade under the pretext of.... you guessed it, national security. Many people cite the positive outcomes of the U.S. occupation: infrastructure was built, including roads, schools, hospitals, and lighthouses. But Haitians opposed the martial law and military occupation of their country, sometimes violently, and thousands of Haitians died in the rebellions.

Today, Haiti is still the poorest country in the West, with adult literacy and life expectancy hovering around 50. It is no wonder that in the wake of a devastating earth-quake, the country is ill-equipped to handle the fall-out. Is it unfair to blame colonialism?

Only if you don't know your history.

1 comment:

  1. No, it is not unfair. As Amy Goodman said, it is a combination of natural disaster and human-made inequity that led to the massive death toll. I just read the first chapter of A People's History by Howard Zinn where he talks about Hispanola and the genocide brought on by Columbus and his evil cronies. We need to keep talking about these things, these are truths that must have a bright light shone on them until change occurs.