The lingering scandal of the 'independence debt' Haiti was forced to pay France

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Haiti has been in the news recently after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse by foreign mercenaries in early July 2021. Away from the headlines, however, there remains an unresolved issue between France and its former Caribbean slave colony. For more than a century, from 1825 to the 1950s, Haiti paid France a colossal sum in exchange for recognising its freedom and independence. As Mediapart's co-founder François Bonnet reports, some prominent figures are asking whether the French authorities should now pay this money back.

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It is a little-known story in France, one tucked away in history books and avoided by politicians. Though it remains a core part of Haiti's collective memory, the episode has virtually vanished as an issue here.

“Haiti is part of our history but not of our memory. The weak know the strong, who are unaware of them. We are involved in the Haitian story, which has no place in our own,” wrote the French philosopher and senior government official Régis Debray in 2004, in a report written for the French foreign minister at the time, Dominique de Villepin.

Yet for more than a century what was usually called the “independence debt” dominated Franco-Haitian relations. Saint-Domingue – the original French name for Haiti – was the jewel in the crown among France's slave colonies in the 18th century. It was destined to become a laboratory for vengeful neocolonialism in the following century.

It all started in August 1791 with an armed insurrection by slaves on Saint-Domingue, the western part of the island of Hispaniola. At the time it was the wealthiest colony in the world; indeed, it represented one third of France's overseas trade. According to the historian Charles Frostin, in 1789 French colonists there owned 465,429 slaves, who made up more than 90% of the total population. At the time the French Caribbean colony of Martinique had 83,000 slaves and Guadalupe 90,000.

By 1794 the successful rebellion, led by Toussaint Louverture, had caused the National Convention in Paris to declare an end to slavery in all French colonies. But in 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte re-established slavery and reinstated the Code Noir or 'Black Code' in France's colonies. He also sent an expeditionary force of 47,000 men, commanded by his brother-in-law General Charles Leclerc, to destroy the insurrection on Saint-Domingue.

The war lasted for two years and the French force was decimated, aided in part by yellow fever which claimed the life of Leclerc himself. In 1804 Saint-Domingue declared its independence and became Haiti, the first black republic in the world and the first independent state in Latin America.

But after years of blockades and sanctions from France and its allies, the major slave powers, Haiti was under growing pressure to buckle. By 1814, and faced with threatens of a French re-invasion, President Alexandre Pétion was considering paying compensation for the French colonists who had been killed or forced to flee and whose property had been confiscated by the Haitian state. Other Haitian leaders, including the self-styled monarch of north Haiti Henry Christophe, were strongly opposed to such a move.

Jean-Pierre Boyer, who was president of Haiti in 1825, had to accept Charles X's treaty. © Wikimedia Commons Jean-Pierre Boyer, who was president of Haiti in 1825, had to accept Charles X's treaty. © Wikimedia Commons

A decade later, in 1825, the French king Charles X decided to take matters into his own hands. He dispatched Baron Ange de Mackau to Haiti with a military force and an ultimatum; either the Haitian authorities accepted his proposed treaty or the French fleet of 14 warships and 528 cannons would bombard Port-au-Prince. This 1825 agreement contained just two articles. They stipulated that the Haitian state would compensate the former colonists to the tune of 150 million French francs, a sum set unilaterally by the French and payable in five, yearly instalments. In return, Charles X would “concede full and entire independence to the inhabitants of the French part of Saint-Domingue and their government”.

The Haitian government, at the time led by President Jean-Pierre Boyer, had little choice but to accept the 1825 treaty. To be able to meet its payments it also took out an initial loan from France of 30 million francs. Haiti had become caught in a trap. As the historian Frédérique Beauvois put it: “The ordinance of 1825 meant that the young Haitian republic was placed under economic subjection, and from then on was not just under an obligation to pay the compensation, but also the loan taken out to honour the first payment. This double 'independence debt' thus clearly seems to have been a strategy implemented by the former homeland to preserve unofficial hegemony over a rebel colony.”

For almost two centuries both the Haitian and the French states have insisted that this compensation only related to the colonialists' landed estates. Yet recent historical research has established that the payments also included compensation for the loss of slaves.

In a remarkable study, the historian Frédérique Beauvois explored the work of the compensation committees and the calculation methods they used. They looked at more than 27,000 requests for compensation and approved 12,000 of them. The committee members' work was paid for out of the compensation handed over by Haiti.

These committees established numerous compensation bands and it is clear the number of slaves that an individual owned was taken into account when assessing their case. “The slaves in charge of animals were estimated at 2,500 francs, those growing cotton at 2,850 francs, coffee 3,250 francs, indigo 3,800 francs, 'raw' sugar 4,000 francs and 'white sugar' 4,150 francs. A deduction of 1,500 francs for men and 1,000 francs for women was provided for in the case of 'cargo' slaves or 'bossales' [editor's note, African-born slaves]; in comparison with Creoles [editor's note, of African descent but born in Haiti or elsewhere in the Caribbean], these Africa-born slaves were not yet acclimatised to the colony and were considered to be not very 'docile',” wrote Frédérique Beauvois.

In 1825, the year of the 'treaty', Charles X also passed an order to compensate the émigrés who been chased out of or fled France during the Revolution of 1789. Among those compensated were several large-scale slave owners from Saint-Domingue.

“The Saint-Domingue compensation is not about damages for small-scale colonialists dispossessed of their property after the loss of the colony, but in fact for the 'grand whites', members of the most privileged class of the Restoration [editor's note, meaning the period of the restoration of the monarchy in France] and who also benefited from the compensation paid to émigrés,” notes Frédérique Beauvois.

A major road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November 2019. © FB / Mediapart A major road in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in November 2019. © FB / Mediapart

Haiti was choked by debt and and unable to meet its repayments despite repeated threats of military intervention by France. A second treaty was signed in 1838 which restructured the 'debt' and reduced the overall sum from 150 million francs to 90 million. This was to be paid over 30 years, a timetable that the 'Black Republic' was again unable to meet. Further loans, in 1875, 1896 and 1910, were taken out to make the scheduled payments and pay the interest.

Officially the final repayments of the original sum were made in the 1880s; though there is a discrepancy between the dates from the French Ministry of Finance and those of many historians. The French economist Thomas Piketty, who examines the issue in his recent book Capital and Ideology, insists that the repayments continued well after that. “...[Haiti] dragged [this debt] like a millstone until 1950, after multiple re-financing and interest paid to French and American bankers … The payments made from 1825 to 1950 are well documented and are not challenged by anybody,” he writes. The economist says this “iniquitous tribute” was 300% of Haiti's GDP at the time and represents “30 billion euros today, which does not include the interest”.

Gusti-Klara Gaillard-Pourchet, an historian at Port-au-Prince University, says that this sum “corresponds, for example, to close to double the price of the cession of Louisiana by the French state [editor's note, in 1803]. In terms of its fiscal burden, it corresponds to ten years of Haitian tax revenue.” Her study, which appeared in 2019 in the online resource Cahiers de l’Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française, can be found here.

The initial indebtedness of Haiti from 1825 contributed to the impasse that the country still finds itself in today in terms of economic, social and human development.

Gusti-Klara Gaillard-Pourchet, historian

The vastness of the sum had a lasting impact on Haiti's principle resource, agriculture. It was mainly coffee exports that financed the repayments. Everything was done in order to produce yet more. The former slaves and their descendants remained subject to a rural code that left them tied to their land. But the Haitian rural sector received no investment in return.

The initial indebtedness of Haiti from 1825 contributed to the impasse that the country still finds itself in today in terms of economic, social and human development. Haiti's journey and that of its people are closely linked with the legacy of the 'independence debt' at the heart of its colonial and neocolonial past,” writes Gusti-Klara Gaillard-Pourchet.

This past continued to make its presence felt. In 1904, the centenary of Haiti's independence, the French president, Émile Loubet, refused to go to Port-au-Prince in protest over delays in paying the debt. A century later, French president Jacques Chirac had planned to go to Haiti himself or at least to send his foreign minister Dominique de Villepin for the bicentenary celebrations.

However, there was an obstacle. In the previous year, 2003, the Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had launched a major “reparation, restitution” campaign. This called for reparations for two centuries of slavery and restitution of the debt that had been paid by the country to France. Even though political chaos was sweeping the country and the former priest turned politician was seeking to save his government through unrelenting violence, Aristide was able to whip up popular support and he officially asked for France to repay this ransom debt. To this end he commissioned a firm of American lawyers who translated into modern values the 90 million francs that Haiti had paid to France. The bill was sent to Paris: it amounted to 21 billion 685 million and 135,571 US dollars plus 48 cents.

The philosopher and senior government official Régis Debray was tasked by Dominique de Villepin with producing a report to defuse the situation. This report was published in January 2004 and adopted an ironic tone in relation to the payment demand, which France flatly rejected.

“Our committee did not make use of a calculator on an issue considered to have no basis by the French foreign minister,” he wrote. “We have not met a leader in the democratic opposition who really takes these last-minute financial demands seriously.”

Régis Debray added: “After consulting with the best experts, we were forced to note that the Haitian request has no legal basis, unless one wants to re-label in legal terms acts that belong to the past and to tolerate an unacceptable retroactivity of laws and norms.” In a later interview with Mediapart Régis Debray made it clear: “This payment [by Haiti] is obviously abhorrent.”

Debray and his fellow committee members set out what then became the fixed line of successive French governments. There was no question of opening the “Pandora's Box” of reparations, and the priority was to look to the future rather than talk about restitution.

“It should be clear that we are making our proposals in the spirit of solidarity and not that of reimbursement. In the spirit of an obligation for moral order and not that of an illusory overdrawn bank account. So we say yes to a duty to remember, which is not about repentance but acknowledgement, and no to continually dwelling on the past, because it's the future we must work on,” wrote Debray.

The problem is that thanks to historical research carried out in the last 15 years, and the discovery that these repayments were spread over 130 years rather than 60, and of the coercion methodically applied right to the end, first by France and then the United States, the debate keeps on resurfacing.

The centre of Haitian capital Port-au-Prince in November 2019. © FB / Mediapart The centre of Haitian capital Port-au-Prince in November 2019. © FB / Mediapart

Economist Thomas Piketty, for example, is one prominent figure calling for a reimbursement of the “compensation” paid by the Caribbean nation. “Haiti is now requesting that France refund this iniquitous tribute … and it is difficult not to agree with them. Today compensation payment is still being made for spoliation which occurred during the two world wars. There is inevitably a risk of creating a huge feeling of injustice,” he writes.

“As a bare minimum France should today pay back Haiti the equivalent of three years of current Haitian GDP,” the economist told Le Nouvelliste daily French-language newspaper in Port-au-Prince. His comments had a major impact in that country and relaunched the debate.

“As we approach 200 years since the ordinance of 1825, the issues of restitution and reparations are still topical. There might be reason for optimism. By acknowledging and accepting this common past, avenues could emerge towards bilateral relations based on solidarity,” said historian Gusti-Klara Gaillard-Pourchet.

In the event, neither Chirac nor Villepin went to Port-au-Prince in 2004. Instead, in 2010 President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French head of state to visit Haiti, with a visit lasting fewer than four hours. The country had just been devastated by an earthquake which claimed up to 300,000 lives and caused huge damage. Sarkozy spoke at the time of emergency aid, pledging 270 million euros – aid which never found its way to the country – and the reconstruction of the national palace that had been destroyed – which was never done.

When questioned about repaying the “independence ransom” money, Sarkozy's response was seen by many as thumbing his nose at Haitians. “Even though I didn't start my term of office at the time of Charles X, I am, even so, responsible in the name of France,” he said, imperiously announcing his decision to waive Haiti's debt – some 56 million euros.

The ultimate in terms of France's approach came under President François Hollande, who had scheduled a trip to Port-au-Prince in May 2015. On May 10th, just before his visit, Hollande was on the French Caribbean island of Guadalupe when he abruptly announced: “When I go to Haiti I, too, will settle the debt that we have.” The Haitians saw this phrase as a sign of possible progress in the debt case. But presidential aides were quick to correct any such thought; Hollande had been talking about a “moral debt”, they said, not a financial one. His subsequent visit to Haiti was a fiasco. Protesters held up signs saying: “Hollande. Money, yes. Moral, no.”

“The moral debt is the debt due for having enslaved Black people removed from Africa,” wrote Frantz Duval, managing editor of Le Nouvelliste. “Haiti has never asked for reparations for this moral debt. We acknowledge it's irreparable. We leave it as a stain on the image of the civilised. But France also has a financial debt towards Haiti. This debt is unique in history. It's the only time that the winners have paid a tribute to the vanquished.”

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  • The original French version of this report can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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