Excerpt from A Crime So Monstrous by E. Benjamin Skinner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Crime So Monstrous

Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery

by E. Benjamin Skinner

A Crime So Monstrous
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2008, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2009, 352 pages

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Kim Kovacs

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L'Ouverture's successors failed his vision, betrayed the new constitution, and realized his fears. The first leaders of Haiti created only a handful of schools, restricted to those whose parents "rendered high services to the country." The president himself had the final say on whose children got in. School became the exclusive domain of the elite.

The January 1, 1804, declaration of independence brought economic chaos. The revolution destroyed the plantations, which the new leaders tried to revive by forcing citizens back into slavery. But, as Haitians say, "when a chicken lays an egg, you cannot put it back." Haitians resisted violently. Haiti's leaders continued to try, through such blunt tools as the Rural Code of 1864, which introduced corvée labor on the rural population to force them to work on large plantations. Despite these efforts, Haiti became a nation of subsistence farmers, pauperized by a 150-million-franc debt to France to compensate for "colonial losses."

Haiti's rural children, as they always had done and always would, felt that chaos and debt most dearly.

On October 9, 1779, 750 freed black Haitians fought for the Continental Army against the redcoats at the Siege of Savannah. But for most Americans, Haitians were no brothers in arms, and Haiti represented danger, chaos, a Satanic evil reflected in its dominant religion of Vodou, and its new name, nearly homonymic with Hades.

The prospect of the state formed of its slave revolt menaced America, and what scared Americans most was the idea that a similarly violent uprising might happen in the United States. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most influential novel of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe captured U.S. sentiment toward Haiti before the Civil War with the commentary of her self-satisfied slaveholder, Alfred St. Clare. Alfred clashes with his brother, Augustine, who abhors slavery but continues to hold slaves. One day, after witnessing the beating of a slave, Augustine uses the insurrection in Haiti as a cautionary tale.

"O, come, Augustine!" snapped Alfred. "As if we hadn't had enough of that abominable, contemptible Hayti!"

Seeking, in President Thomas Jefferson's words, to "confine the pest to the island," the U.S. government embargoed Haiti for sixty years. But when legal American slavery entered its final spasmodic throes, the United States ran out of excuses for isolating Haiti. "If any good reason exists why we should persevere longer in withholding our recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Hayti and Liberia," Abraham Lincoln said in 1861, "I am unable to discern it."

A year later, after the U.S. Congress recognized Haiti, Lincoln enunciated a use for the black republic: a dumping ground for freed American slaves. He encouraged blacks to migrate to Haiti and Liberia to seek the freedom and independence he thought they would never fully realize in the United States. Lincoln sent Frederick Douglass as counselor minister to Haiti to lead the way. But other freedmen did not follow.

The public recognition of Haiti as an independent republic, of course, did not mean that Americans privately recognized Haitians as equals, worthy of the same human rights as whites. In the fall of 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt eyed Haiti from his leisure cruise aboard the USS Louisiana. He remarked to his son Kermit that a century after the slave revolt, the nation had successfully transformed itself "into a land of savage negroes, who have reverted to vodouism and cannibalism." "Universal suffrage in Hayti," he later wrote, "has not made the Haytians able to govern themselves in any true sense."

Woodrow Wilson agreed, and in 1915, he did something about it. After one of Haiti's seasonal coups, Wilson, warning of potential German infiltration through the island, sent 330 Marines to take charge. The Americans stayed for nineteen years. As many Haitians actively resisted the occupation, the Marines had to reach into Haiti's past to get laborers to build roads. They revived the corvée system, tying Haitians together in chain gangs, and executing resisters. After shooting the insurgent leader, Charlemagne Péralte, Marines in blackface strung up his corpse in a public square on All Saints' Day.

Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner

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