If Liberia is America’s Stepchild then Liberia is Haiti’s illegitimate child
Written by Sei Dintowon Kidau
Friday, 22 January 2010
The violent earthquake that recently devastated Haiti has once again thrust Haiti into the spotlight. To the average observer watching the news coverage of this tragedy, Haiti is just another poorly governed Black Country. To some racist and self-hating blacks, this is more proof of their belief that blacks are incapable of governing themselves.
In my view, considering all the Haitian people have endured and still remain a free black nation shows the indomitable spirit of a brave and proud people.
The fact that Liberia is Africa’s oldest modern republic and Haiti is the oldest “black” republic is not a coincidence. Haiti gained independence in 1804 and in 1822, the first set of freed American slaves set sail for West Africa in not happenstance, but an unintended consequence of the Haitian revolution. For this reason, and because it was not the goal of the Haitian revolution to create Liberia, I argue that Liberia is Haiti’s illegitimate child.
The Haitian Revolution has its roots in the French revolution. The principles and ideals of the French revolution inspired the slaves of St. Dominique (present day Haiti) to also want their freedom. The slaves quickly realized that if they wanted to be free, they would have to fight for their freedom. St. Dominique was the most prosperous of the French colonies and that prosperity was built on the foundation of African Slave labor. Just as the ideals of the American Revolution did not mean freedom to the enslaved Africans America, the French Revolution also excluded the Africans. In St. Dominique, the African population revolted and successfully defeated the world’s most powerful military. They named the new nation Haiti in honor of the indigenous population that previously inhabited the Island. The slave revolt proved to be devastating both militarily and economically to the French. Not only did they lose their lucrative plantations, they lost the use of Haiti as a base for their American operation. Consequently, they were forced to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States for three cents an acre. (Louisiana Purchase) Had the Haitian revolution failed, some historians argue that Napoleon would have expanded his campaign in the Americas and possibly concurred that United States as well.
Even though the Haitians were free, they lived under the constant threat of being re-enslaved by the French. They could not trade with the outside world because of embargos enforced by the French and sometimes the Americans. Finally in 1823, the French promised not to invade Haiti but only if they agreed to pay the colonist for the plantations they lost during the revolt and also compensate them for the slaves they lost. Essentially, Haiti had to pay reparations to France ($21 Billion in today’s currency). It took Haiti nearly 100 years to repay this debt. At times they had to shut down public schools in order to make payments.
After Haiti won its independence from France, The United States under the administration of Thomas Jefferson and subsequent administrations, pursued a hostile policy towards Haiti. Jefferson and many other slave owners viewed the Haitian Revolution with great concern. So much so that the United States provided aide to France to help them put down the revolt in Haiti.
Fear of slave revolts grows:
After the French were defeated on the Island St. Dominique and the capital burned down, the French navy evacuated white plantation owners and brought them to Norfolk, Virginia as refugees. These refugees brought with them horror stories of the brutality of the slave revolt. Apparently, the slaves followed a scorch earth policy of killing anyone they saw as the enemy. Not even women and children were spared. After Napoleon’s failed attempt to re conquer the Island and reimpose slavery, the Haitian leader ordered the execution of the remaining whites. These stories caused a lot of sleepless night among slave owners in Virginia and throughout the slave owning south.
These fears were not unfounded:
Slave rebellions in the South spiked after the Haitian Revolution. In Virginia there was the Chatham Minor rebellion of 1805. There was the German Coast Uprising of 1811, the George Boxley revolt of 1815, the Denmark Vesey rebellion of 1822, Nat Turner’s massacre of Virginia slave owners in 1831 and last but not least, John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. When one considers that in the hundred years prior to the Haitian Revolution, there were only three notable slave rebellions in the United States, there is a strong argument to be made that the Haitian Revolution inspired slave rebellions in the United States. It is also easy to understand why a strong prosperous Haiti was not in the best foreign policy interest of the United States. Even though France recognized Haiti as an independent country in 1825, The United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, after slavery was abolished in the United States.
What does this have to do with Liberia?
The horror of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent rise in slave rebellion in the United States caused panic among the slave owners in the United States. Also adding to the fear was the presence of a significant growing free black population. These free blacks were industrious. Many of them were skilled Masons, Seamstresses, Blacksmiths and Intellectuals. As they worked in their respective fields as business owners, they began to buy their relatives out of slavery, thus increasing the free black population even further. Something had to be done about these “Uppity Negroes”.
Birth of a Nation:
Liberians are thought that their history began back in1822 when a kingdom ship with pioneers was seeking liberty. Basically our history begins with Ex-slaves from the United States landing at Cape Montserrado. This story coincidently bears resemblance to the story of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in what would later become the United States. The view that Liberia’s history begins with the arrival of the settlers is an incomplete reading of history.
The settlers were brave and obviously had a burning desire to be free were brave to leave everything they knew and go to a new world. Their contribution to the forming of the Liberia is well documented and in my view, despite their shortcomings are heroes. A little known fact is history is that some of the settlers were descendents of freedom fighters. The incomplete history of the settlers is that they were “freed American Slaves”. How did they get free? Was it because slave owners voluntarily freed them out of the goodness of their heart? This does not explain the large free black population. To a plantation owner, giving up slaves was like giving up their way of life. The large population of free slaves in the U.S. between 1776 and 1822 cannot be explain by the sudden good will of the slave owners. As I mentioned above, there was a significant population of free Africans in the United States by the time of the Haitian revolution. The majority of the free blacks in the United States after the American revolutionary war fought for their freedom and many simply ran away.
During the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore proclaimed that any slave who fought for the British would get their freedom. Many blacks joined the British and fought in all black regiments called “Ethiopian Regiments”. Their battle cry was “Freedom to the slaves”. The “Americans” quickly followed suite and offered freedom to any slave who would fight for the Americans. Africans fought on both sides of the American Revolution for freedom. The Americans of course were victorious. The slaves that fought for the British were evacuated to Nova Scotia and some were eventually repatriated to the British Colony of Sierra Leone. The slaves that fought for the Americans kept their freedom and were allowed to live in America as free Men and Women.
To ignore the indigenous inhabitants of Liberia and caricature them as illiterate savages who needed to be civilized is a false understanding of history as well. The question that historians need to research is how was it possible for this land we call Liberia to even exist and be under the control of Africans when almost the entire continent of Africa was under the control of the Europeans? The indigenous populations from Cape Mount to Cape Palmas, from Cape Mountserrado to Mt. Nimba governed their own affairs and traded with the Europeans, not as subjects but as independent entities. The fact is, the first settlers attempted to land in Sierra Leone and were rejected. They subsequently made their was down the coast and negotiated with the Local Chiefs and were allowed to “sit down” or settled. When they arrived, they did not find anyone speaking French, English or Portuguese. Most likely, they found people speaking Bassa, Gola and Kru. When they went further up country, they found people speaking Kpelle and so on. There was no colonial master anywhere in sight. The forgotten founders of Liberia are the so called “country people” who managed to stay free at a time in history where entire black world was either enslaved or colonized. Liberia had liberty and this liberty was made possible by the so called “country people”.
The Haitian Revolution and subsequent slave revolts in the United States provided the impetus that led to the unholy alliance between slave owners such as Henry Clay and Abolitionist such as the Quakers to form the American Colonization Society. The freed blacks in America were encouraged to “go back to Africa” and the only part of Africa they could go to settle was the area in West Africa that was not under colonial rule. The rest of course is history.
In conclusion, Liberia is the unintended consequence of the Haitian Revolution. Therefore if Liberia is America’s stepchild, then Liberia is Haiti’s illegitimate child. In other words, it’s an illegitimate child because it was an unintended pregnancy.