Creating Haiti: Colonial Times to the Present

Conference on Latin American History 9
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Parliament Room (The Westin Copley Place)
Matthew J. Smith, University of West Indies at Mona
The Audience

Session Abstract

From its dominant position in the economy of the eighteenth century Atlantic world to the devastation accompanying the January 2010 earthquake, Haiti has riveted the attention of the international community. By the 1780s, the French colony Saint-Domingue produced two-fifths of the world's sugar and half of its coffee. Its planters geared the slave society towards maximum production so they could carry on a brisk trade with France and the nascent United States. After the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in the West, the leaders of the second republic in the Americas found themselves shunned by the great powers of the day. Recognition required indemnity payments to France, crippling the nation's infrastructure. After the U.S. occupation (1915-1934) and the Duvalier regimes (1957-1986), the people of Haiti found themselves inhabiting the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. This narrative of Haitian history points to questions of what went wrong, i.e., why Haiti is not more like the United States, Cuba, or Jamaica, but this approach slides the conversation away from the more nuanced discussion of Haiti required to understand how Haitians have created their political and socioeconomic lives to this point. In this panel, three emerging scholars present new research on how residents of Saint-Domingue and Haiti constructed their nation by drawing from and innovating upon broader international currents from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. This will interest historians of Latin America, the Atlantic World, and international aid and development. In “Social Mobility Among Plantation Employees in West Province, Saint-Domingue, 1710-1763,” Robert Taber narrates how the white elite, poorer whites, and free mulattos built and used a stable system of patronage networks for mutual economic gain that fueled the colony's growth and protected them from slave revolt. Reforms after the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763 to improve military efficiency politicized racial difference, taxed the social cohesion of the networks, and contributed to the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution in 1791. Erin Zavitz picks up the story in the early national period with ““ ‘Le Serment de Vivre Libres et Indépendant': Commemorating Haitian Independence Under Jean-Pierre Boyer,” which discusses how political leaders actively shaped ideas of nationhood in the new republic. President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818-1843) had to transform the revolutionary national discourse to gain greater international recognition. He had to provide new answers to questions regarding what defined Haiti and how it would approach the world. With “ ‘Tout Bagay Pou N Chanje:' Women on Politics, Markets, and Health in Haiti after Duvalier,” Adam Silvia shows how in the post-Duvalier era, women in Haiti have navigated the demands of international aid organizations, the devastations of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the tumults of abrupt, violent political change to claim an active role in the public sphere. Women's groups have taken to the forefront in dealing with social issues and proposing alternative solutions to Haiti's dilemmas. Matthew J. Smith, the chair of the panel, is a specialist on Haiti at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica.