1820 -- 1843: The rule of Jean-Pierre BoyerBob CorbettJuly, 1995Quick overview of thesis and point: Earlier in my treatment of the rule ofAlexander Petion from 1807 until 1818, and now in continuation of the spirit ofthat period with the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer, I want to present a picturethat says that these years were among the most important in establishing thesocial, political and economic structure of the Haitian State. Further, aftertrying to make this point now with Boyer (already having done so with Petion)I will argue against a common popular view in the U.S. today, that theinternational community has almost single handedly determined the Haitianreality. I will give the reasons why I believe that this 1807-1843 period isat least as important as any other phenomenon in Haitian history, if not thesingly most important set of events, in shaping contemporary Haitian history.A preamble to this section which has less to do with this period that a sketch ofthe background for why I think the views presented, were they accurate, wouldhave an important place in understanding the present.Ah, I seem to have a penchant for putting my head on the chopping block. Butthe above overview represents how I see the history and development of Haiti,and whether it coincides with the political needs of the moment I dont know.Nor do I really care. I may well be wrong about the historical analysis, and Iwelcome discussion of that. I am quite aware that one cannot write an idealizedvalue-neutral historical analysis. But, I do work hard at abstracting from thepresent in trying to understand the past. History, which is not my field ofspecialization, has always been a tremendous love of mine. I have gone tohistory to try to understand the present and because it is simply interesting andfascinating in its own right. But I try very hard not to go to history to justify mydesires for the present.I dont mean to suggest that the past does not influence my views of how tounderstand the present and even what is best for the future. More than mostpeople Ive ever met, I am convinced that to understand the present one mustsee it in its genesis. But what I am saying is that I dont believe in shaping myview of the past to justify current political needs and desires, no matter hownoble those needs and desires may seem to me.
Why do I take time out to say these things? I worry that in some contemporaryhistorical analyses of Haiti there is a tendency, as I see it, to read Haitianhistory in a way that is particularly scaled to serve current political views ofwhat is good and not good for Haiti, even if those historical views dont quitefit the facts and events of that history.I know that some of you were upset and unhappy with my review of PaulFarmers book since I charged him with that sort of history. Perhaps I was tooharsh on Farmer and took out on him, concerns that were wider than Farmerhimself. If I did this, and I may well have, I apologize to him and his book. But,in general this tendency of using a carefully selected past to support particularideas of the present, where it seems to me the analysis of thepresent precedes the analysis of the past and shapes the latter to the purposes ofthe present, is a major factor in how many people analyze Haitian history.On to the history of this period.Perhaps the primary concern during the rule of Boyer was security. Perhaps hisgreatest failure was security. He manifested his concern for security in threenotable ways. 1. After the death of Henry Christophe, Boyer was quite worried about the rebellions military leaders in the north. He moved quickly and forcefully against them and neutralized them, either killing them or bringing them into his sphere of interest. He got his security there. 2. On November 30, 1821 Santo Domingo declared its independence from Spain and became "Spanish Haiti." This relieved a weak threat to Boyer, since he was concerned about Spains presence just over his border. However, this was an opportune time to be certain that Spain would not come back, and a way to keep some of Christophes officers busy. Boyer led an invasion of Spanish Haiti, quickly conquering it and thus holding the entire island in the name of Haiti. 3. This left the biggest nut for Boyer to crack in his search for security -- France. Boyer and all of Haiti lived on the edge, dreading and fearing the return of the French, their colonial rule and slavery. Boyer wanted to get the French threat off Haitis back forever and to formally join the company of nations of the world. He sued for recognition from France. After many years of on and off again negotiations, Boyer finally agreed to an outrageous French proposal. Haiti would pay: 150 million francs within 5 years. Actually by the time it came down to this point in the negotiations Haiti had little choice. This "offer" was given with 14
French warships in Port-au-Prince harbor, supported by nearly 500 guns. It was clear to Boyer that were he not to concede to this "indemnity" that France would immediately re-open hostilities. There was no realistic way for him to defend against this force. He signed on July 11, 1825 and France recognized the existence of Haiti.It is hard to describe the level to which this debt crippled Haiti. After a fewyears when Haiti couldnt pay, the debt was renegotiated down to 60 millionfrancs without interest, but even this debt strapped Haiti far beyond her means.Between this debt and the Petion/Boyer land distribution system and theresulting subsistence agriculture, Haitis future was relatively fixed into apattern of simple and primitive life.Boyer seemed to have finally gotten the security that he wanted. But, inactuality, he had gravely undermined it. Instead of finally vanquishing his lastsource of insecurity, France, he had unleashed a new and much more dangerousone -- his own people.Outraged at paying an indemnity to the former slave masters, and unwilling tobe taxed, the masses turned on Boyer and his mulatto government. Respondingto the pressures to repay the debt, on May 1, 1826, Boyer tried to generateincome and returned to the basic plan of fermage which Toussaint, Dessalinesand Christophe had used earlier. Boyer had a new Rural Code passed whichbound cultivators to their land and placed production quotas on them.This was an impossible plan. • The plantations, source of export levels of sugar cane, had been broken up into smallholdings. • With the accord having been signed with France, there was no longer a fear of France, thus there was little to no motivation for rallying people around some concept like national need. • The armys power had been steadily weakening since the revolution and was incapable of serious enforcement of the Rural Code.The only real impact of the Rural Code was a very negative one, therecognition of Petions fait accompli. By giving the army the role of overseeingthe new code and exempting the towns from it, Boyer gave implicit recognitionof the two Haitis. • A rural Haiti of black subsistence farmers ruled by a mainly black army.
• A mulatto urban life ruled by the official government of Haiti, a mulatto government.The basic class and color division of Haitis different worlds was solidly inplace. The very social and economic structures that Boyer tried to change bymeans of the Rural Code, he solidly reinforced.Boyers days were numbered. The formal revolt began on Jan. 27, 1843 underthe leadership of Charles Riviere-Herard, a black leader from the south. Therevolt, however, was wide spread and didnt only represent black discontentwith the state of things, but included young rising mulattos who wanted intoareas of power and wanted changes in the structure of the country.The revolt was quick and successful and on Feb. 13, 1843 Boyer fled first toJamaica and later settled in France.The end of the first phase of Haiti history came with the fleeing of Jean-PierreBoyer. However, the basic social, economic and social structures of Haiti werefixed, and remain basically the same today as they were then.Haitis first 39 years produced a country that relied on subsistence farming onsmall plots of land by the rural masses, controlled by an almost wholly blackarmy. A small urban elite, almost totally mulatto, controlled what economythere was and the government. The economy was adequate to supply that smallelite with lifestyles of considerable wealth and ease.Haiti today is in great struggle. There is a vehement call for fundamentalchanges in the basic structures of government, privilege, economy and socialvalues. What is it that the increasingly vocal and powerful mass wants hanged?It is basically the social system that the 1807-1843 rule of Alexander Petionand Jean-Pierre Boyer nurtured into existence.Many historians have pointed out that the international community has played acrucial role in the shaping of Haitis present. This is certainly true. It is difficultto calculate the impact of the fact that from 1804 until 1826 no foreign nationrecognized Haitis existence and that it was until the 1860s until Haiti camemore fully into the world of nations. How many investors were discouraged bythis situation, and how many were discouraged by the internal lack of securityin Haiti? How many trading partners turned away from Haiti who might havestirred a desire for production? My own view is that there were plenty ofmarkets for Haitis goods, but that the decisions of Petion and Boyer
encouraged and acquiesced in a form of life which produced few goods forexport.The French debt was a major factor in the inability of Haiti to dig out fromunder this economic weight and to recover anything like a normal economy.However, the basic form of life as subsistence farming was already wellentrenched before the impact of the French debt was felt. The primary negativeimpact of that debt came after the time of Boyer, or at least very late in hisregime, after the form of the economy and social system was fixed.Lastly I want to return to the question: Isnt this system what the Haitian peoplereally wanted? And if so, shouldnt they have had what they wanted, regardlessof the consequences for later generations? I dont know the answer to eitherquestion with any firm assurance, but I strongly suspect an answer of yes toboth questions. Ive argued this case earlier.Does democracy mean that people should be free to have what they want out oflife, whether or not it meets certain criteria of utility, or certain values ofmaterial progress? Should people be free to choose to not progress, or to have adifferent concept of progress than material progress? When is peace andtranquility more important that keeping ones nose to the grindstone? Is a lackof desire to work hard for material progress a sign of ignorance orbackwardness? I dont think so. It just seems to me a different set of values,conditioned not by some ideal choosing in a vacuum, but a group of peoplelooking around at the actual conditions facing them in 1804 and choosing thatcourse of action that looked best to them.For me the issue is not: Did they choose rightly. The issue is: Did they maketheir own choice. I think they did, not from a position of power and strength,but they chose what they thought was best for them given the situation they hadinherited. HE RESULT OF THE PETION/BOYER YEARS: SUBSISTENCE FARMINGBob CorbettJuly 10, 1995Scholars are generally agreed that the decision and practice by AlexanderPetion, followed and reinforced by Jean-Pierre Boyer, to distribute land insmall units to the Haitian army and others to whom the state owed debts, was
instrumental in determining the economic and social structures of Haiti whichare still central factors of Haitian life today.There is a good deal of debate as to why they did this. Was it, as some wouldsay, some sort of liberal desire to give the people what they wanted and sparethem anything like the hated fermage system which both Dessalines andChristophe tried to enforce, or was it some more calculating method ofpacification of the masses and control by the elite few of resources adequate fortheir own wealth?This is a question that I wont address. Rather, I want to focus on somethingthat interests me much more -- that is, the seemingly universal judgment thatthis policy of breaking up the large plantations, allowing sugar to effectivelydie as an export crop and allow the nation to move into subsistence farming,has been a disastrous policy which caused great mischief in Haiti.I am one who is not convinced that this condemnation of the Petion/Boyerpolicy is justified.However, the negative judgment against Petion/Boyer is virtually universal.James Leyburn in his important book THE HAITIAN PEOPLE expresses thiscommon sentiment in the following manner (assessing Petion): "His countrywas rich when he came to power and poor when he died; united in 1806 anddivided in 1818. Candor compels his admirers to admit that many of thecalamities of the social and economic history of Haiti can be traced to Petionsadministration."Leyburns view is typical. Regardless of Petions motives, the result of hispolicy was a "calamity" for Haiti. It is this view that I want to challenge.I believe that there is a nearly universal assumption among those who writeabout Haiti, an educated western class of people, that material progress isclearly a good and to be preferred over a more simple form of existence. In thepast 200 years the world has had the industrial revolution and more materialcomforts are available to people than ever before in human history. It is surelythe case that such material change (I dont say progress) could not haveoccurred within an agricultural economy, but only within an industrial one.Yet I think the evidence is clear that the Haitian people wanted to retreat intoan agricultural subsistence economy. It is my reading of Haiti that for sometime, probably up to the turn of the century -- near 1900 -- that Haitis land wasable to provide a simple subsistence to the masses of Haitian peasants that was
not a life of misery, but of simplicity. But things changed. Within this view thatI have four major factors tipped this precarious simplicity over into misery: • Increasing population • Decreasing land plot sizes (mainly from selling off ancestral land, or having it expropriated, and by dividing it among all sons rather than giving it to the oldest son • Increasing share-cropper status of the peasant as they lost their land (again, either from sale or expropriation) • Decreasing land fertility due to poor farming methods.However, if one returns to the beginnings of Haitian independence one finds apeople ready to try subsistence farming. They had just finished a long andcostly war of independence. They were no longer slaves. The overwhelmingbulk of them had been field hands in Saint-Domingue; they had farming andgardening skills. The French, main landowners were either fled or dead. Muchland was simply there, its title somewhat unclear, and would, in fact, revert tostate ownership. Dessalines and Christophe attempted to enforce fermage, aserf-like system onto the people and they knew they did not want this. It lookedmuch too much like slavery and enforced a discipline and hardship in life thatpeople did not want.The population was small, probably not more than 350,000 people. The landwas phenomenally fertile. It was nearly a Jack-and-the-beanstalk land, throwsome seeds over your shoulder and tomorrow there were crops. With arelatively small plot of land a man could provide for his family, the wholefamily working the land together. African ways were remembered, revived.If one compares the attractiveness of a simply life supported by subsistencefarming with the options that people had known -- the harsh colonial slavesystem, or the similar system of fermage -- how could it possibly compare tothe seeming idyllic life of subsistence farming.Further, the leaders of Haiti, north and south alike, expected the return of theFrench. They wanted to have a standing army for national defense. Some didwilling choose this mode of life, but they were a small minority. Increasinglythe state turned to forced conscription into the military. The peasant had aresponse: retreat deeper into the interior and try not to go "out" where the restof Haiti was. Women adopted the role of doing the marketing, in large measureto protect the men from going into the towns where it was easier to round themup in forced enlistment.
The new leadership of Haiti proved to be corrupt. The primary relation that thepeasant came to associate with government was that something negative wouldhappen. The strategy was: retreat and having nothing to do with "Haiti."In effect it seems to me that two countries emerged, and Im not referring to theKingdom of Christophe and the Republic of Petion. Rather, there was the "real"country of Haiti, the constitutional government in force, which, while nothaving international recognition, was the de facto government of Haiti, andcontrolled the coastal towns and major markets of the countryside. Then therewas the borderless "Haiti at large," a largely anarchic world of peasants whohad retreated as far away from the Haitian government and lived a life beyondthe pale of formal law, commerce, and the western concept of development andso-called progress.They traded their right to live under government and the possibility ofparticipation in it, for the freedom to avoid its worst abuses. In exchange theylived lives of pre-industrial simplicity, but, until the turn of the twentiethcentury, not lives of misery.Surely my portrait will be criticized as romantic. I think it is not. It is romanticif one assumes that anything which is not striving for material aggrandizementand which is satisfied with something significantly "less," (from the materialistpoint of view) is romantic. I am not assuming that the simple life of subsistencefarming was easy or that it didnt have negative aspects. There was no modernhealth care. There were herbal healers and faith healers, but the health of thepeople suffered the lack of such modern achievements as inoculations, andmodern sanitary conditions including pure water and safe waste disposal. Therewas no education and nearly everyone was (is) illiterate, a world thatnecessarily closes in upon itself in a dangerous fashion for long-term survival.(One example of this lack is that traditional agricultural practices were, in fact,damaging the soil, and their deforestation activities were foreboding comingdisaster, but the people were not in a position to gather or process thisinformation.)Life expectancy was 30 years shorter than ours is today. People had feweroptions to difference or change.I am not hiding from these realities; thus I dont think my view is, in that sense,romantic. However, given the conditions to which people were responding inthe 1804-1820 period, faced with the pressures from the north towardregulation of life, and from both north and south for various forms ofexploitation, and from forced conscription, and given the utter weariness of
war, I see the choice of the people to retreat into an anarchistic simple life ofsubsistence farming to be a quite reasonable choice.It wasnt the only choice. They could have carried on the struggle, organized,pressed the revolution and all that. But I think that alternative is much more apaper alternative than a live option for most people. I again call attention to theconditions I just listed in the paragraph above. Further, all those who hadprovided the leadership, which allowed the common field hand, to participatein the revolution, had now switched sides and were the ruling class of the newHaiti. The masses of peasants were exhausted, tired of it all, and leaderless inthe face of a new oppression. The retreat into simple subsistence farming wasquite attractive.Thus regardless of Petions motives, I would argue that the people of Haitireally and truly did get the best world they could realistically get at that time.What ultimately caught up with them was their own success. The life of simplesubsistence farming, with all of the limits described above, was such that theydid prosper and increase and multiply. They didnt all die in great numbers (asthey had under slavery and during the revolution, and at other times when theyengaged the "country" of Haiti). Basically they did better when they opted out,retreated into the fastness of the mountains, scaled down their expectations tovery simple ones, and survived. More than anything else, their own successkilled them as the land mass, their self-selected lack of education and creepingexploitation from without, eventually turned their simplicity into misery.Today the consciousness of the peasants of Haiti is not the consciousness of1818. It is a mixed consciousness. Todays rural peasant still has a great deal ofthe 1818 peasant in him or her. But he and she has a modern consciousness too,an awareness of revolutionary potential, the desire for participation ingovernment, tremendous desire to participate in the materialist world,especially health care, education and the goodies seen in the rest of the so-called "advanced" world. There is no turning back, and thats not the point ofthis essay. Im not suggesting that the Haitians were better off because of theresults of the Petion/Boyer system and should return to it.Rather, I just want to argue that it is in no way clear to me that life is all thatmuch better for the modern Haitian peasant than the peasant of the past. It isnot clear to me that the system of Petion/Boyer was such a calamity as Leyburnand most scholars think it was.It seems to me to have provided about the best realistic possibility for thepeasants at that time, was much to be desired over what Dessalines and
Christophe were offering, and was a wise choice for those who embraced it andeffectively withdrew from the country of Haiti.Moving away from Haiti in this conclusion, you probably note a mixed view ofmodern materialism and so-called progress. Yes. Ive made the cultivation ofeconomic simplicity a liet motif of my own life, though what simplicity I didachieve was inside a modern industrial state rather than outside. In my readingand study Ive spent a great deal of time looking at those who have, in one wayor another, to one degree or another, said no to unbounded materialism and allthat goes with it. I regularly teach courses in "the simple life" and will be doingso again this fall.I made no attempt to go primitive in my life. I embrace much of modernmedicine, but not all. I simply love flush toilets and potable running water. Itake my malaria pills when I go to Haiti. But for most of my adult life I didntown a car, or television set and for many years used central heat only as abegrudging supplement to wood. I struggled to eat as low on the food chain as Icould stand, and eschewed as much as I could of mechanized materialism (withthe notable exception of the computer.) I have always been attracted to the viewthat in significant measure the consumption of those of us who consume on thehigh end of our planetary consumption system (and despite my flirting withsimplicity, I am one of those) are indirectly causative of much of the sufferingof those who under consume the basic necessities of life.Thus, from within that perspective, when I look back on the 1807-1900 periodof Haitian history I dont see a "calamity" as Leyburn does. I see a choice thatwas wise and understandable in its time, but one that outgrew itself and thepeople were unable to change, both for reasons of powerlessness and lack ofunderstanding of what changes had taken place.Independent of Petions motives, I see him as having presided over the birth ofa social and economic system which provided the very best days that the massof Haitian peasants ever had in Haiti, and something better than they are likelyto experience again for a long time to come.