PART ONE - The Cost of Liberation

Before Cristoforo Colombo’s first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, the region was inhabited by two indigenous groups, the Caribs and the Tainos. The Tainos were the peoples living on the island which Colombo renamed La Isla Española, or La Hispaniola. The island was subsequently colonized by Spain and later by France as well after the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 which divided it into the French colony of Saint Domingue in the east and the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo in the west. By 1550 though, the violence of colonization had already decimated indigenous populations on the entire island. Since Saint Domingue could no longer rely on indigenous labour, the French Crown imported 800 000 Africans who French settlers enslaved to grow and harvest crops such as coffee, sugar, rhum, cotton and indigo.  

Coffee was introduced in the French colony as soon as 1715. By 1780, Saint-Domingue was the most prosperous colony in the world and produced over half of the world’s coffee.

But with such prosperity comes a high cost; during the French rule which lasted from 1697 until 1804, enslaved labour in Saint-Domingue accounted for ⅓ of the entire African slave trade. This high demand and reliance on imported enslaved labour made it so that by 1789, there were 16 times more enslaved people than white settlers. This demographic disparity, paired with the inhumane living conditions and the high mortality rates gave rise to the Haitian Revolution in 1791. 

Until 1804, Haitian forces (former Saint-Domingue) successfully resisted French troops as well as British and Spanish invasions. Though the great uprising came to an end in 1804, France refused to acknowledge Haiti’s independence until 1825.

In order to have its independence granted, the French Crown coerced the self-liberated nation to pay back settlers for their loss in expected profits, enslaved labour and properties.

Supported by the other colonizing empires of the region, France imposed a payment of 150 millions of francs, payable in five installments as well as a 50% tariff reduction on French imports. Having functioned as a plantation economy for so long, Haiti still relied heavily on exports even after its liberation and thus was dependent upon foreign support and economic alliances. The new nation would not have survived under an embargo and diplomatic isolation.

Under the threat of French warships and an impending blockade, President Jean-Pierre Boyer had no choice but to sign L'ordonnance royale de Charles X and incur the exorbitant debt which represented over ten times the annual revenues of the Haitian government at that time.

This independence debt was strategically executed to discourage other colonies from attempting to revolt as well by enforcing an excessive punishment for Haiti’s liberation. In fact, white settlers and enslavers were so apprehensive of possible revolts that the simple mention of the words Saint Domingue was sufficient to incite terror. The demanded payment was so excessive that it is often referred to as the “Double Debt” because for the first installment, Haiti had to make a loan from a Parisian bank of 30 millions francs with a 20% commission fee and 6 % annual interest rate. The only way for Haiti to increase its revenues to pay its debt was through exports. Adding insult to injury, the reduction of tariff on French imports made it almost impossible to achieve. In 1838, through the Traité de l'amitié, Boyer negotiated the reduction of the debt value from 120 to 60 millions francs.

Though this debt reduction was positive, it still could not eliminate the “Double Debt” as Haiti had to make other loans to pay the remaining balance. As explained by Dr. Marlene L. Daut, 

“by forcing Haiti to pay for its freedom, France essentially ensured that the Haitian people would continue to suffer the economic effects of slavery for generations to come.” 
*all references here.

Roxanne Cornellier

Roxanne completed her Bachelor of Arts at McGill University in December 2020 with a double major in Art History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She was a part of the team of student researchers led by Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson to uncover and document McGill’s connections to slavery. Her academic interests include Canada’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its enduring consequences and legacies as well as topics such as social justice, anti-capitalism and decolonization.  IG: 

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