Without doubt, Prof Hilary Beckles is one of the region's most distinguished eminent historians and academics. He earned a PhD from the University of Hull at the age of 25 and was promoted to a personal professorship in 1993 at age thirty-seven, the youngest in the history of UWI. His list of published manuscripts and books is very long and his reputation for outstanding research has been secured for decades now. Apart from his work on various aspects of the history of Barbados and the Caribbean, Prof Beckles is also a noted researcher on the nexus between West Indian cricket and society. In 2007, he was knighted for contributions to higher education, the arts and sport. He finds the time to run the Cave Hill campus as its principal and pro vice chancellor. In terms of intellectual heavyweights, they don't come much bigger than Prof Sir Hilary.
So it is with some trepidation that I enter a debate with someone who is a world-recognised expert in Caribbean history. I would have been prepared to let it go had the following circumstances not led me to conclude that Sir Hilary's essay had "gone viral." A former lecturer sent me the essay on Monday but I didn't get around to reading it until Thursday. When I did, I found the piece to be provocative, but populist, simplistic and a little propagandistic. I wrote down my thoughts and sent them to the lecturer about 15 minutes later. I would have been prepared to forget the essay, had I not received an e-mail from my eldest brother, who has lived in France for more than 25 years, asking whether I had seen the essay and did I know of its essential points. On Thursday, as well, UWI St Augustine's Professor of History Bridget Brereton was quoted in a Guardian news story as agreeing with Sir Hilary's position that France has a "huge moral obligation to Haiti" because of the terribly unjust requirements which it imposed on Haiti.
Given the fact that the essay was obviously being e-mailed widely, I was convinced that I needed to respond publicly and provoke a wider public debate on this issue. I have not studied the Haitian Revolution in 25 years but I am sure that one of the things people like Carl Parris and Anslem Francis taught me at the Institute of International Relations more than 20 years ago is that sovereign nations have the ability to make (and break) agreements. Sir Hilary seeks to blame the French for seeking to impose an onerous agreement seeking "compensation and reparation in exchange" for recognition. But Sir Hilary ascribes absolutely no blame to the Haitian government which entered into this agreement, one assumes, with its eyes wide open. As I understand it from his essay, the sovereign Haitian government, feeling the pinch of its isolation, entered into an agreement with France after 21 years of Independence.
It can't be said, therefore, that it rushed to sign this agreement which consigned thousands of Haitians to miserable lives of destitution. Beckles argues that as a result of the agreement between these two sovereign, independent nations capital "was illegally extracted from the Haitian people and should be repaid." He states that the 150 million gold francs is estimated by financial actuaries to be the equivalent of US$21 billion today. It is sophomoric, at best, to subscribe to a notion that the 1825 agreement was rendered invalid or illegal because Haitians were small, weak, impoverished, jejune and with their "backs to the wall" while France was large, strong, rich and sophisticated. Surely thousands of agreements are struck between unequal parties all over the world every day. Isn't any negotiation in which the borrower needs the money to buy a house, finance an education or pay a medical bill an unequal negotiation? Are such agreements made invalid or illegal as a result of the fact that the bank executive is bigger, stronger, wealthier or more sophisticated than the borrower?
Can it be argued, for example, that the September 1941 agreement between the US and Great Britain to trade 50 old warships in exchange for land for military bases in seven countries including T&T was "illegally extracted" because Britain's back was against a wall or literally looking down the barrel of Hitler's guns? Shifting the goalpost every so slightly, one wonders whether Beckles would consider the US$1.3 billion debt agreement that Jamaica is about to sign with the IMF, capital that will be "illegally extracted" from them. Surely Jamaicans find themselves with their "backs to the wall." Is Beckles going to blame the IMF for the "merciless exploitation" of Jamaicans that's "designed and guaranteed to collapse the (Jamaican) economy and society?" Shouldn't the blame be placed squarely on the decisions made by generations of Jamaica's political elites to spend more money than the country earned?
Another thing that I learnt more than 20 years ago is that countries have national interests and seek to protect and promote their national interests at every turn. I suspect that Haiti would have felt that this agreement with France was the means by which it could reintegrate itself into the world economy. If Haiti had had anything to sell to the world, Haiti would have survived and thrived, despite the onerous yoke of the need to repay the French. But I seem to recall that the Haitian Revolution led to the destruction of the plantation economy, which produced sugar as its main product and went searching among my old history texts until I found Parry and Sherlock's "A Short History of the West Indies," which states at page 169. From 1806 to 1818, Dessalines' successors divided the country between them with the negro Christophe taking the north and the mulatto Petion the south: Christophe's regime in the north was an astonishing tour-de-force, of which his great citadel stands as a grim witness to this day.
Without administrative machinery to his hand, he held his kingdom together by sheer force of will, ruling through a kind of milatary feudalism based on forced labour, without the name of slavery. While he lived (until) 1820 he kept the great estates going and delayed the running down of the economic machine. Petion, more easy-going, permitted in the south the popular but economically disastrous subdivision of the land into small peasant plots, which became in time the pattern all over Haiti." The reason that Haiti had little chance to thrive in its post-Independence period had more to do with the destruction of the sugar cane plantations than with the embargo or the French debt. All issues contributed to Haiti's persistent poverty but the end of the plantation economy did the most.
It was Haiti's politicians (all those Emperors and Dukes and Presidents-for Life!!!) who consigned the country to misery by killing off the planters, signing an onerous agreement and refusing to restore the plantation system after Emancipation/Independence because, as Parry and Sherlock indicate, destroying the plantation was the popular and populist thing to do. The most offensive part of this whole argument is that the leaders of this supposedly proud, black nation acquisced in the infamy that it was the owners of the human capital (ie the slave masters) who deserved to be compensated and not the slaves who were brutalised. The answer to the question of why Haiti signed the 1825 agreement comes not in blaming France but in studying the role of Jean-Pierre Boyer, a mulatto who served as the president of Haiti from 1818 to 1843.
This, after all, was someone with a French father, who was educated in France, who shifted allegiance to and then away from Toussaint L'Ouverture, who was exiled to France and returned to Haiti under French General Charles Leclerc with a military commission and finally his dissertion from the army. There may be an argument that Boyer wanted recognition from and by France. He may have craved French recognition, both diplomatically and personally and he may not have thought that committing Haiti to making unreasonable payments to France was too high a price to pay. He was wrong. And while we all weep for Haiti, I would argue that France has no more moral obligation to provide billions to it than we do.