The University of Iowa

Haiti in History

January 20th, 2010

In recent emails from colleagues, I have been reminded of the extraordinary history of Haiti and the many challenges the people of the country have faced long before the terrible earthquake that took so many lives last week and threatens to take more.

Andrew Brown of the Société Voltaire has posted one of the huge statistical tables from the 1780 edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes, the great eighteenth-century history (and in part condemnation) of European trade and imperial activities in the Indies.  See  These tables document the European dependence on Haiti by listing the exact quantity and value of sugar, coffee, indigo, cocoa, annatto (a food coloring and flavoring), cotton, leather and so on that came to French ports in 1775.  Some readers may remember Voltaire’s condemnation of slavery in Candide. Candide encounters a slave who has had a leg and a hand cut off, remarking that this is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.

All of this a good 15 years before the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803), which led to the elimination of slavery and the first republic of people with African ancestry.

I’ll add in closing that amid all the devastation and loss of life, the building housing the Haitian National library is safe, though of course the shelves and holdings have shifted.  In fact, the building is the only one standing in the entire area.  The director of the library wrote in a recent email: “we will prevail.”