Last week the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moise, was assassinated creating more instability for an island already know for disorder. Even the legitimacy of his presidency was questioned, yet another sign of a country teetering.
There is seldom good news from Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, but the incident brings to mind just how important the island had been in the history of New Orleans, and also the world.
At one point, the Caribbean islands were the farmlands of Europe sprouting crops not grown in northerly climates but plentiful in the islands. Key among them was sugar, which flavored European pastries and made the teas sweeter. But in those pre-industrial days the islands had to rely on slavery. In Haiti, the slave population was particularly large, and their treatment was particularly brutal, so much so that in 1791 a slave rebellion was triggered. In the end, the revolution not only freed the slaves but changed the world.
French troops who were sent across the Atlantic to quell the rebellion hit a wall. They were overwhelmed by the slave forces.
Meanwhile, back in the parlor rooms of International relations, France, through a previous treaty, had just received ownership of the vast Louisiana territory from Spain. Now the question was what to do with it,
There was a time when Napoleon envisioned a vast empire including islands on the Caribbean and a big chunk of North America touching elbows with the emerging United States. But now that dream was crumbling. Napoleon knew he could not afford the manpower or the cost of reclaiming Haiti. Without the island he saw less use for Louisiana. He also needed cash for European wars that he knew were ahead. And then there was the future. Any street corner sage could predict that If he held onto the Louisiana territory then one day, he would have to defend it from conquest by Great Britain or the United States. Better to put the territory in the U.S.’s hands he reasoned, correctly, than to make the British empire even stronger. So, the deal was made. As Napoleon would say of Thomas Jefferson, whose primary interest was the ‘Isle d’Orleans,’ “they asked for a city I gave them an empire.”
Haiti would eventually become an independent republic; one that has battled political unrest, brutal dictators, poverty, hurricanes and earthquakes. May God bless it. And if there is a law of averages in domestic problems, it should be Haiti’s turn for easy street.
A question though: What if there had been no rebellion? What if Napoleon had never been prompted to sell the Louisiana territory, which stretched northwardly to the Canadian border and westwardly to the Dakotas? Would the rich, powerful country that would eventually save Europe in two world wars have ever emerged? Could western Europe have stood up to communism alone? Would there be the science and technology that the world has come to expect? Would the world have its policeman?
Liberty is an ideal, but it does not guarantee stability. The political climate in Haiti is such a mess that what the country really needs is a benevolent dictator. Only those are hard to find. Haiti will need the continued help of a strong United States—the country that it helped make stronger.
SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInisder or Apple Podcasts.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.