It was big news in the U.S. when enslaved people in Haiti rose up and wrested their freedom from France in 1791. Haiti was founded as an independent nation in 1804, striking such fear in the hearts of American enslavers that the U.S. did not officially recognize Haiti until 1862, after the start of the Civil War.
What happened next is less well known in the U.S. today. Two decades after declaring independence, the French forced formerly enslaved Haitians at gunpoint to pay reparations to the people who had enslaved them.
Reporters for The New York Times tracked each payment Haiti made over the course of the 64 years that followed and calculated that the nation paid about $560 million in today’s dollars to satisfy this ransom and the loans they were forced to take to pay it.
For generations, Haiti’s revenues went to service its “double debt,” depriving its people of schools, hospitals, and basic infrastructure and pushing the country into a cycle of debt, poverty, and underdevelopment that persists today.
And that’s the conservative estimate. Modeling based on the growth rate of Haiti’s Latin American neighbors suggests the payments diverted to France cost Haiti as much as $115 billion. If Haiti had not been forced to pay the people who had enslaved its citizens, The Times reported, its per capita income in 2018 could have been almost six times as large.
Building on more than a century of research by historians, economists, and others, The Times also made new connections about how the wealth stolen from Haiti was used to fuel the nascent French banking system—and to build the Eiffel Tower.
The bank that made the most money off the loan Haiti was forced to take in 1875 was Crédit Industriel et Commercial, which took millions of dollars in fees and interest from Haiti’s treasury at a time when it was helping finance Paris’s iconic monument to liberty. C.I.C.’s “executives and investors made so much money off Haiti that their profits sometimes exceeded Haiti’s entire public works budget,” The Times reported.
The head of Crédit Mutuel, a European financial conglomerate that bought C.I.C. in 1998, told The Times days after it published “The Ransom” that he will finance a team to investigate and expose the bank’s full history. “This is a very sad illustration of the meaning of colonization and financial colonization,” Nicolas Théry said.
The Times also reported that, although the payments were supposed to go to individual property owners and their descendants, the French government took $8.5 million in today’s currency from Haiti.
U.S. banks likewise extracted great wealth from Haiti. After National City Bank, Citigroup’s predecessor, and other Wall Street banks pushed hard for the U.S. to take over Haiti, the U.S. invaded in 1915, took over the national bank, and, as The Times wrote, “installed a puppet government, dissolved parliament at gunpoint, entrenched segregation, forced Haitians to build roads for no pay, killed protesters and rewrote the nation’s Constitution, enabling foreigners to own property for the first time since independence.”
The 19-year-long military occupation—one of the longest in U.S. history—was justified by Secretary of State Robert Lansing as a civilizing mission to end the “anarchy, savagery and oppression” in Haiti. The U.S. had to take over the impoverished nation because, as Mr. Lansing wrote, “the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization.”
For more than 30 years, even after U.S. troops left, American financial officers transferred Haiti’s earnings to New York banks while Haitian farmers all but starved.
Fully “a quarter of Haiti’s total revenue went to paying debts controlled by National City Bank and its affiliate over the course of a decade,” The Times found — “nearly five times the amount spent on government-run schools in Haiti during that time.” It continued:
And in some years, the American officers who controlled Haiti’s finances spent more of its money on their own salaries and expenses than on public health for the entire nation of about two million people.
Another revelation from The Times’s report concerns more recent history—the removal from power of Haiti’s first democratically elected president in 2004.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide publicly demanded reparations from France in 2003 on the 200th anniversary of the death of Toussaint Louverture, a leader of the Haitian revolution who died in a French prison without trial after he was captured by Napoleon’s forces. And he said France owed Haiti precisely $21,685,135,571.48—which actually corresponds closely to the low end of The Times’s estimate of the losses to Haiti’s economy.
The Times reported that France collaborated with the U.S. to remove Mr. Aristide after he confronted France with the truth of its history:
France and the United States have long said that Mr. Aristide’s call for restitution had nothing to do with his ouster, that he had taken an autocratic turn, lost control of the country, and was spirited into exile to prevent Haiti, already heaving with turmoil, from careening into chaos. But France’s ambassador to Haiti at the time, Thierry Burkard, said in an interview that France and the United States had effectively orchestrated “a coup” against Mr. Aristide, and that his abrupt removal was “probably a bit about” his call for reparations from France, too.
A former French ambassador to Haiti, Yves Gaudeul, told The Times that France’s response to the calls for restitution were rooted in its reluctance to truthfully confront its history in Haiti.
In France, as in too many places in the U.S., the nation’s history of racial injustice, of enslavement and its legacy, is “distorted, downplayed or forgotten,” researchers told The Times. The history of Haiti’s ransom payments to France is not included in the French school curriculum, The Times reported.
Even members of the prominent aristocratic families who took money from Haiti’s poorest people told The Times they were unaware of this history. Emmanuel de la Burgade, a descendant of family members who enslaved Black people in Haiti, told The Times he discovered the history only while writing a book about his family. When he told his father about it, he answered, “Don’t tell anyone.”
Then-president François Hollande acknowledged the payments as “the ransom of independence” in a 2015 speech, but the government quickly walked back his vow to “pay off the debt we have,” saying he meant only a moral debt and not a financial one. The French government has not changed its position.
But The Times reports there has been some movement in France to acknowledge its past in Haiti. Last year, France’s national public research organization published a database listing compensation paid to French slaveholders, and France’s finance ministry hosted its first international symposium on the economics of slavery, which included discussion on the history of Haiti’s payments to France.