On May 20, 2022, the New York Times published an important series of articles on the impact of the “ransom” Haiti paid to former French planters for their losses during the Haitian Revolution. As the Times made clear, the indemnity demanded in exchange for formal recognition by France of Haitian independence in 1825 – initially 150 million French francs, later reduced to 90 million – was unpayable from the start, forcing Haiti to borrow money, creating a “double debt” and a cycle of sovereign indebtedness that has constrained the Haitian state for generations.
What gets left out of this story is why French leaders entertained the notion of recognizing the Haitian state in the first place. To be sure, recognition was not on French policymakers’ agenda in 1804, when Haiti first declared independence, or even in 1814. With the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy, the deeply reactionary settler lobby pushed to “restore Saint-Domingue,” complete with the slavery and violence that was the basis of their previous wealth. “Plans of reconquest [and] redevelopment programmes cropped up everywhere,” according to Gabriel Debien, and the former colonists of Saint-Domingue emerged as “more pro-slavery in 1814 than they were in 1789.” At the same time, however, at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, merchants who were eager to get back to business were quicker than planters to acknowledge that the Haitian Revolution was irreversible. It was they who advised French authorities to recognize Haitian independence.
The 1825 royal ordonnance “offering” Haitians the independence they had already won was thus hybrid in purpose. Its clause requiring an indemnity was backward-looking and punitive toward Haiti – an effort to compensate former planters for property they’d never occupy again and, indirectly, for the enslaved laborers who worked on that property. But the first article of the ordonnance was about the future, more specifically, about a promising future of trade between the two countries that French merchants and shippers imagined was possible once commercial relations were normalized. Viewed this way, the indemnity was the sop to French planter interests that allowed merchants and shippers to push through trade normalization, which in turn required formal recognition of independence. Recognition, in the end, would occur on French terms, as Charles X’s envoy to Haiti Ange René Armand, Baron de Mackau, presented the king’s non-negotiable ordonnance to Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer in July 1825 accompanied by a squadron of 14 warships, leaving Boyer and his tiny navy no real option to refuse.
The stakes for French port economies were high. On the eve of the French Revolution, the colony then known as Saint-Domingue was the most profitable colony in the world, producing more sugar than all the British West Indies combined, and also serving as a major producer of coffee, cotton, indigo, and exotic woods – all of which generated vast wealth in large part because they were cultivated in grueling conditions by enslaved laborers. In 1788, according to Jean Tarrade, almost 500 ships brought more than 150,000 tons of cash crops from Saint-Domingue to the ports of France, roughly 80% of the colonial tonnage imported. Those numbers plummeted when Haitians, through a series of revolts and a war of independence together now known as the Haitian Revolution, removed themselves from the slave-labor economy and formed a new nation. While post-independence Haitian leaders often sought ways to force formerly enslaved people to cultivate cash crops, coercion had its limits. As one French merchant marine captain put it, Haiti would sooner “perish than let itself be returned to slavery by whites or under the domination of the French.”
In the aftermath of the revolution, Haitians continued to cultivate coffee for the international market, but many also embraced a subsistence economy or, as Johnhenry Gonzalez has termed it, “the freedom of a full stomach.” In this way, Gonzalez argues, formerly enslaved persons “changed the terms of their relationship with both the world capitalist market and the island’s natural resources and ecology.” Even as Haitians engaged in “strategic economic autarky,” however, Haitian elites and French port interests alike still saw potential for a vibrant cash crop economy. Merchants and shippers buffeted by decades of revolution and international war emerged from the Napoleonic Wars hopeful that trade with the place they still called Saint-Domingue could, as a navy ministry report put it in 1815, provide a “new support” to the shipping industry, giving “anxious businesses” a “salutary direction and useful goal.”
There was, however, a problem in realizing this goal. France had refused to recognize the independence of the “insurgent colony,” and its ships were not welcome in Haitian ports. Britain and the United States, meanwhile, although also not formally recognizing either the northern kingdom of Haiti under Henry Christophe or the southern republic of Haiti under Alexandre Pétion, actively traded with the two Haitis. Britain had even secured most-favored nation status with reduced customs duties – a state of affairs that infuriated French officials who still considered France the rightful preponderant power. Faced with the fact that France’s remaining Antilles colonies did not provide adequate markets or sources of colonial goods, chambers of commerce pressed the navy ministry to resurrect the Haiti trade. To incentivize the trade, the ministry directed port authorities to offer a “colonial privilege” on customs duties to ships selling French goods in Haiti and returning with colonial crops such as raw sugar, coffee, or dyewoods. Since French ships were unwelcome in Haitian harbors, however, the ministry actively encouraged subterfuge, directing the shippers to “neutralize” their craft, or use foreign-registered ships. When shippers decried this process as cumbersome and expensive, the ministry agreed they could simply raise false flags when approaching Haitian harbors instead. In this way, French shippers disguised as foreign ones actively traded with Haiti from 1815 and, upon return, paid the same customs duties “as if coming from French colonies.” All of this was done quietly, with no published directives, on the basis of behind-the-scenes agreements between the navy ministry and port authorities in France’s seaboard cities.