Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Hated in Haiti


By now, it was almost a routine. Our driver would size up the crowd, decide the setting wasn't too threatening, and pull over our 4x4.

This time we were on the big square in the middle of Petionville, a town in the hills above Port-au-Prince where Haiti's political and business elite have always lived.

The cameraman jumped out, followed closely by our producer and me. She'd watch his back while the driver and I stood aside, scanning the square for trouble.

It always arrived. This time in the form of a chewed-up-looking man wearing a knitted toque with a young girl trailing along behind him.

Creole is the daily language of 90 percent of the population of Haiti. There's a lot of French in it, so a Quebecer can catch the drift even if the details aren't clear.

He marched up to our Haitian driver and in a loud voice demanded to know what the "blancs" were doing. We had a routine by now. I pretended to study the architecture while our driver, a big guy named Muller, tried to calm the man down. No reflection on his diplomatic skills, but it almost never worked.

The man's voice was close to a shout now. The little girl was holding on to the pocket of his trousers, staring up at me.

This was the point when Muller would bring me into the conversation -- the shouting match, really. Roughly translated, the man wanted to know:

"What the fuck are you doing in my town, white man?"

"Taking pictures, sir," I'd begin.

Sometimes we'd offer money. This time, Muller decided it would just make things worse. An old man with an equally ancient woman in tow had sidled up to me while things escalated.

"Give me money," he began wheedling in French.

I glanced at him, then returned to the discussions of my business and of my ancestry. Muller signaled that we'd better pack it up. I waved to the camera crew. They'd had about three minutes of clear shooting.

The old woman began to mutter: "Pay attention to him! He's an old man! Pay attention to him, blanc!" The muttering was growing louder too.

We climbed quickly into the truck. I handed the old man a fifty gourde note, about two bucks American. He reached for it.

"Asshole!" he said, loosely translated.

In Haiti, we ran into a lot of resentment of white people. It wasn't just that we were rich North Americans. Or that Canada, the U.S., and the European Union were opposing the election tactics of a very popular presidential candidate while we were visiting. It was much, much deeper than that.

It's a sobering experience to be singled out because of your racial background. Doubly sobering when you realize that you're not only putting your own life at risk by walking the streets of Port-au-Prince, but seriously endangering the lives of those with you, no matter the colour of their skin.

It is, I concluded, a tangible legacy of one of the worst episodes in our history as the New World.

It's the legacy of slavery.

I hadn't really thought much about slavery in our hemisphere, at least not enough to study up on the shameful history of it all. But Haiti -- its bubbling anger, its paralyzing dysfunctionality, and its seething resentments -- made me realize that I've been living in blissful ignorance of the real horror of the Atlantic slave trade and the real price we continue to pay for it, generations later.

Haiti was taken over by the French from its Spanish colonial masters early in the 18th century. By the end of the century, it was the most profitable colony on earth, supplying France with nearly a third of the value of all its foreign trade. The wealth came from a plantation system that grew products like tobacco and coffee.

But the real motor of the Haitian economy and the engine of the African slave trade was sugar. Sugar cane was cultivated and processed through a labor-intensive regime that worked thousands of slaves to death.

Nearly 800,000 African slaves were brought to Haiti during the eighteenth century. 800,000!

A small number were destined for the comparative ease of coffee or tobacco production, but the vast majority went to work under the "gang system" on sugar plantations.

Driven by whip-toting drivers, the gangs worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. When the cane was being harvested, crushed, and boiled down, slaves were driven to work extra shifts in the processing sheds. On Sundays, they were expected to grow all their own food.

The Caribbean sugar plantations were characterized by one historian, Jan Rogozinski, as "killing machines."

"As with the extermination of the Arawak in the 1500s," he wrote, "the word genocide precisely describes the fate of Africans carried to the sugar islands as field slaves."

Slaves died so rapidly that the African slave trade boomed. As the sugar trade grew, so did the plantations' hunger for new bodies to be ground up with the cane stalks to sweeten the lives of Europeans.

When the Haitian revolution exploded in the 1790s, its violence was bone-chilling.

Virtually all whites and at least a third of the slaves died or fled in eleven years of civil war. The Haitian economy was in shambles. A quasi-industrial economy built on slave labour and export trade was left without slaves and without markets. The European powers were hostile. The former slaves wanted no part of plantation production.

In a sense, Haiti never recovered.

And Haitians, understandably enough, haven't quite found it in their hearts to forgive the descendents of the peoples who transported them across the sea to die in the cane fields.

I'm lucky they just called me names on the square in Petionville.


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