Why are some nations rich and some poor? Important lessons come from Haiti, the Caribbean country whose democratically-elected President Aristide fled last week after rioting against his misrule.
Haiti is the poorest country in Latin America. But two centuries ago, it was the richest country in the world. Moreover, it was the first country where slaves overthrew their white masters and obtained independence.
Today, readers cannot appreciate what a high-priced luxury sugar was in 1800, or how phenomenally rich were the sugar-growing colonies of the Caribbean. Haiti, a French colony, produced half the entire GNP of France!
When the French and British negotiated an end to their long wars in the 18th century, Britain seriously considered giving Canada to France in exchange for two French islands in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe and Martinique. That’s how valuable sugar was then. That profitability drove the entire African slave trade.
The French revolution of 1789 brought in new ideas of equality. France abolished slavery. But the sugar barons of Haiti largely ignored the new rights of slaves. Then Napoleon came to power and wanted slavery to continue. This provoked a slave revolt. Could illiterate slaves beat Napoleon? Well, the slaves had not only some fabulous guerrilla leaders but germs on their side. The slave trade had brought yellow fever from Africa to the Caribbean.
Slaves were largely immune to it, but white men succumbed in droves. Up to four-fifths of every shipload of soldiers sent by Napoleon perished. After sending over 100,000 troops, France gave up and withdrew, leaving Haiti as the first free slave state.
Going by the usual anti-colonial rhetoric, you might think that the richest country in the world would have become richer still, and a haven for human rights. Instead, Haiti experienced unending brutal dictatorships, without prosperity or human rights.