History of Haiti’s Agriculture

(Part 3 of 4 on Haiti’s agriculture and related subjects)

Imagine my disappointment when I gradually discovered so many of the things I was taught in history class as a child were either lacking much detail or not based on fact at all. There are many examples of this going back hundreds of years but some of the most disheartening are the history books written by victors of war, conquest and occupation. Both Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victor”. History is hopelessly biased towards the victors in wars, because they are the ones who are able to promote their cause, culture, and abilities to whomever reads about history. They can (and do) suppress their defeated opponent.

After the conquest and enslavement of the native Taino/Arawak people, Spain quickly saw that Hispaniola (Haiti & Dominican Republic today) was not to be the source of gold they expected. Hispaniola was converted into a farming region to provide food for the Spanish in other areas of the Caribbean and Central American. The island was worked first by the Taino/Arawak, but before long, African slaves were imported. This began as early as 1508 and the Africans became the primary labor source very quickly. Sugar was introduced as a crop to join tobacco and coffee as attractive crops as well as regular food stuffs.

Both Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victor”.

However, before long Hispaniola became an island of little interest to the Spanish. Spanish settlements were being founded in other areas of the Caribbean and Central and South America and these settlers found it more economical to provide their own food. Hispaniola became a quite uninteresting and useless island. There was one town at the far southeast portion of the island, the settlement which is today the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo. The Spanish kept this settlement and the farms around it, but little by little the rest of the island was virtually abandoned and unpopulated (including the extremely fertile western part of the island which was later to become Haiti).

Then came the French. From the Spanish days of using the western portion of the island (Haiti), 50 to 100 years earlier, there were many wild animals which survived after the Spanish gave up the use of the island. This included cattle, goats, sheep and horses. Since this region, the northern plain and mountains of Haiti, was very fertile, the animals flourished. French pirates were fond of going across the narrow water way from Turtle Island (a pirate hideaway) into the island of Hispaniola to hunt wild game.

They used to kill the game and cook it over an open flame. This is a “boukan” in French, and this process and these people became known as “boukanniers” in French, or buccaneers in English, a common term for pirates.

Pirates of Petit Goave near Haiti

However, pirating wasn’t what it used to be and some of these French pirates choose to settle in Hispaniola and become farmers. They sent back to France for women, and France was only too happy to empty some of the women’s prisons, sending a variety of women not desired in France, to this remote Caribbean outpost. Slowly, a community developed in the north-central and northwest of Hispaniola. By the early part of the 17th century the French even named some of these former pirates as French officials to oversee the community forming there.

People often make the mistake of thinking that because Haiti is in such dire straits now, it must always have been that way. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and this is particularly the case with agriculture. Prior to and for most of the 19th century, Haiti was a site of agricultural innovation, productivity and economic success.”

The slave revolution that ended with Haiti’s creation in 1804 led to what the sociologist Jean Casimir dubbed a “counter-plantation” system. As slaves, the islanders had harvested and processed sugar cane, but fed themselves by cultivating their own tiny gardens, for which they developed sophisticated techniques of inter-cropping — a kind of sustainable agriculture that involved planting a variety of crops close together. Once free, Haitians drew on that knowledge to raise livestock and grow fruits, root vegetables and even coffee for export to the global market. In establishing their own small farms, they forestalled any possibility of a return to the large plantations that had defined the days of slavery.

This system of agricultural self-reliance provided a better quality of life than that of African descendants anywhere else in the Americas. The country attracted many immigrants, including thousands of African-Americans. And though the United States government didn’t officially recognize Haiti until 1862, American businessmen eagerly traded with the island nation.”

“Prior to and for most of the 19th century, Haiti was a site of agricultural innovation, productivity and economic success.”

No doubt, Haiti has endured much; from conquest & occupation to the stripping of it’s land of resources to the recent natural disasters that have left Haiti virtually paralyzed. Much has been done and written by these “occupiers” as well to try and justify their actions and motives but in this rebuilding stage, Haiti now has the chance to write it’s own history again. In regards to agriculture and it’s economy, this writer believes it will be a happy and just ending with continued progress…After all, they have done it before.

Look for our last blog on this series in 2 weeks

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