Bob Corbett
July 10, 1995

Scholars are generally agreed that the decision and practice by Alexander Petion, followed and reinforced by Jean-Pierre Boyer, to distribute land in small units to the Haitian army and others to whom the state owed debts, was instrumental in determining the economic and social structures of Haiti which are still central factors of Haitian life today.

There is a good deal of debate as to why they did this. Was it, as some would say, some sort of liberal desire to give the people what they wanted and spare them anything like the hated fermage system which both Dessalines and Christophe tried to enforce, or was it some more calculating method of pacification of the masses and control by the elite few of resources adequate for their own wealth?

This is a question that I won't address. Rather, I want to focus on something that interests me much more -- that is, the seemingly universal judgment that this policy of breaking up the large plantations, allowing sugar to effectively die as an export crop and allow the nation to move into subsistence farming, has been a disastrous policy which caused great mischief in Haiti.

I am one who is not convinced that this condemnation of the Petion/Boyer policy is justified.

However, the negative judgment against Petion/Boyer is virtually universal. James Leyburn in his important book THE HAITIAN PEOPLE expresses this common sentiment in the following manner (assessing Petion): "His country was rich when he came to power and poor when he died; united in 1806 and divided in 1818. Candor compels his admirers to admit that many of the calamities of the social and economic history of Haiti can be traced to Petion's administration."

Leyburn's view is typical. Regardless of Petion's motives, the result of his policy was a "calamity" for Haiti. It is this view that I want to challenge.

I believe that there is a nearly universal assumption among those who write about Haiti, an educated western class of people, that material progress is clearly a good and to be preferred over a more simple form of existence. In the past 200 years the world has had the industrial revolution and more material comforts are available to people than ever before in human history. It is surely the case that such material change (I don't say progress) could not have occurred within an agricultural economy, but only within an industrial one.

Yet I think the evidence is clear that the Haitian people wanted to retreat into an agricultural subsistence economy. It is my reading of Haiti that for some time, probably up to the turn of the century -- near 1900 -- that Haiti's land was able to provide a simple subsistence to the masses of Haitian peasants that was not a life of misery, but of simplicity. But things changed. Within this view that I have four major factors tipped this precarious simplicity over into misery:

However, if one returns to the beginnings of Haitian independence one finds a people ready to try subsistence farming. They had just finished a long and costly war of independence. They were no longer slaves. The overwhelming bulk of them had been field hands in Saint-Domingue; they had farming and gardening skills. The French, main landowners were either fled or dead. Much land was simply there, its title somewhat unclear, and would, in fact, revert to state ownership. Dessalines and Christophe attempted to enforce fermage, a serf-like system onto the people and they knew they did not want this. It looked much too much like slavery and enforced a discipline and hardship in life that people did not want.

The population was small, probably not more than 350,000 people. The land was phenomenally fertile. It was nearly a Jack-and-the-beanstalk land, throw some seeds over your shoulder and tomorrow there were crops. With a relatively small plot of land a man could provide for his family, the whole family working the land together. African ways were remembered, revived.

If one compares the attractiveness of a simply life supported by subsistence farming with the options that people had known -- the harsh colonial slave system, or the similar system of fermage -- how could it possibly compare to the seeming idyllic life of subsistence farming.

Further, the leaders of Haiti, north and south alike, expected the return of the French. They wanted to have a standing army for national defense. Some did willing choose this mode of life, but they were a small minority. Increasingly the state turned to forced conscription into the military. The peasant had a response: retreat deeper into the interior and try not to go "out" where the rest of Haiti was. Women adopted the role of doing the marketing, in large measure to protect the men from going into the towns where it was easier to round them up in forced enlistment.

The new leadership of Haiti proved to be corrupt. The primary relation that the peasant came to associate with government was that something negative would happen. The strategy was: retreat and having nothing to do with "Haiti."

In effect it seems to me that two countries emerged, and I'm not referring to the Kingdom of Christophe and the Republic of Petion. Rather, there was the "real" country of Haiti, the constitutional government in force, which, while not having international recognition, was the de facto government of Haiti, and controlled the coastal towns and major markets of the countryside. Then there was the borderless "Haiti at large," a largely anarchic world of peasants who had retreated as far away from the Haitian government and lived a life beyond the pale of formal law, commerce, and the western concept of development and so-called progress.

They traded their right to live under government and the possibility of participation in it, for the freedom to avoid its worst abuses. In exchange they lived lives of pre-industrial simplicity, but, until the turn of the twentieth century, not lives of misery.

Surely my portrait will be criticized as romantic. I think it is not. It is romantic if one assumes that anything which is not striving for material aggrandizement and which is satisfied with something significantly "less," (from the materialist point of view) is romantic. I am not assuming that the simple life of subsistence farming was easy or that it didn't have negative aspects. There was no modern health care. There were herbal healers and faith healers, but the health of the people suffered the lack of such modern achievements as inoculations, and modern sanitary conditions including pure water and safe waste disposal. There was no education and nearly everyone was (is) illiterate, a world that necessarily closes in upon itself in a dangerous fashion for long-term survival. (One example of this lack is that traditional agricultural practices were, in fact, damaging the soil, and their deforestation activities were foreboding coming disaster, but the people were not in a position to gather or process this information.)

Life expectancy was 30 years shorter than ours is today. People had fewer options to difference or change.

I am not hiding from these realities; thus I don't think my view is, in that sense, romantic. However, given the conditions to which people were responding in the 1804-1820 period, faced with the pressures from the north toward regulation of life, and from both north and south for various forms of exploitation, and from forced conscription, and given the utter weariness of war, I see the choice of the people to retreat into an anarchistic simple life of subsistence farming to be a quite reasonable choice.

It wasn't the only choice. They could have carried on the struggle, organized, pressed the revolution and all that. But I think that alternative is much more a paper alternative than a live option for most people. I again call attention to the conditions I just listed in the paragraph above. Further, all those who had provided the leadership, which allowed the common field hand, to participate in the revolution, had now switched sides and were the ruling class of the new Haiti. The masses of peasants were exhausted, tired of it all, and leaderless in the face of a new oppression. The retreat into simple subsistence farming was quite attractive.

Thus regardless of Petion's motives, I would argue that the people of Haiti really and truly did get the best world they could realistically get at that time. What ultimately caught up with them was their own success. The life of simple subsistence farming, with all of the limits described above, was such that they did prosper and increase and multiply. They didn't all die in great numbers (as they had under slavery and during the revolution, and at other times when they engaged the "country" of Haiti). Basically they did better when they opted out, retreated into the fastness of the mountains, scaled down their expectations to very simple ones, and survived. More than anything else, their own success killed them as the land mass, their self-selected lack of education and creeping exploitation from without, eventually turned their simplicity into misery.

Today the consciousness of the peasants of Haiti is not the consciousness of 1818. It is a mixed consciousness. Today's rural peasant still has a great deal of the 1818 peasant in him or her. But he and she has a modern consciousness too, an awareness of revolutionary potential, the desire for participation in government, tremendous desire to participate in the materialist world, especially health care, education and the goodies seen in the rest of the so-called "advanced" world. There is no turning back, and that's not the point of this essay. I'm not suggesting that the Haitians were better off because of the results of the Petion/Boyer system and should return to it.

Rather, I just want to argue that it is in no way clear to me that life is all that much better for the modern Haitian peasant than the peasant of the past. It is not clear to me that the system of Petion/Boyer was such a calamity as Leyburn and most scholars think it was.

It seems to me to have provided about the best realistic possibility for the peasants at that time, was much to be desired over what Dessalines and Christophe were offering, and was a wise choice for those who embraced it and effectively withdrew from the country of Haiti.

Moving away from Haiti in this conclusion, you probably note a mixed view of modern materialism and so-called progress. Yes. I've made the cultivation of economic simplicity a liet motif of my own life, though what simplicity I did achieve was inside a modern industrial state rather than outside. In my reading and study I've spent a great deal of time looking at those who have, in one way or another, to one degree or another, said no to unbounded materialism and all that goes with it. I regularly teach courses in "the simple life" and will be doing so again this fall.

I made no attempt to go primitive in my life. I embrace much of modern medicine, but not all. I simply love flush toilets and potable running water. I take my malaria pills when I go to Haiti. But for most of my adult life I didn't own a car, or television set and for many years used central heat only as a begrudging supplement to wood. I struggled to eat as low on the food chain as I could stand, and eschewed as much as I could of mechanized materialism (with the notable exception of the computer.) I have always been attracted to the view that in significant measure the consumption of those of us who consume on the high end of our planetary consumption system (and despite my flirting with simplicity, I am one of those) are indirectly causative of much of the suffering of those who under consume the basic necessities of life.

Thus, from within that perspective, when I look back on the 1807-1900 period of Haitian history I don't see a "calamity" as Leyburn does. I see a choice that was wise and understandable in its time, but one that outgrew itself and the people were unable to change, both for reasons of powerlessness and lack of understanding of what changes had taken place.

Independent of Petion's motives, I see him as having presided over the birth of a social and economic system which provided the very best days that the mass of Haitian peasants ever had in Haiti, and something better than they are likely to experience again for a long time to come.


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