Haiti, its historical and ongoing trauma, the latest call for U.S. intervention, and the brutal backstory on zombies

Back in 2017, I had a fascinating conversation about zombies with author and Professor Zara Zimbardo, who was leading an equity workshop I attended. She shared an article she wrote on zombies. I saved it in my “things-I-should-write-about” file.

I was recently reminded of that conversation while reading an editorial in the Washington Post headlined: Haiti descends into chaos, yet the world continues to look away. It spoke to the latest in a litany of the island’s tragic stories.

And it got me reading articles on Haiti’s history and rereading the article on zombies, spirits which grew out of Haiti and the African slave trade.

Image: Google maps.

Let’s go back to the start of the trauma.

Columbus arrived on the island in December, 1492. (It would later become Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) It was a peaceful island then. The Taino lived there.

The island became Ground Zero for the Western Hemisphere’s colonization: Taking Indigenous lands, enslaving black bodies, and renaming places that already had names from time immemorial. (Columbus renamed the Taino’s homeland Hispaniola.)

The Santa Maria, one of Columbus’s three ships, sunk in a harbor on Christmas eve. The Taino allowed Columbus to leave 39 men behind until his return, according to Yale’s Genocide Studies Program.

It turned out to be a fatal act of hospitality.

The following year, Columbus returned and established La Isabella, Spain’s very first settlement in this hemisphere. A decade later, Spain controlled the whole island.

Pre-European contact, between a few hundred thousand to a million-plus Taino lived on the island.

The Spaniards exploited the island’s gold mines and reduced the Taíno to slavery. Within twenty-five years of Columbus’ arrival in Haiti, most of the Taíno had died from enslavement, massacre, or disease. By 1514, only 32,000 Taíno survived in Hispaniola.

Yale Genocide Studies Program

The Taino population decimated, Spanish colonizers needed a new labor source. In 1518, Spain’s king approved ships going directly from Africa to the island, starting the Atlantic slave trade in earnest, according to the National Humanities Center,

Around 1625, France established settlements on the west side of the island, which eventually become Haiti. It, too, participated in the slave trade.

French masters used the threat of zombification as a form of social control over slaves.

Zara Zimbardo

In Zimbardo’s article, It is Easier to Imagine the Zombie Apocalypse than to Imagine the End of Capitalism, she explores how zombie lore came to the Caribbean.

The enslaved people from West African and Lower Congo brought their cultures with them, including a belief in spirits, nzambi or zombé, “that could become caught between worlds, trapped in a container, as liminal beings that were neither living nor dead,” Zimbardo wrote.

“Zombification was understood to be a reversible state of hypnosis, under the control of a vodou practitioner who could work with spells or potions to make the living appear as dead, a form of mind control under direction by the zombie master.”

In Haiti, these spirits took on new meanings.

During the slave trade era, “the nzambi was adapted to the horrors that tore people from their communities, stripped them of their selves, reduced to laboring flesh for sale,” Zimbardo wrote. ”Under the French occupation of Haiti, once the largest slave economy, the zombie image transmuted to emphasize a lack of personhood and endless plantation labor.”

A Zombie, at twilight, in a Haitian sugar cane field, by JNL (Jean-noël Lafargue)

French masters used the threat of zombification as a form of social control over slaves. Though suicide might otherwise have seemed an escape from enslavement on sugar plantations, masters taught their slaves that, rather than returning to Africa and freedom, slaves who killed themselves would become zombies. In “A Zombie Is a Slave Forever,” Amy Wilentz recounted this history: “To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.”

Salt was understood to be the cure to the zombified state. Its taste had the power to restore a person’s soul and willpower. With this knowledge, masters maintained control by keeping their zombies’ food tasteless.

Zara Zimbarto

As an aside, Zimbardo’s article discusses the 20th Century evolution of zombies in the United States and how they speak to our deepest fears.

As Aalya Ahmad observed, from the late 1960s on, zombie movies could be read as critiques of what Naomi Klein has termed “disaster capitalism”;… As characters in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead explain, zombies roaming the shopping mall act out of habit, reproducing the behaviors of their former, human selves. As the mall-trapped survivors gaze upon the moaning hordes scraping at display windows, one asks, “What the hell are they?” to which another responds matter of factly, “They’re us, that’s all.”

Zara Zimbardo

For her full article, click here.


A poor neighborhood in Haiti demolished in the massive 2010 earthquake. Photo: UN Photo/Logan Abassi United Nations Development Programme

A slave revolt ended slavery in Haiti. It declared independence from France in 1804.

It was “the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state which was both free from slavery (though not from forced labour), and ruled by non-whites and former captives,” Wikipedia said. “It is now widely seen as a defining moment in the history of the Atlantic World.”

(To the east, the Spanish colony gained independence from Spain on Dec. 1, 1821, becoming the Dominican Republic.)

Independence didn’t end the island’s troubles. An effort to unite the two countries ended in bloodshed. The Dominican Republic fought a war of Independence from Haiti and won in 1844. There were 3,000-plus casualties.

From 1862 to 1915, Haiti suffered “military coups, horrific violence, and political instability,” according to Leslie Alexander’s article A Pact with the Devil? The United States and the Fate of Modern Haiti. “For some observers, this might serve as evidence that Haitians were unable to effectively govern themselves. The reality is more complex, however.”

France demanded Haiti pay reparations for its loses, Alexander wrote. Particularly galling, France sent accountants to value Haiti’s land and assets, including the 500,000 former enslaved people who were now free citizens. Without much choice, Haiti agreed. It was necessary for diplomatic recognition and access to trade markets. The cost was massive, $20 billion in today’s dollars.

France and Haiti reached the reparations agreement in 1825. Haiti continued making payments went well into the 20th Century.

By 1915, Haiti still “owed” France $121 million francs, and much of their resources went to paying off its debt. For instance, 51% of Haiti’s revenues from coffee went to service the exterior debt, 47% went to pay internal debts associated with building the nation’s infrastructure, with only 2% available for all other expenses.

Leslie Alexander, A Pact with the Devil

In 1915, the United States successfully manipulated Haiti’s elections to help elect pro-U.S. Presidential candidate Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian.

Sam would soon be assassinated by those opposed to such U.S. ties. His assassination created political instability in Haiti and an economic opportunity for U.S. business interests.

France demanded Haiti pay reparations. The costs financially crippled the country.

The United States invaded Haiti that year, imposing martial law with the Marines and the U.S.-backed Haitian gendarmerie.

President Woodrow Wilson’s administration unsuccessfully tried to force a new pro-U.S. constitution on Haiti.

This constitution allowed foreign land ownership, which had been outlawed since the Haitian Revolution as a way to prevent foreign control of the country. Extremely reluctant to change the long-standing law, the legislature rejected the new constitution. Law-makers began drafting a new anti-American constitution, but the United States forced President Dartiguenave [to] dissolve the legislature, which did not meet again until 1929.

Office of U.S. Historian

The United States recreated past trauma and set the worst possible example for a democracy.

U.S. forces executed political dissidents and implemented a system of forced labor that ravaged Haiti’s peasant population. Thousands of people died.

The United States’ two-decade occupation shaped Haiti in important, and often damaging, ways. Haitian leaders continued to use the systems developed by the United States to exploit rural farmers and silence dissidents. And significant parcels of Haitian land were sold to U.S. companies.

The Washington Post: The long legacy of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, Aug. 6, 2021

Resistance groups formed in response to the U.S. occupation. A rural doctor named François Duvalier (better known as Papa Doc) joined one of them, a group called Négritude.

After the U.S. occupation ended in 1934, Papa Doc Papa Doc got involved in politics. It culminated in 1956 when he seized power in a coup. He would later be elected president. He was a brutal dictator.

“Papa Doc” Duvalier. Image: Volcaniapôle

Papa Doc recruited Négritude members to form rural militia groups to shut down any criticism or resistance.

“The Haitians nicknamed this warlord-led goon squad the ‘Tonton Macoutes,’” according to Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). The name derived from “the Creole translation of a common myth, about an ‘uncle’ (Tonton) who kidnaps and punishes obstreperous kids by snaring them in a gunnysack (Macoute) and carrying them off to be consumed at breakfast.”

Tonton Macoutes were accountable to no civil authority other than Papa Doc. They killed indiscriminately.

“The militia consisted mostly of illiterate fanatics that were converted into ruthless zombie-like gunmen,” COHA said. “Their straw hats, blue denim shirts, dark glasses and machetes remain indelibly etched in the minds of millions of Haitians.”

Fearing that Haiti would fall to communism during the Cold War, the U.S. government backed Papa Doc’s oppressive rule.

Papa Doc, and later his son Baby Doc, ruled the island until 1987, when Baby Doc went into exile.

The United States backed Papa Doc’s oppressive rule.

In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency convincingly in what Time called Haiti’s “first-ever democratic presidential election.”

In less than a year, a military coup forced him into exile.

U.S. negotiations with the Haitian military failed. The Clinton administration launched “Operation Uphold Democracy,” again invading Haiti from 1994-1995. (The United Nations kept a presence until 1996.)

President Aristide in exile. Photo: FromLIBERIASTORY

The intervention restored Aristide to power, but Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born historian and political science professor at the University of Virginia, told Time the long-term mission failed.

U.S. support for backing Aristide hinged on Haiti making certain agreements with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, he said. That put the country “at the mercy of what the international community is willing to give.”

“If you look at the operation now with hindsight, you can say that it was a major failure — it didn’t change Haiti, it didn’t democratize Haiti,” Fatton said.

In 2010, Haiti suffered a massive earthquake, killing 300,000.

This July, Colombian mercenaries assassinated Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse. Police suspect a Haitian doctor organized the killing in hopes of becoming president.

On Oct. 31, the Washington Post editorial read:

With more than a third of Haiti’s population of 11 million already in need of food assistance, rampant criminal gangs have paralyzed fuel deliveries, without which economic activity — and the availability of food and medical care — has ground to a halt. The government is an empty shell and often in league with the gangs who have seized control of entire neighborhoods and critical roadways. An epidemic of kidnappings … has spread unchecked. …

To oppose intervention is to be complicit in the resulting chaos and suffering.

Washington Post editorial, Oct. 31

History is repeating itself. How do you begin to undo more than five centuries of nation-wide trauma, trauma with which the United States is complicit? With renewed calls for intervention — and all that represents historically — the Biden administration faces a daunting task.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s