Colonialism Challenges Thanksgiving in Haiti?


I had planned to post the following yesterday, had not the old sit-down-Thanksgiving-dinner-for-23 gotten the best of me, eating up any time I might have dedicated to posting what had, for the most part, already been written:

Let’s face it.  Planning Thanksgiving from here in Port-au-Prince has had its fair share of near disasters and we haven’t even had the dinner yet.  That’s not till tonight.  But it’s in this spirit of near calamity I’ve been writing all week about my misadventures trying to make this holiday happen here, ruminating in posts over the past several days specifically about the shopping and oven-related challenges that have nearly derailed my efforts.  Today, however, in honor of the day itself—a holy day, of sorts—I’m pondering the moral implications of hosting a feast for folks with plenty to eat in a country where children will go hungry today, will have gone to bed last night with not a drop of dinner and woken of this morning with no real breakfast to speak of.

This dilemma has its roots in a system that got started centuries ago.  In fact, some have argued, that Haiti’s economic challenges originated in the kind of colonialism our American Thanksgiving actually celebrates.  Now I like my Macy’s parade and other Thanksgiving traditions as much as the next guy.  But frankly, I find it uncomfortable to be highlighting this event from a place where colonialism couldn’t have gone more wrong.

Let me clarify—by offering the following facts.  You ponder them and tell me your thoughts.

–Christopher Columbus landed here on the island of Hispaniola in December of 1492, setting up Europe’s first settlement in the New World.

–When the Spanish arrived an indigenous population of as many as 8 million welcomed them, but in fewer than 20 years only 50,000 remained, most of the Indians having been killed by diseases first brought to the island by Europeans, namely yellow fever.  Thirty years later only hundreds had survived.

–With the loss of an indigenous labor force to mine for gold, the Spanish and later the French, needing manpower to work their sugar plantations, began importing slaves from West Africa, until by the beginning of the 19 century, as many as 500,000 may have occupied the island.

–Because the population of slaves was so high, compared to the few Europeans actually in residence, and because the French were so brutal in their abuse of slaves, soon-to-be ex-slaves revolted and won their independence from France in January of 1804, becoming the first independent ex-colony in all of Latin America.

–Because Haitian political leaders wanted to trade with France and wanted their country’s legitimacy to be recognized by the US, they agreed in 1824 to pay France 150 million francs to compensate the former French plantation owners for lost income, effectively paying an indemnity, effectively buying their freedom, the freedom of an entire nation of former slaves.

–The Haitian government was not able to pay off that debt until the middle of the 20th century and was forced to hand over to the French tax revenue the government might otherwise have invested in infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals, an electrical grid—none of it established in Haiti as it was in the US by the 1950s.

–Some have argued (see Paul Farmer’s Uses of Haiti), that it is this fallout from former colonial rule that has left Haiti destitute economically and vulnerable politically to the kind of pre-election violence we’ve seen in Haiti this week (elections scheduled for Sunday, November 28th).  Some have said this continued servitude has left Haiti without the basic services a government can establish with tax revenue—left it without a building code, for example, and therefore structurally vulnerable to a 7.0 magnitude earthquake—left it medically vulnerable without enough hospitals to manage the cholera epidemic we see raging in the streets of Port-au-Prince today.

The bottom line is this—

I feel uncomfortable celebrating a holiday that essentially celebrates friendship and feasting between colonizers and an indigenous population.  It feels wrong, in a lot of ways, border-line hypocritical, especially with hunger, malnutrition, and a lack of clean water killing thousands just down the street in Port-au-Prince proper.

I don’t mean to imply it’s wrong to celebrate, as we would have back home.  Rather, I’m suggesting that this awareness has troubled me for most of the day—a sore spot on the conscience of someone of European descent, celebrating the holiday of the (sometimes brutal) colonizer in a place so ruined by the colonial system.

What are your thoughts about this?

Note: the Thanksgiving dinner was fabulous, thermostatically-challenged oven and shopping snafus not-with-standing. I promise to share details in upcoming days.

9 thoughts on “Colonialism Challenges Thanksgiving in Haiti?

  1. Time changes the meaning of things. Today, for me, Thanksgiving is a day to remind myself of all the things I have to be grateful for. Gratitutde is a healing gift in many ways. Here’s a quote by Melody Beattie I used in my Thanksgiving note this year. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

    And wasn’t it Yellow Fever that helped the Haitian beat out the French? I don’t want to make light of the brutality and unfairness of many of the past Explorers, however, what better time than now, for Haiti to use all the resources coming into their country to build a strong new nation.

    By the way, having been at Sara’s in the past – and knowing of your talents I can imagine the good time ppl had as well as renewal of energies to continue the work of providing shelter you are all up to.

    Love reading your post.

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  2. Living in a country that not only has a colonial past, but also had the injustices of Apartheid, I can really relate to your post. There is so much unemployment and poverty here it’s sometimes overwhelming. And there is a certain sense of guilt about being more privileged, and having benefited at other people’s expense (even if I didn’t cause those situations).

    What I try and do is to be as kind and generous to those less fortunate, whom I come across in my daily life. And to treat them with respect and dignity. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

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    • Yes, I imagine you can relate to this! I too try to be generous. It’s good to know someone who lives in a country with similar issues. In fact, these kinds of problems are probably even more pronounced in a place like South Africa!

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  3. Kathryn, this is very, very interesting. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m illiterate when it comes to historical occurrences. It’s sad to know that almost 8 million indigenous people were wiped out. It seems to be the trend in most of the countries I hear about. Foreigners land and wipe out the originating population. This happened in Canada also. Terrible injustices occurred and continue to occur to our native people, the advocates for Mother Earth. At least that is from my small perspective.

    I like the quote Marlene posted. My prayer is that all people rise to a higher level of awareness and purpose.

    Kudos to people like you and Sara who are helping to re-build Haiti.

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  4. Haiti’s history is terrible, from European exploration, to French colonization and throughout the reigns of both Papa Doc and Baby Doc. From within and without, Haiti has been merely a place to plunder. I hope against hope that things will start to change now, if even in some small ways.

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    • Absolutely. At the same time my goal here was not to present an exhaustive history of Haiti in this post, but to highlight events that occured in the same historical period the US Thanksgiving holiday celebrates.
      Thanks for mentioning the film. I have not seen it.
      I appreciate your reading!

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