Africa’s Troubling Borders

One of the key reasons why the African continent seems perennially rife with tribal, ethnic, and religious conflict — more so within countries than between them — harkens back to borders imposed upon the diverse peoples of Africa by European colonials. Even a casual glance of a political map of Africa show how odd and idiosyncratic many of its borders are.

africa_map

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The First Resistor to Colonialism in the New World

Hatuey was a native Taíno chief from the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic) who became the first major fighter against colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. He led a group of natives to resist the invading Spaniards in the early 16th century. After his island was conquered, he set out to Cuba with a group of 400 people to warn the indigenous people of the coming invasion; the following speech was attributed to him:

Here [a basket of gold and jewels] is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea…They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break…

Hatuey’s message was not heeded, and few joined him to fight, partly because warfare was an alien concept among Caribbean natives (as Columbus himself had observed). The chief thus resorted to guerrilla tactics with a handful of his men. At first managing to confine the Spaniards at their fort at Baracoa, the colonials redoubled their efforts and eventually captured him.

In 1512, Hatuey was tied to a stake and burned alive at Yara. Before he was burned, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven, after which the following exchange was recorded:

[Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes…The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there, but to hell, so as not to be where [the Spaniards were], and where he would not see such cruel people.

Though it is disputed precisely what Hatuey said in these two anecdotes, his status as one of the first major resistors of colonialism remains undisputed. He is celebrated by some Cubans as their first national hero, and is often regarded as such throughout the Caribbean.

Read more about him here.

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Haiti’s Underrated But Out-Sized Influence

It is a shame that so few of us know how unique and influential Haiti’s role in history has been. After gaining independence in 1804 – following a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world – Haiti became the first and only nation in history to be established as a result of a successful slave revolt; many of its first political leaders were former slaves.

Haiti became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second independent nation in the entire Western Hemisphere after the United States, and the second republic in the Americas. It produced such prominent military and political figures as Jean-Baptiste Belley (the first black representative in the Western world), Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West), and Toussaint L’Ouverture (brilliant military strategist and along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West).

Moreover, Haiti’s unlikely success against a major power inspired revolutionaries across the hemisphere, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. Many historians regard Haitian independence as a catalyst for independence movements across Latin America, which picked up pace shortly after; indeed, Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Notably, France’s failure to take back what was then the world’s richest colony contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in the West and sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

Needless to say, Haiti’s independence rocked the institution of slavery throughout the Americas, which would unfortunately contribute to its endemic poverty and instability: for obvious reasons, none of the racist or slave-owning nations that dominated that international system at the time wanted to support the first and only successful black republic, especially one born from a slave revolt.

Thus, Haiti would remain isolated and periodically preyed upon for much of its history. Two decades after expelling the French, it was forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its political and economic isolation. Though the amount was reduced in 1838, Haiti was unable to finish paying off its debt until 1947, leaving the country deeply impoverished — but no less proud and culturally rich.