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Beyond the mountains there are mountains again--Haitian Proverb.


In July 1502, "Admiral of the Ocean Seas," Christopher Columbus, notified the governor of La Isla Espanola that he believed a great storm was headed for the island. He was ignored and two days later a hurricane struck sinking 30 ships and taking 500 souls. Not all of Haiti's storms are acts of God, nor can they be predicted, even by those with extraordinary gifts, such as the Admiral. The history of Haiti and her coffee teaches that if for one moment you are complacent, the next you are devastated.

In the last quarter of the 18th Century Haiti was the world's largest coffee producer, exporting more than half the world's supply, the equivalent of 606,000 / 60 kg. bags in 1789, the last year before the French Revolution. In the last coffee year before the earthquake (June 2008-May 2009) Haitian coffee exports were 18,881 bags according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO) which begs the question, what the heck happened, and how can we help fix it?

We can begin to explore solutions to Haiti's troubles through her coffee culture, by understanding the historical context of how Haiti finds herself where she is.

The French West India Company (Fr; Compagnie des Indes Occidentals) was given control of the Western portion of La Hispaniola Island in 1664. Columbus, it's discoverer had called it La Isla Espanola "The Spanish Island" Pirate fans, and readers of Raphael Sabatini (Captain Blood) know it as Hispaniola. The French named their new colony St. Domingue.

Coffee cultivation was first introduced there between 1725 and 1745 after seedlings were introduced from the De Clieu farms of Martinique where coffee had first been introduced to the America's in 1723. As coffee grew to dominate the island's exports, tens of thousands of black African slaves were imported each year to work the coffee plantations to satisfy the economic wants of their owners, and of France. In 1789, on the backs of this human chattel, Saint-Domingue became the greatest coffee producer in the Western Hemisphere, producing, some calculate, up to 60% of the world's coffee. But, at a human price that makes us shudder today.

In 1779, 500 "Free men of color" of Saint-Domingue fought in the American Revolution, at The Siege of Savannah, on the Colonial American and French side against the entrenched British. By 1789, the year the French Revolution began (and the U.S. Constitution was adopted) the slave population in Saint-Domingue was about a half-million souls, between 90-95% of the colony's inhabitants. Natural birth rates among the enslaved people could not keep pace with the death rate. The infant mortality rate in particular was staggeringly high. The conditions for black slaves were so bad that their numbers could only be maintained by bringing in tens of thousands of new African slaves each year to replace those lost to disease, murder and early death. Therefore, in any given year, the slave population was mostly African born.

Oddly, in 1789 Saint-Domingue also had the largest free non-white community in the Carribbean. The gens de couleur, in French, "people of color," were often but not exclusively the children of slaveholders and female slaves. Some were people of color who had been manumitted by their owners. Others had purchased their freedom. Others had come to Saint-Domingue as freemen. Collectively the gens de couleur owned about one-third the plantation lands and about 25% of the black slaves in Saint-Domingue.


In 1790, During the French Revolution, the gens de couleur attempted to secure full rights as French Citizens under The Declaration of the Rights of Men. The French National Assembly granted the gens de couleur these rights, but, as a practical matter, efforts to get these rights in Saint-Domingue led to bloodshed, factions, civil strife and finally a long and bloody war for independence against France and foreign powers trying to interfere or take advantage of the conflict for their own interests. By 1804 the great killing had ended, there were almost no Frenchman left alive in Saint-Domingue, Jean Jacques Dessalines, the last of the black uprising's military leaders, declared the land independent under the indigenous Taino name of Haiti (Ayiti) "Land of Mountains."

The struggle for nationhood left Haiti with no treasury, no economy and no infrastructure. It has been fighting these deficiencies ever since. For coffee, the war meant more than the end of Haiti's dominance as a world power, it meant the end of a culture which might have been, and still might be, the nation's economic road to recovery. At the end of the war of freedom and independence, coffee production in the former colony had declined by nearly 50%. 200 years later in 2009, Haiti produced less than one-half of 1% (0.5%) of the world's yearly supply. Interestingly, the struggle over Haiti had an unexpected effect on the U.S.; it contributed to Napoleon's decision to offer to sell the Louisiana Territory to President Jefferson. French farmers who were able, refugeed to Cuba and began again creating homesteads and coffee farms on Cuba's East End Provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. One of these farms, Cafetal La Isabelica, is preserved as a museum, tourist destination and restaurant. A reminder of the French culture that flourished there two centuries ago. Others fled to Central America and Jamaica.

In times of political and economic distress coffee's importance in Haiti's rural subsistence-farm society grows as it is easily converted to cash. This is helped along because, to some degree, coffee almost grows itself in Haiti's mountainous interior, and should the interest strike, it can be cultivated on slopes too steep for other crops. Coffee can be realized by unskilled labor, it keeps reasonably well, if you understand how best to store the beans and it is generally not damaged by rough transportation.

Coffee can be grown most anywhere in Haiti, but the areas around Saint-Marc in the Northwest, on the coastal road between Gonaives, and Port-au-Prince, Babtiste in the Northeast, Baradere in the North, Petit Goave in the Center, and Jacmel in the South have in the past been noted for the quality of their coffee. 80% of the country is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 9,000 ft (2,743 m.) south, to 7,000 ft (2,134 m.) in the center and 5,000 ft (1,524 m) in the north, and while much of Haiti's coffee has grown at lower elevations, Haiti also grows coffee at elevations up to 6,500 ft.(2,000 m.).

A succession of governments broke up the few large plantations, and divided the land as smallholdings among former slaves. In the late 19th Century, An American visitor noted that most of the coffee was let to grow in a semi-wild state by smallholders who rarely gave it care or cultivation, but production volume did recover in the years following independence. An 1894 appraisal of the coffee refers to it as large, flat, pale broken beans; stoney and stemmy dirty (prepared poorly for market) reducing its value below the standard which its drinking qualities would otherwise ensure.

In 1915, the first year of World War I, and before the U.S. had entered the conflict, President Woodrow Wilson believed the U.S. had reason to fear German influence in the Americas including a small but economically powerful German community in the Caribbean. Assuming the Presidential powers implied by James Monroe in his 1823 annual message to Congress, "... a principle ... that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers ..." Wilson using his best judgment, and following the gunboat diplomacy of the preceding generation, sent 330 U.S. Marines to Port-au-Prince, under this "Monroe Doctrine" to protect American interests. U.S. Marines were to be in Haiti for 19 years.

During the period of this close U.S. influence, there was consistent local opposition to the American presence. During the period of occupation, the U.S. dominated every aspect of Haitian economic and political life, which had to have been humbling for her population. There was also substantial infrastructure work done this time, and there was relative political calm, though it was created at the point of an American bayonet. It was naively believed in the U.S., that the period following the final extraction of the Marine's in 1934 (by order of President Franklin Roosevelt) would be one of stable democracy in Haiti. It was not. The U.S., in trying to protect itself and the Americas from a real enemy, had unwittingly reinforced the theme of an old Creole proverb, "Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fe" ("A constitution is paper, a bayonet is steel"). Strongmen, often if not always backed by the Haitian officer corps and political chaos, ruled in Haiti until the rise of the Duvalier dictatorship 23 years later.


Why Is Haiti So Poor? By Bob Corbet. Corbet, a retired professor at Webster University, St. Louis MO, and Cofounder of People to People Inc., has spent a lifetime studying Haiti from every aspect. His writings are a treasure trove of knowledge and understanding of Haiti and her culture. In 1986 he wrote an essay that you should read if you have a serious interest in Haiti. You may find that some of it stings, and I do not agree with all the professor's opinions and conclusions, but / recommend it strongly to those who have a mind to get involved in Haiti, as much of what the professor had to say almost a quarter-century ago is still valid today. You can find Why Is Haiti So Poor? At

Donald N. Sehoenholt, SCAA Lifetime Achievement Laureate, 2010 Distinguished Author, and champion of the underdog, can be found at
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Title Annotation:Haiti Coffee: Part 2
Comment:Beyond the mountains there are mountains again--Haitian Proverb.(Haiti Coffee: Part 2)
Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Geographic Code:5HAIT
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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