Last June, when we were well into our investigation into Haiti’s payments to their former French slave masters, our trail seemed to be diverging in a thousand directions.
In 1825, Haiti was forced to pay millions of French francs to France in exchange for that country’s recognition of its sovereignty. These payments, and a loan to cover them, became known as the “double debt.” Haiti is the only nation where descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the heirs of their former masters — and they did so for generations.
We were hoping to discover how much this sum had added up to and how it had affected Haiti’s long-term economic development. But at that point last summer we had found only stray figures in books and articles. Historians disagreed exactly how long the payments had lasted, how much had been paid each year or how the loans had caused Haiti’s debt burden to balloon.
And so my colleague Matt Apuzzo texted me one morning: “Do you think today you and I should sit down and come up with a chronology that tracks the outstanding debt and the loans as best as we know it?”
“Sure,” I replied, adding that I would start a spreadsheet.
Little did I know what we were getting into.
The numbers, which are presented in Part 2 of The Times’s series and have been shared publicly, were scattered everywhere: in 19th century books and brochures; diplomatic cables and government reports; official archives and century-old newspaper clippings. Prior historical research pointed us to documents tucked away in archives or in digitized online collections. The French historian Hubert Bonin encouraged us to visit the National Archives of the World of Work in Roubaix, a city in northern France, for our questions on Haiti’s foreign debt.
Finding these figures became a sort of scavenger hunt.
To trace the payments on the double debt, I relied on about 20 independent sources in France, Haiti and the United States. Three of those proved critical: books by Frédéric Marcelin, a Haitian finance minister in the late 19th century who became a vocal opponent of French control of Haiti’s finances; letters from French diplomats fulminating against Haiti’s late payments; and a trove of financial reports kept in the archives, in Paris, of the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, the French public bank that collected the payments.
Filling out the spreadsheet became something of a quest. Matt and I requested records from the archive in Roubaix, then headed there not knowing what we’d find. We waited in an empty reading room, ruefully predicting that after coming all this way, we’d probably get a single envelope to review. The clerk finally announced he had ten boxes for us.
After months of work, we had an elaborate spreadsheet and a decent picture of Haiti’s foreign debt between 1825 and 1957. Most important, we had a precise price tag for the double debt: 112 million francs, or about $560 million today.
On Sept. 9, Selam Gebrekidan, one of our colleagues on the project, traveled with me and Matt to southeast London to meet Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a British expert on Caribbean economies, and show him the spreadsheet. As I opened my laptop in his dining room, I felt nervous, fearing he would dismiss our tabulation as mere guesswork.
To our relief, he enthusiastically approved it.
I spent the next few weeks sharing my screen in online meetings with scholars who have studied Haiti’s debt. I showed them the spreadsheet and carefully detailed, cell by cell, my sources, and I listened to them place our numbers into historical perspective. A total of six academics, including the Haitian scholars Gusti-Klara Gaillard and Guy Pierre, vetted our tabulation.
The work, however, was far from over. The challenge then became to understand how paying out 112 million francs over decades had affected Haiti, and what kind of loss to its economic development that payout represented over time. One way to do so was to determine how much this money would be worth today had it remained in Haiti.
Some economists had tried to do just that in a research paper published in August, using a broad estimate of Haiti’s debt, so I drew from their methodology. I assumed that if that money had stayed in the Haitian economy, it would have, at a minimum, grown at a rate of return equal to Haiti’s real gross domestic product growth between 1825 and today.
Using estimates of Haiti’s G.D.P. in the 19th century that were provided by Simon Henochsberg, a French banker who studied Haiti’s public debt for his master thesis, I calculated the average annual growth rates, computed them with Haiti’s annual payment flows and found that the double debt could have added $21 billion to Haiti over time.
I spent weeks making video calls and exchanging long emails with economists like Ugo Panizza and Rui Esteves of the Geneva Graduate Institute to test the methodology — and being gently corrected on various formula errors. Matt and I also went to present our findings at the Paris School of Economics, where researchers grilled us.
We shared our analysis with 15 leading economists and financial historians. All but one agreed with our $21 billion estimate. Some said that it was within an acceptable range; others found it conservative and said that the long-term losses to Haiti might actually be higher.
Indeed, had the money stayed in Haiti, it might have been invested in bridges, schools and hospitals — investments that pay off in the long run and boost a country’s growth. What if Haiti, free of the debt burden, had grown at the same pace as its neighbors in Latin America, which several economists said was a reasonable scenario? In that case, the loss to Haiti would stand at $115 billion.
We had our opportunity cost range: $21 billion to $115 billion, or about 1.5 to 8 times the size of Haiti’s economy in 2020.
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