History

Historians Are Mad at the New York Times, Again. Should They Be?

An ambitious project on Haiti and debt draws fire from the academy.

An illustration of Toussaint L'Ouverture fighting off French soldiers
An illustration depicting Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture participating in the successful revolt against French power in Saint-Dominique (Haiti). Bettmann via Getty Images

This article was adapted from Jonathan M. Katz’s newsletter, the Racket. Subscribe at theracket.news.

About a year ago, I got a message from my friend Matt Apuzzo, an old AP colleague who is now a big shot at the New York Times. He and his colleagues were working on a story about Haiti’s so-called independence debt—the massive ransom and loan the French extorted from Haiti in the decades after the Haitians bottés le cul français in their 1791–1803 revolution.

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Apuzzo wanted my advice starting out. Actually, he really wanted the guidance of my wife, Claire Payton, who has a Ph.D. in Haitian history. As we told him, the broad outlines of that story—the French king’s gunpoint demand, the Haitians’ impossible choice between immiseration or reinvasion, the near-century it took to pay the debts off—are well known to anyone who knows anything about Haitian history. (I’ve written two books in my life so far, and talked about the debt in both of them.)

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But Apuzzo and his colleague told us they were working on something new: an investigation that would detail exactly how much the French extracted from Haiti and where the money went. They also planned to dig into the predatory U.S. loan—and subsequent U.S. invasion, demanded by the bank that is now Citigroup—that came as a result.

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That story finally dropped over the weekend. “Story” doesn’t really cover it: It’s a four-byline, five-article package with a paper insert in the Sunday edition, teased in a box that dominated the front page. It is, in other words, a News Event—almost certainly modeled on the epic success of the 1619 Project—as only the New York Times can attempt.

The reactions have been … intense. Among the majority of readers who’d never heard (or forgot) that so much of France’s and Citigroup’s wealth was literally stolen at gunpoint from Haiti, it’s been scandal and shock. (I’m getting emails from relatives I talk to once every other year asking if I’ve heard this story before.) My Twitter feed, meanwhile, is filled with historians who are furious that they weren’t cited for the help they gave the Times, or incredulous that the “paper of record” Columbused a central story in the place where Columbusing was invented.

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At the risk of a little Timesian bothsidesing, I think both camps have a point. The package did cover a lot of very old ground, a lot of which is presented as if it is new. There’s a lot of “rarely taught or acknowledged,” “the Times reveals,” etc., about things that have been known and talked about by millions of people for decades. But there is value in making this story more widely known in France and the United States. And moreover, there is important reporting that many people who think they know the story are missing.

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So as a piece of service journalism for you, dear Racket reader, I’m going to suss out the things that got my attention. Then I’ll theorize about how it is getting lost in the pomp of trying to create a News Event.

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1. The Exact Amount of the Ransom

This is the big one. Scholars have long known that King Charles X of France demanded 150 million gold francs from Haiti in 1825 and that the sum was pared down to 90 million francs in a so-called treaty of friendship in 1838.

What the Times did was calculate exactly how much Haiti paid over the years, including interest on the French loans it was forced to take out to avoid default. That number is 112 million francs, which reporters estimate would be worth $560 million in today’s dollars. They extrapolated from that to arrive at a range of estimates, describing how much the robbery of those funds cost the Haitian economy to date. They give it as a range: $21 billion to $115 billion.

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(It could be even more—looking at the Times’ methodology, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate to compare Haiti’s lost growth to, say, the actual French economy, rather than using as a baseline its Latin American neighbors who were also victims of European and U.S. colonialism.)

Suffice it to say that in 15 years of covering Haiti and two books’ worth of fact checks on the French indemnity, I have never seen numbers that precise and well sourced before. The research-intensive method the reporters used to arrive at those numbers is detailed in the series bibliography (yes, there is one).

Why is that important? Two reasons. One, it gives some functional precision to the mechanics of the claim: not only do we know that there was an enormous wealth transfer from the Caribbean nation to France, but here are the numbers and dates of each payment, etc. The other is that, if France is ever going to be forced to give any of that money back, then presenting a detailed bill is key.

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Yes, surely Emmanuel Macron and Co. will try to just do what the French have done for over a century, and ignore the facts of their crime completely. But as the immediate reaction from one of the accused parties shows, the precision the Times journalists brought to this project will make it harder for French officials to do that. And that could be a real achievement.

2. Haiti Financed the Eiffel Tower

The rapaciousness of the French bank Crédit Industriel et Commercial in Haiti has been documented before, particularly by the anti-imperialist economic historian Peter Hudson (who is quoted multiple times in the Times package and was also a major source in my latest book). But the reporting goes even further, documenting that “French shareholders earned so much money that in some years, their profits exceeded the Haitian government’s entire public works budget for a country of 1.5 million people.”

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And as far as I can tell, the Times is the first to make this connection:

At a time when [C.I.C.] was helping finance one of the world’s best-known landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, as a monument to French liberty, it was choking Haiti’s economy, taking much of the young nation’s income back to Paris and impairing its ability to start schools, hospitals and the other building blocks of an independent country.

Haiti-heads have always known that France’s imperial wealth was built on colonialism and slavery, especially in Saint-Domingue (the colony that became Haiti). Now we can add the Eiffel Tower to the list of Haiti’s “gifts” to La République.

3. … and the French government

Another new finding, Hudson told me when I asked him on Monday. Bill this one to Macron as well:

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Haiti’s payments to former colonists were supposed to go solely to individual property owners, not to the French government itself. Yet the state ended up with a cut anyway. The Times unearthed several government documents from the early 1900s revealing that 2 million francs from the descendants of Haiti’s enslaved people, or $8.5 million in today’s currency, landed in French state coffers. (France’s treasury declined to comment, saying its archives dated from only 1919.)

4. … and Salaries at Citigroup

Citibank’s role in the 1915 U.S. invasion of Haiti is no secret. Smedley Butler—a venerated Marine who played a key role in the invasion and occupation—name-checked it in the 1930s. I talk about it at length in Gangsters of Capitalism. But this was a great detail I’d never seen before:

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But according to nearly two dozen annual reports published by American officials and reviewed by The Times, a quarter of Haiti’s total revenue went to paying debts controlled by National City Bank and its affiliate over the course of a decade—nearly five times the amount spent on government-run schools in Haiti during that time.

And in some years, the American officers who controlled Haiti’s finances spent more of its money on their own salaries and expenses than on public health for the entire nation of about two million people.

Paging Jane Fraser.

5. Eighteen Years Later, a French Ambassador Calls Aristide’s Ouster a Coup

This one came out of nowhere. For the past two decades, one of the fastest ways to start a fight over a story about Haiti was to ask which word describes what happened in 2004 to Haiti’s then-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide: Was he forced out of power by Haitian rivals, or through a U.S.- and French-backed coup? Buried in the last story of the package is this nugget, which could settle the debate forever (emphasis mine):

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France and the United States have long said that Mr. Aristide’s call for restitution had nothing to do with his ouster, that he had taken an autocratic turn, lost control of the country and was spirited into exile to prevent Haiti, already heaving with turmoil, from careening into chaos. But France’s ambassador to Haiti at the time, Thierry Burkard, conceded in an interview that France and the United States had effectively orchestrated “a coup” against Mr. Aristide, and that his abrupt removal was “probably a bit about” his call for reparations from France, too.

So why aren’t these the things that journalists and historians have been talking about nonstop since the story dropped? Maybe it’s because historical details aren’t nearly as interesting as interpersonal drama. Or maybe because the Times buried them in a glossy package, under headlines and subheadlines that promised to solve a “mystery” that had gone unsolved “until now.” That left the paper open to the criticism that it was just stealing or erasing other people’s work—a perception not helped by the fact that the Times has a long history of doing that sort of thing (COUGH, COUGH).

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Some scholars are angry that they didn’t get cited by name, which is a real issue in an economy and a field where the kind of public exposure this package offers can make the difference between tenure and poverty. But the Times did take the novel step of publishing a stand-alone bibliography. (Disclosure: My latest book is in it). And I’ve yet to see anyone make the claim that their original scholarship was taken without attribution. (If you know of a case, message me.)

My journalism-school superego says that a more honest thing for the Times to have done would have been to package the story as what it was—a significant but incremental advance in the understanding of a historical event that scholars and Haitians know about and that much of the rest of the world does not.

But would a single front-page story with a headline like France Stole Over $500 Million From Haiti in 19th Century, Times Analysis Shows—or maybe In an Impoverished County, a Legacy of Theft—have gotten the magnitude of attention that this reporting has so far? Probably not. Will this News Event change anything—force France, or Citigroup, to return the money they stole, or push others with power to hold them accountable in any way? On verra.

Newsletter originally edited by Sam Thielman and Claire Payton.

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