For Arielle Alterwaite, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in history who studies slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world, the path to her focus on alternative histories of capitalism started off in her hometowns of Philadelphia and Gainesville, Florida.
Despite Florida’s current push towards censorship, when Alterwaite was in grade school, the curriculum spanned the state’s diverse history, including the region’s connection to the broader world, diving into the Spanish and British empires, as well as the state’s Indigenous groups. By contrast, her high school history curriculum in Philadelphia emphasized comparatively insular stories about Philadelphia’s place in the American Revolution. It was only in college that she began to learn about how port cities like Philadelphia were connected to other places around the Atlantic, in large part through plantation economies.
Her senior thesis at Columbia University was on the attempted commodification of enslaved women’s medical knowledge in the French colony of Saint Domingue, which is now Haiti, and it sparked her interest in exploring untold stories within the world of global commerce. “I was reading French plantation doctors hawking enslaved women’s medical cures and thought ‘OK, we don’t have access to these women’s voices in terms their own writing, but we can still critically mine these white male French authors’,” she says. “The texts just have to be read differently.”
Alterwaite’s dissertation at Penn addresses the specific case of the 1825 Haitian Indemnity.
At the end of the 18th century, Saint Domingue’s free people of color, followed by the enslaved, successfully revolted against the French. This resulted in the abolition of slavery and an eventual declaration of independence from France in 1804. In 1825, France agreed to recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation with the stipulation that Haiti pay 150 million francs to planters who lost property during the revolution. To pay installments of the debt, Haiti took out loans from French banks. The New York Times wrote a sprawling piece on the topic last year.
“Though a fantastic piece to educate an American public about Haitian history and the increasingly complicit U.S. role in it, the Times story characterizes the treaty as a spectacular heist, missing the mechanics of how it happened,” Alterwaite says. “Haitians were not passive actors, and we need to look beyond the obvious French archives to get at the full story.”
Using archival resources in seven countries, Alterwaite’s dissertation explores Haiti’s sovereign debt in the aftermath of the revolution and argues for its international significance for finance, monetary systems, nation-making, and abolition in the first half of the 19th century. “It’s also a story about an early instance where public debt was made profitable; private banks in Europe and the U.S. were legally able to profit off of Haiti’s debt defaults,” she says.
Alterwaite says her research holds lessons for what is happening today in Haiti—it finds itself among the poorest countries in the world—and more broadly the work offers context for conversations around reparations in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“It can be helpful to think about precedents, where the reverse of how people see reparations today were put into practice,” she says. “Looking at what happened can help us to think creatively about what reparations might look like in the present.”
She says the crippling, racist foreign policy that began in 1825 can be tracked all the way to present-day Haitian finances. But, Alterwaite says, people shouldn’t ignore the richness of Haitian history and see that other paths were possible. “For instance, in 1826 Haiti issued a successful paper currency that was very innovative. Money works if people trust in it,” she says, noting how small businesses in Haiti like coffee farmers or market women used that currency at the time. “We can use history in an imaginative capacity to realize alternatives to how things are now.”