On 12 January 2010, at 16:53 local time, Haiti experienced a catastrophic magnitude-7.0 earthquake 25 kilometres west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. More than 220,000 people died and 2.3 million were displaced, while the magnitude-8.0 earthquake that struck Chile on 27 February 2010 resulted in fewer than 800 deaths, despite its higher magnitude.
Why was Haiti’s experience so different? Most commentators have pointed to physical factors. However, although many have noted Haiti’s poverty and internal strife, only a few commentators have identified these as key determinants of the level of devastation caused by the earthquake. Even fewer have suggested looking at the historical record or where Haiti stands in the current world order for an explanation.
What is considered “natural”, in the context of disasters such as Haiti’s, is seen as independent of human actions. Any analysis of such events must “denaturalize” them by examining the historic, political and economic contexts within which they occur. Without this, the humanitarian impulse informing international efforts to support Haiti’s recovery and development may serve to merely reinforce the historic relationship between wealthy countries and Haiti and may fuel continued underdevelopment.
Knowledge of Haiti’s history is integral to an informed understanding of the earthquake and its outcome. Soon after Spanish colonized the island, native people vanished because of imported disease, malnutrition and maltreatment. Plantation of sugar cane became fields of misery for tens of thousands of trafficked African slaves, while Spain and France reaped the profits.
The French Revolution triggered Haiti’s independence in 1804, which was the first example of slaves winning nationhood by their own resistance.
However, with its economy ruined by