Re Murray Whyte’s review of an exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art (“A fresh view of the Caribbean, beyond the sunshine daydreams,” Weekend, March 22): There are many difficulties with defining Haiti’s history as a simple story of “centuries of poverty.” One such problem is that Haiti generated tremendous amounts of wealth in the 18th century (presumably one of the “centuries” at issue in Whyte’s description). It is true that the vast majority of Haiti’s people under colonial slavery lived in conditions of immiseration and worse. The labor of these slaves produced a great deal of riches for the rest of the world, and the single-minded pursuit of these riches is what accounts for the poverty of the many. Haiti’s subsequent impoverishment is not something that can be explained in terms of “political revolution” and “natural disasters.”
While I applaud Whyte’s call to peer beneath the surface image of the Caribbean as a tourist paradise, we will need a more complicated notion of history if we are going to understand what lies beneath that surface.
The writer is an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.