Before 1492, European feudal practices racialized subjects in order to dispossess, enslave and colonize them. Enslavement of different peoples was a centuries old custom authorized by the law of nations and fundamental to the economies of empire. Manumission, though exceptional, helped to sustain slavery because it created an expectation of freedom, despite the fact that the freed received punitive consequences. In the sixteenth century, as European empires searched for cheaper and more abundant sources of labour with which to exploit their colonies, the Atlantic slave trade grew exponentially as slaves became equated with racialized subjects.
This article presents the case of Haiti as an example of continued imperial practices sustained by racial capitalism and the law of nations. In 1789, half a million slaves overthrew their French masters from the colony of Saint Domingue. After decades of defeating recolonization efforts and the loss of almost half their population and resources, Haitian leaders believed their declared independence of 1804 was insufficient, so in 1825 they reluctantly accepted recognition by France while being forced to pay an onerous indemnity debt. Though Haiti was manumitted through the promise of a debt payment, at the same time the new state was re-enslaved as France's commercial colony. The indemnity debt had consequences for Haiti well into the current century, as today Haiti is one of the poorest and most dependent nations in the world.