It may be payback time for Haiti.

A group of international academics and writers has sent an open letter to President Nicolas Sarkozy asking that France repay Haiti for its "independence debt." The debt was imposed on Haiti nearly 200 years ago, when it won its independence and became the first free black republic in the Western hemisphere. The New York Times now estimates the debt is worth $22 billion, and the letter wants it repaid to help aid reconstruction costs after January’s devastating earthquake.

Signatories include American scholars Cornell West and Noam Chomsky, journalist Naomi Klein, and several well renowned French philosophers, according to the Guardian. The letter also includes signatures from activists in the UK, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Germany.

The letter is the latest in a series of moves that shed light on the economic disaster that preceded this year’s natural one. The debt was originally imposed in 1825 by French Monarch Charles X after the country’s former slave owners demanded compensation. The debt was ultimately reduced, but Haiti didn’t pay it off until 1947.

Meanwhile, Haiti became the poorest country in the Western hemisphere largely due to having to pay back the debt instead of focusing on strengthening its own infrastructure.

In 2004, Haiti sued France in an effort to reclaim the debt. The effort was led by then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide but was soon abandoned after France backed a coup to overthrow Haiti’s government. The coup was successful and Aristide remains exiled in South Africa.

Supporters of this latest effort to reclaim the money maintain the debt was illegal to begin with, since slavery was technically outlawed in 1825 and the former slave owners had no legal grounds on which to rest their claims.

Isabel MacDonald, a Canadian scholar who helped write the letter, explained it this way in The Toronto Star:

Following Haiti’s independence, former French slave owners submitted detailed tabulations of their losses to the French government, with line items for each of "their" slaves that had been "lost" with Haitian independence. In 1825, French King Charles X demanded that Haiti pay an "independence debt" to compensate former colonists for the slaves who won their freedom in the Haitian revolution. With warships stationed along the Haitian coast backing up the French demand, France insisted that Haiti pay its former colonizer 150 million gold francs — 10 times the fledgling black nation’s total annual revenues.

Under threat of a French military invasion that aimed at the re-enslavement of the population, the Haitian government had little choice but to agree to pay. Haiti’s government was also forced to finance the debt through loans from a single French bank, which capitalized on its monopoly by gouging Haiti with exorbitant interest rates and fees. The original sum of the indemnity was subsequently reduced, but Haiti still disbursed 90 million gold francs to France.

Although the International Monetary Fund recently canceled an unrelated $268 million debt owed by Haiti, recovery efforts in the country have been painfully sluggish. The 7.0 quake killed an estimated 230,000 people and left billions of dollars in structural damage. At a United Nations Donor Conference held in March, dozens of countries pledged over $5.3 billion in international aid. Yet only a fraction of that money — $534 million — has reached the country.