Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti III: Road to Occupation

The night of July 26, 1915, a rebel army surrounded Port-au-Prince. The advanced guard crept up to the National Palace where a firefight woke Guillaume Sam in the pre-dawn hours. With his palace troops, those who hadn’t already defected to the other side, outmanned and pinned down, the Haitian ruler made a mad dash for the adjoining French Legation. He took a bullet in the leg, and then found his key would not turn in the rusted gate. Sam then somehow managed to scale the ten-foot high wall.

To this point the story reads like any other Haitian coup d’etat, but from hereon Sam ceased with convention. He did not request that the French minister arrange a steamship for him and his family, whom he had momentarily abandoned on his scramble to the legation, to sail for Jamaica. Nor was he escorted to the port through a mob gathered to heckle but do him no harm as he made his escape into exile.

That was the scene that had awaited Sam’s predecessor just 4 months before, and dozens of others who had come to seize power over a war torn century of independence. Yet Guillaume had devised plans to stay in power. When he led his peasant army into the capital earlier that March, he rounded up 168 hostages from the best families in Haiti. These men and boys would be his bargaining chip when his day of reckoning came.  

He sent a message from the legation to his chief of police General Charles-Oscar Etienne, explaining that he had abandoned the palace. He ended the note with the ambiguous direction, “Faites ce que votre conscience vous dictera-- do what your conscience dictates.”

Etienne, known as “Le Terrible,” listened to his conscience, then ordered his men to the jail. With rifles and machetes they shot and hacked and smashed through the crowded cells. Their work was brutal and efficient. After feigning the call of a rescue party, Etienne’s henchmen sussed out the last survivors from the mass of limbs, disemboweled bodies and crushed skulls until the last groans yielded to the sound of blood sluicing into the drains. The slaughter claimed one hundred and sixty eight fathers and sons from the Haitian elite.

The state of shock in the crowd that gathered around the prison for news soon turned to outrage. Edmond Polynice did not wait for the crowd to make up its mind. Once the gentleman confirmed that all three of his ransomed sons were dead, he sought the whereabouts of General Etienne and followed his retreat to the Dominican legation. Amazingly, or so the legend goes, Etienne came to the door as requested, at which point Polynice shot him in the chest three times, a bullet for each of his dead sons.

From his upstairs window Sam would have seen the well-dressed mob that gathered outside the French compound the next morning. Had he looked far enough out into the bay before hiding in the bathroom he might have seen the four smokestacks of the USS Washington as it steamed towards the capital.

This would not be the Americans first naval intervention in Haiti. For decades American policy was frozen by the schism between slave and free states in the Union, though from the late 1840’s on, U.S. warships began what became a near continuous presence in Haitian waters. In 102 previous civil wars spanning those seven decades, American forces in most instances had kept their distance from the shore.

In the five years leading up to the July 1915 coup, Haiti took on more strategic interest in the view of the US State Department. With the help of U.S. officials asserting the Monroe Doctrine, in 1910 National City Bank was able gain an interest in the national bank of Haiti on terms more favorable than those of longer established German and French competitors.

Historians who filter American foreign policy in the Caribbean through the lens of economic imperialism will tell you that the Marines landed in 1915 to protect the interests of City Bank. Yet Dollar Diplomacy does not seem a sufficient explanation for intervention. Total US investments in Haiti circa 1915 amounted to 4 million dollars out of the 1.7 billion invested throughout Latin America. When a head of City Bank petitioned Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan in 1913, he had to explain to Bryan that Haiti was a nation in the Caribbean. Bryan came away from the meeting impressed.

“Dear me,” he said. “Think of it! Ni…rs speaking French.”

To suggest that the US intervened solely on the bank's behalf is to ignore the larger geo-political picture at the time.

For decades German warships had been protecting her commercial interests on the island, while German merchants sheltered and sometimes financed various rebel factions. On several occasions the Kaiser’s navy collected debts for her citizens by bearing guns upon the national palace. To further the humiliation, imperial commanders would often impose demands beyond the immediate repayment of debts.  Terms once stipulated a 21-gun salute to the double eagle run up the flag pole at the palace, and on another occasion, two ransomed ships left by the departing Germans had their Haitian flags laid on the decks and smeared with shit.

If they didn’t exactly believe in the role of soft power, the Germans were bent on a naval build up to rival the other Atlantic powers in the arms race that preceded World War I. In order to project naval forces in the age of steam, coaling stations scattered throughout the world were a necessity. American wariness over German designs on a coaling station in Haiti only intensified with the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Wilson administration had even more on its plate than petitioning bankers and the threat of a German a foothold in the Mare Nostrum of the American Caribbean. The Panama Canal had just opened  its locks for business in 1914, and Haitian waters fronted the primary Caribbean passage to Panama. So Haiti, through no cause of her own, had vaulted in strategic importance in the year leading up to 1915.

Guillaume Sam would exit the legation the same way he entered. On the morning of July 28, his lifeless body was thrown over the wall. Sam’s torso was dragged through the streets, with his head, feet, hands, and various other parts carried about on poles. This was the scene in Port-au-Prince, rich and poor for a moment joined in universal rage, as the marines from the USS Washington landed launches and set out to secure the various legations in the city.

But what then? After several days there was still no clear objective for U.S. forces onshore.  Secretary of State Robert Lansing asked his boss for orders and in short order, Wilson delivered:

1. We must send to Port-au-Prince a force sufficient to absolutely control the city…[and] the country immediately about it…
2. We must let the present Haitian Congress know that we will protect it but that we will not recognize any action on its part that does not put men in charge of affairs whom we can trust to handle and put an end to revolution.
3.We must give all who now have authority there or who desire to have it…to understand that we shall take steps to prevent the payment of debts contracted to finance revolutions.

No 14 points these, but reflective of the high minded principles that Wilson used in framing his foreign policy. If Wilson really did believe the US could bring tenable democracy to Haiti, it underscores his cabinet's continued ignorance of the country.

The objective of the 19 years of American occupation, beyond the maintenance of civil order, was never clear. Perhaps the best legacy of this era was the dozens of memoirs and amateur histories written by the occupiers who dramatized the Haitian people and their Vodoo religion for popular consumption.

That story is for another time.
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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti II: A Bayonet for the Pen

To Toussaint L’Ouverture

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den.
O Miserable Chieftain! Where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies.
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

William Wordsworth

With the British defeated and Napoleon’s ships of the line not yet on the horizon, Toussaint set to rebuild a shattered colony. Bereft of resources, skilled technicians, or any organ of state apart from the military he had molded from the chaos of revolt, he set a new foundation upon the ashes. The General in Chief commissioned schools, roads and a court system, established a tariff and a tax system, and above all, devised a new economic system to restore the plantation economy, the island's only conceivable source of wealth, without the return of the slavery. The compromise was a feudal model with vassals from the officer corps given the plantations and a class of conscripted ex-slave serfs whose hours and pay were to be regulated by the state.  

Toussaint handpicked a delegation charged with drafting a constitution, but he would not live to see the creation of the Black Republic. An armada carrying 28,000 troops arrived to reclaim the island as a stepping stone to a restored French-American empire. This time the plans were drawn by Napoleon himself.

Toussaint and his generals faced one last scorched earth campaign against superior forces. They torched the coastal towns and cities, poisoned the wells, and retreated into the mountains. But Napoleon had wisely sent his troops for a winter campaign, and the Haitians were months away from the rains that brought the season of fevers.

 Toussaint's troops were outnumbered and outgunned, and he was compelled to explore a negotiated surrender. Tricked into what he thought was an informal meeting outlining his terms, the Haitian leader was captured and whisked through the night to a war ship that immediately set sail for France.

“In overthrowing me they have cut off only the trunk of black liberty.” Toussaint said, eying Haiti’s emerald slopes for the last time. “It will flourish again through its roots. They are many and deep.”

Within months of the publication of Wordsworth's homage to the imprisoned leader, Toussaint expired in a freezing cell set high in the Alps. His loss was devastating to the prospects of the country he had delivered through a decade of constant warfare.

Not that his enemies would fare better. May came, and so did the rains. The French  were bled by malaria and the Yellow Fever, then crushed by Toussaint’s one-time lieutenant Dessalines. The thousands of soldiers and millions of Francs wasted in the Haitian campaign dashed Napoleon’s hopes for American empire and forced his hand in the sale of Louisiana to the United States.

Dessalines was no Toussaint; he lacked the vision of his mentor. The military dictatorship set up by Toussaint, for lack of alternative, became the precedent Dessalines and an endless succession of military rulers would follow.

 Toussaint realized a successful Haitian state could not flourish without knowledge, skills, and resources from the outside world. Born into the cane fields, Dessaline’s only schooling had been the brutality of the lash.  In the seat of power, his vision was focused on the common passion for revenge.

New Year’s Eve 1803 was also the eve of Haiti’s formal Declaration of Independence. The generals who had assembled to deliver this proclamation found their drafts lacking. No wonder, few of them could write or read. Each revision had to be read allowed so that the General-in-Chief could follow their stumbling progress.

“But this doesn’t say what we feel,” the convention’s secretary exclaimed, “We should have a blanc's skin for the parchment. We'll use his skull for the inkwell, his blood for ink, a bayonet for the pen!”

Dessalines agreed with the sentiment, and on the spot assigned the man to write Haiti's first national document. Perhaps the outburst inspired him to pen the opening stanza for the Haitian state with more blood.

In his first month in power, Dessalines set out to exterminate all white men, women and children on the island. His soldiers blocked access to the ports while whites were rounded up and killed. Planters were ordered to pay steep ransom in exchange for their lives, those that showed up were first relieved of their gold, then their heads. After a month of methodical slaughter, a decree was issued that any women or children still in hiding would be given safe passage. Those foolish enough to heed the decree were executed. Dessalines did spare a handful of American merchants and British citizens, a few priests, and the pitiful dregs of the Polish Legion that two years before in Italy had been forced onto West Indies bound frigates.

The above events are not catalogued for their cruelty; in the context of the preceding plantation regime, the violence was not exceptional. Yet Dessalines’ myopic leadership played into the hands of his enemies abroad, and would have long lasting repercussions for a nation already challenged by an inhospitable climate and a lack of resources. The mere existence of the Haitian state was a threat to the Atlantic plantation system, and his vengeance served as justification for the world to shun the new nation. It would be over two decades before a single government would recognize Haiti, and by that time  the island was deep on a course that would careen from slumber to nightmare.
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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti I: Beyond the Mountains

Deye mon genmon--Beyond the mountains, there are mountains.

Language is a repository of culture, and perhaps no single expression in the French Creole dialect better illustrates the Western Hemisphere’s most long suffering nation. The phrase describes the Haitian landscape, dense folds of green mountains and impenetrable tropical valleys, as perceived from the sun scorched coastal plain.

In Creole, the only language spoken by the vast majority of contemporary Haitians, this saying is invoked as a vengeful warning to the perpetrator of an evil deed. It could as well describe the waves of misfortune that have roiled the island nation over half a millennium of recorded history. The earthquake that razed large swaths of Port-au-Prince has claimed untold lives and by any measure ranks among the all time worst natural disasters. Sadly, it is just the latest devastation wrought on a countryside utterly disfigured by centuries of exploitation and bloodshed, poverty and displacement. One need not consult the history books for evidence, the ruined landscape has rendered Haiti’s eastern border with Santo Domingo visible from outer space.

Fault lines are not the only natural phenomena that have conspired against the Caribbean nation. Ocean currents doomed the island’s Taino inhabitants five centuries ago. Waters streaming straight across the Atlantic deposited a group of Europeans led by a cocksure Italian who had grossly underestimated the circumference of the globe. India this new land was not. The islanders might have been spared further molestation if it hadn’t been for the little gold pieces they wore in their noses. Columbus liked the look those little gold pieces, and he convinced his bullion minded bosses for a commission to search for more.

Columbus and his contemporaries returned, and brought with them small pox, plague, yellow fever, influenza, and a rash of other diseases to which the Taino had no natural defenses. The Spaniards’ insane demands for more and bigger gold pieces forced the dwindling native population into the mines. Many of these enslaved islanders were pushed to suicide, though it must be said historians still debate the veracity of this Black Legend. Regardless the extent they were man made or natural horrors, after little more than a century the decimation of the original Haitians was complete.

The next two hundred years brought more suffering to the island. After unfruitful attempts at indentured servitude, the colonial powers hit a formula that drove modern capitalism into the 19th Century. The Europeans shipped firearms to Africa, slaves across the Atlantic, and sugar back to Europe.

Nowhere was formula more successful than the French colony occupying the western third of Hispaniola. Saint Domingue, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” was the most profitable plantation island in the Caribbean and the envy of all the mercantile powers in the North Atlantic. At the dawn of the French Revolution, Saint Domingue produced nearly 40 percent of the sugar consumed in Europe and North America, and was responsible for up to two thirds of the tropical groceries produced in the French colonial possessions.

This enthusiasm did not extend to the Africans who toiled for the island’s sugary pearls. Conditions for the island’s workforce were so grim as to preclude human reproduction anywhere near replacement level. In 1789, after 150 years of the triangle trade, an overwhelming majority of the colony’s 500,000 slaves had been directly imported from Africa.

A plantation slave working the cane fields had a life expectancy of seven years from the time his chained feet were set on the on the docks of Cap Francois. A significant number who survived the hellish Middle Passage wouldn’t endure two seasons of drudgery on a sugar plantation. The survivors of this period, referred to in the planters’ ledgers as “seasoning”, might look forward to 10 years of more toil. Or a slip during the 20-hour shift at harvest might end in the voracious teeth of the cane mill. Even if a foreman were on hand to cut the harness of the horses driving the mill shaft and to sever the slave’s arm clean above the elbow, infection would likely finish the machine’s work.

There were mountains beyond the mountains that fronted the miserable coastal plain, and beyond these mountains there were survivors. Thousands of slaves annually fled the horrors of the plantation regime, and those who managed to evade the slave catchers and colonial special forces sought hideouts carved into the remote folds of jungle-clad slopes. Entire communities subsisted in the interior, self-governing bands who raised a guard to stand watch beyond camouflaged moats and wooden palisades. These maroon communities were largely self sufficient, though the occasional raid on the plantations supplemented provisions and no doubt boosted morale. That these groups became recognized by treaties attests to their strength vis-a-vis a colonial government that lacked the power to eradicate them.

The maroons did more than survive apart from the plantation economy. They provided a cultural continuity impossible on the plantations. Their stories traveled up and down the Atlantic Coasts with the slaves and free men of color among the seamen who worked the ships of the maritime economy. Spread upon the common wind, events on Saint Domingue inspired slaves and terrified planters throughout the New World. Slaves of the Western Atlantic would follow the exploits of Haitian leaders during the Revolution, but the consciousness of African struggle in the New World had deeper roots.

Uprisings in Cuba, Louisiana and Brazil chose to invoke an earlier enemy of plantation society. In 1805, a band of Brazilian slaves wore amulets bearing the name of the legendary Haitian maroon Macandal.

In the early 1740’s Macandal escaped his plantation for the mountains beyond the mountains. By most accounts Macandal had lost his arm up to the shoulder when it was caught in a mill shaft, and he later escaped to the mountains from his job as a shepherd. The maroon gathered knowledge of the land and oral history from the survivors who had spent decades in remote caves and mountain hideouts. Schooled in Africa, he was literate in Arabic and likely taught himself to read French. He applied his understanding of African medicinal arts to the plant life of the island. In time he built a network of maroons and slaves throughout the island.

According to oral tradition, Macandal sat before his followers with a bowl at his feet and gave a lesson in history and his vision for the future. He explained that the bowl represented the island most of them had been brought to in chains. He then pulled a yellow scarf from the bowl. The yellow symbolized the original inhabitants of the island. Next he pulled a white scarf, symbolic of the people who had destroyed the original inhabitants and now ruled the island. The last scarf was black, the color of the people who would destroy the whites and reclaim possession of the land. In a short time, he said, they would restore island to its original name, Hayti, the land of mountains.

Macandal did not conquer Haiti, but he shook the plantation system to its core. With his botanical knowledge he mastered the art of poison, and with his island wide network of conspirators his potions entered the livestock pens, then houses of the French elite at the close of 1757. Macandal's poisons killed hundreds. The whites were hysterical, they felt their vulnerability due to a total dependence on the slave workforce. At the last minute, Macandal’s larger plot to overthrow the planters was uncovered. He was hunted down and burned at the stake, though his followers claimed the one-armed man wiggled free of his binding and escaped the flames in the form of a fly.

Thirty years later, the half million slaves toiling on Saint Domingue had not forgotten Francois Macandal.

The first and only successful slave revolt in history had roots far deeper than the echoes of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that began to reverberate on the island after the storming of the Bastille. The 1791 rebellion that began on Saint Domingue’s northern plain had many underlying causes, not least demography, a ten to one ratio of slave to white, coupled with the growing economic clout, and accompanying legal and social marginalization of a free, mixed race class that came to threaten, and rival in number, colonial whites.

After the decades of unimaginable violence inflicted on a slave workforce-- hung by the ear with nails and stuffed up the ass with gunpowder, being whipped, burned, branded, buried alive, disfigured and crushed by instruments of torture it would be kind to describe as medieval--the reprisal was light. Many planters escaped with their lives to Paris and New Orleans.

A grey haired coach driver in his late 40's, ancient by the brutal standards of the island, rose from obscurity to command the slave uprising. Toussaint L’Ouveture organized the chaotic outburst into an effective regular army. Toussaint’s direction of this fighting force would credit him among the most effective generals in the history of the modern world. His armies would defeat the French, the Spanish, and the English, the big three maritime powers of the age. Like Macandal, accounts of Toussaint would be feted in song and story on the slave rows from Maryland to Uruguay.

After defeating Napoleon's bid to reclaim her colony in 1802--at the great cost of a scorched earth policy and the loss of the great Toussaint--Haiti would become the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also a pariah state, shunned by the slaveholding powers who feared Haiti’s example. From the time of the burning of the northern plain in 1791, Haitian leaders were faced with the harsh reality that their one valued commodity, sugar cane, was not something that could be abandoned. If the island nation was to support even the most basic aspects of government, let alone a military capable of repelling hostile world powers, Haiti would need to have a viable GDP. Someone would have to cut and process the cane.

Toussaint was faced with this problem throughout his military campaigns. Christophe, Toussaint’s right hand lieutenant who would become Henry I, and Dessalines, the first ruler post independence, all faced the same dilemma. Each in turn were forced to issue decrees conscripting former slaves back into the detested cane fields. It is amazing how successful both men were in continuing the island's export economy. Within 18 months of his emergency rule, Toussaint managed to raise sugar production to nearly 70 percent of pre-war levels.

Yet for an ex-slave, the chief desire was a plot of land far from the plantation. It was inevitable that sugar production would not be sustainable in the long term and a testament to people's respect of the revolutionary leadership that this terminal decline was forestalled until after Christophe’s presidency. The subsistence farming that still employs a majority of poor Haitians was a rebellion from the detested work with the sugar cane.

In the next post I will engage in a very brief history of the first Black Republic.
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