Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Haitian tragedy. Part 1

Jacques Roumain (1907-1944) - poet, anthropologist, and founder of the Haitian Communist Party

Haiti is the most African of all countries in the New World, the average Haitian being 95% African by ancestry. In comparison, the proportion is 77-82% for the average Jamaican (Simms et al. 2010) and 30% for the average Brazilian from Bahia, the most African part of Brazil (Pena et al., 2001). This is not because Haiti never had a substantial European or mixed population. Before the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the country was 8% white, 5% mulatto (gens de couleur), and 87% black.

The Revolution led to a mass emigration of whites and to ethnic cleansing of those who remained.

On 1 January 1804, Dessalines proclaimed Haiti an independent nation. Dessalines later gave the order to all cities on Haiti that all white men should be put to death. The weapons used should be silent weapons such as knives and bayonets rather than gunfire, so that the killing could be done more quietly, and avoid warning intended victims by the sound of gunfire and thereby giving them the opportunity to escape.

[...] Dessalines did not specifically mention that the white women should be killed, and the soldiers were reportedly somewhat hesitant to do so. In the end, however, they were also put to death, though normally at a later stage of the massacre than the adult males. The argument for killing the women was that whites would not truly be eradicated if the white women were spared to give birth to new Frenchmen.

Before his departure from a city, Dessalines would proclaim an amnesty for all the whites who had survived in hiding during the massacre. When these people left their hiding place, however, they were killed as well. (Wikipedia 2018a)

The mulattoes fared better than the whites, but they too suffered during the Revolution and its long aftermath. From 1799 to 1800 many were killed and many more fled the country during the Guerre des couteaux (the War of Knives), which pitted the mulatto-dominated south of the country against the black-dominated north. This regional rivalry, and its racial overtones, continued between the President of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, in the south, and the King of Haiti, Henri Christophe, in the north.

But the rival mulatto-run South was a source of never-ending bitterness, and in 1811 Christophe renewed his war against Pétion. Pétion's victory provoked in the "Black King" a hatred of mulattoes "so deep and fiend-like, that nothing would satisfy the direness of his vengeance but the utter extermination of that race," wrote one of his contemporaries. (Abbott 1988)

Christophe died in 1820, and Pétion's successor, the mulatto Jean-Pierre Boyer, seized not only the north but also the Spanish part of the island of Hispaniola. After Boyer's ouster in 1843, and the loss of Spanish Hispaniola the following year, Haiti went through almost two decades of turmoil.

The late 19th century: re-Christianization and re-Francization

Stability gradually returned after an 1860 agreement with the Vatican to reintroduce Catholic churches, schools, hospitals, and other institutions, thus creating much of the infrastructure of a modern society. Catholic colleges emerged as incubators for new ideas, and Haiti in general, especially its elites, became re-Christianized and re-Francized (Delisle 2003).

The late 19th century was thus a time of relative peace, and it was during this time that the country's mulatto minority began to thrive. Traders from Germany, Italy, and the Levant arrived, and many married into mulatto families. German traders in particular began to play a pivotal role:

The small German community in Haiti (approximately 200 in 1910) wielded a disproportionate amount of economic power. Germans controlled about 80 percent of the country's international commerce; they also owned and operated utilities in Cap Haïtien and Port-au-Prince, the main wharf and a tramway in the capital, and a railroad in the north. (Sommers 2016, p. 10)

Fears of a German protectorate

Germany itself took an interest in Haiti:

Germany made overtures in 1912 to the then existing Haitian regime for a cession of Saint Nicholas Mole as a German coaling station, for German control of Haitian customs, and for preferred port rights, all to be based on a German loan of $2,000,000. When this negotiation became known at Washington, Germany was called upon for an explanation. The charge was denied in 1914, but at that time Germany stated that no scheme of reorganization or control in Haiti could be thought of unless European nations were permitted to exercise the same rights as the United States. This German statement constituted nothing less than a challenge to the Monroe Doctrine. (Tinker 1922, p. 50)

In the three decades leading up to the First World War, Imperial Germany was expanding its overseas empire and may indeed have been seeking to impose a protectorate on Haiti with help from the mulatto minority. This was certainly the suspicion of the United States, which began a longstanding policy of supporting black nationalists in Haiti as a counterweight to its mulatto leaders, who were seen as more likely to collude with other outside powers, first Germany and later Cuba and the Soviet Union. To this end, the U.S. supported a series of black nationalist presidents in the early 20th century, the last one being Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (March to July 1915):

[...] he was already notorious throughout Haiti for ordering the massacre of civilians in the mulatto-dominated town of Jacmel while commandant there. [...] And like so many black presidents before him, Sam looked for enemies within the ranks of the mulatto elite. One of his first presidential acts was to charge scores of mulattoes with political dissidence and imprison them [...] (Abbott 1988)

This crackdown produced a backlash:

As the fifth president in five turbulent years, Sam was forced to contend with a revolt against his own regime, led by Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, who opposed the government's expanded commercial and strategic ties with the United States. Fearing that he would share the same fate as his predecessors, Sam acted harshly against his political opponents, particularly the better educated and wealthier mulatto population. The culmination of his repressive measures came on 27 July 1915, when he ordered the execution of 167 political prisoners, including former president Zamor, who was being held in a Port-au-Prince jail. This infuriated the population, which rose up against Sam's government as soon as news of the executions reached them.

Sam fled to the French embassy, where he received asylum. The rebels' mulatto leaders broke into the embassy and found Sam. They dragged him out and beat him senseless then threw his limp body over the embassy's iron fence to the waiting populace, who then ripped his body to pieces and paraded the parts through the capital's neighborhoods. (Wikipedia 2018b)

Woodrow Wilson, fearing an imminent German invasion of Haiti, ordered American troops to occupy the capital and then the entire country. The occupation was resisted by bands of guerillas called "cacos," who took up arms in the First Caco War (1916) and the Second Caco War (1918-1920). Some historians state that Germany aided the rebels, even to the point of creating a Caribbean front of the First World War. For instance, we read that "they [the rebels] received considerable support from the German government and entrenched German-Haitian elite" (Wikipedia 2018c). This seems doubtful, given the distance from Europe and American control of the sea lanes. The Second Caco War did receive support from the mulatto minority, particularly from exiled leader Rosalvo Bobo, being "another episode in the long struggle of the mulattoes against black rule" (Beede 1994, p. 83)

American occupation (1915-1934)

So Haiti became an American protectorate instead of a German one. Although the mulattoes benefited from the occupation, particularly from the political stability and the building of roads and other infrastructure, many remained its strongest opponents and, for this reason, sparked a renewal of Haitian nationalism. 

In the 1930s and 1940s blacks discovered unexpected allies in the many mulatto intellectuals who, shattered by their personal encounters with crude white racism, also sought meaning in their diluted African ancestry. [...] In belittling Africa and aping Europe, the elite had betrayed Haiti's millions. No more! declared the new nationalists. Internal racism must die, and favored Haitians must work with and on behalf of the suffering masses. But the first task was to rid Haiti of the invader. "Man, you are a stranger and you tread the soil that my father trod," wrote fiery mulatto writer Jacques Roumain.

Roumain and dozens of other nationalist writers were arrested time and time again, condemned by American courts-martial and sentenced to fines, imprisonment, and even hard labor. The result was a politicization of intellectuals, driven by persecution from poetry to pragmatic action. Roumain founded the Haitian Communist Party. Price-Mars and future nationalist President Sténio Vincent formed the Patriotic Union, attracting a membership of sixteen thousand that organized resistance to the occupation (Abbott 1988)

This renewal of Haitian nationalism took three forms: Catholic authoritarianism, black nationalism (noirisme), and Marxism.

Catholic authoritarianism

This political current was limited to the mulatto community, particularly those with a strong Catholic orientation. They looked to Catholic teachings of that time (corporatism, rejection of liberalism) with a view to rebuilding Haiti as an orderly society. Their examples were Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Pétain in France and, closer to home, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

Initially, Catholic authoritarianism was the most successful of the three competing forms of Haitian nationalism. It was in fact the dominant ideology after the American occupation, when Haiti was ruled by two strong-arm presidents: Sténio Vincent (1934-41) and Elie Lescot (1941-46). Supporters of Vincent, in particular, saw in him an authoritarian leader like those of Europe. In 1936, the president of the Club des amis du Président Vincent wrote:

Let us propagate and establish Vincentisme in order that, like fascism in Italy and Hitlerism in Germany, he becomes for us, Haitians, a school of civic-mindedness and loyalty; so that in his shadow and under his aegis, we may constitute a squad of men capable of perpetuating the regime of order, peace, and justice instituted by President Vincent. For our country to develop normally and progressively, we need in power for another quarter-century an entire succession of heads of state trained in the school of Vincentisme. (Péan 2015)

Neither Vincent nor Lescot left a lasting mark on Haitian society. As mulattoes, they lacked genuine support among the black majority and, more critically, among the largely black military. Furthermore, both had ties to Trujillo, who, in 1937, ordered the killing of some 15,000 to 20,000 black Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. Meanwhile, Trujillo was seeking to whiten Dominican society through European immigration; even Jewish refugees and Spanish Republicans were welcome. Deep down, Vincent and Lescot shared Trujillo’s pro-European and anti-African bias. Among other things, they supported the efforts of the Church to root out Vodou and impose behavioral norms, such as monogamy, that were in fact European norms.

With the outbreak of WWII, the United States took an increasingly dim view of Vincent's authoritarian rule. To varying degrees he was an ideological kin to the Axis powers, especially Italy but also Vichy France, Hungary, and Croatia. In 1941, Roosevelt pressured him to step down and hand power over to Lescot, who adopted a more liberal style of governance. With the end of the war, Catholic authoritarianism disappeared throughout most of Europe, and Lescot's position became less tenable. Matters came to a head in 1946 when he jailed the Marxist editors of a student journal, an action that triggered a wave of student strikes and protests by government workers, teachers, and shopkeepers. He resigned, under pressure from the military.   

Black nationalism (noirisme)

In the late 1920s, many Haitian intellectuals embraced indigénisme and négritude as a means to protest the American opposition and also the elite's emulation of French culture and rejection of Haiti's African roots. Ironically, both movements were based in metropolitan France and owed much of their popularity to an interest in “Otherness,” bordering on exoticism, that was popular there during the interwar years. Even in Haiti itself these movements became known via French books and magazines, and their initial adherents were, more often than not, Francophile mulattoes. One of them was Jacques Roumain, who in 1927 founded La Revue Indigene: Les Arts et La Vie, a journal of Haitian art and culture. Initially a folklorist and anthropologist, he became more and more involved in politics.

Indigénisme was supported by another Haitian anthropologist, Jean-Price Mars. Like Roumain, he championed négritude and called for a rehabilitation of Haiti's African culture. In particular, he argued that vodou was a religion on a par with Christianity with its own deities, priesthood, theology, and morality. Unlike Roumain, he was black and never embraced Marxism (Wikipedia 2018e). Nonetheless, unlike the black nationalists, both of them simply wanted an honest assessment of Haitian culture that would equally acknowledge its African and French roots.

Noirisme went much farther than indigénisme:

Whatever the "Indigéniste School" had to say, the noiristes radicalized it completely. More than having a dual French and African past, Haiti had an "African element" which could only be directed by real, authentic Black Haitians, who were much closer to the poor and disenfranchised populace. Vodou was no longer an important religious expression among others; it was the supreme link between Haiti and Africa. Haiti not only had to be governed by Blacks to reflect the country's majority, it had to be governed by a charismatic and autocratic Black, since liberalism was a "White" political system. Haitians were thus entirely biologically determined to be the people that they were and the real enemies of the state were Mulattoes with their "mulâtrisme." (La Revue Indigène 2014)

The noiristes gained ground during the mid to late 1930s, in large part because the Vincent administration jailed, killed, or exiled so many of their Marxist rivals. Like Jacques Roumain, they wrote and published their ideas. Unlike him, however, they were never prosecuted, even though their ideas would have much more radical implications. Noirisme circulated especially via the pages of Les Griots, a “scientific and literary” journal co-founded in 1938 by a young François Duvalier.


In 1934, Jacques Roumain founded the Parti communiste haïtien (PCH), a small group made up overwhelmingly of mulatto intellectuals—a fact that black nationalists loved to point out. Mulattoes were attracted to Marxism partly out of idealism and partly because the noiristes wouldn't have them. The only other alternative was Catholic authoritarianism, and it lost its appeal with the outbreak of the Second World War.

1n 1936, with the end of the occupation, the Vincent administration disbanded the PCH and repeatedly prosecuted Roumain, eventually forcing him into exile. In New York City he conducted ethnographic research for Columbia University before he finally returned to Haiti upon Vincent's departure from office. In 1943, he founded the Bureau national d'ethnologie and went on to write a collection of poetry, a novel, and a paper on Haitian archaeology. A year later, at the age of 37, he died of either illness or poisoning (Wikipedia 2018d).

A doctrinaire Marxist, he considered class to be more important than race. Unlike many Marxists, however, he had a gift for speaking simply:

What are we? Since that's your question, I'm going to answer you. We're this country, and it wouldn't be a thing without us, nothing at all. Who does the planting? Who does the watering? Who does the harvesting? Coffee, cotton, rice, sugar cane, caco, corn, bananas, vegetables, and all the fruits, who's going to grow them if we don't? Yet with all that, we're poor, that's true. We're out of luck, that's true. We're miserable, that's true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. (Wikipedia 2018d)

In 1946, Marxist parties were again permitted to exist, and two came into being: the PSP (Parti socialiste populaire) and the PCH (Parti communiste haïtien). The PSP, like the first PCH, had an overwhelmingly mulatto membership.

The philosophy of the PSP represented the most stark contrast to the noirisme of the other radical groups. The mostly elite intellectuals in the PSP privileged class struggle over color divisions as the most important threat to Haitian society. Like the PCH in the thirties, they argued that a reorientation of the polity based on color would not bridge the country's fundamental economic cleavage. Noirisme, for them, was a political weapon used by the black middle class to attain control of the country but promised little for the welfare of the poor. (Smith 2009, p. 87)

The new PCH, unlike the old one, drew its membership from the black middle class and was closer to noirisme. Its members considered the color question in Haiti to be an "essential aspect of the present class struggle in Haiti." "The PSP, they argued, evaded the color question because the party was largely milat and consequently feared the threat a black government might pose to their status" (Smith 2009, p. 87)

To be cont'd.


Abbott, E. (1988). Haiti. A Shattered Nation, London: Duckworth Overlook

Beede, B.R. (1994). The War of 1898 and U.S. Interventions 1898-1934. An Encyclopedia, New York: Garland Publishing.

Delisle, P. (2003). Le catholicisme en Haïti au XIXe siècle, Paris: Éditions Karthala.

La Revue Indigène (2014). Noirism in Haiti, December 29, 2014.

Péan, L. (2015). Haïti-1915/100 ans : L’occupation américaine et les Volontaires de la Servitude Nihiliste VSN, AlterPresse, January 8

Pena SDJ, Di Pietro G, Fuchshuber-Moraes M, Genro JP, Hutz MH, Kehdy FdSG, et al. (2011) The Genomic Ancestry of Individuals from Different Geographical Regions of Brazil Is More Uniform Than Expected. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17063.

Simms, T.M., C.E. Rodriguez, R. Rodriguez, and R.J. Herrera. (2010). The genetic structure of populations from Haiti and Jamaica reflect divergent demographic histories, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 142, 49-66.

Smith, M.J. (2009). Red & Black in Haiti. Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change 1934-1957, The University of North Carolina Press.

Sommers, J. (2016). Race, Reality, and Realpolitik. U.S.-Haiti relations in the lead up to the 1915 occupation, Lanham, Lexington Books.

Tinker, C.A. (1922). The American occupation of Haiti and Santo Domingo, The American Review of Reviews, 66(1), 46-60.

Wikipedia (2018a). 1804 Haitian Massacre.

Wikipedia (2018b). Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.

Wikipedia (2018c). United States occupation of Haiti.

Wikipedia (2018d). Jacques Roumain

Wikipedia (2018e). Jean-Price Mars

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