This discussion of affairs in Halti was written for the Crimson by H. H. MacCubbin '26, former Secretary to the American Legation in Halti.
When Columbus set sail to discover a new passage to India, one of the islands he touched upon was Haiti, then named Hispaniola. Little did he or the Spanish colonists who came after him realize what deep and ticklish problems this little island would present.
It is fitting to call Haiti the land of romance and revolution. During the early part of its history the element of romance predominated and only the distant rumblings of rebellions, thrilling and adventurous in themselves, were heard. But the romance was dulled and revolutions became materialistic. Sordidness and poverty replaced the gayety and wealth of romantic times.
Ceded to France as Saint Dominique
The early settlers in Haiti were a cold and hard-hearted lot who gradually exterminated the native Indians. A labor shortage developed. This was a prospect no Spanish grandee could face with equanimity, and so he found a substitute for the Indian in the blacks of Africa, and these he imported as fast as he could, making them his slaves. The colonists of Spain were not a tenacious lot, however, and in 1697 the Island of Haiti was ceded to France under the name of Saint Dominique.
Contrast of Planters and Slaves
Not very different was the policy of the French from that of the Spanish. The importation of Negroes continued and only a few Frenchmen settled on plantations in the country or built mansions for themselves in the towns. Theirs was a gay life; social affairs were elaborate and highly organized; beautiful women minuetted with white-wigged planters or, drawn by the soft air and the bright moon, flirted on the cool terraces.
In contrast to the brilliant life of the planter was the existence of the Negro slaves. Poverty and filth were their constant lot, ignorance, their heritage. Nothing was done for their comfort. Fear that family ties might develop too strongly caused the planters to separate fathers and sons, husbands and wives.
Evolution of Self-Government
Out of this ignorant, maltreated population came three figures, great men of all times, black Napoleons. Each had a dream of empire and each desired to create a free country for his fellow-blacks. The first of these was a wizened little doctor who made the Haitians realize that they could achieve their dream. Toussaint was his name; L'ouverture he was called because of his enormous success. When he was trapped by the French, Dessalines and Christopher followed in his footsteps. Although each met a tragic death, they accomplished something, for a black empire had been set up, and despite the fighting that ensued between blacks and mulattoes the foreigners at least had been driven out and black people ruled themselves in the Island of Haiti. By 1820 the tradition was established and Haiti set about the business of self-government.
Ignorance of the Population
The remarkable thing is not how badly this Island of Haiti was governed, how great the corruption and mismanagement, but that any government at all existed for so long, considering the condition of the people from whom it sprang. Even its eventual and almost inevitable failure was a "beau geste".
Not only was Haiti burdened by all the characteristics which made stable government in Latin-American countries such a difficult problem, but in addition there were certain peculiarities which complicated the situation. Ignorance, illiteracy, and inexperience were nearly universal. Although there was a small group of intellectually elite who had had training abroad, the mass of the population was unlettered. Furthermore, both the peasants and the Government were poor. Then again, Haiti was made a republic and, though the plan was simple, the people were unable to function properly as citizens because they hardly knew what the word meant.
Instead of being a democracy, therefore, Haiti came to be ruled by dictators. Only two of twenty-four Presidents retired peacefully after completing their terms. A President remained in power as long as his armed forces were stronger than those of the combined opposition. Anxious to attain power, general after general made a grab at the Presidency, and revolution followed revolution. Bribery and corruption were part and parcel of the whole system. From collectors of taxes to school teachers, all tried to get a little more for themselves by playing politics.
To add to her burdens--and this was the straw that broke the camel's back, causing intervention--Haiti was without money. Always broke, she was at a continuous disadvantage in negotiating loans, and even her most astute diplomats had neither the experience nor the knowledge to cope with the shrewd European bankers. Thus she came out at the wrong end of nearly every bargain.