Haiti under American Occupation

By Ernest H. Gruening

The Century 103 (April 1922).

For six years American armed forces have controlled the two small republics that share the Caribbean island that Columbus called Hispaniola, but which is now known by the original Indian name of Haiti, the "land of mountains." For the last two years report and rumor, filtering northward, have hinted that all was not well along the Artibonite and the Ozama, respective Potomacs of the republics of Haiti and Santo Domingo. There followed in due course one of those harmless political diversions in which we take delight, a congressional investigation.

Since the beauty and charm of the distant South Sea Islands have been captured and capitalized in fiction, in paint, and even in parody, the picturesque uniqueness that is Haiti leads one to wonder why the artists and poets have overlooked this treasure island of exotic charm that lies only four days from New York. It is not only an island of gorgeous color, where scented trade-winds play over orange and white beaches, but where, in a life that is warm, mellow, and gentle, stark tragedy and extravagant burlesque have mingled in the making of a chapter unique in the story of mankind.

It was on the steamer Haiti-bound that I gained a first-hand realization of the gulf that separates the Haitians from the Americans, who graciously assert that they are there to "big-brother" the Haitians. While chatting on the deck, several officers' wives learned that it was my first visit.

"You must come and see us," said one, with the friendly cordiality of Americans in remote corners of the globe. "We have great times there. Do you know any one in Haiti?"

I gave a name in reply. The name was nondescript.

"Is he a Frenchman?" they asked.

"No; he is a Haitian."

An almost imperceptible raising of eyebrows, and the conversation lapsed. I gathered that it was unusual, not to say queer, to go to Haiti and know Haitians.

In Haiti I found the social line between Haitians and Americans rigidly drawn. When the military occupation took place in 1915, the Haitians, regardless of their feeling about the larger aspects of the invasion, extended to individual Americans a truly Haitian hospitality, inviting our naval officers into their homes and their clubs. Several months later, however, when the officers' wives arrived, these social relations ceased abruptly. The officers who had been generously feted never again entered the homes they had visited, nor did their wives, who instead rebuffed the kindly advances of the Haitian women. Several other episodes caused American officers to be barred from the Haitian clubs, and, conversely, the newly created American club admitted no Haitians. During my stay in Haiti an American newspaper representative was requested by the management of the Hotel Montagne not to receive Haitians except on the back porch. Complaints had been made by American officers who were guests in the hotel. Jim Crow had arrived in Haiti!

Despite this obvious social gulf and the evident resentment of the natives at the military control, the officers of the occupation publicly insist that the occupation loves the Haitians, who in turn love it, and that were it not for a small band of politicians, agitators, and malcontents who are stirring up their fellows, harmony would prevail.

A politician, an agitator, or a malcontent, I discovered, is any one opposed to the presence of the alien military, to martial law, to the overthrow of Haitian sovereignty, or to anything in any way adversely critical of things as they are. With this usually goes the further charge that these "agitators" are "living off the people." This charge rests on the assumption that any one holding public office is "living off the people," and that the majority of well-to-do Haitians are absentee landlords of plantations.

It happens that the greater portion of educated Haitians have at one time or other held some public post. The number that has more or less continuously held office and has no other profession is, however, inconsiderable. I do not see that any apology for the vrai politicien is needed. Is anything more natural than that a young man with a good education, having entered public service and having held important offices, should wait and hope for the return swing of the political pendulum? And if it is a foreign military occupation that has atrophied public life and rendered a return to his career impossible, to work to end this condition?

The charge of absentee landlordism is, I think, equally groundless. Most of the urban Haitians of means own plantations, often at distant points. These are worked by the peasants, sometimes without special direction, sometimes, when the estates are large, under an overseer. But in addition to having his habitation and a plot of land upon which he can raise, without burden of any kind, ample supplies for his personal needs, the peasant merely "goes halves" with his absentee owner on the crop, be it coffee, sugar, rice, fruit, or cotton. Since the administration of President Pétion, founder of the republic, the "law of the half" has been in effect. Always the peasant, first and foremost, gets sufficient for his own livelihood; the balance alone is divided with the absentee landlord. The peasant, moreover, retains his part in the arrangement as a vested right; a change of landlords in no wise affects him. Contrast this with the American wage system, the beginning of which is being experienced in Haiti. Today, under "development" schemes, peasants whose families have cultivated and lived on their plot of ground for over a century find themselves dispossessed and forced to work for the daily wage offered by the new companies that are invading Haiti under the aegis of the American occupation.

My personal impression is that the love of the occupation for the Haitian peasant is the love for a great, potential, and docile labor supply, illiterate and easily imposed upon, and purchasable at a salary of a gourde a day, the gourde since the American occupation having been "stabilized" at twenty cents. It has been, though not recently, higher than the dollar.

In short, the dislike for the so-called politician seems to be a dislike for all that represents the militant or even the articulate spirit of Haitian culture. This is a bit difficult to understand when one remembers that Haitian culture is responsible for one of the most interesting episodes in history -- an episode representing an outstanding contribution to human freedom. I am aware of the grave failures of the Haitian state, of its revolutions, of its graft, of tragic shortcomings, but I also recall certain other facts. Haiti started with no traditions or experience of self-government whatever. The tortured and debased slaves had to assume self-government in the midst of the wreckage wrought by fourteen years of desperate struggle for independence in which French, British, and Spanish armies, as well as their own armies, marched and countermarched, sacked and burned, for nearly half a generation. For nearly half a century scarcely a nation would recognize Haitian independence for fear of the effect on its own still enslaved blacks. Recognition by France was bought only at the price of a heavy indemnity for the property of Frenchmen destroyed in the war of independence, and the pressure of that debt burdened the Haitian state for decades. Haiti, by reason of its color and its French culture, has been totally isolated from sympathetic neighbors on the western hemisphere. It has not had even the advantage of Santo Domingo, which, by virtue of its cultural ties, can count on the active sympathy of all its sister Hispanic-American states. When one recalls all this, the mere persistence of the Haitian republic as a free and independent state for one hundred years seems an achievement indeed. Now, this has been the achievement of the Haitian cultivated classes.

Apart from the fundamental considerations involved in our going into Haiti, I believe that the subsequent failure to establish decent human contacts with the Haitian people, and particularly to cultivate the Haitian upper class, has been the gravest error.

The belle société of Port-au-Prince in intellectual quality, in charm, and in exquisite breeding compares favorably with the society of most of the world's capitals. Its life is leisurely and its spirit cosmopolitan, a soupçon of Paris transplanted to the tropics. Its inspiration has been French not merely by inheritance, but because of the continuous French contacts by which Haitian society renews its cultural Gallic strength. Having violently cast off the mother country politically, Haiti continues to nourish itself spiritually at her breast. Parisian education for the younger generation is the hope and pride of every Haitian family of means. That this practice has been interrupted, first by the war, then by the subsequent hard times for which Haitians blame the occupation more than the world-wide depression, is a cause of great sorrow to the families thus deprived, though in my judgment it is not an unmixed evil. What has in large part been the culture and charm of Haiti has at the same time been a fatal weakness. The eyes of the upper classes have been too much fixed on France. A new inward orientation, to use a word of which Haitians are intensely fond, will necessarily focus attention on their own educational system. In the interest of accuracy, however, it must be recorded that some extremely well educated Haitians have received their entire schooling at Port-au-Prince.

Another influence which has tended to draw the eyes of Haitians away from their own country and across the sea is the clergy, which, with the exception of one order of brothers and an occasional priest, is not native. Haiti is religiously a Catholic country, and the devoutness of the peasant is one of the visitor's earliest impressions. Rarely simple and exquisite is the grace with which the barefoot young country women on their daily journey to and from the urban market pause either to kneel or to stand in adoration, with hands extended, in front of the innumerable wayside statues of the Virgin. One of the most characteristically impressive events in Haiti is the four o'clock mass in the cathedral of Notre Dame de l'Assomption in Port-au-Prince, held purposely before daybreak to enable all those who hesitate to exhibit their poverty to worship when their rags will not be visible. The size of the four o'clock mass -- it is axiomatic in Haiti -- is an index of the country's poverty or prosperity. The cathedral has never been so crowded at that hour as it is these days.

Marital ties, too, bind the upper class Haitian to France. The whites of every nationality save those of America intermarry with the youth and beauty of Haitian society. In Haitian society one finds German, Dutch, English, and Scandinavian names, the names of those whom either the diplomatic or consular service or business originally brought to Haiti. Haitian society presents in consequence a great variety of types and colors. Blond and red hair are not unknown. Caucasian features with rich, brown skins are frequent, and many of the women are of extraordinary beauty, and of a vivacity that is quasi-Parisian. Haitian society is wholly of mixed blood. In the purely social gatherings at the Cercle Bellerue, the exclusive club of Port-au-Prince, it is the rare exception to see any one darker than a mulatto; and quadroons, octoroons, and even far more dilute combinations of African blood, for which the Haitians have special names up to the thirty-second degree, preponderate.

Even in this "officially black" country there are subtle color lines -- lines not hard and fast, lines freely transgressed socially and politically, yet gently persistent. The maxim in Haitian high society, "not a backward step," expresses the ideal of the younger Haitians not to marry one of darker hue. This ideal is not adhered to by all, but in Haitian social circles marriages of quadroons with full-blooded negroes or with griffes, the offspring of a negro and a mulatto, rarely occur. On the other hand, marriage with one of the European colonists is considered highly desirable. These aspirations have now and then led to great personal tragedies.

There is another color line deeply rooted in Haitian history since the white slave-owners freed their colored offspring and created a middle class neither slave nor enfranchised. These freedmen steadily fought for increased rights and recognition, and thereby widened the gap between themselves and the black slave. In time these colored offspring of white slave-owners became themselves slaveholders. The dawn of Haitian freedom was signalized by Dessalines's bloody massacre of these mulattoes, many of whom represented the Tory element of the Haitian revolution. Politically, this rift between les noirs and les jaunes exists today, although it has been partly closed by the common disaster that has befallen the republic in the occupation. On the other hand, the belief is widespread among large classes of the blacks that it is the yellows who have betrayed and sold out the republic to the whites. These color complexes are a source of intestine weakness in the Haitian state, which will be revised, in the face of the "American menace," as the Haitians realize that their African blood is the greatest common denominator and that American race prejudice makes no distinction of shade.

In Santo Domingo, which is "officially white," the color-line is not so much a color-line as a hair-line. In nearly all tropical Hispanic states there is a strong admixture of colored blood, but in Santo Domingo it is near-general. The population of the Dominican country-side is uniformly negroid, though of lighter color than the Haitian, and in the cities a pure Caucasian type is the exception. While discrimination is unknown, and "a man's a man," the political and intellectual leadership has largely gravitated into the hands of the whitest. The only distinction, which has become a matter of social pride, as being a Mayflower descendant in the United States, is the possession of straight hair. Nearly every one in Santo Domingo is dark, because of racial inheritance, the tanning by tropical sun, and centuries of racial intermingling. The color of the skin, therefore, is not an accurate index to the ethnic composition. Straight hair is prized because it is held to indicate in the case of darker skins the highly desirable Indian ancestry. The pure Indian type has, of course, become very rare.

Santo Domingo is a Spanish city. Its plaster dwellings are tinted in an amazing variety of pinks, oranges, lavenders, and yellows. The life of the Dominican family tends to the patio, or courtyard, around which the dwellings are built. In Haitian cities, however, family life tends outward, great doors and windows characterizing the private dwellings. There one walks without interruption from the street into offices and business establishments. Window panes are not needed, and except in the president's palace are virtually unknown in Haiti. The schedule of the day differs also from that of temperate climes. One rises before dawn; never later than six o'clock. Most business is transacted in the early forenoon, beginning as early as seven. From noon until three o'clock the streets are deserted for lunch and the siesta. An hour or so of business may follow, and then the Haitian gentleman retires to his home, usually well up in the hills that rise from the business region, in the aristocratic Turgeau or Peu de Chose quarters, or farther back to the delightful suburb of Pétionville, twelve hundred feet above sea-level. From five until seven is calling and cocktail hour, Haitian cocktails and other beverages offering a variety and quality that even our pre-prohibition days could not match. Bedtime comes early in Haiti. An eight-thirty caller is likely to find the residence dark, its dwellers retired in keeping with a more or less spontaneous daylight saving, which is an advisable procedure except in Port-au-Prince, which is equipped with an electric-light system. Another pleasing variant of Port-au-Prince convenience is the substitution of small outdoor bathing-pools or tanks for the enamel tub in the house, and nothing is more delightful than to slip out at dawn, through a bower of orange- or grape-fruit-trees, into the cool waters of a concrete pool overshadowed by luxuriant, sweet-scented verdure.

Life in the Haitian microcosm is friendly and joyous, although, as I was often assured, dark and drab as compared with life before the occupation. In the afternoon there is bridge at the clubs, and in the early evening dancing to tunes familiar in American ballrooms, with one exception -- the mareingue, the national dance, with its slow and dreamy cadence not unlike the waltz. The Haitians are superb dancers. In Haiti there is no "sitting out" of dances by couples. The women sit together even between dances. As the music for the new dance begins, the men seek their partners, and at the end of the dance promptly reconduct them to their seats, the women, not the men, expressing their thanks.

In Haiti, never distant from the sea, sea-bathing has had surprisingly little vogue. This is due in part to the extremely warm temperature of the water, well over eighty degrees in December, which robs the ocean bath of stimulation, and also to the fear of various denizens of the deep, which add to the thrills, but scarcely to the comforts, of Caribbean sea-bathing. These latter difficulties are being overcome, however, by protecting certain areas with stakes placed closely enough together to exclude undesirable natatory companions. Horseback riding is, of course, more than a sport and a pastime. Every Haitian of low or high degree rides, the wretchedness of the roads making this form of locomotion the only one possible in large parts of the country. During the rainy season certain of the main highways are absolutely impassable; at all times they lead through fords where the water comes well over the hubs, and other stretches resemble only the dry bed of a mountain torrent, or lead through mud and sand that make the question of further progress a constant speculation. Were it not for the ubiquitous and good-natured country folk of thickly settled Haiti, even the present difficult travel would be impossible. Since, however, the signal of rear wheels spinning helplessly in foot-deep mud instantly brings an army of eager, rollicking young men and women to the side of the helpless motor-car, the danger of being forced to abandon it is negligible.

The good nature and the kindliness of the Haitian peasant is the most salient and self-evident of traits. The failure of the Americans in Haiti either to understand or to sympathize with the Haitians is inexcusable. They could have captured them with a smile.

I doubt that there is a being on earth who in a lifetime covers more distance afoot than the Haitian woman, although many of them, to be sure, ride their burros. For miles, not five or ten, but often twenty-five or more, these daughters of toil trek cityward in the early morning hours, leaving their little plantations often at one and two in the morning, reaching the city market at daybreak. After a few hours there, they return on their long homeward journey, mostly barefoot, or occasionally with a kind of loose slipper that it seems something of a feat to keep from losing. Their load, be it fruit, sugar cane, coffee, rum, or other liquid, which they carry in calabash gourds, is invariably balanced on their heads with a skill that would seem to us an unusual bit of equilibration, but to them is second nature. Nothing exceeds the grace with which these lithe children of the soil swing along the Haitian highways in endless procession, covering mile after mile at a steady pace, their stride free and easy, their arms swinging rhythmically, their sometimes incredibly large loads swaying safely on their kerchief-covered heads. Interspersed with the pedestrians are the inevitable donkeys, Haiti's national animal, rarely ridden by their owners save on the return journey, but weighted instead with an almost concealing load of fodder grass or other produce. The open market, of which there is at least one in every hamlet and a dozen or more in the larger places, is the objective. Here the women squat for hours, calling their wares in a musical creole chant, offering cocoanuts, mangos, plantains, sugar-cane, or home-made confections of sugar and nuts. Alligator-pears may be had in season for a cent apiece without bargaining, though the slightest haggling invariably produces a marked price reduction. Toward afternoon the markets begin to empty, though they are not wholly deserted at nightfall, when the charcoal braziers flickering among the crouching and moving forms infuse the scene with weird mystery.

Meanwhile the man works on his plantation. The story that the women alone works is untrue. It is the man who does the arduous cane-cutting with his heavy machete, the Haitian's general tool, who climbs for the cocoanuts, who gathers the plantains or other fruits, who picks the coffee. In consequence, far fewer men than women are seen on the highways, a tendency that was markedly increased by the now notorious corvée, or forced road labor, with its incident cruelties, which precipitated the uprising of 1919, when the country was virtually at peace.

Another characteristic of the Haitian peasant is his personal cleanliness. Women, scrubbing their clothing along every brook at all hours of the day, are an inevitable part of the landscape. Their huts are neat and spotless. In the main, however, the private houses, even the more elaborate ones, while roomy and comfortable, lack individuality and beauty and are clearly tropical adaptations of French country villas. The peasant's caille, or hut, is perhaps the most characteristic example of pure Haitian creation, neat, solid, compact, of good proportions, and far more stable in appearance, with its well thatched roof, than the Dominican houses, which are constructed of palm-slats and loosely overlaid with palm-leaves.

But evident above all things are the extraordinary good nature and gentleness of the peasant. They no longer smile spontaneously at the white man as he drives by, their contacts have been altogether too bitter; but even now a smile, a kindly nod, or a greeting generally evokes an instant and hearty response. The contrast between the Haitian peasant woman whose donkey is frightened by a passing motor and the average American who feels his rights infringed by the speed or nearness of an automobile is complete. I never saw a Haitian peasant scowl or shake her fist or curse on such an occasion. Indeed, a slowing up, a smile, or a kind word brings in return a flashing smile or a ripple of musical laughter. Creole, a corruption of French, with most of its consonants eliminated, and oddly lilted by the peasants, is spoken song. It is almost intelligible to those who know French, which in turn is generally understood by the peasants, who themselves speak only creole. This language chasm has contributed to the great illiteracy in Haiti. Creole is not a written tongue, although Georges Sylvain, the Haitian poet whom the French Academy twice honored, has made a notable translation of La Fontaine's fables into creole, and more recently a creole dictionary has been published for the marines.

Today Haiti is peaceful, commercially stagnant, and poignantly unhappy. After one hundred and twelve years of freedom, its people suddenly found their country invaded and conquered. For six years the rigors of martial law have held this little island in its grip. Martial law is martial law. It cannot be camouflaged into a tea party or a benefit performance.

The black man in Haiti was not very successful in his experiment in self-government, but we Anglo-Saxons have always insisted that even imperfect self-government is preferable to more efficient imposed government. Then, too, Haiti was the experimental laboratory, the living workshop of the black race. Wasn't the experiment worth safeguarding?

Ernest Gruening (1887-1974) was an editor at The Nation and a member of the advisory committees of the Haiti-Santo Domingo Independence Society (1921) and the American Fund for Public Service Committee on American Imperialism (1924). He became a leading authority on Latin America and the Caribbean. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him governor of Alaska and he was later elected to the U.S. Senate from that state. In 1964 he was one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and he spent the next ten years writing and speaking out against that war.

The U.S. Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934)

  • The Conquest of Haiti, by Herbert J. Seligmann, July 1920.

  • The American Occupation, by James Weldon Johnson, Aug. - Sep. 1920.

  • Hearing the Truth About Haiti, by Helena Hill Weed, Nov. 1921.

  • Haiti and Santo Domingo Today, by Ernest H. Gruening, Feb. 1922.

  • Haiti Under American Occupation, by Ernest H. Gruening, April 1922.