Admiral Caperton in Haiti

Admiral Caperton in Haiti (n.p. 1915)

by Edward Latimer Beach (1867-1943)1


[page 1] An Essay

Foreword

Admiral Caperton, in his flagship, the Washington, arrived at Cape Haitien, Haiti, on July 2, 1915. At this time a revolution had been started in the north of Haiti; Dr. Bobo, formerly the Minister of the Interior in the Cabinet of President Davilmar-Theodor, had, a short time previously raised the flag of revolt, had proclaimed himself “Chief of the Executive Power,” and with several thousand armed revolutionary troops was threatening the important city of Cape Haitien. Admiral Caperton remained at Cape Haitien until July 27th when he left for Port au Prince, arriving at noon, July 28th. The reason of his going to Port au Prince was because information had reached him that the President of Haiti, Vilbrün Guillaume, had slaughtered in their cells in the Port au Prince jail, about one hundred and sixty political opponents whom he had confined there. The immediate result of this was the overturning [page 2] of Vilbrün Guillaume’s government: so Admiral Caperton went to Port au Prince for the purpose of protecting life and property.

Three hours before he arrived about thirty enraged, grief-frenzied, maddened Haitians, most of them friends or relatives of the men murdered, burst into the French Legation, where Vilbrün Guillaume had taken refuge, and rushed that horrible monster to the street outside where he was killed by a wild crowd. Admiral Caperton found the city in an uproar; an uncontrolled mob was in possession. Thousands of armed soldiers, uncertain of what authority to obey, were loose in the streets.

Admiral Caperton immediately sent two staff officers, one of whom was his flag lieutenant, John N. Ferguson, into the city, with directions to deliver a letter to a self-elected “Committee of Safety.” In this letter the Admiral stated he had come solely to protect life and property; he gave information that he was landing troops. The two staff officers found the Committee of Safety, delivered the letter, and explained at length Admiral Caperton’s friendly intention, endeavoring to win Haitian confidence.

Late that afternoon three hundred and thirty sailors and marines from the Washington marched into the city. There was some desultory firing at them, due perhaps to fanatics, but there was no real opposition. Indeed, due to the demands of Admiral Caperton, a Haitian General, Robin, went to meet the Washington’s landing force, and guided them [page 3] into town. Admiral Caperton asked for and received the cooperation of law-abiding Haitians, and though he immediately assumed complete military and civil control, this was with the willing and glad consent of the vast majority of those in Port au Prince. His chief concern at first was to prevent any outbreak or disorder. In this he was completely successful. In all of his acts he received the immediate cooperation and help of the best elements of Haitian society. Amongst these there was no evidence of sullenness.

To secure order the Admiral first induced Haitian leaders to confine the troops in the eight barracks. He then disarmed the troops, and collected and carted away their weapons; then marched the troops out of town, with the warning that any who returned in uniform would be put in jail. He induced the hostile leaders in the North to disarm and disband their troops and to report to him in Port au Prince. On board his flagship at Port au Prince he persuaded Dr. Bobo voluntarily to give up and renounce his title “Chief of the Executive Power,” and to dismiss his six cabinet ministers; from a cabin in the Washington Dr. Bobo sent a telegram to his seven military chiefs directing them to disarm and disband their forces. The Admiral seized the public funds, and dismissed the “Committee of Safety.” He then made it possible for the representatives of the people, the national assembly, to elect a President of their own [page 4] choice, this without intimidation or coercion of any kind; and on August 12th the Haitian Government resumed its constitutional functions. In two weeks’ time Admiral Caperton, with the glad help of Haitian citizens, had brought order out of what had seemed hopeless chaos. He had in no way interfered with the deeply loved Haitian national independence, and had made it possible for the Haitians themselves to re-establish their constitutional Government. His rule was the iron hand in the velvet glove. It was kind, considerate, and gentle; his every act showed that he was animated by no other purpose than good will and sympathy for the Haitians. And in an incredibly short time he had won the complete confidence and support of the Haitian populace. His control was complete over every function of the Haitian Government because of the trust felt in him; but his rule was always unselfishly for Haiti’s benefit.

The Haitians knew this, and their trust in him and in his purpose constantly grew. It was largely due to this trust that the Haitian Congress, on November 11, 1915, ratified the treaty so much desired by the United States; this ratification was the free will, uncoerced in any way, of Haitians. And from this treaty, to the stable order guaranteed by it, and to the assistance of the United States as agreed upon [page 5] in the development of the Haitian industries, agriculture, mining, and commerce; prosperity and happiness are certain to come to Haiti.

The interposition of the United States in Haitian affairs make Haiti a subject of great interest to Americans; and because of this fact this article on Haiti has been written. A succeeding article will describe with some detail the events of Admiral Caperton’s stay in Haiti.

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[page 18] Revolutions generally start in the north of Haiti. If the revolutionists capture the city of St. Marc, 55 miles to the north of Port au Prince, the latter city always surrenders. The President resigns and immediately leaves, receiving a national salute of 21 guns from the fort, and also from the Haitian warship that escorts the steamer by which he is leaving. The new President, previously known as “Chief of the Executive Power,” then comes to Port au Prince, is elected President in due constitutional form and takes the oath of office. The former President then returns to Port au Prince, is pensioned for [page 19] life at pay of $100 per month, and lives in comfort ever after.

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[page 49] Customs

What has preceded should be evidence that there is in this paper no intention of denying or palliating distressing features of Haitian life. The purpose here is to present a fair, truthful picture, but there are other features besides distressing ones. But it is these painful and sometimes disgusting things that are presented to the casual visitor in Haiti. They impress him tremendously. He hears only of horrors, and without real investigation he assumes they are true and characteristic of Haitian life. He does not believe there are other than the morbid pictures drawn for him. Probably he has read “The Black Republic” written by Sir Spenser St. John, British Minister to Haiti, and for twenty-five years a resident there. Surely, a man in such an official position, and resident in Haiti for a lifetime, must have written with complete accuracy. St. John wrote only of Haiti’s chamber of horrors, of snake worship, secret poisoning, cannibalism, voodoo dancing, the sacrifice of “the goat without horns,” and kindred horrors. Probably every fact he mentioned in itself was true. Indeed, he proved that most of these things had happened by citing the convictions by Haitian courts, and death penalties inflicted. But most of these citations, perhaps all, were of years long gone. But there are other chambers, chambers of hope, of justice, of generosity, of kindness, of culture, of Christian living, of patriotism. In spite of its distinguished authorship, [page 50] “The Black Republic” is false because it leads one to believe there is no life in Haiti except the disgusting life there depicted. With equal justice might one pretend that he was giving a correct picture of New York City life by telling of Tweed, of the one time irresponsible ruler of New York City who testified before the Lexow investigating committee that he was working for his own pocket all of the time; of the horrible white slave traffic; of the murders of Dan Driscol and his Whyo gang; of the high police officer Becker, who ruled by murder and exacted tribute for the protection of law breakers.

Or by claiming a correct picture was given of London life by telling only of the Cleveland Street scandals, of White Chapel murders, of the wholesale swindling of Montague Wright.

The imagination of the visitor to Haiti is seized by the startling conditions presented to him and would scout the statement that the good in Haiti outweighs the bad. But an intimate knowledge of Haitian conditions and Haitian life is certain to bring conviction of the truth of this statement. But the bad is so flagrantly bad, and is so theatric, and the good is so modest, that Haiti has never received credit of that good.

The Haitians of highest class in their private relations keep faith with one another. They keep their promises, they carry out their [page 51] obligations, they pay their debts. Their family life is characterized by affection and kindness. To understand the standards of life of the highest class one must know Haitians well for a long time, and must gain their confidence. They are always dignified, but are shy and sensitive. They are the descendants of generations of educated people. Their homes are characterized by French taste and French art. The present Minister from Haiti to the United States is a fair representative of this class, as was his immediate predecessor; scholars, authors, poets; of impressive mentality, men who would attract attention in any assembly of statesmen by their clear thinking and convincing logical speech. At a Haitian dinner party the dress is the conventional dress that one expects to find in Washington or New York. When the Haitian of this class learns that the true interests of his country lie in the development of Haiti’s natural resources, in a reasonable not too ambitious education of Haitian peasants; and when the majority of this class devote themselves to this development of their land and their people, and not to politics and office-holding, then Haiti will burst into prosperity. And Haiti will be the pride of the negro race. Her people will be famous as having, without assistance, lifted themselves out of slavery, and won their freedom and maintained it.

[page 52] Voodooism

When speaking of Haitian customs one must refer to Voodooism, not because Voodooism is of the least importance in Haiti, or because it forms any real part of Haitian life, but because so many people of but little knowledge have written as if Haiti were Voodooism, and Voodooism were Haiti. There is in Haiti among the peasant class, the Voodoo dance. This is a horrible, disgusting, drunken orgy; no more, and certainly no less. It is so revolting that one who sees it is eagerly willing to believe anything of it. And if Sir Spenser St. John’s book is to be believed the Voodoo dance is but the expression of Voodooism, Voodooism being accepted by Haitians as a power over them to which they must yield obedience. According to St. John, Voodooism exerts despotic power over Haitians, it means snake worship, secret poisoning, cannibalism, the sacrifice of the goat without horns, and other horrors, all of which is best described as sheer nonsense [none of this ever happens]. And yet the human mind is naturally so morbid that it eagerly accepts such foolish statements as unquestioned, verified truths. The casual visitor to Haiti who later will imagine he speaks with unassailable authority on Haiti because he has been there is certain to hear about Voodooism; and it frequently happens that he will find someone, who for pay, will get up a Voodoo dance for him. It will be easy for such a [page 53] visitor, with no opportunity for making a real investigation, to believe that Voodooism consists of secret rites which control and direct Haitian life.

All that there is to Voodooism is the Voodoo dance. That’s where it begins and where it ends. There are no secret rites that control Haitian life. There is superstition among the peasants of Haiti. One meets with tales of secret poisoning. The ignorant peasants are credited with a knowledge of medicinal herbs, some poisonous, some remedial. That there is some superstition about snakes is certain, a Haitian peasant will not kill a snake and will object to others killing one. Among these ignorant country peasants will be found here and there, a “papa loi,” who is supposed to have secret powers and who is greatly feared. A little knowledge of all of this, and seeing an imitation Voodoo dance, is apt to make one ready to believe anything and everything horrible; and thus Voodooism has been created with but little basis of truth; Voodooism, as written about, exists only in the minds of those who created it. It has not its secret rites, does not control and is not a part of Haitian life.

Probably but few of the educated Haitians have seen it and they not to take part, but merely from curiosity.

This Voodoo dance is indulged in only by Haitian peasants in the country. Never in the Coast cities, except when specially [page 54] performed for the edification of visitors who come expecting to be horrified, and who are not disappointed. This Voodoo dance is a crude, disgusting dance, utterly without a single redeeming feature. No grace, skill, or knowledge of any nature is shown. There will be gathered together a number of men and women, of the lowest class of peasants. They will approach and recede from each other, singing without the faintest approach to music or rhythm, this so-called singing being in fact, horrible, discordant shouts. About them will be rude, home made drums, each being beat by a man or woman. There will also be present other men and women making noises on rude sounding boxes, made from the calibash [probably meant calabash].

Those pretending to dance, run to and fro at each other, with disgusting grimaces, yelling their song. The tom-toms are beat, the calibashes produce their discordant noises; everybody is shouting. There is present an unlimited amount of “tafia,” a cheap, vile liquor made from the sugar cane, large quantities of which are constantly drunk; and native sweets are eaten. This begins in the early evening and continues for hours, until the last of the dancers has fallen, dead drunk. Sometimes a pig is killed and the blood is drunk. This is the Voodoo dance, a horrible, disgusting, bestial, drunken orgy. But it is the beginning and end of Voodooism. It is a great [page 55] mistake to consider it significant of Haitian life, or that it forms even an unimportant part of it, or is indulged in by any except a few of the lowest of Haitian peasants. Or that there are any secret rites connected with it. The occasion for speaking of it here is because so much is written about it as if it were a prominent feature of Haitian life. The tourist who writes about Haiti apparently cannot prevent himself from writing about Voodooism. He gives a ninety-nine and nine-tenths importance and significance to it, whereas it is actually entitled to about a one-tenth of one percent.

Bribery and Corruption

That these faults have existed is certain. The sure evidence of this is the prosecutions instituted and secured by government action.

Thus, in recent years, in the case of the Consolidated Loan, a cabinet minister and some other officials were convicted of bribery and were imprisoned. The president of the Senate was arrested and died in prison before he was tried.

In spite of revolution Haiti is a country where the laws are excellent, though they are not always carried out. Sometimes prosecutions are rigidly enforced against violators of the law, providing the violators are not acting by government [page 56] direction. The obligation and sanctity of contracts are insisted upon, if such action is to the interest of the government; or if the government’s interests are not concerned. Or if a foreigner’s interests are concerned. In this latter respect Haiti has learned her lesson well. A foreigner’s life and property are sacred in Haiti, not from love of the foreigner or from a sense of honor, but due to the knowledge of the fearful retribution certain to be exacted by a foreigner’s government if he be injured in person or property.

More than once has a foreign warship appeared at Port au Prince with a peremptory demand for an indemnity of thousands of dollars under alternative of bombardment.

But the Haitian’s life or property never was sacred in Haiti. These were in constant jeopardy. He was denied by his own government the justice and protection which were his rights, and which were given only to the foreigner. The idea that “Charity begins at home” was never practiced by a Haitian Government. Though a government may be overturned it inherits and accepts the obligations of all preceding governments; and the due process and procedure and customs of Haitian life are not interrupted.

In former days there was always much talk of “contrabanding,” which meant the sending out to freight steamers from custom [page 57] houses a much greater amount of coffee, or logwood, or whatever was exported, than was reported, thus defrauding the Haitian Government of a corresponding part of its income derived from export taxes. But let us condemn the European shipper in Port au Prince, the Captain and purser of the steamer, and the European receiver at Havre or Hamburg, as well as the dishonest Haitian in the Custom House. In Haiti one hears different stories of bribery and corruption, some of which are probably correct statement of facts. But without exception, there are always two conditions to such briberies – one is the venality of Haitian officials; the other condition is that without fail, there is always some white man at the other end of the bribery. This fact never seemed once to call forth condemnation of the white man.

The black Haitian should be condemned if bribed; but one hears of no bribery in Haiti but what white men are parties to. And as more is to be expected from white men than from Haitians, the bribery that has occurred in Haiti is as condemnatory of the white race as it is of the black.

Good Features of Haitian Life

Haiti presents the amazing contradiction of chronic revolution combined with security of life and property for the foreigner.

[page 58] For a white man there is no part of Haiti but what is perfectly safe. He will need no weapon. Instead of being in a savage, unsafe, dangerous country, he will receive a kindly courtesy everywhere. And he will be as safe from violence in the most remote part of Haiti as anywhere in the United States.

It is the custom to speak harshly of Haiti. But this much is certain: She maintains her treaty obligations. Haiti has never evaded her duties towards other nations. In public, and in private life, the word of a Haitian of position is dependable. One might say that Haiti paid her interest on foreign loans when due because she could not help it. This may be true. But it is also true that she has paid the interest when due on interior loans, on government bonds sold in the country. To show that foreigners resident in Haiti have confidence in Haiti, it may be cited that foreigners in Haiti have always been buyers of interior government bonds.

Haiti may merit criticism, but at least is entitled to having the truth told about her. One truth is that there is no place in the world where a foreigner’s life and property is more safe than in Haiti.

With reference to her foreign obligations Haiti has been repeatedly lied about. It has been said she has not met them. The truth is that previous to 1915, Haitian obligations to foreigners were invariably paid when due; since 1915 the United [page 58a] States has been reorganizing the Haitian finances, and since 1915 Haitian foreign obligations, interest on foreign loans, have not been paid. They will be some time, but there has been a long wait. Haiti is not to be blamed for this because, under the treaty, the United States is in temporary charge of Haitian finances and Haiti is not responsible for the failure of interest being paid, since1915, on her foreign loans.

The Haitian of education and position, the descendant of generations of educated men, shows in his bearing his mental attitude, his home life, the effect of this training. In manner he is dignified and courteous. He is natural and unaffected and can be met with on but one plane, that of apparent equality. There is not the first touch of cringing or obsequiousness.

Such a Haitian expects from the white man in Haiti the same courtesy and politeness he has received from the Frenchman in France. No business can be done in Haiti if the fullest courtesy is not accorded the Haitian, or if any superiority because of race is assumed by the white man.

Haitian social customs of the educated class are much as one finds anywhere. There are receptions, dances, dinners, picnics, riding parties. In the homes of foreigners resident in Haiti before 1915 – Americans, French, Germans, one was always apt to meet Haitians.

[page 59] And in many Haitian homes one will meet these same foreigners. White people resident in Haiti always form friendships with Haitians. If such come with racial prejudice it is to be noticed that they always treat the Haitians with perfect courtesy and receive this same courtesy in return. No such thing as buffonery [probably meant buffoonery] exists in the slightest with high class Haitians.

The homes of this class, the society class, are comfortable. They are commodious, are equipped with electric lights, running water, and modern conveniences. The house is generally set in spacious grounds, with flowers, fountains, tropical plants and trees abounding. In many of these grounds a masonried swimming pool is to be found, which adds much comfort. The wealthy Haitian insists upon and enjoys a good table; French wines are everywhere to be found. In fact, the life of the well-to-do, educated Haitian in the Coast cities is quite comfortable. He has the social pleasures he desires, and he is always intensely interested in some absorbing political question. Life in Haiti is never dull for anybody.

The prevailing religion in Haiti is Roman Catholic, but there is entire freedom of religious worship. In the south of Haiti there are many protestant families, but these do not suffer from any prejudice because of that.

Among the educated class much money constantly circulates, but it is practically all spent. But little permanent wealth [page 60] remains because there is, comparatively speaking, but little opportunity of investment, there being no industries, no systematic agriculture, no great plantations or farms. Each year the great and valuable coffee crop, gathered everywhere, cultivated nowhere, provides the necessities and luxuries of Haitian life. When the coffee crop fails, and when, as during the recent world’s war it cannot be marketed because of lack of freight steamers, this educated class suffers greatly. All business of every nature slows down, and there is paralysis in Haitian life. The Government’s revenue is reduced, there is but little money to pay salaries, no public works are possible.

The peasant class do not suffer much because they never received much of Haiti’s wealth. Their wants are simple; they may not have as much dried fish as they are accustomed to, but Haiti’s fertile soil produces all of the food they need, and clothing for this peasant class is not a serious matter, their simple needs are not difficult to supply. It is to be remembered that this class, though large in percentage of population, has practically no influence in shaping Haiti’s political course and history, and but little bearing upon Haitian life as seen in Coast cities. Or upon the actions, interior or exterior, of Haiti’s for-the-time government.

But it is to be remembered that these Haitian peasants are [page 61] a kindly, friendly, docile people, without ambition, who are content with the simple lives they lead, and who do not understand the seething political unrest that dominates educated Haitians, and have no interest or part in it.

As before stated, these Haitians, peasants, except the Cacos of the North, are not revolutionists but instead, are a most peaceable, law-abiding, non-aggressive people.

The educated Haitian is always kindly to these peasants and constantly gives them money and food, and clothing; whenever he leaves his home he is quite certain to have with him many copper and nickel coins to give away. Where the educated Haitian and the peasant meet on common ground is in their love for Haiti. The peasant believes his country the grandest on earth. He knows his ancestor freed himself from slavery and defeated Napoleon’s legions in doing it. This same feeling is strong with the educated Haitian, and always with it is sadness for the disorders that have marred Haitian history.

One thing the educated, well-to-do Haitian has utterly failed to do, which is to make even faint attempts to educate peasants to train them to habits of industry, to invest capital in attempting to develop Haitian farms where agriculture would be encouraged and Haitian peasants employed. His idea of developing Haiti is for foreigners to bring in capital and engineers, and he can be eloquent on Haiti’s [page 62] soil and possibilities. But he will organize nothing where he has to invest money in Haiti’s interior, and live there himself, directing the work of Haitian peasants. And as Article 6 of the Haitian Constitution effectually prevented any foreign capital from entering Haiti, instead of progress in Haiti there has been the reverse.

Thousands of Haitian peasants would be happy to work in sugar cane and cotton fields for twenty cents a day.

And the time will surely come when once more the famed production of ancient French colonial St. Domingue will return. The great Artibonite plain in the North, which 150 years ago was crowded with the most productive plantations in the world, is now practically devoid of production except for immediate home consumption. One cannot but believe but that the proved fertility of this soil, its great possibilities, the presence of a dense population of laborers which will be glad to work at unheard of low wages, is certain sometime in the future again to make this Artibonite Plain one of the most flourishing gardens of the world.

1. Edward L. Beach, Captain, commanding USS Washington; and chief of staff, cruiser squadron, Atlantic Fleet.

Source: Beach, Edward Latimer. "Admiral Caperton in Haiti." (Washington, DC: n.d. [1915?]): 1-5, 18-19, 49-62. [The original document may be located at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, in Record Group 45. A photocopy is located in the Navy Department Library.].