The Conquest of Haiti

by Herbert J. Seligman, July 10, 1920


Selections from
The Nation magazine

edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel

Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper


Between 1918 and 1932 The Nation carried more than fifty articles and editorials on conditions in Haiti. Evidence of torture and massacres uncovered by The Nation's 1920 inquiry into the American occupation of Haiti led to a congressional investigation and helped bring the island independence in 1934.

To Belgium's Congo, to Germany's Belgium, to England's India and Egypt, the United States has added a perfect miniature in Haiti. Five years of violence in that Negro republic of the Caribbean, without sanction of international law or any law other than force, is now succeeded by an era in which the military authorities are attempting to hush up what has been done. The history of the American invasion of Haiti is only additional evidence that the United States is among those Powers in whose international dealings democracy and freedom are mere words, and human lives negligible in face of racial snobbery, political chicane, and money. The five years of American occupation, from 1915 to 1920, have served as a commentary upon the white civilization which still burns black men and women at the stake. For Haitian men, women, and children, to a number estimated at 3,000, innocent for the most part of any offense, have been shot down by American machine gun and rifle bullets; black men and women have been put to torture to make them give information; theft, arson, and murder have been committed almost with impunity upon the persons and property of Haitians by white men wearing the uniform of the United States. Black men have been driven to retreat to the hills from actual slavery imposed upon them by white Americans, and to resist the armed invader with fantastic arsenals of ancient horse pistols, Spanish cutlasses, Napoleonic sabres, French carbines, and even flintlocks. In this five years' massacre of Haitians less than twenty Americans have been killed or wounded in action.

Of all this Americans at home have been kept in the profoundest ignorance. The correspondent of the Associated Press in Cape Haitien informed me in April, 1920, that he had found it impossible in the preceding three years, owing to military censorship, to send a single cable dispatch concerning military operations in Haiti, to the United States. Newspapers have been suppressed in Port au Prince and their editors placed in jail on purely political grounds. Even United States citizens in Haiti told me of their fear that if they too frankly criticized "the Occupation," existence in Haiti would be made unpleasant for them. During my stay of something over a month in Haiti several engagements occurred between Haitian revolutionists and United States Marines. Early in April, Lieutenant Muth, of the Haitian gendarmery, was killed, his body mutilated, and a marine wounded. In that engagement, as in others which occurred within a few weeks of it, Haitian revolutionists or cacos suffered casualties of from five to twenty killed and wounded. No report of these clashes and casualties, so far as I know, has been published in any newspaper of the United States. The United States Government and the American military occupation which has placed Haiti under martial law do not want the people of the United States to know what has happened in Haiti.

For this desire for secrecy there are the best of reasons. Americans have conceived the application of the Monroe Doctrine to be protection extended by the United States to weaker States in the western hemisphere, against foreign aggression. Under cover of that doctrine the United States has practiced the very aggressions and tyrannies it was pretending to fight to safeguard weaker states against. In 1915, during a riot in the capital of Haiti, in which President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was killed, the mob removed a man from the sanctuary he had claimed in the French legation. It is said the French threatened to intervene, also that the German Government had, before the European war, demanded control of Haitian affairs. In justifying its invasion of Haiti in 1915, the United States makes use of the pretext with which the Imperial German Government justified its invasion of Belgium in 1914. The invasion was one of defense against any Power which, taking control of Haiti, a weaker state, might use its territory as a base for naval action against the Panama Canal or the United States.

Instead of maintaining a force of marines at Port au Prince sufficient to safeguard foreign legations and consulates against violence, the United States proceeded to assume control of the island. The American hold was fortified by a convention empowering the United States to administer Haitian customs and finance for twenty years, or as much longer as the United States sees fit; and by a revised constitution of Haiti removing the prohibition against alien ownership of land, thus enabling Americans to purchase the most fertile areas in the country. Thenceforward Haiti has been regarded and has been treated as conquered territory. Military camps have been built throughout the island. The property of natives has been taken for military use. Haitians carrying a gun were for a time shot at sight. Many Haitians not carrying guns were also shot at sight. Machine guns have been turned into crowds of unarmed natives, and United States marines have, by accounts which several of them gave me in casual conversation, not troubled to investigate how many were killed or wounded. In some cases Haitians peaceably inclined have been afraid to come to American camps to give up their weapons for fear they would be shot for carrying them.

The Haitians in whose service United States marines are presumably restoring peace and order in Haiti are nicknamed "Gooks" and have been treated with every variety of contempt, insult, and brutality. I have heard officers wearing the United States uniform in the interior of Haiti talk of "bumping off" (i. e., killing) "Gooks" as if it were a variety of sport like duck hunting. I heard one marine boast of having stolen money from a peaceable Haitian family in the hills whom he was presumably on patrol to protect against "bandits." I have heard officers and men in the United States Marine Corps say they thought the island should be "cleaned out"; that all the natives should be shot; that shooting was too good for them; that they intended taking no prisoners; that many of those who had been taken prisoners had been "allowed to escape," that is, shot on the pretext that they had attempted flight. I have seen prisoners' faces and heads disfigured by beatings administered to them and have heard officers discussing those beatings; also a form of torture-"sept"-in which the victim's leg is compressed between two rifles and the pressure against the shin increased until agony forced him to speak. I know that men and women have been hung by the neck until strangulation impelled them to give information. I have in my possession a copy of a "bon habitant" (good citizen) pass which all Haitians in the interior have been required to carry and present to any marine who might ask to inspect it. Failure to carry the pass formerly involved being shot or arrested. Arrest for trivial offenses has involved detention in Cape Haitien and Port au Prince for as long as six months. In justice to the officers and men of the Marine Corps, it should be said that many of them detest what they have had to do in Haiti. One officer remarked to me that if he had to draw a cartoon of the occupation of Haiti he would represent a black man held down by a white soldier, while another white man went through the black man's pockets. Other officers and men have criticized the entire Haitian adventure as a travesty upon humanity and civilization and as a lasting disgrace to the United States Marine Corps. But the prevailing attitude of mind among the men sent to assist Haiti has been such determined contempt for men of dark skins that decency has been almost out of the question. The American disease of color prejudice has raged virulently.

The occupation points with pride to military roads. These roads were in large part built by Haitian slaves-I intend the word literally-under American taskmasters. An old Haitian law of corvee, or enforced road labor, rarely if ever invoked, authorizing three days' work in each year on roads about the citizen's domicile, was made the excuse for kidnapping thousands of Haitians from their homes-when they had homes-forcing them to live for months in camps, insufficiently fed, guarded by United States marines, rifle in hand. When Haitians attempted to escape this dastardly compulsion, they were shot. I heard ugly whispers in Haiti of the sudden accumulation of funds by American officers of the Haitian gendarmery who had the responsibility of providing food for these slave camps. Charlemagne Peralte, an important political leader under the Zamor Government, arrested for political activity, was forced to labor in prison garb on the streets of Cape Haitien, where he was well known. He escaped in September, 1918, flaming with hatred and became known throughout Haiti as Charlemagne, one of the most resourceful of revolutionary leaders in the Hinche district until he was killed in the autumn of 1919. It is no coincidence that his power was greatest and the revolt severest in the regions where the corvee slavery had been most in use.

Colonel John Russell, at present brigade commander in Haiti, who is struggling with an impossibly difficult situation, largely created by his predecessors, formally abolished the corvee late in 1919. That was not undoing the damage which had been done. Colonel Russell could not, even by issuing the most stringent orders against indiscriminate murder of Haitians by marines, wipe out what had occurred under a former commanding officer who had been sent to Haiti although it was in his record that he had been court-marshaled for brutality to natives in the Philippines.

Another creation of the Americans in Haiti, although it is now improved in personnel and leadership, fanned the flames of hatred and violence which swept the island. I refer to the Gendarmerie d'Haiti. This is a military force of black men, officered with one or two exceptions by corporals and sergeants of the Marine Corps promoted to lieutenancies and captaincies over Haitians. Many of the white men were ignorant and brutal. Some of the Haitians enlisted in the gendarmerie were notorious bad men. Several of them have been shot for murder and extortion among their own people.

The armed peace which has resulted from the conquest of Haiti by the United States has opened a new field for American investors. Already the Banque Nationale d'Haiti, the bank of issue of all Haitian paper currency, is owned by an American bank. The National Railways of Haiti are owned by Americans. Sugar mills and lighting plants are in American control. Groups of Americans are purchasing or are endeavoring to purchase the most fertile land in the country. The representative of one company told me they owned 58,000 acres. In this scheme of American "protection" of Haitian welfare, the Haitian's place is illuminated by a remark which I heard one American entrepreneur make. He advocated that Chinese coolies be imported to supplant uninstructed Haitian labor.

After an indefensible invasion of a helpless country, after the professions of solicitude and good-will which accompanied the crime, what has the United States to offer in extenuation? Military roads, which the Haitian people do not particularly want, a civil hospital in Port au Prince, and the Haitian Gendarmerie. The present Government of Haiti which dangles from wires pulled by American fingers, would not endure for twenty-four hours if United States armed forces were withdrawn; and the president, Sudre d'Artiguenave, would face death or exile. No beginning has been made in combating with teachers the appalling illiteracy of the Haitian people. No attempt has been made to send civilian doctors or even military doctors to minister to the needs of diseased Haitians in the interior. These sins of commission and of omission are attributable less to the men confronted with the overwork and the difficulties, and often with the inferior food which their Government sends them, in Haiti, than to an Administration, and especially a State Department ready to countenance armed invasions without plan and to undertake, by a nation which has signally failed in administering its own color problem, the government of a black republic.

The jumble of jurisdictions imposed upon Americans in Haiti by the irresponsible gentlemen in Washington would paralyze even a genuine attempt at regeneration of Haitian government. The customs receipts and the disbursements of Haiti are administered by two Americans independent of the military command. Of the customs administration, suffice it to say that not one business man to whom I talked, and there were prominent Americans as well as Haitians among my informants, had a word to say in its favor. There is no appeal from the scrupulously inept customs rulings except to Washington. The fiction of a Haitian republic is maintained, although the American military command can suppress newspapers and virtually controls Haitian politics and elections. The Haitian Government, such as it is, either yields perforce to American pressure or finds itself in feeble and ineffectual opposition. The gendarmerie, theoretically under the Haitian Government's command, is officered by American marines, paid by both Haiti and the United States.

This militarist, imperialist burlesque on the professions with which the United States entered the war in behalf of weaker states leaves the Haitians little to do but to wonder what the United States intends. If they had power, they would drive the armed invader into the sea. They have not the power. They are disarmed and cynical, those who can think. If Haitian government was not conspicuously successful, lives of Americans and other foreigners were safe before the invasion. For the rest, in the absence of any plans for Haiti's regeneration except through "development" of the country by exploiters, the Haitian may derive what spiritual nourishment he can from the Wilsonian phrases with which United States thuggery disguises its deeds.

Selections from The Nation magazine,1865-1990

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