U. S. Marines in Haiti—Overview

Except among those whose interests lie in lost civilizations, the high number of natives destroyed by European diseases[1] has made Hispaniola’s early history mostly irrelevant —and owing to the savagery demonstrated by both native populations and Spanish settlers, none of the earliest Spanish colonies on Hispaniola fared well, either.

Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola in 1492.  He established a small settlement he named La Navidad near Cap-Haïtien; within its first year, all 39-settlers were set upon and murdered.  A similar fate was shared by several more Spanish settlements between 1493 and 1592 —if they were not completely destroyed by native populations, then they were set aflame by either French pirates or squadrons of British Royal Navy.

At this same time, the Spanish Netherlands was in disarray; a rebellion had been ongoing for some twenty years.  The conflict was due in large part to the religious differences between Spanish masters and Dutch subjects.  By 1590, the Spanish had become thoroughly disgusted with the Dutch and ordered all Spanish home ports closed to Dutch shipping.  The Dutch responded by tapping into the trade network of colonies in Spanish America, people who were more than happy to establish illicit trade relations with Spain’s competitors.  Consequently, large numbers of Dutch traders joined with English and French privateers to deprive Spain of its customs duties —many of these trading depots were located on the island of Hispaniola.

In 1605, infuriated that Spanish settlements on the northern and western coasts of Hispaniola persisted in carrying out large scale (and illegal) trade with its enemies, Spain decided to resettle its populaces closer to Santo Domingo.  Known as the Devastaciones de Osorio, the forced resettlement led to death by starvation of half of Spanish colonial populations.  More than one-hundred thousand cattle were abandoned; slaves escaped into the wilderness, and Spanish troops destroyed five out of thirteen colonies.  This Spanish behavior was counter-productive because escaped settlers, slaves, and English, Dutch, and French privateers were then free to establish bases on what would become Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Within a short time, French, Dutch, and English buccaneers formed a lawless community on the island of Tortuga; Spanish shipping and colonies became their principal targets of opportunity.  The Spanish, of course, sought to defend their interests through a series of sorties in 1629, 1635, 1638, and 1654 by destroying pirate enclaves, but on each occasion the scoundrels soon returned.  In 1655, the English at Jamaica sponsored the reoccupation of Tortuga under an English governor named Elias Watts.  Five years later, the English proposed a replacement for Watts in the person of Frenchman Jeremie Deschamps.   This was not one of England’s more brilliant moves since Deschamps soon declared his loyalty to France … and the French took charge of the island, renaming it Saint Domingue.  The French maintained this control until 1790, when civil unrest in France and a slave revolt in Haiti eventually resulted in Haitian independence.

Haiti is the world’s oldest surviving black republic, but even though prominent Haitians actively assisted Latin American independence movements, the so-called great liberator, Simon Bolivar, worked to exclude Haiti from the hemisphere’s first regional meeting of independent nations (1826).  Neither did Haiti receive diplomatic recognition from the United States until 1862, thanks in large part to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.  Yet, it is fair to say that Haiti has struggled to find itself since 1806 and certainly, by 1911, Haiti was a failed state —as many African and hyphenated African nations are today, as well.

In any case, by 1915, Haitian instability was colossal: a series of political assassinations and forced exiles resulted in six separate presidential administrations (a record only rivaled by France’s 21 governments of the Fourth Republic following World War II).  Several Haitian “revolutionary armies” operated independent from one another, and each was formed by cacos[2] directing affairs from mountain enclaves in the north or along the border with Dominica.

In 1915, World War I had been raging for a year; the United States became apprehensive about the roles played by Imperial Germany in the Western Hemisphere.  Now in control of Tortuga, Germany had intervened in Haiti and other Caribbean nations several times during previous decades, seeking to increase its influence as a rival power in the Americas[3].

All was not well between Germany and the United States.  In several instances, Germany demonstrated its increasing hostility to the United States by establishing robust intelligence networks on Hispaniola and throughout Latin America.  Essentially, Germany dismissed the Monroe Doctrine[4] out of hand.  Another consideration was that, in the months leading into world war, the ports, port facilities, material wealth, and manpower of Hispaniola assumed a strategic importance to both Germany and the United States.  Added to this, the United States was cognizant of the rivalry in Haiti between American businessmen and their German counterparts.  Although the German community was relatively small, it wielded a significant economic influence over the Haitian government: German citizens wielded control over 80% of the Haiti’s international commerce, owned and operated port facilities at Cap-Haïten, Port-au-Prince, the tramway into the capital, and a major railway line.

Wilson 001When American financiers complained to the President of the United States in 1915 that Haiti (by then deeply in debt to US banks) had steadfastly refused to repay a sizeable American loan, Woodrow Wilson (shown left) ordered a military expedition to Haiti.  From the American perspective, Wilson’s momentous decision was thoroughly justified.

US political interests in Haiti extended back in time over many decades —its political and economic stability long a concern to our diplomats.  These concerns increased over time because as Haiti borrowed money from foreign governments, it found itself unable to repay these loans.  Consequently, there was an increased likelihood that a foreign power might seize Haiti for its own purposes.  See also: How Haiti became indebted[5].

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson went so far to suggest annexation of Hispaniola to secure an American claim to the West Indies.  In 1889, Secretary of State James Blaine attempted to lease the city of Mole-Saint-Nicholas so that the US could construct a naval base along the northern coast.  Then, in 1910, President Taft granted Haiti a large loan with the expectation that Haiti could pay off its international debt, thus lessening the possibility of foreign influence[6].

Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (1859 – 1915) served as President of Haiti from 4 March – 27 July 1915.  He was a cousin of Tirésias Simon Sam, Haiti’s president from 1896 to 1902.  Sam was the commander of Haiti’s Northern Division when he led the revolt that brought President Cincinnatus Leconte to power.  He later headed the revolt that toppled President Oreste Zamor.  When Cacos realized that President Joseph Davilmar Théodore was unable to pay them for their service, they forced his resignation —Sam was proclaimed president in his place.

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. An infuriated the population rose up against Sam.

Fearing for his own safety, Sam fled to the French embassy where he received asylum. The rebels’ mulatto leaders broke into the embassy, however, found Sam, and dragged him out into the courtyard where they beat him senseless.  They then threw his unconscious body over the embassy’s iron fence to the waiting populace, who proceeded to rip his body to pieces.  For the next two weeks, Haiti was in chaos.

News of Sam’s murder soon reached US Navy ships anchored in the city’s harbor; President Woodrow Wilson, wary about the possibility that Bobo would seize power, ordered Marines to take the capital, claiming that the unrest might precipitate a German invasion of the country.  Two companies of Marines landed the next day under the command of Captain Smedley D. Butler.

Caco 001Soon after the Marines landed in Haiti[7], they removed $500,000 from the Haiti National Bank for safekeeping in New York, thus giving the United States control of Haitian finances.  This Marine presence averted long-term anarchy after Sam’s assassination, and prevented a possible German invasion. (Shown right, a trussed Caco, having been accused of murdering a US Marine).

The Marine expedition resulted in the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915 —and an agreement that, among other things, created the Haitian Gendarmerie.  The Gendarmerie was a military force composed of Haitian citizens, supervised and controlled by U. S. Marines.  Additionally, the United States gained complete control over Haitian finances, and the right to intervene in Haiti whenever the U.S. Government decided that was necessary or prudent to do so.  A general election was also held, resulting in the election of Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave—a pro-US politician who, unfortunately, was not the choice of the Haitian population[8].

President Wilson attempted to convince the Haitian legislature that it was time for a new constitution.  In 1917, a US proposal would have permitted foreign ownership of land, but Haitian lawmakers balked and refused to ratify the document.  When, instead, the lawmakers began to draft an anti-American constitution, President Dartiguenave dissolved the legislature; it did not reconvene until 1929.

Some of the Gendarmerie’s more unpopular policies —including racial segregation, press censorship, and forced labor— led to a peasant rebellion from 1919 to 1920. The U.S. Senate sent an investigative committee into Haiti in 1921 to examine claims of abuse, and subsequently the U.S. Senate reorganized and centralized power in Haiti. After this reorganization, Haiti remained fairly stable and a select group achieved economic prosperity, though most Haitians remained in poverty.

In 1929, a series of strikes and uprisings led the United States to begin its withdrawal from Haiti. In 1930, U.S. officials began training Haitian officials to take control of the government. In 1934, the United States, in concert with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, officially withdrew from Haiti while retaining economic connections.

Notes:

[1] Contact between Europeans and Native American populations led to an unprecedented demographic disaster.  Many epidemic diseases well established in the Old World were absent from the Americas before Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492.  The catastrophic epidemics that accompanied European conquests destroyed indigenous populations in the Americas.  Diseases included influenza, smallpox, measles, and typhus fever.  Native Americans were unable to escape diseases, the effects of new seeds, weeds, and draft animals; the effect of these were irreversible.  Within only a few years, the plight of Native Americans led Spanish settlers to the importation of African slaves, which were enthusiastically sold by African Islamists.  In this way, the Americas rapidly became a center for the mixing of races and infectious agents.

[2] A word used by Marines, meaning peasant bandit.  Although of Spanish usage, the origin of the term is Greek “Kakos” meaning “bad,” or “low quality,” or “low life.”  It is similar in usage to the British “townie” or in the Americas, “wigger,” or white nigger.

[3] On 21 September 1897, Haitian police were seeking a suspect in a theft case—a man by the name of Dorléus Présumé.  Présumé was discovered washing a coach near the central stables of Port-au-Prince, whose proprietor was Emile Lüders.  Présumé resisted arrest, and Lüders came to his defense.  On that same day, a police tribunal sentenced both men to one-month’s confinement.  The accused appealed to a higher authority, but this time they were charged with resisting arrest —their sentence was increased to one-year in prison.  On 17 October, the German Chargé d’affaires demanded the immediate release of Lüders, whose father was a German citizen, along with the dismissal of the judge and all police officers involved in the matter.  Lüders was released from prison a few days later and promptly left the country.  Then, on 6 December, two German warships anchored at Port-au-Prince harbor and issued an ultimatum: the Haitians were to pay $20,000.00 paid to Lüders, Haiti’s permission for Lüders to return to Haiti, a letter of apology to the German government, a 21-gun salute rendered to the German flag, and a demand that the President of Haiti raise a white flag on the presidential palace as a token of his surrender.

[4] In 1917, Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico against the United States.

[5] After the revolution, France retained strong economic and diplomatic ties with the Haitian Government. France agreed to recognize Haitian independence in the Franco-Haitian Agreement of 1824, and in exchange, Haiti agreed to pay France a huge indemnity.  The payment of this obligation kept Haiti in a constant state of debt, giving France a unique influence over Haitian trade and finances.

[6] That attempt failed due to the enormity of the debt and the internal instability of the country.

[7] Only one Haitian soldier resisted the Marines; when he did, Mr. Pierre Sully was promptly dispatched.

[8] This may have been important psychologically, but the truth is that the Haitian people had demonstrated their electoral incompetence for more than 100 years.