United States’ Occupation of Haiti
(July 28, 1915- August 1, 1934)
On July 28, 1915, 300 marines stepped on the island of Haiti, at Port-au-Prince, on the order of the American president Woodrow Wilson. A first force of invasion on January 27,1915 had already disembarked the USS Montana soon after the dictator Vilbrun Gillaume Sam was murdered by a crowd of insurgents. This American occupation would last around 19 years and ended on August 1st, 1934 with the transfer of the authority to the Haitian Army under the order of President Franklyn D. Roosevelt.
Haiti political instability between 1911 and 1915 has seen the passage of six presidents holding office after Antoine Simon for a short period of time (4years) and then exile, with serial of political assassinations followed by military coups performed with the help of the “Cacos”, a peasant militia in the mountains of the North East of Haiti and also controlling the boundaries with Santo Domingo. The Cacos were at the sold of political rivals.
History tells us well how the United States has often formulated the desire to annex the Mole St Nicholas in 1881 to use it as a military base. Menaces and false promises obtained from General Florville Gelan Hippolyte in his fight to gain power against Francois Denys Legitime, have not reached conclusion. Joseph Auguste Antenor Firmin skills may have saved us from a first occupation. This is the same Firmin on which the “Tribune Populaire” in 1902 was writing about the way our country was unable to accept being governed by such a man. Later Roger Gaillard concluded that the political defeat of Antenor Firmin was “La deroute de intelligence”. The civil war divided the country bringing more instability. The Americans were observing in the shadow and finally, appeased their thirst by acquiring Guantanamo while waiting patiently for a better opportunity to take over part of Haiti.
Indeed, they were following closely the German moves in the Caribbean Sea at the Eve of the World War I. The Luders Brothers affair (1897) and the menace of this powerful German nation to force the Haitian government to capitulate and free their dissidents, was an example of many interventions deep in the western hemisphere which attract the attention of the Americans. They remained silent for a decade observing the German actions in Tortuga Island, and other Caribbean countries. The German Imperialism was challenging the American domination of the region provided by the famous Monroe Doctrine.
The island of Hispaniola (Haiti and Santo Domingo) was such a strategic landmark for its manpower, port facilities and its natural resources. Germany had a vision for the island and had already invested so much in military and intelligence across the entire land. The American rapidly monitored their invasion of the Latin America from 1890 to the 1910’s and interpreted it as an expansion of their hegemony. The United States decided to take control of the canal and the Caribbean’s sea. In 1905, they got involved in Nicaragua pretexting an international police operation. In 1907, they took over the Dominican Republic Customs, in 1909, it was Honduras, in 1914 they stepped down in Mexico at Veracruz (1912-1914). In 1915, it was naturally the tour of Haiti with a complete expansion to the Dominican Republic. The United States also purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark. They were then ready to have a full control of the Central America and the Caribbean’s.
An open rivalry between American and German businessmen living in the Haitian community was growing and cities like Cap Haiti, and Port-au- Prince have already noted the way the German were operating the wharf and the tramways. They were powerful and able to handle most of the country international commerce. They look for an integration of the Haitian community and some married in the prominent families to bypass the constitutional barriers against foreigners owning land. They kept their ties with their homeland and aided the German military intelligence in their work around Haiti. With their wealth, they financed numerous revolutions and provided loans at high interest rate to different political factions. Definitively, they became a threat to the American Businessmen interests. The United States believed that Haitian-German families were tied directly to the government of Berlin. To counteract, the American Investors acquired the “Banque Nationale d’Haiti” under the National City Bank of New York to control the Haitian Government Treasury. This provided then the right for the US Military to seize the Haitian government gold reserve in December 1914 and to transfer it to the National City Bank.
The cousin of a former Haitian president (Tiresias Simon Sam), Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (March-July 1915) became a dictator who did not hesitate to order the killing of 167 political prisoners, mainly from the prominent and better educated families of German descent. In turn, he was later lynched by the mob after learning about the executions. The United States saw the revolt against President Sam as a menace to the American interests in Haiti especially the (HASCO) Haitian American Sugar Cie. These events brought the emergence of Rosalvo Bobo (Pierre Francois Joseph Benoit Rosalvo Bobo), a Cacos-supported anti-American who was seen as the next president of the country. The United States understood then that their economic dominance was menaced.
Those are the facts that gave a reason to the American President Woodrow Wilson to order 300 marines to step down in Port-au-Prince on July 28, 2015, with the goal of protecting any American or Foreign interest. He wanted as well to re-write the Haitian Constitution to allow foreigners to own land but was afraid of the public criticism. Soon, he decided to announce the American intervention as one to re-establish order and peace.
Only one Haitian soldier, Pierre Sully, resisted the invasion and he was shot dead by the marines. He refused to obey orders to lay down arms. Many believed that Dessalines and our ancestors would have been proud of him standing against the invaders. Dantes Belgrade will say later:” Seul un petit soldat obscur se fait tue”. Soon, Fort-Riviere, the stronghold of the Cacos in the North-East of the country was captured on November 17, 2015, marking an end to the “First Cacos War”.
American and French banks provided loans to the Haitian government but with the political chaos, Haitians failed to pay back these loans. American businessmen refused to continue investing as long as the anti-American influence of Rosalvo Bobo was felt. With no guaranty of re-payment, the US Government took action in sizing most of the Administrative Institutions and the Customs including Banks and Treasury controlling 40% of the national income just for the purpose of paying debts to American and French banks.
The economy improved and the credibility of the Haitian Government was restored. The US government advisors ruled the country until April 1917 and then they chose Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave, the senate president to fill the vacant chair of the President of the country while others refused to assume that responsibility. Soon, he dissolved the legislature to look for approve the new constitution drafted under the supervision of the assistant secretary of the Navy then, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt. Finally, a referendum in the country approval of a 1918 constitution allowing foreigners to purchase land, action forbidden by our first 1804 constitution. Dartiguenave also declared war to Germany in 1918 and prosecuted the Haitiano-German. Many went to jail, or were expulsed. Others were lucky to leave the country and return to Germany. The American Occupation put an end to the French and German influence over the island.
A new treaty was signed: “The Haitian-American Convention” granted to the United States. on the 16 September 1915, Security and Oversight on Haiti affairs for a total of ten years with a veto power over all governmental decisions. More, the Marine Corps commanders served as “commanders” in the different departments at the exception of the local institutions run by Haitians. The American bureaucracy destroyed our constitutional system and imposed an “impressed labor” or “corvee” to force people build roads and make improvement to the infrastructure. Soon, they established a National Guard (La Garde d’Haiti), build thousands of kilometer of road (1700 KM), 189 bridges, irrigation canals, hospitals (11), rural dispensaries (133), Schools: Agricultural school (Damien), rural schools (69), National Schools (2), religious schools (11), public buildings like Justice Palace, Town Hall etc. They bought drinking water to the main cities.
At the beginning of the occupation, the Cacos’ efforts to resist, were strongly supported by the German government through the German-Haitian descents until the depletion of their capabilities during World War I, while the United States was still neutral and not engaged in the war. The Germans did benefit from the Haitian Resistance Movements. In this growing hostility, Haitian and American Governments began a vigorous campaign to disband the rebel armies. A well-known Smedley Darlington Butler, Major General in the Marine Corps received a Medal of Honor for his actions and became commander of the Haitian Gendarmerie but later expressed his disapproval of the US intervention in a book: “War is a Racket”.
Racist attitudes by the American occupation forces were blatant and wide spread. Relations degraded rapidly. We discussed recently in an article published by the AMHE Newsletter, the way most of younger athletes like Sylvio Paul Cator refused to play Baseball. They placed their efforts in practicing other sports like Football and Athletism. It was a way of resistance to the American invasion of our country. Up to now, Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean which has not adopted Baseball as a national sport because it represented a sport imported by the occupation force.
At the beginning of the occupation, social gathering between officers and Haitian family members were seen infrequently but degraded when the officer’s families started to move for Haiti. More these relations become worse when many officers were forced to leave the island for war duty in Europe. Then, lower educated enlisted soldiers replaced the previous marine officers and rapidly they showed their excessive drinking habits, daily fights, sexual abuses, rapes and discrimination of all kind which were daily reported to the administration. The Marine Corps banned the drinking of alcohol to any military personnel.
James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP was sent to investigate on the conditions in Haiti and he published a report in 1920: He found economic corruption, forced labor, racial segregation, press censorship. Many in the states called for the removal of the troops. Another article published in the “Nation” on July 10, 1920 described the way land were seized from the natives, shooting on sight when possessing a gun, turning machine guns over crowd of unarmed peasants, become part of the conversation in Washington DC.
During this time, the rebel forces were engaged against the occupation forces and the general population. Charlemagne Massena Peralte had the support of the peasants and he was such a challenge to the US forces in Haiti that the Marines had to upgrade their presence around the country to resist his constant attacks. He also saw the specter of slavery when he was ordered to clean the streets while purging five years in jail. He was sentenced by a tribunal for an attack on a Marine Captain, commander of Hinche. While incarcerated, he killed a Marine who hit him and he found a way to evade for filling the rank of the rebels Cacos. He led a rebellion with 5000 men in 1918 but was killed a year after while attacking Port-au-Prince in 1919. The second Cacos’ war ended with the death of Benoit Batraville.
WW I was over and the defeat of the Germans in November 1918 deprived the Cacos guerilla rebels in their fight against the occupation forces. In 1922, Eustache Antoine Francois Louis Borno replaced Sudre Dartiguenave as Haitian president and an American commissioner John H Russell, Jr was appointed to oversee the expansion of the economy. More road, telephone exchanges, ports expansion and Public Health were given priority as well as Sisal, Sugar and Cotton production were dictated for exports. In 1926, President Borno visited the United Stated to report on progress.
An estimate of 40 000 braceros, known to be seasonal workers in Cuba and Santo Domingo were seen as a force which would have been able to help in the development of the agriculture in the country for export. This massive emigration was encouraged and organized by the occupant to diminish the chances in revolt and to avoid laziness among the peasants. Some compared it to a form of “Traite des Noirs” because of the inhuman conditions encountered at the sugar cane plantations.
The Great Depression affected the price of export as well and when Haitians peasants marched passively protesting the local economic conditions, ten of them were shot in les Cayes on December 1929. More commissions were appointed by US president Hubert Hoover to study the incident and Dantes Bellegrade, minister for the Public Education voiced his concern in a book: “La Resistance Haitienne (L’Occupation Americaine d’Haiti)”. I invite the lector to look for this book and read on the situation in our country at that time. He accused the US president Wilson for writing the constitution to benefit Americans. He discussed the powerless positions assigned to the Haitian officials. He had a plan to build a University in Haiti based on the American system with schools in Science, Art, Medicine, Law, Agriculture and Languages as well as a Library. Later, Jean Price Mars associated the reasons for the occupation to the dissociation between the Haitian Elite and the poor in the country, adding that the practice of Voodoo was seen as an evil practice.
The incident in Les Cayes (1929) shake the public opinion in the United Sates and a new commission headed by William Cameron Forbes praised the improvements that the US administration had achieved in the country but criticized the exclusion of the Haitian nationals in positions of authority. Later in July 1934, in a visit to Cap Haiti, Franklyn D Roosevelt affirmed a disengagement agreement. The American occupation of Haiti was over. The Marines departed in August 1934 after a formal transfer of authority but kept an influence on Haiti’s external finances until 1947.
The American occupation had a profound effect on Haiti. Many periods of unrest with the Cacos overwhelmed the Gendarmerie and the US Marines which were able to help containing multiple attacks in both Cacos’ wars. The death of Charlemagne Peralte on November 1, 1919 solidified the victory over the group and when his successor Benoit Batraville lost his life on 19 may 1920, It was an end of the Cacos’ resistance. Peace under the American occupation became a reality. A little more than 2000 Haitians lost their life during both Cacos’ wars. Haiti infrastructure greatly improved under the occupation and Port-au-Prince was seen as the first Caribbean city to have a Phone system with automatic dialing. Hospitals, Schools, Roads, Bridges etc. were built to render the country attractive and functional. The educational system was re-designed and emphasized on vocational training especially for the minorities. American racial intolerance provoked indignation and resentment as well as racial pride bringing a new generation of historians, writers, artists, ethnologists etc. The elite looked for a higher level of education and many become active in politics and government.
All the past Haitian rulers came from the dominant classes with a French cultural heritage and others emphasized their African roots like Doctor/Ethnologist: Jean Price Mars and Francois Duvalier postulated in their journal “les Griots”. Never less, the German influence on the island disappeared once for all when the United States entered the war (WWI) in 1917. After Haitians of German descents were left isolated. Many chose to return to Germany in 1918 while some perished and lost their fortune. A small amount adopted Haiti as their home. The rendition of power to the Haitian Government signaled our bi-colored flag floating over all public buildings (21 August 1934). It took nineteen years of military inference by a Super power, the United States to help us appreciate our freedom and understand that it was time to reconnect and heal all wounds. A nightmare that we are not ready to forget. Almost a century after, we are still troubled by these obscure pages of history. It was reported by Mr. Sejourne, a Haitian custom officer, that 300,000 Haitians left the country for better skies during the American occupation and never returned.
May Haiti learn from its mistakes. There is always time for a reconciliation between us
Maxime Coles MD
1- Gaillard R, “La Republique exterminatrice”: La Guerre civile / La deroute de l’intelligence.
2- L’Application de la Doctrine de Monroe
3- Bellgrade D
4- Dorsainvil JC: cit. p. 137
5- Manigat L: op. cit. p 72
6- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph,: op. cit., p. 114-116
7- Sannon, H Pauleus et al., Memoir of the Political, Economic, and Financial conditions existing in…
8- Balch, Emily Green: “Occupied Haiti, New Green: “Occupied Haiti, New York” Writers Publishing Company, 1927, p.39
9- Gaillard Roger,: “Les Blancs debarquent: Premier ecrasement of the Cacoisme” tome III
10- James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP Report in 1920.
11- Blanpain F, “Haiti et les Etats-Unis 1915-1934. Histoire d’une Occupation, Paris, Lharmattan 199, p 200-201.
12- Gaillard Roger, “La Republique Exterminatrice. La Guerre Civile, une option dramatique “(15 Juillet-31 Decembre 1902) t. IV, Port-au-Prince, Le Natal,1993
13- Nicholls, David: “From Dessalines to Duvalier. op. cit., p.144.
14- . Castor, Suzy, “La Corvee, la Depossession, la Misère et la repression and l’exode des paysans vers Cuba et La Republique Dominicaine”, op. cit., pp 97-98