The Bloody, Ongoing Fight of Haitians to Maintain IndependenceRoundup
tags: Haiti, Haitian History
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos. Her books include Haitian History: New Perspectives and Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games.
On July 28, 1915, President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated in Port-au-Prince. On the same day, US Marines invaded Haiti, beginning a military occupation that would endure until 1934. Why does this history matter in 2021? What parallels exist between 1915 and the current situation?
When the Marines landed in 1915, the US announced they were there to prevent future disorder and help Haitians have stability. However, the real reason for the invasion stemmed from US financial interests and a desire during World War I to prevent German occupation of Haiti.
Indeed, the US Navy was already anchored off the shores of Haiti, waiting for a pretext to invade. This fact was acknowledged at the time by US opponents of the Occupation, such as James Weldon Johnson and Herbert Seligmann, and since then by historians in Haiti and the United States.
Johnson argued that US financial interests in Haiti (such as loans owed to US banks and a desire to capture Haitian customs revenue) were the real driving forces for the invasion; he argued that “The overthrow of Guillaume… did not constitute the cause of American intervention in Haiti, but merely furnished the awaited opportunity.” While Haitians such as Charlemagne Péralte resisted the US Occupation zealously, they were treated as criminals and massacred by the Marines.
In theory, Haitians still ruled themselves after 1915, under Haitian President Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave. But, in practice, Dartiguenave was a figurehead, as the US military occupation determined what happened in Haiti. As Johnson wrote in 1920, Haitian government “is entirely dominated by the [US] military Occupation. President Dartiguenave, bitterly rebellious at heart as is every good Haitian, confessed to me the powerlessness of himself and his cabinet” in the face of directives from the US.
The Occupation treated Haitians brutally, forcing them to work building roads and growing sugar, for the benefit of US companies like the Haitian American Sugar Corporation (HASCO).
As US journalist Herbert Seligmann wrote in 1920, the Occupation has “served as a commentary upon the white civilization which still burns black men and women at the stake. For Haitian men, women, and children…, 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.…”
The US Occupation also began transferring resources from Haitians to foreigners. In 1918 a new Constitution, drafted by Americans like future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was forced on Haitians in an unfree election (in which less than 5% of Haiti’s population participated, according to historian Hans Schmidt). It deleted provisions in Haiti’s 1805 constitution banning foreign ownership of land in Haiti; from then on, foreigners could buy up property in Haiti. Even today’s US State Department has recognized the gap between the Occupation’s rhetoric about helping Haitians – and its real aims: protecting U.S. assets in Haiti and preventing a German invasion.