Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part II: Chapter VI
Corruption—Cannibalism—Voodooism—Papa-loi—Superstitions—False assertion that the Haitians are reverting to savagery.
The principal impression produced by many books on Haiti is that honest men are in the minority in the country and that the great majority of the Haitians, from the highest to the lowest classes, are corrupt, their chief occupation consisting in plundering the treasury. There have been Presidents, Ministers, and other minor officials who have betrayed the trust placed in them by the people. In the management of public funds some of them have been oblivious of the primal rules of right and honesty; they have not always had present in their minds the fact that every cent unlawfully drawn from the treasury was like stealing a portion of the scanty earnings of the producer who, by the taxes which he has to pay upon his coffee, cocoa, etc., is made the principal victim of their corrupt dealings. These dishonest actions are to be regretted and deserve the severest condemnation. But it is unjust beyond measure to hold a whole nation responsible for the action of a few of her citizens. In every country wrong goes side by side with right; and in order to establish an average one must find out which prevails over the other. Those dishonest men who accumulate wealth at the expense of the people seem at first glance to be more numerous, the display of their ill-gotten wealth making them conspicuous. They attract by these means more attention than the great majority of honest citizens who perform their daily duties in an unpretentious manner; and this great majority are thoroughly trustworthy. Far from approving of unscrupulous and corrupt officials, the bulk of the people are always ready to give their support to any man of whose integrity they are convinced and who is determined to cause the public funds to be respected; and the delinquents, when brought to trial, are punished with a degree of severity which they have merited by their actions. The public have never failed to show their gratitude to the statesmen who have served them with honesty and fidelity. Such men may have gone through severe trials; for the cause of right, like that of civilization or progress, has its martyrs. But sooner or later those who have not swerved from their duty receive their just reward. It is not right that one should judge by a few individual cases when there is question of forming an estimate of the characteristics of a people. A few functionaries have disgraced their names; but the others, after occupying high positions for years, retire with their integrity unquestioned and in possession of the esteem of their fellow-citizens when they relinquish their authority. These are the men who are in the majority, but pass unnoticed by the foreigners, because they do not noise their honesty abroad, but content themselves with the inward satisfaction of having been faithful in the performance of their duties. In Haiti there are to be found a great number of statesmen, former Ministers, Deputies, Senators, etc., whose moral soundness is equal to that of the best statesmen of the countries which ceaselessly endeavor to slander us.
One must bear in mind that the salary of the President of Haiti is $24,000 a year and that his traveling expenses amount to $15,000. Yet if we stop to consider some facts of recent occurrence which can be easily verified, we find that after nine years of Presidency General Salomon has left his heirs in very modest circumstances; and that the inventory of the estate of General Hyppolite, who died in the sixth year of his Presidency, was a great surprise to many, and proved that tie could not be considered to have been a wealthy man. General Boisrond Canal, who was at three different times at the head of the administration of his country, lived on the pension granted him and on the products of his plantation up to the time of his death, which occurred in 1905, upon which Congress granted a pension to his widow. Ex-President Légitime's sole income is the pension which the country grants to its former rulers.
Those who charge all the Presidents of Haiti and the Haitian people at large with being dishonest and corrupt are merely propagating slanders in more or less good faith.
At times there are grave scandals in France; nevertheless, no impartial-minded person will infer from this that the French people are corrupt, for their probity is proverbial; a whole nation cannot be made to suffer for the faults or the failings of a few of its citizens.
In the United States the administration of some important cities—unnecessary to name here—has often been in the hands of very unscrupulous men who have enriched themselves at the expense of the people. Even among the members of a body as deserving of respect and as justly esteemed as is the Senate of the United States there have been some men who have forgotten the duty they owe to themselves and to the States which placed their trust in them. Does it follow that because a few men have transgressed the rigid code of honor, that the Americans are as a whole a corrupt people, or that the Senate is undeserving of the universal respect it enjoys? Most assuredly not. The foreigner who, in making use of a few particular cases in generalizing, makes the whole nation or all Congress responsible for the misconduct of a few individuals, the "black sheep" among them, would be guilty of gross slander toward the United States in thus misrepresenting the solid qualities and virtues of a thoroughly honest people. When there is question of the Senate, its tradition and its reputation place it so high in the public opinion that it does not suffer by the failings of any of its members. The Americans as a people are patient, and being of an honest nature and not over-ready in thinking evil of others they are thus easily taken in. But once convinced of the corruptness of any of their functionaries they will allow no consideration to interfere with the course of justice in prosecuting those who have betrayed their trust, irrespective of their wealth or their social and political standing. This goes to prove in the best way how wrong it is to stigmatize a whole nation on account of the transgression of a few men of unsound morals.
Although public opinion in Haiti has not yet acquired the authority and influence it enjoys elsewhere, yet given favorable circumstances it does not fail to act, and upon occasion loudly demands the prosecution of those who are guilty of malversation. A recent case has just established that the Haitian people are bent upon causing the public funds to be respected and in bringing the strictest integrity into the management of their affairs; they did not hesitate to hand over to justice all those who were implicated in the "consolidation" scandal. The high standing and the services rendered in the past by many of those who were indicted in connection with this affair in no way influenced the jury or the judges, who unflinchingly pronounced on them the sentence prescribed by the law. A nation capable of punishing in this manner some of its most prominent men cannot with any degree of truth be termed a nation of corrupt men. From whence would the courage and energy to inflict the punishment which these misdemeanors deserved have come if the entire people did not condemn the fault? All the world over men yield to the same temptations; everywhere the thirst for gold provokes social catastrophes and many a time stains the honor of the best families. Haitians are mere human beings, swayed by human passions like the rest of mortals. Some of them lacking strength of mind have yielded to temptation. But it does not follow that they are all bad and unworthy of consideration. If a whole nation were to be declared criminal and corrupt because of the presence of a few criminals and unscrupulous men among its citizens, which of the nations of the world would enjoy the reputation of respectability? For amongst all nationalities, in every class of men assembled in society, there will be found good and bad men, and thieves and assassins in the midst of honest and honorable men. Let us then judge every one according to his merits and refrain from the injustice of holding a whole country responsible for the shortcomings of a few of its citizens!
Sympathy, or even mere impartiality, has seldom inspired those who have written about Haiti. On the contrary, they seem to take a special pleasure in repeating one after the other the same slanders and the same horrible fictions. In this manner they have almost succeeded in producing the impression abroad that the Haitians are cannibals and that human flesh is accounted a delicacy amongst them. Before confuting all the ridiculous and extraordinary stories told by St. John, Pritchard, and others, I will here recall the authentic fact that the island which is now called Haiti is the only one in the West Indies where cannibalism has never prevailed. Before Columbus's arrival the first inhabitants of the island lived in constant dread of the neighboring islanders, the Caribs, who were anthropophagous; and the latter never succeeded in settling at Quisqueya.
When the blacks took the place of the Indians whom the Spanish rapacity had exterminated, cannibalism did not take root in Saint-Domingue; only one tribe, says Moreau de St. Méry, were anthropophagous: the small tribe of the Mondongues. The Congos, who were of a bright and kind-hearted disposition, did their utmost to rid their companions in misfortune of this horrible habit. Even under the brutalizing influence of slavery the blacks imported from Africa gave evidence of their dislike and aversion for cannibalism, and undertook to eradicate the evil by their own efforts. In this they were successful; for the slaves of Saint-Domingue, however grossly they may have been abused and misrepresented, have never been considered at any time as cannibals; even the maroons who lived in the depths of the forest in a real state of barbarism have never been charged with the habit of eating their fellow-creatures. Therefore, after over a century of independence how has it come about that the Haitians have become cannibals? Where could they have acquired the unrestrained and depraved taste for human flesh which their unscrupulous maligners attribute to them? The theory of atavism is out of the question in this case, it being a well-established fact that their ancestors had not such a habit. Those who know the Haitian peasant and his kindly, confiding, and hospitable disposition will not hesitate to affirm that the charge of cannibalism brought against him constitutes one of those calumnies which, by reason of their constant reiteration by foreigners interested in misrepresenting the country, have become so rooted in the minds of outsiders as to be difficult to eradicate. None of those who contribute to propagate such a slander lay claim to having been an eye-witness of the horrifying scenes described in the many books concerning Haiti. St. John, whose book seems to be universally accepted as a truthful account of the country, has related the most extraordinary tales upon no better foundation than hearsay. Does it not appear strange that having lived so long in Haiti he has never tried to see one of the many horrible scenes described in his book? It is still more surprising to notice that instead of availing himself of the opportunity, he avoided all fair chances of ascertaining the truth. One of his friends, a Haitian, invited him to spend a few days among the country-people in order to "show him all the superstitious practises of the blacks"; he declined this invitation, remarking on page 208  of his book that he regretted having missed the opportunity of seeing something new. St. John, whose assertions have done so much harm to the Republic of Haiti, thus admits that he has not witnessed the atrocities which he so glibly describes; he confesses that, being invited by a Haitian friend who probably wanted to convince him of the harmlessness of the superstitious practises of some of the peasants, he willingly let pass the opportunity to search into a matter seemingly of so much interest to him. After voluntarily abstaining from finding out the truth, he however gathered and published all the fabrications which reached his ears. In one instance it is a French priest who furnished him with the account of a human sacrifice; at another time it is from a New York newspaper that he takes his story.
It is most unwise to give credence to all one gathers from hearsay. If an illustration were necessary to make the reader cautious it might be found in Washington, where the good faith of a reliable newspaper was abused. In January, 1901, the Washington Post printed a sensational article, stating authoritatively that Professor Robert T. Hill, who had just returned from Haiti, had witnessed a vaudou ceremony whilst in the country; together with the following assertions which were attributed to Professor Hill, who was described as a government explorer in order to probably lend more strength to his statement: "Cannibalism is a conspicuous feature of these rites," said Professor Hill yesterday. "It is unquestionably a fact that large numbers of young children are offered up annually in Haiti as sacrifices to the great yellow snake. Indeed, it is known that mothers frequently dedicate their infants at birth to this purpose, the fatal ceremony being postponed ordinarily until the victim has reached the age of two years. Invariably the ritual winds up with a feast the details of which are too horrible to be described. Only when human prey is not obtainable is a black goat, which must not have a white spot on it, used as a substitute, or a white cock. The cock chosen for this purpose is always one of those freak chickens which have their feathers growing the wrong way."
Such are the things which Professor Hill was made to say. The particulars seemed to be accurate enough and were intended to give to the account all appearances of truth; there was nevertheless not a word of truth in the story, which was fabricated solely with the intention of casting opprobrium on Haiti. Mr. E. D. Bassett, who was United States Minister to Haiti and lived at Port-au-Prince for more than nine years, hastened to confute this calumny. Thereupon Professor Hill wrote the following letter to the New York Sun of the 26th of March, 1901:
"To the Editor of the Sun.
"Sir: I notice a lengthy communication on your editorial page of to-day from ex-Minister Bassett correcting certain alleged assertions of mine concerning cannibalism and voodooism in Haiti.
"Permit me to say that your correspondent, whose communication was most courteous, labors under a mistake in thinking that I said the things which it is alleged that I said. The article in the Washington Post and other papers concerning Haiti purporting to be an interview with me was not written by me at all. It was written as a syndicate article by my friend, Mr. René Bache, and contrary to his usual custom, and no doubt unintentionally on his part, did not correctly quote me.
"I have personally seen no cannibalism in Haiti and written nothing concerning the Republic except the matter contained in my book on 'Cuba and Porto Rico with the other Islands of the West Indies,' a review of a book entitled 'Where Black rules White,' in the Nation of last week, and an unpublished article on my desk entitled 'The Other Side of Haiti.' In all these articles I agree with your correspondent that Haiti is not so black as it has been painted.
"Robert T. Hill."
This absolute denial passed quite unnoticed, the Washington Post in all probability never having any knowledge of the contradiction of the sensational story attributed to Professor Hill, no mention being made of his letter to The Sun; therefore up to the present time the readers of this newspaper, one of the most important of those edited in the capital of the United States, must be under the impression that they know the truth about cannibalism in Haiti.
Like the author of the Washington Post interview, Spenser St. John, in quoting others, may have taken great liberties with the truth, for decidedly some of the statements to be found in his book would have done credit to Baron Munchausen. According to this former British Minister, people under the influence of a narcotic, having every semblance of death, were buried; they were afterward taken out of their graves, revived, and then really killed, some portions of the mutilated corpses being carried away to be eaten.
With the customs prevalent in Haiti for the preparation of a dead body for burial it is absolutely impossible for any one to be buried alive. A person in a state of coma could not possibly remain alive after undergoing the treatment inflicted on the corpses in the preparation for burial; and the dead bodies of the rich as well as those of the poor are treated in the same way. The corpse is first thoroughly washed and afterward a large quantity of chloride of lime or of some powerful antiseptic is poured down the throat; the nostrils and the mouth are then filled up with cotton or some antiseptic stuff. The respiratory organs being thus stopped, one has very little chance to return to life should death be only apparent. The corpse is exposed to public view and is after a while enclosed in a coffin in the presence of the family and friends of the deceased. Upon arriving at the cemetery the coffin is placed in the grave, which is closely covered with earth, or else sealed in a vault. An important fact to bear in mind is that according to Haitian laws no burial can take place before the expiration of twenty-four hours from the moment of death.
Who will now believe that a person who has swallowed a large quantity of a powerful antiseptic, whose nostrils and mouth have been firmly stopped, and who, in this state, lies exposed to public view for a whole day or a whole night, is afterward enclosed in a coffin and buried under six feet of earth or else sealed in a vault—who will believe that such a person can retain life for a few hours even after being buried! Such a resurrection would be as miraculous as that of Lazarus. Yet St. John finds such a course not only quite natural, but he affirms that the resuscitated person is so much alive that he is killed afterward; and this is the fairy tale he wished to lead his readers to believe!
With regard to the flesh of corpses which, according to the detractors of Haiti, is eagerly sought after, it suffices to have an idea of the tropical climate to be at once convinced of the impossibility of this loathsome idea and of the risk which those who would indulge in such practises would run. The intense heat of the Antilles is not long in decomposing dead bodies, and ptomaine would have quickly rid Haiti of the ghouls who would feed on them. In Haiti, as in France and in the United States, there are from time to time desecrations of graves. But cannibalism is not the motive for these occasional profanations; robbery, in Haiti as elsewhere, is the leading motive of such abominable crimes. The Haitians are accustomed to bury their dead in their finest apparel, the common people especially considering it their duty to clothe the dead in entirely new garments, from the shoes to the gloves. Some beggarly scoundrel who is in tatters will not scruple to strip a corpse of its clothes; and in order to conceal one crime he commits another by mutilating the body, thus provoking all kinds of superstitious conjectures. "At Jacmel," says Spenser St. John, "they found the cover of a coffin broken to pieces, the corpse resting on its side, an eye and a part of the face and the hair, and doubtless other parts of the body, carried away. The shoes had also been removed." Were he not so bent upon making out that the Haitians are cannibals, St. John might have seen in the removal of the shoes, and doubtless of other parts of the dead man's apparel, the true motive of the crime. Desecrations of graves in Haiti, as in the United States, are of exceedingly rare occurrence. And it would be highly unjust to hold a whole country accountable for or sharing in the evil actions of a few depraved members of its community. Depravity of morals and sentiment exists everywhere. The characteristic traits of a people cannot be found in the morbid or wicked passions of a handful of bad men. For instance, not long ago twenty persons were arrested at Jaszbereny (Hungary), charged with having killed and eaten many children; the leader of the band alone is alleged to have eaten eighteen children. Must we infer from this that all Hungarians are cannibals? Certainly not. Why then do writers generalize in speaking of crimes committed in Haiti! If there were occasion for it they might agitate for the proper punishment of crime when the offenders can be found. But there is no necessity for any such outside agitation as this duty is well discharged by the Republic. The juries and the courts have never hesitated to sentence to death assassins even when they pretend to have acted under the maddening influence of superstition; nor are women spared; found guilty of murder they are publicly shot. Such severity is the best evidence that superstitious beliefs have not a strong hold on the conscience of the people. In reality, crimes inspired by witchcraft are exceedingly rare. As a rule, murders and poisonings are not common in Haiti; and, all things considered, the average of crime, compared with that of other countries, is inconsiderable.
Unfortunately there is among the Haitians a strange tendency to ascribe all cases of sudden death to supernatural causes; and the foreigners who live in the island share this idea with the natives. In the United States apoplexy, heart failure, acute indigestion, etc., daily cause sudden deaths; nobody thinks of imputing them to witchcraft. But in Haiti when a person, apparently in good health, drops dead in consequence of one of these diseases, some people will in nine cases out of ten hold the "papa loi" responsible for this sudden decease; and even when the doctors perform a post-mortem examination, stating the cause of death and all the particulars, many people will still refuse to believe that the death was a natural one. Numerous stories of "loup-garou" and "papa-loi" proceed from this error.
"Papa-loi," "mama-loi," and "loup-garou"—these are words which one is sure to find in every article and book written about Haiti. According to these writers, these names represent very important personages of the "vaudou" cult, the mere mention of which occasions a thrill of horror and fear. We will here examine the matter in all its bearings in order to allow the reader to form his own rational opinion about it.
Because "vaudou-cannibalism," as described by St. John and other writers, does not exist in Haiti, it does not follow that there are no superstitions in the country. It would be ridiculous to affirm the contrary. The most civilized nations, after many centuries of existence, have not yet succeeded in freeing themselves from superstitious beliefs. Consequently it is not surprising to find superstition in Haiti; but such as it is in reality is very different from what it is usually represented to be.
In order to understand the effect that the mere utterance of the word "vaudou" produces up to the present time on some minds, and to appreciate the persistence of the calumnies with which Haiti is overwhelmed on this account, one must go back to the dark days of slavery. The slaves who were imported and scattered about the island of Saint-Domingue had all different beliefs and fetiches; very often they came from hostile tribes. The sufferings endured in common soon formed a bond of sympathy amongst them; and the "Creole" patois, which was quickly learned, allowed them to understand each other. Through the interchange of ideas which followed, hope entered into the hearts of the most daring among them. The vital question for them was how to shake off the abhorred yoke of slavery. The colonists had done their utmost to imbue their slaves with a superstitious fear of their power and of the might of France. Would these ignorant men, who had been brutalized by years of constant ill-treatment, ever dare to rise up against their redoubtable masters? The leaders, who were longing for the betterment of their condition, had to find put the safest way of instilling their boldness into their unfortunate companions. The ignorance and even the superstitions, which clouded the intellect of those who seemed to be forever bound to the soil, furnished a good opportunity for carrying out the work of redemption. Hatred of slavery, rancor provoked by revolting cruelties, and the craving after liberty united all the victims of the inhuman institution. Associations were formed and clandestine meetings took place in the depths of the forests. Whilst dancing and singing, the leaders went about sowing seeds of revolt; and in order to inspire the slave with confidence in them they pretended to possess supernatural powers, such as being able to insure happiness, to make their enemies impotent, and defy death itself by becoming invulnerable. Hyacinthe carried about with him an ox tail which he said was a charm against bullets; and Hallaou pretended to be immune from death by virtue of a white cock which never left him; these men were followed with confidence by their companions, who blindly rushed into all kinds of dangers at their command. These semi-political and semi-religious tales raised the courage of the slaves.
Christianity, which they were practising without understanding its importance and meaning, was mixed up in their minds with the superstitious beliefs taught by those who were unquestionably deceiving them, but with the praiseworthy object of bettering their condition. Hierarchy was established to insure the success of the undertaking; the leaders had subordinates under their authority scattered through the island, whose duty was to carry out their decisions. The colonists at last began to fear these meetings, which assumed the appearance of a menace to their domination. The beating of the drum which was supposed to summon the adepts or to form part of the mysterious ceremonies of vaudou struck terror into their hearts. These ceremonies had a two-fold aim: on one hand to inspire the ignorant masses with confidence in order to decide them to rise up against their powerful masters; on the other hand to conceal as much as possible the true object of the leaders in order to remove the suspicions of those whose yoke they intended to shake off. Toussaint Louverture, whose religious sentiments were unquestioned and who was a strong protector of the Catholic cult and clergy of Saint-Domingue, had nevertheless witnessed the secret meeting in which the conspirators, stirred by the fierce Boukmann, had taken the "bloody oath" on the entrails of a wild boar.
The slaves have never been charged with indulging in human sacrifices in all the vaudou meetings at which they prepared for their uprisings. And what was called vaudou can be compared with the many secret associations, with political and religious purposes, which existed and are still to be found even nowadays in Europe. From the meetings in which vaudou ceremonies only were supposed to be practised came the signals which would cause the slaves to rush upon the colonists and to set fire to the plantations. In order to strike the masters with fear and to impair their resistance, the leaders who were preparing the great struggle for liberty did not scruple to spread all kinds of horrible stories and to exaggerate the influence and power of the vaudou cult. Legends were thus created; and as it is very difficult to uproot the legends of a people, especially when based upon fear, those concerning vaudou are still in circulation.
Traces of this institution can perhaps still be found in the mountains of Haiti; for, after having helped to accomplish heroic deeds, what is called vaudou could not be expected to disappear from one day to the other. But this vaudou never has had, nor has it at the present day, the odious character ascribed to it; in some respects it can be compared to some of the religious sects which exist in the United States.
And the worship of the yellow snake, which the adepts of vaudou are charged with practising, is one of the assertions which nobody has been able to prove. It would not be surprising to see a people brought up in slavery worshipping idols and deifying various reptiles. Nations whose civilization was far from being backward have deified animals. It is a well-known fact that the Egyptians worshipped the crocodile; and the snake in many instances has been worshipped. The Romans adorned many of their temples with Æsculapius's snake, which they held sacred; and, according to tradition, Moses was instructed by the Lord to make an iron serpent, which it sufficed to behold to be cured of the poisonous bite of the snakes sent to chastise the sons of Israel. Consequently, as a fetich, the snake is not of African invention. Without upholding the doctrine of Auguste Comte, I may safely say that even up to the present fetichism is more widespread and more generally practised than people will admit; very often it cannot be distinguished from idolatry. Intelligent men, and the average among the less intelligent ones, will see in images but mere symbolic figures and do not confound with them any idea of divinity; but not so with the great majority of believers, who sometimes worship the symbol like the divinity—thus, without thinking, many people are fetichists.
Be it as it may, I am in a position to affirm that the Haitian peasants do not worship any kind of snake. A foreigner can go all over the country, nowhere will he find a deified reptile. Were such a cult in existence its adepts would not fail to pay the greatest respect to their god, which would occupy the most conspicuous place, both in the temples and in the homes of its worshippers; no believer is ashamed of his god, consequently he has no interest in concealing it; on the contrary, he would have a tendency rather to show off its power and its superiority over other deities. Yet not one of those who have so largely contributed to spread false ideas about Haiti has ever been able to say that he has seen the famous yellow snake or that he has witnessed one of the ceremonies of the cult devoted to it. A whole nation is charged with being addicted to a vulgar fetichism and none of its detractors can be found who is in a position to say truthfully, "I have seen the deified snake and have witnessed the ceremony of its cult."
A Haitian peasant will in many instances hesitate to kill a snake; and the foreigner, who does not know his motives for so doing, will at once attribute the sympathy shown the reptile to some superstitious fear or respect for the so-called god. The true reason for the reluctance shown is that in many places the fields are infested with rats; and, as everybody knows, some snakes help greatly to destroy the troublesome rodents, which sometimes cause great damage; consequently the peasants do not care to destroy the harmless snakes, which take the place of cats or ferrets in ridding them of the rats which are a nuisance.
There is nothing of impenetrable mystery in Haiti. Her mountains and her forests can be traversed from one part to another in all safety by travelers, native or foreign. In the most remote places chapels are to be found in which the Catholic religion is practised. Christianity prevails everywhere; and should there still be some adepts of what is called vaudou, they cannot be very numerous. Therefore, when Spenser St. John affirms that all the Haitians belong to that cult, he is deliberately untruthful and is to be compared to the writer who would charge the whole people of the United States with being polygamous because plurality of wives was formerly practised by the Mormons.
There are certainly many superstitions in Haiti, great advantage of which is taken by the papa-loi and the manman-loi. The papa-loi, who is represented in the many books and articles about Haiti as an extraordinary being, is in reality what in the United States and in Europe is called a charlatan, quack, clairvoyant or fortune-teller. Turning to his own account the ignorance or the credulity of those who consult him, the papa-loi does his best to foster the beliefs that he has the power to cure all kinds of diseases, to procure happiness, to insure the success or the failure of all kinds of undertakings, to influence love and hatred, to enrich or impoverish. He profits by his oftentimes great knowledge of the medicinal herbs and tropical plants to gain the confidence of his clients; but he will carefully avoid administering poison. The advantage to be gained by this would not compensate the great risk he would run, as he knows well that, should it be detected, his crime would cost him his life, for in such a case he would be sentenced to death and shot; and no human being needlessly exposes himself to death.
In the United States many cases of poisoning have occurred through flowers and through candies sent by post; at Connellsville, Pa., an attempt was made on the life of a young woman, who received a pair of shoes the heels of which had been hollowed out and filled with nitroglycerin. If such a thing had occurred in Haiti her foreign detractors to a man would ascribe these crimes or criminal attempts to the papa-loi, of whom, however, Haiti is far from having the monopoly. This sort of charlatan is to be found all over the world; he exists as well in France and in the United States under different appellations.
"There is perhaps not a village in France which does not possess its healer (guérisseur) or rebouteux. Both continue to be serious competitors to the country doctors. They assume the appearance of sorcerers and profit by the fear they inspire. They occasionally make use of mediaeval drugs the eccentricity of which takes the fancy of their customers and secures their authority over the minds of those already prepared to respect the traditional and ancestral art of the healer.
"We must confess that most of these unlawful doctors are clever and possess efficacious means of curing some diseases. They know quite well how to set a leg or an arm, to cure sprains, wounds, and burns. Their lasting fame is the best evidence of their skill. The healer has existed from the earliest ages."
Papa-loi is, as it were, the Haitian form of the French rebouteux, who is perhaps more skilled and has certainly been longer in existence than the papa-loi. Nobody would think of saying that the French nation is at the mercy of such quacks. Yet many writers state in a serious manner that the influence of the healer is so great in Haiti that the doctors are unable to earn a living by the practise of their profession. It suffices but to notice the prosperous condition of the Haitian doctors to be convinced of the absurdity of such an assertion; theirs is one of the best paid and the most profitable callings.
As to the philters which the papa-loi is said to administer to those who wish to make themselves beloved, they do not seem to be unknown in the United States. In a divorce suit introduced before the court of North Platte, Nebraska, the husband charged his wife with having given him "dragon's blood," which, it seems, is what the American papa-lois prescribe in love affairs. The following question was publicly asked the defendant: "Did you ever administer ’dragon's blood' for the purpose of making the Colonel love you more and other women less?" Such a query would not have been made in a law-suit—in which it would be well to note that the litigants did not belong to the African race—if in some places in Nebraska, at any rate, people were not inclined to believe in the charm of "dragon's blood." Must we infer from this that all the inhabitants of Nebraska and the whole people of the United States in general share this superstition? Certainly not. Why then should all Haitians be charged with believing that the papa-loi's philters have really the power of exciting love or hatred?
At Leadville, Colorado, a judge "sitting in full orders at a session of his tribunal made bold to declare that testimony affirming the witchcraft of a young woman so charged before his honor was eminently admissible, since two-thirds of the population thereabouts believed in such things." The case was of an exceedingly extraordinary character. One Martin Roberts had committed assault and battery on Catherine Rothenburg, a beautiful Jewess who was reputed a sorceress. No fewer than six different persons were on hand to display ills that she had practised upon them. Robert's defense was that "the Jewess had cast a spell over him, in pursuance of a threat she had made some weeks before, and caused him to fall ill as she had foretold she would do. He had become ill in a very queer way; his head buzzed and he saw things continually whirling before his eyes; he looked like a crazy man. Physicians could not account for the malady by any regular formula known to medical science and muttered something about it being very strange. He remembered then that Catherine Rothenburg had told him once that whenever she succeeded in afflicting any one with disease, as she often did, there was but one way to destroy her power over the invalid, that was for "the invalid to draw blood from her mouth. He concluded to put this remedy to the test, and he went to Rothenburg's house while Catherine's husband was away and found the alleged witch sitting in a chair holding her child in her lap. He laid hands on her unceremoniously, and beat and chopped her until the mouth ran red with blood, and she was bereft of her senses." Roberts proved by doctors' sworn statements that since the maltreatment of the mysterious woman he had recovered his normal health, and had begun to improve the moment the deed was done.
Twelve men and women recounted the uncanny doings of the Jewess. Sickness had come to one family because she had sprinkled earth from a murderer's grave in their water barrel; a certain man who had declined to give her $5 had become a cripple; she had been seen prowling at midnight in a cemetery near the grave of a gentleman whose departure from this life at the end of a rope had given him distinction among the shades; her eyes had been observed to shoot fire.
Had Spenser St. John known these facts he would not have failed to ascribe them to Haiti, and his book would have had one more sensational chapter.
The following account of a religious meeting which took place at Beal's Island, which is a part of Jonesport, Maine, is still more extraordinary:
"Scenes during the meetings were weird, spectacular and horrible," says the New York Herald of March 13, 1904. "Elder Buber preached a hell-fire doctrine with a vivid and impassioned eloquence. He pictured to the awe-stricken villagers awful torments which are to be theirs if they did not speedily believe and repent. He told them that they must purify themselves, body and soul; that they must sever all earthly ties, must give all their money, houses, lands, cattle, and even clothing to the preachers. His listeners, terrified by the awful fate in store for them and quaking before the awe-inspiring gaze of Allaby, assented.
"The exhorter worked himself into a frenzy. He shouted that the mouth of hell was eagerly yawning "for sinners. He leaped high into the air, placed his hands on the top of the tall pulpit, and vaulted back and forth over it. He grovelled on the floor, pounded his head on the timbers and worked up to a point of delirious frenzy, performing feats of contortion which rival those of a professional circus athlete. … Men and women groaned aloud, grovelled in their seats, their minds answering sympathetically every emotion depicted by the exhorter. 'How much will you give to the Lord?' he shouted in thunderous tones. 'All, all!' answered the people, rising in their seats, and they meant it. On Friday night of last week the most violent meeting of all was held, continuing until after midnight. At this meeting the villagers turned their pockets inside out for the preachers. They gave the few valuables they had with them. It was arranged that a final meeting of renunciation was to be held on the following Sunday, at which a monster contribution was to be made to the preachers. The people of the island, with few exceptions, prepared to sell their homes and lands, their places of business and fishing tackle, their cattle and household possessions, so that all could be converted into cash for the purpose of the offering. They were in a frenzy, practically insane with the intoxication of their emotions.
"Stranger rites and ceremonies were performed, and finally Elder Buber announced that by reason of divine power he could perform miracles.
"Thurman, the nine-year-old son of Mrs. G. F. Beal, a cripple since birth and beloved by all on the island, was brought into the church. He was placed on the altar before the congregation. He was then covered with a sack, while the exhorter, working himself into a frenzy, commanded the spirit of which the child was possessed to depart. The miracle was a failure. The child remained a cripple, but, strange to say, the people did not lose faith. They ascribed the failure as due to a devil in the boy. This meeting ended at midnight, Elders Buber and Buck being so exhausted that they could hardly stand.
"Some of the more zealous of the converts desired to continue in their frenzy, and twenty or more repaired to the home of Mrs. Beal, near the church. Their imaginations were so wrought up that with the first words of exhortation they became insane, and horrible ideas and suggestions followed.
"Mrs. Beal was the centre of the group. She said that they had sacrificed or were about to sacrifice, all their worldly possessions, but that was not enough. A living sacrifice was required, she said. She proposed crucifixion, and appointed her son Eli, a young man of twenty-eight, as the chosen instrument, or executioner. Wild approval met the suggestions of Mrs. Beal.
"Raising her hands high in the air, as if seeking inspiration, she said that a certain dog in the village must be killed. It was brought into the room. Mrs. Beal said that the dog was to typify the Lord. Eli Beal grasped the dog with hands made stronger than normal by insane fervor and tore open its throat. The fanatics groaned and shouted while the dog breathed its last. A cat was the next victim, similar ceremonies being gone through.
"Then it was that Mrs. Beal groaned because the holy spirit did not wholly yield to her, and said that her little boy Thurman must be sacrificed. Some joyfully acceded and other women proposed to sacrifice their children. Frank Wallace and John A. Beal, two strong-minded men who were present, but not participating in the ceremonies, protested. Wallace told a Herald correspondent that in five minutes more the Beal child would have been killed and others would have followed. Wallace seized the boy, dashed for the door, and held the crowd at bay while the frightened youngster fled for his life, finding a hiding-place among the rocks.
"Mr. Beal hurried to the mainland and notified the authorities there. Mrs. Beal was adjudged insane and sent to an insane asylum in Bangor. And the selectmen of Jonesport have issued strict orders that there be no more religious services of any kind on the island."
Had the foregoing events occurred in Haiti, instead of taking place in the United States, her detractors would not have missed the opportunity to assert that Haitian mothers are accustomed to sacrifice their children in the vaudou ceremonies. The incident would have been grossly exaggerated and would not have been imputed to the insanity of a handful of fanatics. Within ten or twenty years after, these ceremonies would have been related by foreign writers to cast aspersion on the whole Haitian Republic.
Public instruction, which is comparatively much more wide-spread in the United States than in Haiti, has however not yet succeeded in protecting the inhabitants of the former country from charlatans and fortune-tellers. In a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, a woman was the victim of one of these American papa-lois. The case was tried at Elmira, New York, where Walter P. Collins, alias Dr. Zollo, was arrested on a charge of grand larceny. "I am very superstitious," said the complainant, Miss Mary M. Miller, "and I believed in Dr. Zollo, for he read my palm very cleverly. He told me that it was necessary for me to bring money, because money was the one goal in the world for which every one was pushing, and one's thought centred upon it constantly. He said that through this money he could transmit an influence on me, as a result of which my affairs would not be so tangled, and that I would be able to rent my property, the poor returns from which caused me much worry. I brought him $500. He put it in an envelope, as I supposed, and gave it to me, telling me to go home and bring him more the next day, also to bring back the envelope supposed to contain the $500. I brought back the sealed envelope and $300. He opened the envelope, apparently took therefrom the $500, and, bunching the $300 in bills with it, asked me to hold one end while he held the other. I did so, and he again apparently put the money in an envelope, sealed it and told me not to open it, but to wear it in a jewelry bag around my neck until the next day, when I should come to his office for him to open it, so that the charm might not lose its full effect. I paid him his fee and the next day when I visited his office he had disappeared. I found a newspaper in the envelope, but no money."
One Dr. Theodore White was arrested in the very city of Baltimore on the charge of using the United States mails to defraud. He was selling love-powders said to contain three hairs out of a black cat's tail, seven hairs out of a white mule's tail, eight drops of blood out of a dog's tail, and one or two equally astonishing that his operations had extended all over the United the directions were carefully followed out. Dr. White that he would at once rival Borneo in his ardor if had numerous patrons for this powder of his; for $12,800 in cash was found in his safe; and he admitted ingredients. Directions were given for administering this powder to the reluctant or cold lover, with the , Europe, Central America, and a portion of South America.
In Washington, the capital of the United States, the police had to intervene on behalf of the credulous and superstitious people who were being taken advantage of by clairvoyants, fortune-tellers and that class of charlatans who would have been called papa-lois had they been found in Haiti.
"The police department announced yesterday," says the Washington Post of the 19th of February, 1904, "that war is to be waged on all Clairvoyants, fortune-tellers, and mediums in the District. … The detectives have received numerous complaints recently. All of the victims were women, and they were mulcted, so they said, of sums ranging from $1 to $100; but woman-like they refused to prosecute for fear of publicity. One of the letters received by the police reads as follows: 'The Professor talked me right out of my money, and instead of bringing back my husband, as he promised, he seemed to drive my husband away, for I am now alone. My husband has gone to Pittsburg. The Professor said that if I had him arrested, he would tell all my story, and would swear besides that I was after another man instead of my husband.'
"One other contribution to the stock of complaints is a tiny yellow envelope stamped on the outside: 'Phychio Magneto, Nepal, India.' The woman who gave it up confessed that she had paid $5 for the envelope, which was supposed to contain an all-powerful powder, which had only to be placed under the pillow for so many nights to accomplish as many wonders as Aladdin's lamp. The powder failed of its purpose, and the remnant of it still left in Captain Boardman's desk needs only a test to prove that it is nothing more than common table salt."
From the above-mentioned facts it does not follow that the whole people of the United States are grossly addicted to superstition. The foreigner who would draw such a conclusion would show either astonishing ignorance or bad faith. The inhabitants of the United States constitute at the present one of the most civilized nations. They have spared no pains for diffusing public instruction throughout their country. I have mentioned the superstitious beliefs of a few of them only to illustrate the fact that these beliefs exist everywhere and are not peculiar to Haiti, where they are found under the same character as they assume elsewhere. In Haiti, as elsewhere, religion and a broad diffusion of knowledge alone will cause superstition to disappear. Violence and ill-timed repression might only serve to make those who would be too severely dealt with seem as victims and martyrs to the cause. A belief, by being persecuted, has many chances it otherwise would not have of making proselytes. The school-master and the minister of religion are, in such cases, more powerful and more efficacious than the police. The Haitian statesmen know this; for this reason they rely upon religion and upon education to fight superstition; this is the reason why, in spite of her comparatively limited revenue, Haiti devotes a large part of it to public instruction and subsidizes all Christian cults, although the great majority of her inhabitants are Roman Catholics. The impartial foreigner traveling about the country without any preconceived idea of slandering the people cannot fail to notice the good results attained.
Every country, even the most advanced and civilized, has certain peculiarities. Haiti is no exception to this rule; like other nations she has her peculiarities, but the one who describes these peculiarities alone in order to excite the ridicule of his readers is like a person who, after visiting a mansion, describes only the kitchen or the stables; kitchen and stables certainly have their particular uses, but they do not give any idea of the beauty of the mansion. For more than a century it has been the usual thing to ridicule Haiti; none of the means which might bring discredit on her has been neglected. Nevertheless, she still exists and has proudly maintained her independence. This fact may seem to be unimportant to many; but it is the best evidence that a country placed in so disadvantageous a position as was Haiti, and has nevertheless shown such a vitality, cannot be a mere collection of ignorant, corrupt, and abjectly superstitious men. Such a nation must unquestionably possess a certain amount of sterling qualities. But the foreign writers do not care to know these qualities, and if perchance the knowledge of it is forced upon them they do not care to make them known to the public. The ridiculous point of view has more attraction to them; they have almost all made the caricature rather than the description of the Haitian people.
Men who are ignorant even of the correct geographical position of the island think themselves competent to give information about the Haitians; undeterred by the scantiness of their knowledge, they hasten to affirm that instead of progressing they are relapsing into barbarism. This is another assertion as common and as widespread as the charge of vaudou-cannibalism. Even the grave Encyclopedia Britannica has been led into adopting and propagating such slanders on the authority of writers of the class of St. John and Pritchard. When a work of the kind contains such misleading information about Haiti, one wonders what faith can be placed in what it says of other countries.
In the United States people take all possible advantage of this slander. Does a politician desire to create the impression that it is necessary to assume a certain control on some of the American Republics on account of the probable opening of the Panama Canal, he at once resorts to the famous theme of Haiti's reverting to barbarism. Does he wish to establish that it is not safe to confer the right of voting on a certain class of his fellow-citizens, he will always draw his principal argument from the thesis of Haiti's relapsing into savagery. Haiti thus at the same time is made into a sort of moral scare-crow as well as continually serving as a scape-goat.
However, she need occasion no anxiety to the United States. She has never thought nor ever will think of alienating the smallest portion of her territory, no more than does Haiti entertain the idea of consenting to the least attack upon her independence. Consequently it is very hard that the people of the United States, in order to facilitate some of their home problems, should make use of such calumnies against a small State which is earnestly striving to fulfil all its duties.
I am glad to say that an American citizen has of late done us justice on this point. Professor Robert T. Hill says in his book that "Sir Spenser St. John's conclusions are not borne out by history, and the Haitians, instead of degenerating, are, excepting the Cubans, Porto Ricans and Barbadians, the only virile and advancing natives of the West Indies … and whatever may be said against them, it should be remembered that these people nearly a century ago initiated the movement which, ending in Brazil in 1889, resulted in driving the institution of slavery from the Western hemisphere."
In conclusion I will content myself with recalling what I said on the matter in the North American Review of July, 1903. To revert to a condition almost of savagery, to relapse into barbarism a nation must be, at the time when the charge is made, in a state of civilization less advanced than formerly; it must be going backward instead of forward. So, to ascertain whether, since the removal of the white control, the Haitians have or have not reverted to a condition almost of savagery, one must necessarily compare their condition of to-day with their condition before the removal of that control. What was the condition of the Haitians over a hundred years ago? The great majority of them were slaves. They were treated like beasts. They were compelled to work like machines in the fields. They could not read. They could not write. They were not even good artisans, not being allowed to learn anything. Their degradation was complete.
Such was the condition of the Haitians under the French control. It is needless to say that their condition now is different.
The factories, the rich plantations had been all destroyed during the war of independence. The Haitians found themselves in possession of a devastated, land. They have rebuilt their cities and towns. They cultivate now their own properties, almost every inhabitant of the Republic being a land-owner. Now every man is a man. The sons of the former slaves are to-day lawyers, doctors, surgeons, architects, engineers, sculptors, chemists, skilled artisans, shrewd business men and good laborers; some of them, without being multimillionaires, live on large incomes. The Haitians operate their own telegraph and telephone systems. Under the French control there was not even a good primary school in the island; to-day Haiti devotes almost a sixth of its revenues to education. All the public schools are free, from the elementary ones to the highest grades. There are schools of law, medicine, pharmacy, electrical and applied sciences (sciences appliqués), even a school of painting; and these are open to all. Not satisfied with the education which can be had at home, many Haitians go to France to obtain still higher or special instruction, and achieve success in the French schools of mineralogy, agriculture, moral and political sciences, etc.
In the light of these facts, which may be easily verified, I may confidently appeal to the fair-minded and intelligent reader to decide whether the assertions so frequently made, that the Haitians are relapsing into barbarism and falling back into a state almost of savagery, are worthy of credence, or whether they are merely unjust and ungrounded aspersions upon a people who since their independence have been striving, with success commensurate to their opportunities, to attain the practical ideals of modern civilization!
- See page 254.
- The first mention made of these people in history is contained in a letter written by the discoverer to Ferdinand and Isabella in October, 1493, in which he stated that the people of Haiti lived in constant dread of the Caribales, who dwelt in the long chain of the islands to the south, now known as the Lesser Antilles. (Christian Advocate, New York, October, 1903. American Cannibals, by John Cowan.)
- Moreau de Saint Méry, Description de la partie Française de Saint-Domingue, p. 33.
- Spenser St. John, Haiti or the Black Republic (1889 issue): "In the year 1873 an intimate Haitian friend, educated in France, the proprietor of an estate on the plain of Cul-de-Sac, invited me to spend a fortnight with him in the country, promising to show me all the superstitious practises of the negroes. I regret I did not accept, as at all events I should not have been called upon to witness a murder, and might have seen something new."
- Haiti or the Black Republic, p. 200.
- Ibid., p. 203.
- The following is an extract from Mr. Bassett's article which was printed in the New York Sun of the 24th of March, 1901: "As the diplomatic representative of a great Power it was a part of my official duty to inform myself of everything that tended to show the animus of the people or the drift of their social and political inclinations. I do not see how any foreigner could ever have fuller facilities than I enjoyed for getting at the real facts. I went among the country people. I spoke their language (the French Creole) and I personally knew hundreds of them in many different localities. I could never discover that there was any attempt to conceal from me anything of their modes of life or social or religious customs. It is fair to presume that if there had been any such attempt or purpose at all general or persisted in, I would have become aware of it.
"This brings me to assert my unqualified belief that the cannibalistic practises alleged to have been described by Professor Hill and affirmed by others have no existence whatever in Haiti. Even if they did exist there, it would be most extraordinary—I repeat it, most extraordinary—if Professor Hill or any other white person could ever gain access to them.
"Primitive dances to primitive music, festivals and celebrations also primitive in character and held on holidays and evenings after the day's toil is over, exist and may even be said to abound among the peasantry of Haiti just as in other countries. If Professor Hill or any other foreigner ever saw or in any way witnessed in Haiti a 'ceremony' to which he was unaccustomed and which he might on that account and in view of the declarations of Spenser St. John and others twist into a 'voodoo ceremony of which cannibalism is a conspicuous feature,' it was probably one of these innocent dances or festivals.
Diligent inquiry made upon the spot under the conditions and exceptional facilities already explained and running through quite a number of years utterly failed to bring within my knowledge any person who had ever seen or knew of anybody else who had seen or knew of his or her own personal knowledge of any such horrible practises as Professor Hill is alleged to have described, and I solemnly declare my unqualified conviction that the whole story about cannibalism in Haiti is nothing more than a myth, which, like many other myths, has gained credence by persistent repetition.
And it is due to the Haitian people as well as to a true statement of the matter, that I should add as I do that in my opinion the existence of any practise by which, as Professor Hill is said to have declared, the sacrifice of 'large numbers' or any number at all of 'very young children' or of any one human being, would be regarded in Haiti with the same abhorrence as it would be in New York or Pennsylvania.
Now there are in Haiti eighty-six communes, a commune being somewhat like a town in Massachusetts or Connecticut, and there are one hundred and fifty Roman Catholic priests so stationed throughout the Republic that no commune is without one or more priests of this faith. Almost every one of these is a European, born, brought up, and educated in Europe, and sent out to Haiti under the strict rules of the Church and the requirements of the Concordat with the Holy See. And besides there are about thirty clergymen of the Protestant faith. The Government gives liberal support and encouragement to all, Catholic and Protestant alike.
"Professor Hill is surely in error in his alleged assertion that 'there are few priests permanently resident in their parishes.' The fact is that no parish is ever left without a priest in charge, and the serious allegation that the churches of that faith are desecrated by the performance within their sacred walls of the alleged voodoo rites is little less than a signal indignity offered to the Church as a whole. No such a proceeding is more possible in Haiti than it would be in New England.
If now so horrible and shocking a practise as that of cannibalism under the guise of religion or any other cloak existed at all in Haiti, how could it be that this considerable body of educated, devoted religious teachers, the vast majority of whom are Europeans, keep silent about it through all these years and years? Surely they are all at least civilized men, and if so horrible and revolting a practise as that of cannibalism existed at all in Haiti they would surely know of it. If it existed, and the great body of priesthood had agreed to throw a cloak over it, how could it ever happen that none of them through years and years has ever let leak out at least some hint about its existence? In other words, how is it that the story is in general left to be told by fleeting visitors who never or at any rate rarely go among the country people and who know little or nothing of their language?"
- Haiti or the Black Republic (London, 1889), pp. 236-240.
- "Extraordinary precautions have been undertaken that the body of Russell Sage shall not be disturbed in its last resting-place. … The fear that the body might in some way be stolen, as was that of A. T. Stewart, has influenced the family to resort to every measure to guarantee that the tomb is not despoiled." (New York Herald, July 25, 1906.)
- Haiti or the Black Republic, p. 239 ; London, 1889.
- An Englishman, Mr. A. S. Haigh, from Huddesfield, speaks as follows of St. John's book (The Tribune, Nassau, N. P., Bahamas, February, 1904): "I have read Spenser St. John's book, 'Haiti or the Black Republic,' and it was indeed surprising to me to find things in Haiti so very different from what he had written. I can illustrate this work in no better way than this: a person having been entertained by another in his parlor, in the best of style, on going away writes a description of his host's ash pit and back yard. I do not hesitate to say that the books written about Haiti show up the very worst side, and that even is, in some cases, exaggerated. It is like writing up the slums and calling it a representation of London. The glaring and preposterous accounts of belief and practises in witchcraft and obeah by the Haitian have been very much exaggerated by writers."
- New York Herald, June 29, 1905.
- See page 50.
- "Boxes of candy sent by messenger or despatched through the mail have contained poison, and gifts of this kind have produced great sensations. Mortal potions have been sent with flowers. Now comes the report of a shoe sent to a young lady, with enough nitroglycerin congealed in the heel to blow the bearer off her feet." (The Washington Evening Star, May 26, 1905.)
- Les Annales Politiques et Littéraires, Paris, August 20, 1905.
- The Washington Post, March 1, 1905.
- The Washington Post, September 17, 1899.
- The New York Herald, June 22, 1903. (Washington Post, 24th June.)
- The Washington Evening Star, March 31, 1906.
- The Washington Post, March 31, 1906.
On the 23d of June, 1906, Dr. White was sentenced by Judge Morris to serve three years in the penitentiary and to pay a fine of $1,500.
- Cuba and Porto Rico with the other islands of the West Indies (New York, 1903).
It is to be regretted that Professor Hill was not able to stay in the country long enough to become convinced of the absurdity of all the false charges brought against the Haitians. His book contains some mistakes resulting from his insufficient knowledge of the people and their character; but it is a book written in good faith. And Professor Hill honestly strove to be impartial and just.
- The Truth about Haiti.