Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part I: Chapter I

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Quisqueya or Haiti—[1]Geographical position—The First Inhabitants: their manners, religion and customs—Divisions of the territory.

Between 17° 55' and 20° north latitude, and between 71° and 77° west longitude from the meridian of Paris, lies the island which in the United States is often called "the mysterious Haiti."[2]

Before the fifteenth century its inhabitants, numbering about one million, used to be relatively happy: the Old World was unaware even of their existence.

They were very tawny, rather small in stature, with long, black, and smooth hair. Simple in their manners, more indolent than active, they were contented with little; moreover, their wants were not very great.

The men and the girls wore no clothing; the women only had around their waists a cloth reaching to their knees.[3] They supported themselves by fishing, hunting, and by raising corn and vegetables of an easy culture; from their cotton they made nets, hammocks, etc.; they took great pleasure in smoking the dried leaves of the tobacco plant. Polygamy was practiced.

Through the coarse ceremonies of their religion can be traced the idea of the immortality of the soul and the existence of a Supreme Being, whose mother, Mamona, was especially worshipped. In the life to come the good would be rewarded; and in their Paradise they would meet once more their relatives, their friends, and principally many women.[4] They held sacred a cavern[5] whence, according to their belief, the Sun and Moon escaped and went to shine in Heaven. Every year they celebrated in that grotto a kind of public feast; the "Cacique"[6] or one of the notables headed the procession of men and women marching to the place. The ceremony began with the offerings that the priests or "butios"[7] presented to the gods or Zemes,[8] whilst the women danced and sang the praises of the deities. Afterward prayers for the salvation and prosperity of the people were said. Then the "butios" distributed among the heads of the families pieces of cake, which they preserved with great care; these consecrated cakes, according to a belief the vestiges of which can be found even up to the present among some civilized nations, had the virtue of warding off all dangers and diseases.

Their gods were strangely typified; they took the form of toads, turtles, snakes, alligators, and of hideous human faces. The "butios" were at once soothsayers and doctors. By tradition and through personal observation they knew the power of many plants; the simples helped them to make cures; and the art of healing increased their prestige.

The aborigines called their island Quisqueya (big land) or Haiti (the hilly land). The authority was divided between five military chiefs or "caciques," each one independent of the others.[9] The weapons of the people consisted of clubs, arrows, and wooden spears the sharp ends of which were hardened by fire. Often they had to protect and defend themselves against the attacks of their insular neighbors, the Caribs (Caraibes), who were cannibals.

The people enjoyed dancing to the beating of a drum. There were no public or private festivities without such dancing and singing. On the whole they were kind, polite, and merciful. Their good qualities caused their ruin.[10]

  1. Pronounce: A-e-t (a as in alone).
  2. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Haiti somewhat resembles a turtle, its eastern projection forming the head, and the two western peninsulas the hinder limbs of the animal.
  3. Placide Justin, Histoire d'Haiti.
  4. Placide Justin, Histoire d'Haiti, p. 5.
  5. This cavern, called nowadays "Grotte a Minguet," is in the neighborhood of Cape-Haiti.
  6. Pronounce: Ka-sick (a as in alone).
  7. Pronounce: boo-ci-o.
  8. Pronounce: Zem-s.
  9. The five "cacicats" or kingdoms were (a) Le Marien, under the command of Guacanagarie, in the North ; its capital was in the neighborhood of Cape-Haiti; (b) Le Magua, called afterward "Vega Real," in the Northeast; the "cacique" was Guarionex; its capital stood where the Spaniards built the town of "Concepcion de la Vega"; (c) Le Maguana, in the Cibao, acknowledged the authority of Caonabo, who resided at San Juan de la Maguana; (d) Le Xaragua, commanded by Bohechio or Behechio, in the West and South, had as its capital Taguana, known to-day as Léogane; (e) Higuey, in the East, under the authority of Cotubana, who made his residence at Higuey.
  10. Emile Nau, in his work Caciques d'Haiti, gives a good idea of the habits of the aborigines.