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

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Faustin Soulouque (March 1, 1847–January 15, 1859)—Campaigns against the Dominicans—The Empire—Intervention of France, Great Britain, and the United States on behalf of the Dominicans—Navassa—Gonaives in rebellion—Faustin Soulouque leaves Haiti.

From 1844 to 1847 Haiti had passed through one of the most critical epochs of her existence. After organizing an independent State in February, 1844, the inhabitants of the former Spanish portion of the island were committing unceasing acts of hostility on the borders, where an army had to be maintained in order to keep them in check. The expenses necessary for the maintenance of the soldiers were comparatively high; moreover, owing to the insecurity resulting from these disturbances, industry had been suspended in that part of the country. It was therefore urgent to put an end to this state of things, either by subduing our former fellow-citizens or by coming to an understanding with them. The unsettled condition in which Haiti herself was at that time made the Dominican problem still more intricate in dealing with. The hopes which Boyer's retirement had given rise to all came to naught. The disappointment which this occasioned the peasants of the Southern Department had decided them to resort to violence; they wanted to free themselves from the incumbrance of the Rural Code; they demanded the establishment of schools and their share in the possession of the land. Having been successively deceived by all, even by their own chosen leaders, they had been unable to receive satisfaction. Their apparent submission was therefore more assumed than real.

On the other hand, the liberal ideas of 1843 not having been successful in practical application, the military system seemed to many to be the only one able to insure peace and order; which idea was naturally much contested by the partisans of the civil régime.

When on the 1st of March, 1847, Faustin Soulouque was elected President of the Republic, three most pressing duties demanded his attention: He had to conduct the guerrilla warfare which was still continuing on the Dominican boundary, to appease the Southern peasants, and to check the growing discontent among the townspeople, who were demanding greater freedom. No one expected Soulouque to display the tact of a statesman; but, as a soldier, he had strong ideas as to order and discipline. Highly flattered at the honor conferred upon him he was sincerely desirous of devoting his best efforts to the proper management of affairs of State. He tried his utmost to comply with the exigencies of the Constitution; he even went so far as to choose his Ministers from the ranks of the opposition. His opponents conducted themselves with little regard for the President's susceptibility and did not hesitate to reproach him with his ignorance. The anger this caused Soulouque, whose lack of knowledge was well known to those who had elected him, made him distrustful. He was in one of these cheerless moods when, on the 16th of April, 1848, a riot occurred at Port-au-Prince. The disturbance was quickly subdued, and Soulouque made use of this opportunity to crush all revolutionary tendencies. He wielded authority with an iron hand; peasants and townspeople were made to understand that armed manifestations would be most severely dealt with, which had the effect of producing quiet in the land.

This duty accomplished, Soulouque's next care was to see to the hostilities still in progress with the former Spanish territory. In order to stop the incursions of the Dominicans he determined to bring them back to the authority of the Haitian Government. He opened a campaign against them on the 5th of March, 1849. The army under his command at first met with success. Azua was stormed; once more the way to Santo Domingo was clear. But the news of discontent existing at Port-au-Prince, which reached Soulouque, arrested his further progress and caused him to return with the army to his capital. He was made to believe that the powers vested in him were not sufficient to allow him to maintain peace and order whilst engaged in bringing the former Spanish portion of the island into submission. And the officers of the army were of the opinion that the only way to put an end to the existing discord and agitation was by conferring absolute power on their chief. In consequence they drew up a petition, and on the 29th of August, 1849, Soulouque was proclaimed Emperor of Haiti; and on the 18th of April, 1852, he was crowned, together with his wife, in the Cathedral of Port-au-Prince. Under the name of Faustin I he was henceforth free to rule the country according to his will. Quiet prevailed as the result of this change and agriculture became flourishing.

Emboldened by the sudden retreat of the Haitian army, the Dominicans had resumed their depredations. Their flotilla went as far as Dame-Marie, which they plundered and set on fire. Faustin I decided to start a new campaign against them. In 1855 he invaded the territory of the Dominican Republic. But, owing to insufficient preparation, the army was soon in want of victuals and ammunition. In spite of the bravery of the soldiers the Emperor had once more to give up the idea of restoring unity of government in the island. After this campaign Great Britain and France interfered and obtained an armistice on behalf of the Dominicans. Later on these two Powers did their utmost to prevent Haiti from availing herself of the opportunity of subduing her former citizens. In this they had the hearty support of the United States. At that time the Americans did not object to enter into an agreement with Europe in order to help to terrify Haiti. In the following instructions to his agent at Port-au-Prince, Mr. Webster, then Secretary of State, did not try to conceal his intention of provoking an armed intervention:[1] "The material interests of the three countries (France, Great Britain and the United States)," he wrote, "are largely involved in the restoration and preservation of peace between the contending parties in Santo Domingo. France is a creditor of the Government of the Emperor Soulouque to a large amount. She cannot hope for a discharge of her debt when the resources of his country, instead of being developed by pacific pursuits and in part, at least, applied to that purpose, are checked in their growth and wasted in a war with a conterminous state. Great Britain and France are both interested in securing that great additional demand for their productions which must result from the impulse to be expected for industry in Haiti and the Dominican Republic from a termination of the war; and the United States have a similar interest. … If the Emperor Soulouque shall insist upon maintaining a belligerent attitude until all his demands shall have been satisfied by the opposite party, you will unite with your colleagues in remonstrating against this course on his part. If the remonstrance shall prove to be unavailing, you will signify to the Emperor that you shall give immediate notice to your Government, that the President, with the concurrence of Congress, may adopt such measures, in cooperation with the governments of England and France, as may cause the intervention of the three Powers to be respected."[2]

This agreement accounts for the attitude of Great Britain and France, who neglected none of the means in their power to prevent Faustin I from pressing Haiti's legitimate claim concerning Navassa Island, of which some citizens of the United States had unduly taken possession.[3] Yet the representatives of these two Powers had been the first to inform the Emperor of the seizure of this portion of the Haitian territory by the Americans.

The sufferings endured by the soldiers during the campaign of 1855, the losses and sacrifices inflicted on the country without compensation or practical result provoked great discontent. The responsibility for the failure of the undertaking was cast on the Emperor. Confidence in him was shaken; however, the Empire might yet have been saved by taking wise measures in regard to the interests and welfare of the people. But the Government, in order to maintain its authority, resorted instead to intimidation and violence, which method had once proven to be successful. No regard was paid to public liberty. Bad financial measures, added to a faulty management of the nation's revenues, soon aggravated the situation. The Emperor was still feared, but his prestige was entirely gone. Those who had cause to dread his anger began to plot against him. Even his partisans ended by seeking to come to an agreement with the enlightened Haitians who were endeavoring to obtain more freedom for their fellow-citizens.

Such was the state of affairs when General Fabre Geffrard considered that the time had come for the overthrow of the man who had, in reality, assumed dictatorial power. On the night of December 20, 1858, he left Port-au-Prince in a small boat, accompanied only by his son and two trusty followers, Ernest Boumain and Jean-Bart. On the 22d he arrived at Gonaives, where the insurrection broke out. The Republic was acclaimed and the Constitution of 1846 was adopted. On the 23d of December the Departmental Committee, which had been organized, divested Faustin Soulouque of his office and appointed Fabre Geffrard President of Haiti. Cap-Haitien and the whole Department of Artibonite joined in the restoration of the Republic.

Soulouque tried to maintain his authority, but all in vain; the monarchic system was too unpopular to find any supporters. On the 12th of January, 1859, General Geffrard, at the head of the republican army, had established his headquarters on the Drouillard plantation, at a short distance from Port-au-Prince, which he entered on the 15th of January without striking a blow. In the afternoon of the same day Faustin Soulouque embarked on the English frigate Melburn, which took him to Jamaica.[4] Monarchy had forever ceased to exist in Haiti.

  1. Santo Domingo and the United States, by John Bassett Moore, Review of Reviews, March, 1905, p. 298.
  2. "When Mr. Webster wrote these instructions," says Mr. Moore, "Great Britain and France had agreed, if the advice of the Powers was not taken immediately, to institute a hostile blockade of the Haitian ports. In this act of war the President of the United States was unable to take part without the authority of Congress, and it was to this fact that Mr. Webster referred when he stated that, in case the Haitian Government should refuse to yield to remonstrance, the President would lay the matter before Congress, in order that the United States might be enabled to co-operate with the governments of England and France in measures to 'cause the intervention of the three Powers to be respected.'"
  3. J. N. Léger, La Politique Extérieure d'Haiti, p. 99.
  4. Soulouque died at Petit-Goave (Haiti), on August 6, 1867.