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

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Fabre Geffrard (December 23, 1858–March 13, 1867)—Concordat with the Vatican—Reforms made by Geffrard: diffusion of public instruction; law permitting marriage between foreigners and Haitians—Attempt to induce the colored people of the United States to go to Haiti—Geffrard tried to have the whole island neutralized—Annexation of the Dominican Republic by Spain—The Rubalcava incident—Salnave takes up arms at Cap-Haitien—The Bulldog incident—Bombardment of Cap-Haitien by British men-of-war—Mr. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States, at Port-au-Prince—Geffrard leaves Haiti.

Geffrard, appointed President of the Republic on the 23d of December, 1858, took the oath of office on the 20th of January, 1859. He entered at once upon new negotiations with the Holy See concerning the situation of the Catholic clergy in Haiti. The parleys on this subject had begun in the first days of the independence of the country. The Pope was persistent in his idea of sending an Apostolic Prefect to Haiti and, in consequence, of having the high control of the church; whilst the Haitian rulers insisted upon having the right to participate in the appointment of the archbishops and bishops. There was such a firm determination on the part of the Haitians not to receive an Apostolic Prefect that the Vatican gave way to them. On the 28th of March, 1860, the Concordat which still rules the relations of Haiti with the Holy See was signed at Rome.

Until Geffrard's advent the foreigners in Haiti, whilst enjoying the greatest protection, were subjected to many restrictions; thus they were not allowed to marry the natives. On the 18th of October, 1860, a law was enacted authorizing such marriages.

Although Haiti had been holding intercourse with all the civilized Powers, the partisans of slavery in the United States continued to bear their old grudge against her. But the war of secession brought more cordial relations between the two countries, and on November 3, 1864, they signed at Port-au-Prince a treaty of amity, commerce, navigation, and for the extradition of fugitive criminals.[1]

Geffrard did all in his power to assist the men of the black race in the United States, who, on account of color prejudice, were exposed to cruel humiliations; he sent an agent to New York intrusted with the mission to induce them to emigrate to Haiti. But his attempt at colonization failed as a similar attempt made by Boyer had failed. The immigration idea was unpopular both in Haiti and among those who were to benefit by it. Therefore it was abandoned.

Geffrard's government failed also in its endeavors to secure the neutralization of the whole island. Still his overtures had met with the good will of the principal Powers of Europe; but the United States refused to participate in a treaty of guarantee;[2] and Europe did not care to act without their support.

This failure of Haitian diplomacy, unavoidable by reason of the policy then followed by the United States, was compensated for by the successful carrying out of some valuable measures adopted in Haiti. The army was reorganized and put upon a solid basis; discipline was strictly observed. Geffrard gave also his best attention to the diffusion of public instruction; many primary and high schools were established in the country. The School of Medicine was reorganized and even a School of Music established. And in order to have competent teachers and professors the Republic sent young Haitians to Europe to make or complete their studies at its expense.

Literature, which during Geffrard's administration had made unusual progress, produced new ideas in the minds of the people, who began to aspire to the greater security of public liberty.

At the outset Geffrard had met with grave difficulties. The former followers of Soulouque, whom the sudden downfall of the Emperor had taken by surprise, began at once to try to regain possession of the power. In September, 1859, a conspiracy led by General Prophète, a member of Faustin's Cabinet, was discovered.

In 1861 the Haitian Government had a new source of anxiety. In March the President of the Dominican Republic, betraying the trust placed in him, had transferred his country to Spain; once more the eastern portion of the island became a Spanish colony. The people who desired to remain an independent State protested against the President's treacherous act by resorting to arms. Spain held Haiti responsible for this resistance to her authority. A fleet under Admiral Rubalcava's command anchored in July in the harbor of Port-au-Prince and threatened to bombard the city. The matter was settled without any serious consequences. But the incident served to show the Haitians the danger there was for them to have one of the great European Powers as their close neighbor. And when in 1863 the Dominicans rose against Spain's authority, all the sympathy of the Haitian people was for those who were struggling for their independence. In 1865 the Spaniards were once more compelled to give up a colony which had cost them the sacrifice of so much life. Haiti might have profited by this opportunity to demand from the Dominicans at least some guarantee for the future. But President Geffrard reckoned too much upon their thankfulness, and they soon forgot the help that had been given them. In his own country there were many restless and disorderly spirits who unceasingly absorbed the President's attention. A liberal policy might have appeased the people; but restraint irritated them. A new attempt at parliamentary government had just failed; and the President, by a Decree of June 8, 1863, had dissolved the House of Representatives. On June 19 General Aimé Legros and his accomplices who had tried to provoke an insurrection were court-martialed and sentenced to death. This severity did not prevent Major Sylvain Salnave from creating fresh disturbances at Cap-Haitien on July 13, 1864. Failing in his attempt, he had left Haiti ; but on the 7th of May, 1865, he suddenly appeared at Ouanaminthe, on the Haitian-Dominican borders; and, accompanied by many Dominican sympathizers, he reached Cap-Haitien, of which he took possession on the 9th of May. Closely surrounded in this town, he nevertheless managed to keep at bay all the forces of the Government. In August the President left Port-au-Prince and assumed the command of the army, whose headquarters were established at l'Acul, at a distance of four leagues from Cap-Haitien.

On the 19th of October, 1865, the Jamaica Packet, a British merchant ship, appeared in the port of l'Acul, loaded with arms, ammunition, and victuals for the Government's troops. The insurgent steamer Providence at once gave chase to the Jamaica Packet, but was prevented from capturing the ship by the intervention of the British man-of-war Bulldog. There ensued a heated altercation between the commander of the Providence and the commander of the Bulldog, the latter being charged with giving his protection to a ship in the service of President Geffrard. When this incident became known at Cap-Haitien there prevailed a very high feeling against the English; and Salnave, whose impetuosity knew no bounds, caused some of his opponents to be arrested at the British Consulate, where they had taken refuge, forbidding at the same time all intercourse between the inhabitants of the town and the crew of the Bulldog.

Captain Walker, of the United States man-of-war De Soto, made use of every means in his power to avoid a conflict. But on the 23d of October, without any warning, the commander of the Bulldog opened fire on the fortifications of Cap-Haitien. The fire was immediately returned, the insurgents having accepted the fight forced on them. The gunners of the Bulldog quickly sank the Providence; but the shot of the land battery damaged one of the boilers of the English man-of-war, which, during the fight, had grounded on a reef. Captain Wake, seeing that it was impossible to save his ship, blew her up that night at about 9 o'clock, going with the wounded and the members of his crew on board the De Soto.

Following up this incident the British Chargé d'Affaires arrived in the harbor of Cap-Haitien on board a man-of-war. He failed to obtain the satisfaction he asked for; therefore on the 9th of November the frigate Galatea and other British men-of-war bombarded Cap-Haitien.[3]

Availing themselves of the excitement reigning in the ranks of the insurgents by this aggression of a great Power, the government troops attacked and stormed the town. The insurrection was thus stamped out. But Salnave and his principal allies had had time to fly for refuge on board the De Soto.

Great Britain's action produced a disastrous effect. The Haitians as a rule always look askance on the interference of foreigners in their affairs. The balls of the English cannon had, as it were, deeply wounded the national pride. They caused all the good done by Geffrard to be forgotten; he completely lost his popularity, which not even the visit paid him in January, 1866, by Mr. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States, could bring back to him. The favorable impression produced by this courtesy was lost sight of, owing to the events which occurred one after the other at Gonaives and Saint-Marc. And to crown the agitation of the year 1866, at four o'clock on the morning of September 12 the arsenal of Port-au-Prince exploded; many lives were lost and great damage was done to property.

The President became thoroughly disheartened by all these disturbances and catastrophes, which reached a climax when his favorite regiment, the "Tirailleurs," mutinied and opened fire on the Executive Mansion on the night of February 23, 1867. Entertaining many delusions as to the efficiency of the measures he had introduced in order to secure the welfare of the country, Geffrard became convinced of the deep ingratitude of the people proved by their violent opposition. On the 13th of March, 1867, he resigned his office and left for Jamaica, where he spent the remainder of his life, his death occurring on the 31st of December, 1878.

In restoring the Republic Geffrard had made a great mistake in accepting the Presidency for life. Had a term been fixed for the duration of his power, his opponents would have been more patient, and his administration would have marked the beginning of a new epoch for Haiti. Ideas of reform and progress were uppermost in the minds of the people. A strong reaction had followed the downfall of the monarchy. After the long period of restraint enforced by Soulouque, the Haitians once aroused were not to be easily repressed; they wished to secure then and there the reign of liberty. This ideal of political liberty and freedom of thought was to be the cause later on of much unpleasant friction and disagreement with the Executive Power, always slow in yielding to public opinion. This accounts for the great number of disturbances which had to be suppressed by Geffrard's government.

  1. J. N. Léger, Recueil des Traités et Conventions d'Haiti, p. 84. The treaty of the 3d of November, 1864, was denounced in May, 1904, and has been replaced partly by a treaty for the extradition of fugitive criminals signed at Washington on the 9th of August, 1904. In 1902 Haiti signed a convention on naturalization with the United States.
  2. J. N. Léger, La Politique Extérieure d'Haiti, pp. 145-157.
  3. Concerning this incident, refer to Mr. Peck's letter to Mr. Seward, December 11, 1865. (Papers relating to Foreign Affairs, 1867, part II.)