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

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Sylvain Salnave (June 14, 1867–December 19, 1869)—Constitution of 1867: abolition of the Presidency for life—Salnave becomes a dictator—Resistance of the country—Overthrow of Salnave; his trial and execution.

After Geffrard's departure the Council of the Secretaries of State became the supreme authority for a time. But in April, 1867, Sylvain Salnave arrived in Port-au-Prince, where he was given a hearty welcome, and on May 2 he became, together with Nissage Saget and Victorin Chevallier, a member of the provisional government which was organized. His adherents were displeased at this distribution of power, and under their pressure he assumed, on May 4, the title of "Protector of the Republic." The attitude of the masses and the growing popularity of Salnave began to occasion much concern to the liberals, who found themselves once more obliged to submit to a military man. This mistrust of their new leader boded ill for the tranquillity of the Republic. The National Assembly met at Port-au-Prince on the 6th of May, 1867, and on the 14th of June adopted a Constitution[1] which abolished the Presidency for life, the duration of the authority vested in the Chief of the Executive Power being fixed at four years. On the same day Salnave was elected President of Haiti. He gained the sympathy of the people by his courage and his simple tastes. But he was far from being a liberal; so much so in fact that he was soon at odds with the legislative body, which thought that the time had come to establish the parliamentary system. On the 11th of October, 1867, the rupture with Congress was complete, caused by an interpellation of the Cabinet by the House of Representatives concerning the arrest and imprisonment of General Leon Montas. About that time the peasants had taken up arms at Vallière against Salnave; and the General was charged with being the instigator, if not the leader, of the uprising. The members of the Cabinet openly accused the House of Representatives of being in connivance with the rebels; whereupon the mob invaded the House on the 14th of October and drove out the Congressmen. This ill-considered act of violence was followed by grave consequences. In the mean time, the President had left for Gonaives with a view of subduing the insurgents at Vallière, who had assumed the name of "Cacos."

By forcibly ejecting the members of the House of Representatives, Salnave had suspended the Constitution; yet he affected to believe that the opposition he met with was due to his limited authority. Accordingly, on the 22d of April, 1868, he committed yet another blunder by permitting the officers and non-commissioned officers of his army, whose headquarters were at Trou, to form a petition requesting the suspension of the Constitution and dictatorship for the head of the Executive Power. Thus Salnave reestablished the Presidency for life and arrogated unlimited power.

Nissage Saget, who was at that time Commandant of the arrondissement of Saint-Marc, took up arms against this usurpation. Once more frustrated in the hopes of having a government founded on legality and liberty, the country reached one of the most critical periods of its existence, as the insurrection soon became general. Pétion Faubert at Léogane, Normil at l'Anse-à-Veau, Domingue at Aquin, and Boisrond Canal at Pétionville and Croix-des-Bouquets, all rose up against the dictatorship assumed by Salnave, who was being besieged at Port-au-Prince. The insurgents from the South had their headquarters at Carrefour, at a distance of three leagues from the capital.

Salnave tried to come to terms with them; but failing in his attempt, he determined to rely henceforth on his energy and valor in maintaining his authority. He had the advantage of the unity of command over his opponents; for the rebels in the South had numerous leaders: Domingue, whose headquarters were at Cayes, Normil at l'Anse-à-Veau, etc.; whilst in the Artibonite, Nissage Saget's authority was fully acknowledged. In consequence of a counter-revolution which occurred at Léogane and in the mountains of Jacmel, the insurgents were compelled to raise the siege of Port-au-Prince on the 17th of July, 1868. They now felt the necessity of organizing their government; therefore, on September 19, 1868, Nissage Saget was proclaimed at Saint-Marc provisional President, whilst on the 22d of September Domingue was acknowledged President of the Meridianal State, with headquarters at Cayes.

Salnave's intrepidity gave him for a while all the chances of crushing his foes. He had purchased a steamer in the United States to replace the two men-of-war, Le 22 Décembre and Le Geffrard, which had gone over to the insurgents. The new steamer, which was given the name of Alexandre Pétion, arrived at Port-au-Prince on the 19th of September, 1868. The next day Salnave went on board and sailed for Petit-Goave, in which harbor the two steamers belonging to the rebels were anchored. The Alexandre Pétion opened fire on Le 22 Décembre, which was sunk; the commandant of the Geffrard blew up his ship so as to prevent her being captured.[2]

This success made Salnave master of Petit-Goave, which town the insurgents were compelled to evacuate. In February, 1869, the whole of the Southern Department was once more under his authority, with the exception of Jérémie and Cayes, which were closely surrounded. From Camp-Boudet, where he had established his headquarters, he personally directed the siege of Cayes, of which eventually he would have taken possession had not fortunes of war gone contrary to him in the Artibonite. His principal lieutenant, General Victorin Chevallier, had been obliged to evacuate Gonaives, which was occupied by Saget's troops. On their arrival at Port-au-Prince Chevallier's soldiers created such disturbances that Salnave had to leave Camp-Boudet hurriedly for the capital, where he arrived on the 1st of September, 1869. He had also at that time to fight the opposition of the Catholic clergy. On the 28th of June he had summarily dismissed Testar du Cosquer, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince; and had taken the same measure against Mr. Guilloux, the Vicar-General, on the 16th of October.

Salnave's position was getting worse; one of his most faithful followers, General Victorin Chevallier, Secretary of War, who was in command of the army surrounding Jacmel, deserted his cause in November and joined the insurrection. Salnave now began to reflect that he might yet be able to allay the discontent reigning throughout the country by relinquishing the absolute power he had usurped. In August, 1869, he appointed a Legislative Council. This body met in November and, reestablishing the Presidency for life assumed by Salnave, reenacted the Constitution of 1846. But it was too late to be of avail and the abolition of the dictatorship was powerless in saving the Government; for Cap-Haitien and the whole department of the Northwest had already joined the cause of the insurrection. A bold attack on Port-au-Prince at length put an end to this deplorable civil war. On the 18th of December, 1869, Generals Brice and Boisrond-Canal landed at the capital at the head of 1,200 soldiers; in the night they had surprised the Government man-of-war La Terreur. During the fight which ensued this ship began bombarding the Executive Mansion; a shot struck the powder magazine, causing it to explode just after Salnave had quitted the place. He succeeded in reaching the Dominican territory; but General Cabral, who was in sympathy with his opponents, betraying the trust he had placed in him, gave him up to the Haitians. On the 15th of January, 1870, Salnave arrived at Port-au-Prince, where he appeared before a court martial. He was sentenced to death and shot on the same day at six o'clock in the evening, tied to a pole set up on the smoking ruins of the Executive Mansion. Since then no President has ventured to accept or to assume the Presidency for life.

On the 27th of December, 1869, the following provisional government was organized: Nissage Saget, President; Michel Domingue, Vice-President; Nord Alexis, Dupont junior, and Volmar Laporte, members.

  1. The Constitution of 1867 was taken from the Constitution of 1843, with the alterations demanded by the existing circumstances.
  2. Salnave's ship was under the command of Captain Nickells, an American citizen. She entered the port of Petit-Goave flying the American flag, which was hauled down and replaced by the Haitian colors at the moment that she opened fire on Le 22 Décembre. Deceived by this abusive use of the colors of a friendly Power, the two steamers of the insurgents were taken by surprise and in this manner were easily destroyed.
    In October, 1868, Salnave transgressed once again upon international law. He was on board the Alexandre Pétion, which was bombarding Jérémie, when the American steamer Maratanza entered this harbor. Her owners were negotiating with the Haitian Government, which desired to purchase her. The diplomatic agent of the United States, Mr. G. H. Hollister, was on board, on his way from Port-au-Prince to Jérémie, there to confer with his Consul as to the best way of protecting American interests and citizens. Salnave went on board the Maratanza, which he bought at once. The American flag was hauled down and the Haitian colors were hoisted. Mr. Hollister was not allowed to land at Jérémie; and whilst he was still on board, the Maratanza joined in the bombardment of the town, in spite of his protest. (Papers relating to Foreign Affairs, Washington, 1869; part II, p. 364.)