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

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Nissage Saget (March 19, 1870–May 14, 1874)—Redeeming the paper money—The Batsch incident—The Hornet incident—The Dominican incident—The Haitians send a gold medal to Senator Charles Sumner—At the expiration of his term of office Nissage Saget leaves Port-au-Prince for Saint-Marc.

The National Assembly met at Port-au-Prince on the 19th of March, 1870, and elected General Nissage Saget President of Haiti for a term of four years, expiring on the 15th of May, 1874.

The terrible crisis through which the country had just passed had made a deep impression on the people. The new President did his utmost to observe the Constitution of 1867 gained at the cost of so much sacrifice. The liberals were in full possession of the authority. Unfortunately, they were not circumspect in their conduct, and instead of trying little by little to extend public liberty, they endeavored to force a sudden change upon the country by introducing the parliamentary system; they tried to subject the Executive Power to the legislative body; and those members of the Cabinet who were not in sympathy with the House of Representatives were compelled to relinquish their offices. Misunderstandings with the President ensued. Notwithstanding, some useful reforms took place, the most important of them being the redeeming of the paper money. This measure was authorized by a law enacted on the 24th of August, 1872. In order to carry it out, a loan was floated in Haiti, whose currency became from that time up to 1883 the silver and gold coins of the United States.

But unexpected events almost occasioned grave international complications. During the war between Germany and France the Haitians openly showed their sympathy for the latter country. Germany took exception to their attitude, for which they were made to expiate as soon as she had crushed France. Under the pretext of demanding the payment of £3,000 on behalf of two subjects of the German Empire, Captain Batsch, of the frigate Vineta, arrived at Port-au-Prince on the 11th of June, 1872. Without a word of warning he took possession of the two Haitian men-of-war, which, not expecting such an aggression, were lying at anchor in the harbor and unable to make the slightest resistance. Indignant at this unjust and most uncalled-for attack, the Haitian people, as their national poet[1] expressed it, "threw the money to the Germans as one would cast a bone to a dog." Captain Batsch took the amount, gave back the two men-of-war, and left Port-au-Prince. But the resentment caused by his unwarranted action has not yet passed away.

Another grave conflict was provoked by Spain. This Power had never missed a single opportunity to humiliate Haiti, which, consequently, was quite indifferent to its reverses and misfortunes. Haiti naturally sympathized with the Cubans who were fighting for their independence; her territory had become an asylum for all the unfortunate families who were compelled to fly for their safety. At the height of the struggle, the Hornet, a small steamer flying the flag of the United States, arrived at Port-au-Prince on January, 1871, hotly pursued by two Spanish men-of-war. At that time the American Navy was not as formidable as in 1898. The Hornet was charged with being a pirate and with having on board contraband of war intended for the Cuban insurgents; in consequence the Spaniards imperiously demanded that she be given up to them. The United States Minister immediately interposed, declaring that the Hornet was a bona-fide American steamer. Therefore, Haiti refused to deliver up the ship. She remained firm in her decision in spite of the presence of the Spanish men-of-war in the harbor of Port-au-Prince and of the open threats of the representative of Spain. The Consul of that country had gone so far as to address an ultimatum to the Haitian Secretary of Foreign Affairs on the 5th of October, 1871, demanding the delivery of the Hornet within twenty-four hours. The dispute was assuming a very threatening aspect for Haiti, when the United States decided to relieve that country of all further responsibility in the matter; in consequence, the man-of-war Congress was despatched to Port-au-Prince, with instructions to convoy the Hornet either to Baltimore or to New York. This steamer eventually left Port-au-Prince in January, 1872, her sailing putting an end to the controversy between Haiti and Spain.

Whilst this incident was causing much trouble to the Haitian Government, the United States were making strong representations concerning the Dominican Republic. President Grant had seen fit to sign a treaty for the annexation of that Republic with President Baez. As was to be expected, the Dominicans became highly incensed at those who were making a traffic of their independence, and rose up in arms against the government which had betrayed their trust. The two leaders of the insurrection, Generals Cabral and Luperon, entered a protest against the treaty of annexation. Nevertheless, the United States endeavored to hold Haiti responsible for the disturbances; and in January, 1870, Mr. Bassett, at that time American Minister at Port-au-Prince, notified the Haitian Government that his country was in negotiations with Baez and requested Haiti to refrain or desist from any interference in the Dominican affairs. This request the Haitian Government promised to observe; nevertheless, on the 9th of February, 1871, the Secretary of State, Mr. Hamilton Fish, wrote to his Minister at Port-au-Prince, saying that it would be difficult to lend entire credence to the assurances given by Haiti.[2]

The energetic opposition against the treaty of annexation, led in the United States Senate by the Honorable Charles Sumner, made President Grant decide to send a Commission to Santo Domingo. Two of the Commissioners, Senator Wade and Doctor Howe, accompanied by Mr. Frederick Douglass, their secretary, arrived at Port-au-Prince on the 3d of March, 1871, on board of the United States man-of-war Tennessee. On the following day they were received by the President, and the exchange of views which took place between them tended to dispel the misunderstanding which was about to alter the good relations existing between the two countries. At the end of the interview Dr. Howe mentioned that he was a personal friend of Senator Charles Sumner, whereupon President Saget warmly shook hands with him and told him to transmit that handshake to the Senator from Massachusetts as coming from the whole Republic of Haiti.

On the refusal of the United States Senate to approve the treaty signed with President Baez, some Haitians started a public subscription with the object of presenting Senator Sumner with a gold medal. Owing to his office the Senator could not accept the medal, which was therefore deposited in the Library of the State House at Boston. His portrait was, in pursuance of a law enacted in July, 1871, placed in the Haitian House of Representatives, and when he died the national flag on all public buildings in Haiti hung at half-mast for three days in token of regret.

In 1872 Captain Carpenter of the United States ship Nantasket, at that time in the harbor of Cap-Haitien, occasioned some concern to the inhabitants of that town. On the 19th of April, without a word of explanation to the Haitian authorities, a party from the man-of-war landed at the Carenage[3] with a howitzer mounted on a gun-carriage. A company of the Twenty-seventh Regiment immediately started out to find out the meaning of it, whereupon the Americans reembarked with their howitzer and returned to the Nantasket. General Nord Alexis, who was at that time in command of the department, wrote at once to the United States Consul at Cap-Haitien asking for an explanation; the reply was that Captain Carpenter's sole object was to find out the time it would take to land and reembark a piece of artillery; proper regrets were expressed to the Haitian Government and the incident was declared closed.

In spite of these few minor troubles with the foreign Powers, peace remained undisturbed, and the term of office of the President was nearing its end when he found himself in a somewhat embarrassing predicament. The House of Representatives and the Senate, which had met in April, 1874, were to assemble in National Assembly in order to elect a new President. There were two candidates for the office: Michel Domingue, Commandant of the Southern Department, supported by Nissage Saget and his followers, and Pierre Monplaisir Pierre, the candidate of the liberal party. In the legislative body the Domingue party was led by Septimus Rameau, a representative from Cayes, whilst Boyer Bazelais, one of the representatives from Port-au-Prince, was at the head of the Monplaisir Pierre faction. In the House of Commons the validity of the election of Boyer Bazelais was hotly contested by his opponents, whose motion for unseating him was nevertheless not adopted; thereupon they withdrew from the House, creating what is called a dissidence. For want of quorum the legislative body could not do any practical work. In the mean time, the month of May began; on the 15th the term of office of Nissage Saget was to come to an end. The liberal party tried to persuade him to remain in power until his successor could be elected. This he emphatically refused to do, and on the 14th of May, 1874, he relinquished his high office into the hands of the Council of the Secretaries of State, having previously appointed Michel Domingue Commander-in-Chief of the Haitian Army. On the 20th of May he left Port-au-Prince for Saint-Marc, where he lived up to the time of his death, which occurred on the 7th of April, 1880.

  1. Mr. Oswald Durand.
  2. Mr. Fish to Mr. Bassett.

    "Department of State, No. 58.
    Washington, February 9, 1871.

    "Sir: … The assurances offered to you by the Haitian Government as to its disposition to keep wholly neutral in the contest between the Dominican parties, severally headed by Baez and Cabral, do not seem to be expressed in a way to inspire perfect confidence in their sincerity. If it be borne in mind that, for a considerable period, both the Spanish and the French parts of the island of San Domingo were under the sole dominion of Haiti, that it has been the policy of that government not only to oppose the independence of the Spanish part of the island, but to prevent its occupation by a foreign power, the difficulty of lending entire credence to any assurances which that government may give as to its indisposition to interfere in Dominican affairs will be apparent. The protest of the Haitians against the recent attempt of Spain to regain her foothold in that island is fresh in the recollection of the public.…" (Papers relating to the Foreign Relations of the U. S., Washington, 1871, p. 566.)

  3. A suburb of Cap-Haitien.