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

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Florville Hyppolite (October 9, 1889–March 24, 1896)—The United States try to gain possession of Môle Saint-Nicolas—The United States and Samana Bay—Incident with France concerning Haitians registered at the French Legation—The Chicago Exposition—Telegraph—Telephone—Public works—Death of Hyppolite.

The Constituent Assembly met at Gonaives on the 24th of September, 1889; and after amending the Constitution, elected on the 9th of October General Hyppolite President of Haiti for seven years. He took the oath of office on the 17th of the same month. As soon as he assumed the power he had to settle a very delicate matter. Considering that they were entitled to some recognition for the sympathy which they had shown for Hyppolite's cause, the United States decided that the time had come to try to get Môle Saint-Nicolas into their possession, with the intention of establishing a naval station. They were, however, greatly mistaken in supposing that the people of Haiti would be willing to give up a particle of their territory; popular feeling is very strong on this subject and all parties would at once unite against the President who would dare to place either the independence of the nation or the integrity of the territory in jeopardy. Unaware of this characteristic of the people, President Harrison, acting under the advice of Mr. Blaine, his Secretary of State, commissioned Rear-Admiral Bancroft Gherardi to negotiate for the acquisition of Môle Saint-Nicolas. With the intention, it would seem, to intimidate the Haitians, a formidable fleet was despatched to Port-au-Prince; over 100 guns and 2,000 men were sent to support the parleys. This array of force produced an effect very contrary to that which had been expected; it provoked instead the loud protest of the whole country, thereby compelling President Hyppolite to assume an attitude all the more firm through the fact of his having been suspected of being in sympathy with the Americans. From his flag-ship, the Philadelphia, Rear-Admiral Gherardi addressed his demand to the Haitian Government; his letter contained the following proviso: "So long as the United States may be the lessee of the Môle Saint-Nicolas, the Government of Haiti will not lease or otherwise dispose of any port or harbor or other territory in its dominions, or grant any special privileges or rights of use therein to any other Power, State, or Government."[1]

Rear-Admiral Gherardi was in so great a hurry to win that which he imagined would be an easy success, that he did not think it necessary to secure the cooperation of Mr. Frederick Douglass, who was at that time United States Minister at Port-au-Prince; he alone signed the letter. Mr. A. Firmin, then Haitian Secretary of State for Exterior Relations, availed himself at once of this blunder to request the credentials of the Rear-Admiral, who, not being provided with any, was obliged to write to Washington for them. When President Harrison's letter appointing Bancroft Gherardi his special Commissioner reached Port-au-Prince, public opinion was in such a state of excitement by the protracted sojourn of the powerful white squadron in Haitian waters, that it would have been impossible for President Hyppolite even so much as to attempt to grant the slightest advantage to the United States. The Secretary for Exterior Relations clung tenaciously to the Constitution, which forbids the alienation of any portion of the territory. This ended the matter.[2]

But President Harrison and Mr. Blaine were not discouraged by this failure. Still bent upon acquiring a naval station in the West Indies, they applied in 1892 to the Dominican Republic. Mr. Durham, who had replaced Mr. Douglass as Minister at Port-au-Prince and Charge d'Affaires at Santo Domingo, was instructed to lease Samana Bay for a term of ninety-nine years, for which the sum of $250,000 was to be paid. General Ignacio Gonzales, who was at that time Secretary of State for Exterior Relations in President Heureau's Cabinet, hesitated at taking upon himself the responsibility of signing such a lease, consequently, having disclosed the request made by the United States, he was obliged to fly from Santo Domingo into a self-imposed exile. These events caused both Presidents, Harrison and Heureau, to give up the negotiations.

The affair of Môle Saint-Nicolas once disposed of, Hyppolite's Government had to come to an understanding with the French Legation at Port-au-Prince concerning the practice it had been indulging in of late, of granting naturalizations on Haitian territory. Natives of Haiti who were able to lay claim to being of French descent would go to the legation and have themselves registered as French citizens. The Haitian Secretary of State of Foreign Relations undertook to put an end to this abuse, which could not be tolerated. After a long and tedious discussion on the subject, France at last yielded, and fully admitted Haiti's contention; she ordered her Minister at Port-au-Prince to cancel the names of all those who had not had the right to have them registered.

Hyppolite held friendly intercourse with all the Foreign Powers. In 1892 the Holy See proved its good will, toward the Republic of Haiti in accrediting a Delegate and Envoy Extraordinary to Port-au-Prince.

Desirous of extending her commerce and making her products known abroad, Haiti took part in the Chicago Exposition, where she won many high prizes.

President Hyppolite devoted his earnest attention to the public works of the country. Wharves were built in several ports; large markets were erected in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien. In several towns canals were constructed for the distribution of water to private houses. Telegraph lines connected the principal towns in the Republic at about the same time that the telephone was first introduced. The roads were kept in good repair; agriculture and commerce were in a flourishing condition. It now became possible for the Republic to redeem her internal debt, upon which she was paying interest at the rate of 18 per cent per annum; for this purpose a loan of 50,000,000 francs at 6 per cent per annum was floated in Paris in 1896.

That was the last important act of Hyppolite's Government. For some time the President, who was 69 years old, had not been in good health, and disregarding the friendly warnings of those who were interested in his welfare he refused to give up his hard work and to take the rest of which he was in sore need. Against the advice of his doctor he decided to undertake a long journey to Jacmel. He started on the 24th of March, 1896, at three o'clock in the morning, but before he even had time to leave Port-au-Prince he fell from his horse dead, in a fit of apoplexy, at a short distance from the Executive Mansion. His funeral took place on the 26th of March. The Council of Secretaries of State took charge of the affairs of the Government until the election of his successor.

Central Market, Port-au-Prince

  1. The North American Review, October, 1891—Haiti and the United States, by the Hon. Frederick Douglass.
  2. Frederick Douglass was wrongly held responsible for Rear-Admiral Gherardi's failure; he was replaced by Mr. Durham. No man would have succeeded; for the people of Haiti are always ready to resort to extreme measures in order to preserve the integrity of their territory or their sovereignty. The foreign Power which shows no regard for this sentiment by trying to take possession of a portion of the country must prepare to face a merciless struggle, to wage a war of extermination.