Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part II: Chapter II

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Climate of Haiti—Sanitary condition—The absence of poisonous insects—Fauna—Flora: fruit-trees; vegetables—Fertility of the land.

The climate of Haiti, though very hot, does not endanger the lives of the foreigners. Persons coming from a cold country who land for the first time in Haiti run no greater risk than those who spend the summer in New York or Washington, where the heat is more oppressive on account of the humidity of the atmosphere. In general the climate of Haiti is dry. It all depends upon the newcomer's mode of living as to whether he will enjoy good or poor health. Many a time diseases have been attributed to the temperature when caused in reality by intemperance or bad hygiene.[1]

The warmest season of the year at Port-au-Prince begins about May. That which makes the tropical climate so trying is owing more to the continuous heat than to the intensity of it, the thermometer registering on an average 90° Fahrenheit during the month of August. During the daytime sea breezes moderate the heat, the nights being made quite pleasant by the land breeze. A very agreeable temperature can be obtained in the delightful hills which surround Port-au-Prince and are dotted here and there by country residences. Here the temperature at night is considerably cooler than in the city, and the absence of mosquitoes constitutes one of its greatest charms. Heavy rains cleanse and cool the atmosphere. The climate of Haiti has long been known for its healthiness. Moreau de St. Méry has said the following about it:[2]

"The great diversity of the climate and temperature of the island is owing to its configuration of alternate lofty mountains and deep valleys. This diversity is due chiefly to the situation of the island in the region of the trade-winds; Saint-Domingue is exposed in all its length to the east winds, which, entering into the spaces between the mountain-ranges, form channels of air which serve to cool the temperature of these mountains, an advantage not enjoyed by the plains, where the mountains sometimes deviate the winds. Apart from these causes many local circumstances, such as the altitude of the land, the quantity of water which irrigates it, the scarcity or the abundance of forests, affect the climate greatly.

"If a powerful cause did not counteract the effect of the heat of the sun, which is always intense in the torrid zone, and whose beams during three months of the year fall at right angle on Saint-Domingue, the temperature of this island would be unbearable to man. … That which causes this counteracting effect is the wind to which allusion has just been made and whose healthful coolness tempers the heat of the sun. To this can be added the influence of the equality in duration between days and nights and also the influence of the abundant rains which water profusely the surface of the island and have a cooling effect on the air through evaporation caused by the heat. … The difference between the two seasons (summer and winter) is more distinguishable in the mountains than in the cities. In the mountains the temperature is a milder, there is neither that oppressive heat nor those strong breezes which dry up the air instead of cooling and freshening it. For this reason life in the mountains is more pleasant than in the plains. … the mountains the thermometer seldom rises above 18 or 20 degrees[3] centigrade, whilst in the plains and in the towns it registers on an average as high as 30 degrees.[4] The nights are sometimes cool enough to necessitate the use of a blanket; in some of the mountains of Saint-Domingue it is often necessary to build a fire. This is not owing to the intensity of the cold, the temperature being only 12 or 14 degrees centigrade,[5] but on account of the contrast of this temperature with that felt during the day and which produces a sensation that is not rightly expressed by the words cold and hot as they are generally understood in a cold country."[6]

All that Moreau de St. Méry wrote about the climate of Haiti is still true of it. Nevertheless, in their frenzy of misrepresentation the detractors of Haiti spare not even her climate; they make it out to be a menace to the life of foreigners. As a matter of fact, these detractors generally know little or nothing of Haiti; after a stay of a few hours or a day or two in one of the cities or towns they take upon themselves to speak ex cathedra about the country, its inhabitants, customs, etc.

Besides the numerous residences in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, at Turgeau, Peu-de-Chose, etc., which, nestling in their picturesque setting of green, offer a pleasant change from the heat of the city, there can be found in the surrounding mountains several places cool enough to bear comparison with many of the summer resorts in the United States. Pétionville or La Coupe, at an altitude of 500 metres above the sea level, is scarcely an hour's drive from Port-au-Prince; the nights there are always cool and pleasant. Beyond Pétionville, at a distance of 17 kilometres from the capital, is Furcy at an altitude of 1,540 metres, whose forest of pines was once of great beauty, but is now very much impaired through the felling of the trees. In August the thermometer here registers as low as 10 degrees centigrade or 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This delightful temperature and the exquisite beauty of the scenery have made Furcy extremely popular among visitors to the island, Europeans especially, who seldom miss the opportunity of spending a few days in this place. In order to escape the severity of the winter the wealthy people of the United States will go some day to Furcy and there recuperate their strength and repose their minds in the enjoyment of a balmy climate. When Haiti becomes better known abroad Furcy will surely take her place as one of the most delightful of summer resorts.

Everywhere in the vicinity of the towns can be found cool and beautiful spots where one may escape from the heat. Death by sunstroke is unknown in Haiti; and the heat there does not kill people as it does in New York and many other cities of the United States during the summer.

The drought and the rainy season succeed each other regularly. At Port-au-Prince the rainy season begins about April and lasts until late in November; it showers mostly in the afternoon and at night.

In the South, at Cayes, heavy rains occur in May and October; the rivers and streams, of which there are many in the vicinity of this town, overflow their banks and inundate the plain; they fertilize the soil, but when excessive occasionally inflict great losses upon the inhabitants. The north wind which begins to blow in December occasions the drought, when the weather becomes very dry and cool.

The sanitary condition of Haiti is very unlike that which it is represented to be abroad; it is in reality better than in many countries. Yellow fever and smallpox do not exist in the island, except when brought over from some neighboring country. Typhoid fever is so uncommon that it is believed that very often doctors have mistaken some fevers peculiar to the country for that disease.[7]

Without any intention of finding fault or of making comparisons, I cannot, however, help noticing that typhoid fever and smallpox are endemic in many of the cities of the United States, and that in Washington, for instance, cases of these diseases can be found throughout the year. It would surely be unjust to infer from this that Washington or the United States is a source of danger to the world. Yet newspapers in the United States have often undertaken to pervert public opinion against Haiti by representing it as the seat of all kinds of diseases. According to them the Federal Government ought to make it its duty to take possession of the island in order to compel its inhabitants to comply with the rules of hygiene.

These declamations have had a bad effect on the minds of those who, knowing nothing about Haiti, are led to believe that her sanitary condition is a great danger. This opinion would not long be entertained if the sanitary condition of this country were compared in good faith with the numerous contagious and infectious diseases which claim so many victims in some cities of the United States. However, this cannot justly be made a subject of reproach to the Americans; for few people take as much care as they do of public health; few nations are as prompt as the United States always is to ward off and fight against diseases, regardless of cost or sacrifice. The endemic smallpox and typhoid fever which exist in Washington do not prevent that city from being exceedingly clean and healthy. Nowhere is there more ease, nor are the rules of hygiene, prophylactic or otherwise, better enforced than there. Nevertheless, foreigners who have lived in Washington but a short time have often been heard to say that it is a dangerous place on account of its diseases. This hastily formed opinion has as slight a foundation as that generally heard on the sanitary condition of Haiti.

Haiti is not a Garden of Eden from which human infirmities have been banished; its inhabitants are in no wise exempt from the sufferings and diseases that fall to man's lot; but those sufferings and diseases are no greater here than they are elsewhere. Tuberculosis, for instance, whose victims in Europe and America cannot be numbered, is quite unknown among the country people in Haiti. But bilious fever is very common and malaria exists in many places.

The country life is more pleasant from the fact that there are no dangerous animals or poisonous insects or reptiles; neither are there any venomous vipers. Such snakes as exist here are harmless and always ready to flee upon the approach of man. The climate is so mild that the country people need not close their windows and doors at night; they very often sleep in the open air. Yet cases of death caused by the stings of insects are unheard of. In some places, towns principally, flies and mosquitoes are a great nuisance; but these can be got rid of by taking the proper precautions.

Among the reptiles there are many different kinds of lizards, all of them quite harmless.

Birds are very numerous in Haiti, there being at least 40 varieties of them, of which 17 are peculiar to the country.[8] Among the best known are the nightingale, humming-bird, swallow, finch or cardinal-bird, ortolan, turtle-dove, quail, wood-pigeon, teal, wild duck, waterhen, plover, oyster-catcher, flamingo, woodpecker, parrot, etc.

There is a great variety of beautiful butterflies; there are wasps whose sting is very painful, and bees which produce a superior quality of honey.

The only wild animals which exist in Haiti are boars, wild goats, and wild oxen; and they are to be found only in some of the adjacent islands—l'Ile-à-Vaches, Tortuga, etc.

Land-crabs, fresh water and sea-turtles are to be had in great abundance and are much sought after as food.

The following is a list of the chief fruits of the country: star-apple, guava, mango, sappodilla or nasebury, peach, plum, West-Indian mammee, orange, tangerine, lime, sweet lemon, bread-fruit, alligator-pear, chestnut, sour-sop, sweet-sop, pineapple, custard-apple, rose-apple, date, wild strawberry, banana, watermelon, muskmelon, grenadilla, sweet-cup, papaw, etc.

The lofty cocoanut-tree furnishes the thirsty traveler with cool water of delicious flavor, the interior of the nut, when young, being lined with a soft, sweet, jellylike substance, which hardens with age to the thickness of an inch. The palmetto (palmiste), which abounds in the island, produces an edible shoot, the cabbage palm, which is considered a great delicacy and is prepared as a salad.

Port-au-Prince is well known for the fair quality of its vegetables; nowhere can there be found better artichokes, finer green peas, beets and carrots, eggplants, lettuce, turnips, and so great a variety of beans[9] and juicy fruit. Other vegetables grown are yams, plantains, sweet potatoes, etc. Throughout the country the necessities of material life can be easily satisfied; food is wholesome, plentiful, and nourishing.

Nature does not limit her bounty to providing Haiti with such things only as are necessary for the bodily wants of its inhabitants. Her prodigality is seen on every hand in the luxuriant foliage which clothes the hills and valleys throughout the entire year with green from the tenderest to the deepest shades, and varied by large flowering-trees and brightly colored leaves, making up scenes of unsurpassed beauty that meet one's gaze at every turn. From January to December flowers bloom in profusion, delighting the eye with a variety of coloring and scenting the air with their fragrance. The atmosphere is often heavy with the perfume of such flowers as jasmine, tuberose, camellia, and many other beautiful plants unknown outside the tropics. The large flamboyant-tree (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) displays on coast and hill-tops alike the crimson glory of its blooms against the soft green of the surrounding foliage, and lights up the scene with its vivid glow as of a lighthouse placed by nature for the guidance of invisible travelers. The cockscomb (Celosia cristata) empurples the fields with its velvet clusters, with here and there a touch of gold where the sunflower sways on its slender stalk, still another color being added to the scene by the deep pink blossoms of the coralilla (belle Mexicaine) (Antigonon leptopus), which runs along the hedges and hangs in graceful clusters from the surrounding bushes. Along the country waysides and in the fields are to be seen varieties of wild begonia, fuschia, lilac, rose-bay, marigold, reseda, the large trumpet-like flower of the datura, many varieties of lilies and wild roses, whilst in the cool of the mountains, along the banks of the streams, grow masses of wild forget-me-nots. Around the humblest peasant's hut the fragrance of flowers perfumes the air; climbing-jasmine, the honeysuckle, the sweet verbena, hidden in the bushes, reveal their presence by their sweet odor, mixed up with that of the mint which in some places carpets the ground. The convolvulus vine engarlands trees on whose trunks and branches wild orchids bloom. The fairy-like beauty of the scene is still more enchanting when seen with every leaf and blade of grass glistening with dew, shining like diamonds as they are lit up by the rays of the early sun. The very swamps are made beautiful by the nelumbo and the nenuphar, which spread over the stagnant waters, hiding them from sight by their large leaves and their yellow and white flowers.

Each hour of day seems to bring out some new beauty in the landscape. As the sun sinks slowly in the west, in a blaze of color such as is seen only in a tropical sunset, a gentle breeze passes caressingly on the land, carrying with it the faint fragrance of flowers such as the mirabilis and the night jasmine, which grow more lavish with their perfume as night comes on, as though to make up for the darkness that falls upon the earth. The moonlight is another of the chief beauties of the tropics. Under the influence of its mysterious lights the hills in Haiti are given a touch of grandeur never seen in the daytime.

The Haitian soil is inexhaustibly fertile. Man is not obliged to exhaust his strength in order to gain a scanty living; the slightest effort brings forth an exuberant vegetation. This has naturally a great influence upon the customs and the temperament of the people.

  1. Foreigners who wish to go and live in Haiti would find some valuable information in the book of one of my distinguished fellow-citizens, La Pathologie Intertropicale, by Dr. Léon Audain, late intern and surgeon of the hospitals of Paris and Director of the School of Médicine in Port-au-Prince. (1905.)
  2. Moreau de St. Méry's book on Saint Domingue can be found at the Library of the Department of State at Washington.
  3. 64 or 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. 52-54 degrees Fahrenheit.
  6. B. Ardouin, G6ographie d'Haiti, p. 20.
  7. Dr. Léon Audain, Pathologie Intertropicale.
    Yet Mr. St. John, in Haiti or the Black Republic, strives to create the impression that the climate of Port-au-Prince is most unhealthy.
  8. Handbook of Haiti issued by the Bureau of American Republics, Washington, D. C.
  9. The inhabitants of Haiti call the beans "pois."