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

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CHAPTER III


Customs and manners of the people; their hospitality—Marriage and divorce—The Haitian woman—The Haitians are not lazy—They entertain no race prejudice—Advantages which foreigners enjoy; their safety—Naturalization—Right to hold real estate.


One of the chief characteristics of the Haitian peasant is his thorough kind-heartedness; he is free from all envious thoughts and is pleased with his lot, his few wants being so easily satisfied. He has no cause for hatred, nature's liberality supplying him with all that he requires. His tastes are of the simplest. On week days his costume consists of a "vareuse"[1] and trousers made of blue denim; sandals, and a broad-brimmed straw hat. But he always has in reserve at least one good suit of clothes for festival days and the dances, which are the greatest sources of enjoyment. Although he is seldom to be seen without his "manchette" (machette), the Haitian peasant is of a quiet, confiding, and cheerful disposition, not given to fighting or quarrelling. He holds in abhorrence any abuse against the feeble; and crimes against children and women always disgust him. Nevertheless, quiet and harmless as the Haitian peasant appears, he can be transformed into a fierce and stubborn fighter when there is question of the independence of his country being in jeopardy. He has always in sight the two ends which it is his ambition to attain: to be a landowner and to give education to his children; with these ends in view he will lay aside every cent he can possibly spare. In spite of his apparent carelessness, of his fondness for enjoyment, especially in the form of dancing, the Haitian peasant is more thrifty than the men of the towns and cities, the latter as a rule spending all that they can earn.

The Haitian people are noted for their hospitality and the kind welcome they extend to foreigners. In the country parts as well as in the towns a stranger is always sure of finding shelter. One can travel without fear all over the island; no one would think of molestting a traveler, even were it known that he had his pockets full of gold. Foreigners, men and women, who have ridden all about the country know perfectly well that they can do so in all security; not only will the Haitian peasant not think of stealing, but he will even often refuse any remuneration for the hospitality he so readily offers. The best room, the best bed, in the humblest abode, is given to the transient guest, whom in all probability they will never again see; they set their choicest dishes before him.[2] And what is the reward of this kind-hearted people? Many a time the very foreigner who has taken the greatest advantage of the hospitality of the Haitian peasants will be the first to represent them as returning to barbarism, as adepts of Vaudou, snake worshippers, and even as cannibals.

There are men who hunger so for notoriety that in order to obtain it they do not hesitate to resort to falsehoods of the most flagrant type. The truth is of very little account to a certain class of travelers. Provided that their sensational books be sold, what matter to them that they outrage the honor and the dignity of a whole nation!

However, imputation of cannibalism and Vaudou will be looked into later on; for the time being it is the characteristics and customs of the Haitians which are in question. These customs are not quite the same in the towns as in the country. In the towns life assumes a more complex aspect; here the wants being more numerous and pressing, there is a greater tendency to selfishness. However, the middle classes still retain their simple manners and mode of living.

One of their greatest aims is to give their children as thorough an education as possible; these children are sent at the cost of great sacrifice on the part of their parents to France and to Germany in order to complete their education, to study a profession or a trade. The Haitians are fond of traveling; almost all of their statesmen have either made their studies in Europe or have lived there long enough to be thoroughly conversant with its customs and its political organization.

Haitians, as a rule, do not marry late in life; men marry at about the age of twenty-five and women about nineteen. Divorce is comparatively rare and is granted for adultery, for outrage, and grave public abuses; it can also be granted when one of the parties is sentenced to "peines afflictives et infamantes."[3] A woman whose marriage has been dissolved either by divorce or by the husband's death cannot marry again before the expiration of one year; and a divorced woman is not allowed to remarry her former husband; inversely a divorced man may not remarry his former wife.[4]

The formalities required for the validity of a marriage are very strict, thereby affording a good protection against bigamy. Before a marriage can be contracted, both parties must have obtained the formal consent of their parents, besides having their banns published at their respective places of permanent residence. The civil marriage, adopted in Haiti at the beginning of her independence, is generally followed by the religious ceremony. The Catholic Church likewise takes many precautions against clandestine marriages. Notice of the projected marriage must be given out from the pulpit in the church of the parish to which each party belongs and no ceremony can be performed without the presentation of the certificate of the civil marriage.

Every family strives to have a comfortable home. The houses are furnished with good taste, according to the means of their owners. Men and women alike dress well; those whose income permits it, order their clothes from Paris. They are fond of entertaining; the christening of a child, engagements (fiançailles), birthday and wedding anniversaries, all of these occasions form a pretext for entertaining. Other striking characteristics of the Haitians are their open-heartedness and straightforwardness; their word may be relied upon, and in friendship they are sincere and devoted. They are intensely patriotic, although they will be the first to laugh at their own failings and shortcomings. This tendency to treat everything with raillery is strongly noticeable in the popular songs. During the festivities of the carnival the satiric spirit knows no restraint. Woe to those whose conduct has not been blameless. From the President of Haiti down to the humblest citizen no one whose behavior has merited it is immune from the attack in the popular songs; in spite of the comical form in which it is clothed this has become a great moral force, and many men and women who might be inclined to do otherwise behave so as to avoid becoming the theme of a song which would soon be heard about the streets in every part of the city.

One of the characteristic features of the Haitian woman is her strong sense of duty. As a devoted wife and unrivalled mother she is always prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure the happiness of her family. Upon getting married she willingly gives up worldly pleasures in order to devote herself to her home; she becomes the real companion of her husband in poverty as well as in luxury, in sickness as in health. The Haitian woman will not give up to any outside help the care of husband and child stricken with disease, no matter how deadly or contagious it may be. With the fearless unconcern peculiar to her sex, she becomes the most tender and skillful of nurses at the patient's bedside, and the doctor's principal auxiliary. Should misfortune overtake her family she rises nobly to the occasion, helping and encouraging her husband with her courage and sympathy. Her delicate rearing does not prevent her from working hard, should the necessity arise, in order to assist her husband and help with the education of her children. Few Haitian women there are who understand otherwise their duty as wife and mother.

It would be erroneous, however, to believe that they are stern and cheerless; they are, on the contrary, bright and gay, enjoying life according to circumstances. Consequently their influence is great and their advice much valued. The one reproach that can be made to them is that their extreme fondness leads them to spoil their children somewhat by over-indulgence.

The peasant woman is quite as devoted as those of the cities. She will till the soil along with the man of her choice, both working side by side through the heat of the day; together they set out for the nearest market, there to sell the fruits of their common labor. The woman shrinks at no task, however rude; to dispose of her goods she will journey many miles into the town, her basket on her head and often with her child fastened to her back or on her hips;[5] thus she goes singing merrily or chatting whilst journeying with her friends or neighbors toward their destination. Her garment is very simple: a "caraco"[6] tied at the waist by a cloth, her head tied with a picturesque colored handkerchief on which she sometimes wears a broad-brimmed straw hat to protect her from the sun.

The hard work the peasants have to accomplish does not prevent them from enjoying their simple amusements. At the beating of the drum or at the sound of the violin[7] the hard tillers of the soil are transformed into women of lithe and graceful form, who give themselves up wholly to enjoyment. The Haitian country woman is far from having the sad, disheartened, and disillusioned look of the female peasants of some other countries. On the contrary, the sound of frank and hearty laughter is always to be heard issuing from her lips; the spotless whiteness of her teeth is always disclosed by her merry smile. Always in good spirits, she excels in extemporizing the cheerful songs which help so materially to enliven the dances of the country people.

The Haitian laborer, whether from the country or from the towns, is frugal, sober, and cleanly in his habits. His food is as simple as his way of living, the country people especially being mostly vegetarians. The manioc supplies them not only with starch but also with cassava and couscousou, which advantageously takes the place of bread; the sweet potato, plantain, rice, red beans, yam, all kinds of vegetables and many edible roots form the principal part of their diet; they occasionally eat some meat, salted and smoked fish, such as cod-fish or red-herring. On the sea shore, where fish is plentiful, the people live mostly on fish.

Alcoholism is unknown among the country people, who will, however, readily quench their thirst with a drink of tafia or rum;[8] but this is never carried to excess. Even in the towns, where the heat invites to drink, drunkards are not commonly found.

As to cleanliness, it is a well-known fact that a laborer or a peasant never goes to bed without taking a bath, or at any rate a thorough washing, if there be a stream in the neighborhood. They are not sparing of soap and water. One must not judge them by their appearance when at work; they are not expected to be clothed like people who live in a colder climate.

Owing to his excellent hygienic habits and the wholesome food he lives on, the Haitian peasant is the personification of health: strong and robust, he is able to endure all kinds of fatigue and hardships.

Those detractors who persist in representing indolence as one of the principal features of the Haitian peasants either know nothing of them or have not taken the trouble of observing their customs; or else a few cases of laziness having perhaps come under their observation, they thereupon hasten to generalize. The fact is universally recognized that human beings exert themselves in proportion to the wants they have to satisfy; some of the higher classes there are who overwork themselves in amassing riches, but as a rule the masses will always strive to obtain all that they require by the slightest exertion of effort possible. This being such a well-known fact it is surprising that the Haitian people are not more indolent. They are not obliged to put away stores for the winter, there being none to put a stop to their labor in the fields; they have not to think of procuring fuel for the heating of their houses and of warm garments for themselves. The whole year through they wear the same light clothing; the ever-verdant fields guarantee the maintenance of both man and beast. They need not have anxiety about good or bad seasons; for the season is good from the 1st of January to the 31st of December. All this engenders a natural disposition to carelessness. Then again an exuberant vegetation supplies numberless articles of food to those who do not care to work. Mangoes, alligator-pears, bread-fruits, guavas, oranges, etc., grow wild along the roadside, where those who will may gather their fruit. The bread-fruit and the alligator-pear, forming a kind of vegetable bread and butter, are of themselves wholesome and sustaining food. Mangoes are such nutritive fruit that people can live on them alone for weeks, and they are so plentiful that they are used for feeding pigs. Nature not only lavishly provides food, but her large bushy trees form such a heavy covering overhead that they may serve as resting-places in a country where it is not sufficiently cold to cause inconvenience in sleeping out of doors.

Nevertheless, the Haitian peasants do not yield to these temptations to idleness. In passing through the country one will come across innumerable green patches where vegetables are being raised; perched upon the steep sides of the hills, seeming from the distance as though they were suspended on the very brink of precipices, are numerous fields of plantations of maize, millet, coffee, beans, bananas, plantains, etc., whilst in the valleys there is an equal abundance of sugar-cane, rice, cocoa-trees, etc. The laborer is proud of his cultivated land; and hoe in hand he works, singing the while under the burning rays of the sun.

In the towns the workmen who, for instance, are employed in transporting or embarking coffee, start work at about 5 o'clock in the morning and continue until 5 or 6 P. M.; they will even work beyond this time if adequately remunerated. Until now strikes are unknown in Haiti.

The Haitians entertain neither race hatred nor race prejudice. Consequently, they find it difficult to understand why a man should be persecuted and made to endure humiliation solely on account of the color of his skin. They extend a welcome to all who arrive on their territory, irrespective of their color. When, therefore, they hear that in some countries people of different races are not allowed even to pray together in the churches, in the house of God, they wonder if the God of the Christians can be the same in those countries as in theirs; for they look upon their God as the Father of all mankind, as a benevolent Being who listens to the prayer of the humblest of His children, unmindful whether the souls of those who invoke His mercy be concealed beneath a white, green, or black exterior. In their churches all races join in prayer; kneeling side by side they plead for grace and offer up their sufferings to God, the ever-abundant source of mercy and consolation.

In the schools there is also no color line drawn. But in social life absence of prejudice is still more noticeable. Whites and blacks intermarry; many Haitians marry French, German, and English women, these unions as a rule resulting very happily.

In Haiti a man's color constitutes neither a bar nor a disadvantage to him. Every man is a man; that only which is taken into account is intelligence, probity, and courage. A coward or a dishonest man, be he white, yellow, lilac or black, will receive the contempt he deserves. It is the brain and the heart which constitute a man rather than the color of his skin. Consequently, to do away with everything which might seem to be the outcome of race prejudice, President Geffrard, in 1860, caused the abolition of a custom which up to that time prevented marriages between Haitians and foreigners; it was rightly believed that such a prohibition was contrary to the laws of nature and that love was a surer guide than any law-maker when it comes to choosing a partner for the struggle of life.

However, in spite of all these facts, Haiti is persistently being charged in the United States and elsewhere with entertaining race hatred and race prejudice.

Haiti is the Eden of foreigners. Few are there who do not succeed in making a fortune after doing business there for a while. All their undertakings are facilitated, being even allowed in some cases the enjoyment of more privileges than the natives. As a rule they like Haiti, generally settling there without any intention of returning to the country of their origin. Some others, however, after making sufficient money, go to live in Europe, where, wanting in the first elements of gratitude, they become the worst detractors of the people who have helped them to acquire the income on which they live.

Instead of retrograding, as is often said in bad faith of Haiti, she is progressing daily in her liberality toward foreigners. Formerly only Africans, Indians, and their descendants could be naturalized citizens of Haiti. In 1886 I proposed the removal of this discrimination;[9] this was granted in 1889 by an alteration of the Constitution. All foreigners may be naturalized Haitians by observing the following formalities (Art. 14, Civil Code): "All those who, by virtue of the Constitution, are qualified to become Haitian citizens, must, within a month of their arrival in the country, declare before a justice of the peace of their place of residence and in the presence of two well-known citizens, their intention of settling in the Republic. They will at the same time swear before the justice of the peace to give up all other countries in favor of Haiti. Provided with the certificate of the justice of the peace relative to their declaration and oath, they must then present themselves at the bureau of the President of Haiti, where the act of naturalization is delivered to them."

Thus since 1889 Haiti grants to foreigners, without regard to color, the greatest facilities for becoming citizens.[10] In this respect she can advantageously bear comparison with many other countries; in the United States, for instance, up to the present time no members of the yellow race may become American citizens. Still, the newspapers continue to charge Haiti with having race prejudice. This assertion contains as little truth as the accusation that the Haitians show their hostility to the whites by depriving them of the power to hold real estate. It is not the white man who may not hold real estate, but the foreigner, whatever his color be. Article 6 of the Constitution reads as follows: "None other than a Haitian may own land in Haiti or acquire real estate." This measure is not the outcome of race hatred or prejudice; it is of a merely precautionary nature. Other nations, older and considerably more powerful than Haiti, have seen the advisability of reserving to their own citizens the right of holding real estate. In many States of the United States of America,[11] even in Washington,[12] the very capital of the great Republic whose influence is paramount in the New World, foreigners are not allowed to own real estate. Nobody thinks of blaming the United States for this exclusion. Why then impute a wrong motive to Haiti for adopting the same measure of self-protection? This prohibition, however, does not place foreigners at a disadvantage: by means of mortgages and through emphyteusis they succeed in enjoying almost all the privileges of a land-owner. And in order to gain their cooperation in exploiting the resources of the country, a law enacted in February, 1883, confers citizenship, i. e., the right of acquiring real estate, on all manufactories or corporations organized with a view of improving the grade of coffee, cocoa, tobacco, etc.

  1. A kind of loose jacket with two pockets in front.
  2. The Tribune of Nassau (Bahamas), under date of February 3, 1904, contains the following impression of an Englishman, Mr. A. S. Haigh, who had recently traveled through Haiti: "There are no more law-abiding, civil, peaceful and well-behaved people to be found anywhere than the common people of Haiti. One can travel alone, at any hour of the night or day, in any part of the lowlands or mountainous districts, with money or valuables in his possession, without fear of molestation; and they will give up all they have, gladly, to accommodate strangers. They are exceedingly hospitable."
  3. Civil Code of Haiti. Art. 215-219, 284.
  4. Loc. cit. Art. 213, 283.
  5. This way of carrying children is not common to all Haitian peasants; it is practised principally in the Western Department. And the Government is striving hard to discourage such a practice, as being detrimental to the development of the child.
  6. A "caraco" (Karr-ah-ko) is a loose garment reaching to the ankles.
  7. In the country dancing takes place to the beating of the drum or to the sound of violins. Foreigners, upon hearing the beating of the drum for the first time, imagine that some ceremony of Vaudou is going on, so convinced are they that Vaudou is practised everywhere in Haiti.
  8. Tafia is a popular drink extracted by distillation from sugar-cane syrup; it is white in color. Rum is distilled from the tafia and after a while becomes yellow.
  9. Politique Exterieure d'Haiti, p. 59.
  10. According to a law enacted in 1903 Syrians must reside ten years in Haiti before being eligible to become citizens of the country, and for hygienic as well as economic principles, with which the question of race has nothing to do, she forbids them to enter her territory. The measure is the same as that taken by the United States against the Chinese.
  11. In the following States aliens must declare their intention to become citizens before they are allowed to hold real estate: Arizona Territory, Delaware, District of Columbia, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and New York. No statute applies to aliens in the following States: Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma Territory, Vermont, and Wyoming. In the following States they must be fully naturalized, a certain time being required for this purpose: Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas. (A Treatise on the Law of Real Property, by Darius H. Pingrey, Vol. II, p. 1189.)
  12. "It shall be unlawful for any person not a citizen of the United States or who has not lawfully declared his intention to become such a citizen, … to hereafter acquire and own real estate, or any interest therein, in the District of Columbia provided that the prohibition shall not apply … to the ownership of foreign legations or the ownership of residences by representatives of foreign governments or attachés thereof." (The Code of Law for the District of Columbia, Sec. 396, Washington, 1902.)