“Where is he from, this King of Haiti?” Admiral Caperton Invades Haiti, 28th July 1915

Admiral William B. Caperton and Dr. Rosalvo Bobo
Admiral William B. Caperton and Dr. Rosalvo Bobo

(This is not strictly a historical account. It is partially dramatized, fictionalized (if you prefer that word). See below)

The USA “has no design upon the political and territorial integrity of Haiti,” said Secretary Lansing. That was two weeks after they’d gone in. Two weeks after Williams Banks Caperton sent his men in to occupy Port-au-Prince. He’d been peering at Haiti from his boat, the U.S.S. Washington, for months. It was one week before Admiral Caperton enacted the order to take control of the customs houses, and open a bank account for Haiti’s funds in his own name, “in trust for the people of the Haitian republic.”

It was the 28th July when it happened, as it’s told. The day when the tyranny of Vilbrun Guillame Sam could hold no longer, when his massacre of opponents in the National Penitentiary sparked an insurrection within the Port-au-Prince. The president took cover in the French Legation, but diplomatic protocol bore no barrier to the anger of those who’d lost their friends and family under Sam’s bullets. He was pulled out onto the streets, and publicly assassinated.

I could see that parade through my glasses,” and I knew I had to act. For months I had sat on the Washington, stifled by the heat, stuck on my boat, watching Haiti as a theatre from different vantage points. I moved my boat from Cap-Haitien, to Gonaïves, to the capital and back again, keeping an eye on events in that “volcanic republic” as I had been instructed to do. The French took great exception to the invasion of their sovereign territory. They had sent a gunboat, of the name Descartes, to demand satisfaction. “I landed before them. I had to.”

But the bluejackets were already on Haitian shores. Commander Olmstead has been sent to Cap-Haitïen months before, to stand between the town (and its customs house) and the revolution of the North. The USA already had the bank, the railway, and the Dominican Republic, and the desire in American eyes for the deep waters of the Mole St Nicholas was no secret. Caperton chose Captain van Orden to lead the assault; he had been to Haiti before, he shared the Admiral’s view that Haiti could, with American guidance, be restored. Had the Descartes merely forced his hand early?

I was nervous that night. I had few men, and over a century of Haitian history in my head. I knew the stories of Dessalines and Soulouque, I believed them to be barbarians, and the events of that day were added to this library in my mind, joined by St. John’s tales of voodoo and cannibals that lurked in the Haytian night. “Hayti, or the Black Republic” was a mate on the Washington, its pages were turned by all the important men, it was a necessary lesson in dealing with this “turbulent republic.”

But it was “a quick night in Port-au-Prince.” Van Orden landed and marched through the streets, waiting for the counter attack. There was little of it when it came. Two men fell, Gompers and Whitehurst, the first victims of the mission. Six of theirs fell, with two wounded.

Eight Haitian casualties, names unknown. Established on Haitian soil, the landing party fled from malaria. They needed shelter, so the medical officer chose a school on the hills near Pacot. They evicted its children, whitewashed the walls, sprayed it with disinfectant, and dug latrines. The mosquitos followed them, and soon it was abandoned for higher ground. The health of the troops was fantastic, considering the tropical surroundings.

No problems, “except venereal.”

Tales of the 28th July filtered into the USA, where they would be magnified by the yellow presses, excited by lucrative tales of black barbarity and brave white Americans stepping into the breach, to aid. But their voices would not dominate the tale, so spoke Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, the revolutionary leader of the North, in his open letter to the President of the United States.

“Order was re-established [in the town], then the American Forces landed. All those in the streets who saw this outlandish procession, believed it was some American Governor imported from New York. Where is he from, this king of Haiti? What is his wishes? Would it be, as they say, the control of the customs houses and our finances with the right of raising their flag on the Mole St Nicolas? What is the matter between you and us? By what contract are we binded? Why do you wish so much to humiliate and put us down?”

The American papers were more interested in Bobo himself, calling him Doctor, but never using his first name. Did they ever know it? Or did “Bobo” sound more exotic without the Rosalvo, did his doctorate sound less authentic? Caperton too became obsessed with the Doctor, another enemy on a multi-fronted battle.

There is much still to do to establish control. I need more men, but I need financial support more than anything else. The misery I have seen on the streets is more than I can comprehend. There is great danger of famine, which must be dealt with immediately lest the people once more descend into anarchy. I requested aid from the Red Cross, to which they have been very generous as they too believe that “given good clothes, regular meals, regular pay and a good standard of behaviour set before them, they may become good public servants.” They sent me $20 000 to spend as I see fit.

But their money and ours is insufficient to solve the instability of the Black Republic. The money trickles in from the customs houses, but as Waller says “from the president down” each one takes their share. “Knowing Haiti as I do,” I would say that “these are the most deceitful, unreliable graft seekers on earth” and we must tackle this issue if we are to save Haitians from themselves. We “have occupied the country for its own good,” after all. The Caco guerrillas are the biggest infestation upon this land. We have been nothing but “most considerate, yet conciliatory in our duty with them,” and still they persist. Sterner measures will be required.

Thus were the wishes of this so-called King of Haiti, the first white man to be attributed such a role. He would not be the last. But what is a ruler without his Chief of Staff? On the ground was Captain Edward Beech, aka Dan Quin of the Navy, who embedded himself in Haitian politics to perform his king’s bidding.

“The fault is with Haiti,” I might add, in our efforts to attain peace and a lasting treaty between our two nations that will forever entrench our cooperation. But “unless they cooperate there will be no progress in Haiti.” I know everyone here from Dartineguave to Borno, and I know how things work. Port-au-Prince is the center of government, “it starts from there and ends there,” and so it will remain. And it is there where the “Golden Flood” of American money will have to flow, should this country progress. “Being properly guided,” Haiti will work. Are you listening? “Dan Quin is speaking to you.”

And so the order came to take the customs houses. To set up a police force, or is it an army? They would be led by Smedley Butler, the best in the business, to be taught to handle guns, to shoot at the Olympic Games, and at the Cacos. Cleanliness, health, discipline; those were the standards drilled into the Gendarmerie. They were built to be the finest of Haitians, in American eyes, in contrast to the politicians, the Cacos, the Vodouizan, and the vagabonds that fill the streets with the disfigurations of yaws. Their enemy would only ever be Haitian.

To set up a health service, public works, prisons. To root out corruption, customs house by customs house, senator by senator, Caco by Caco. Cure malaria, cure the army, teach technical skills, profit, production. The customs houses are just the start.

They use too much of their fields for their own foods. They should grow cash crops, sugar…

So would grow HASCO, the Haitian-American Sugar Company, where zombies allegedly cut the cane. The zombie rumours were exported too. Open for Business, everything’s for sale.

Bobo was next, said by his fans in the press to be “the only Haytian known to carry his opposition to the United States to the extreme of reducing his own income.”  He was in for special treatment. He was invited on board the Washington, and walked through the boat slowly, seeing the faces of old allies and new enemies as he approached the door to the Admiral’s office. He was there to be chewed out.

“I will not mince words” with these Haitians. They require “the firm hand and the watchful eye” of their big brothers. Bobo was no different, except that he was a madman, delusional. I informed him in no uncertain terms that he would not be president of this republic, and he was “strongly instructed” to stand down and “go onshore as a private citizen…he capitulated.”

Caperton left Haiti in 1916, having successfully germinated the seeds of a nineteen-year occupation of Haiti. He and his “big stick” were then sent to the Dominican Republic. Dominicans, for the Admiral, were similarly challenging, as “their rascality, grafting and total unreliability is beyond all conception.” There was a lasting legacy to establish there, too.

One hundred years on, another American man they call Le Gouverneur is a Special Envoy to Haiti. He’s not the only one hanging around. I’ve been there too, walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince, where people are right to ask of him and of me, “who is this man? What are his wishes?”

(This is a partially fictionalised and dramatized account of the opening acts of what would become the United States Occupation of Haiti. Anything in quotation marks are the actual words, written or spoken, of Caperton, Beech, Bobo and the American press. The rest is me, but written not to sensationalise (as was the style at the time) but to emphasise the fears, the desires and the politics of this period. It’s by me, my opinions, mine alone. Don’t sue anybody else. This piece was mostly inspired by my work with the William B. Caperton Collection at the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Kenbe fèm)

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