Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Capture Land: Jamaica, Haiti, and the United States Occupation

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Capture Land: Jamaica, Haiti, and the United States Occupation

Article excerpt

Hayti is doomed. Her independence will die away and she will pass into the hands of the United States as a possession or protectorate. . . . No one outside Hayti writes of the country with more sincere sympathy than do we. . . . She is doomed and her doom has been wrought by her own children.

-Jamaica Times, 1915

Reasonably or otherwise the whole principle of occupation is repugnant to a people with ideas of independence.

-West Indian Review, 1934

A fierce heat comes with July. To live in the Caribbean is to accept this reality: the best-laid plans and noblest intent can be crushed into dust under the oppression of the summer sun. The Haitian general who debarked in Kingston midway through the summer of 1915 understood this in a visceral way. He came directly from the north. For friends and family he brought news of the baleful situation in their homeland. Cap-Haïtien had been a significant redoubt for presidential aspirant Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, and the general was one of his trusted confederates. The news was grim. The troops under President Vilbrun Guillaume-Sam-in power a mere four months-were gaining the upper hand in an escalating conflict. Almost out of habit, the general offered a declaration that all would be better once Bobo was installed. The general, who spoke with a Jamaican reporter on arrival, supposed that the success of the president's troops in the north was a temporary setback; victory for Bobo would be assured by the end of July. Even in such optimism there was a thinly concealed fear. In Cap-Haïtien, he reported, the prisons were overflowing with Guillaume-Sam's rivals and their family members. The general chose not to reveal his name to the Jamaican press out of concern for the welfare of his own family. He had escaped the worst and made his way to Kingston by chance, a defeated warrior of a last revolution.1

Jamaicans had grown accustomed to tales such as the one told by the general at Kingston's pier. For more than half a century, Kingston had been a refuge for scores of Haitians who faced similar fates.2 The two countries were tied by these experiences. Jamaicans followed the stories of Haitian events closely as they appeared on the front pages of local papers, in personal letters from intimates in Port-au-Prince, in exchanges on the dusty streets of the capital, and in the lingering conversations of the Haitians who lived peacefully among them. But it was the story that reached their ears on July 28, a week after the general's visit, that disturbed them more than any other.

Bobo's party in Port-au-Prince had hatched a carefully constructed plot that succeeded in driving the president out of the palace. From the French legation where he and his family hid, the president sent out one message: to Charles Oscar Etienne, the general of the arrondissement of Port-au-Prince. The message was kept secret. Etienne had been repulsing Bobo's rebels, fighting to defend the prison that was adjacent to his headquarters. The president's message was believed to have been instructions to surrender. It appeared that the unknown general's prediction would be correct-Bobo would be the next president. Etienne took refuge in the Dominican legation. The choked prisons of Cap-Haïtien were mirrored in the capital. On Etienne's flight, the relatives of the incarcerated marched, exultant, to the prison. On entering the building, the flush of joy chilled, overpowered by the atrocity laid before them. Blood-smeared walls encased small pyramids of lifeless bodies spilling out into the yard-168 in total, all murdered by Etienne on his commander's order. There followed in quick transition the painful stages of a cycle of grief-rage, anguish, disequilibrium, and then, a surging current of revenge. The crowd embodied this in volumes, shrieking in peals as it disgorged itself into the streets. Etienne was the first to face retribution, taken from his refuge and attacked in the city center. The president was next. …

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