Decades of Instability, 1843-1915 1

charles riviere herard

Rivière-Hérard enjoyed only a brief tenure as president.

Leyburn summarizes this chaotic era in Haitian history. “Of the twenty-two heads of state between 1843 and 1915, only one served out his prescribed term of office, three died while serving, one was blown up with his palace, one presumably poisoned, one hacked to pieces by a mob, one resigned. The other fourteen were deposed by revolution after incumbencies ranging in length from three months to twelve years.” During this wide gulf between the 1843 revolution and occupation by the United States in 1915, Haiti’s leadership became the most valuable prize in an unprincipled competition among strongmen. The overthrow of a government usually degenerated into a business venture, with foreign merchants–frequently Germans–initially funding a rebellion in the expectation of a substantial return after its success. The weakness of Haitian governments of the period and the potential profits to be gained from supporting a corrupt leader made such investments attractive.

Rivière-Hérard enjoyed only a brief tenure as president. It was restive and rebellious Dominicans, rather than Haitians, who struck one of the more telling blows against this leader. Nationalist forces led by Juan Pablo Duarte seized control of Santo Domingo on February 27, 1844. Unprofessional and undisciplined Haitian forces in the east, unprepared for a significant uprising, capitulated to the rebels. In March Rivière-Hérard attempted to reimpose his authority, but the Dominicans put up stiff opposition. Soon after Rivière-Hérard crossed the border, domestic turmoil exploded again.

Discontent among black rural cultivators, which had flared up periodically under Boyer, re-emerged in 1844 and led to greater change. Bands of ragged piquets (a term derived from the word for the pikes they brandished), under the leadership of a black, former army officer named Louis Jean-Jacques Acaau, rampaged through the south. The piquets who were capable of articulating a political position demanded an end to mulatto rule and the election of a black president. Their demands were eventually met but not by the defeated Rivière-Hérard, who returned home to a country where he enjoyed little support and wielded no effective power. In May 1844, his ouster by several rebel groups brought to power Philippe Guerrier, an aged black officer who had been a member of the peerage under Christophe’s kingdom.


Soulouque [second from left] displayed a Machiavellian taste for power. He enjoyed a long period of rule that yielded little of value to his country

Guerrier’s installation by a mulatto-dominated establishment represented the formal beginning of politique de doublure; a succession of short-lived black leaders was chosen after Guerrier in an effort to appease the piquets and to avoid renewed unrest in the countryside. During this period, two exceptions to the pattern of abbreviated rule were Faustin Soulouque (1847-59) and Fabre Nicolas Geffrard (1859-67). Soulouque, a black general of no particular distinction, was considered just another understudy when he was tapped by the legislature as a compromise between competing factions. Once in office, however, he displayed a Machiavellian taste for power. He purged the military high command, established a secret police force–known as the zinglins–to keep dissenters in line, and eliminated mulatto opponents. In August 1849, he grandiosely proclaimed himself as Haiti’s second emperor, Faustin I.

Coronation Day of Faustin I

Coronation day. In August 1849, Soulouque grandiosely proclaimed himself as Haiti’s second emperor, Faustin I.

Soulouque, like Boyer, enjoyed a comparatively long period of power that yielded little of value to his country. Whereas Boyer’s rule had been marked by torpor and neglect, Soulouque’s was distinguished by violence, repression, and rampant corruption. Soulouque’s expansive ambitions led him to mount several invasions of the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans turned back his first foray in 1849 before he reached Santo Domingo. Another invasion in 1850 proved even less successful. Failed campaigns in 1855 and in 1856 fueled mounting discontent among the military; a revolt led by Geffrard, who had led a contingent in the Dominican campaign, forced the emperor out of power in 1859.

Geffrard, a dark-skinned mulatto, restored the old order of elite rule. After the turmoil of Soulouque’s regime, Geffrard’s rule seemed comparatively tranquil and even somewhat progressive. Geffrard produced a new constitution based largely on Pétion’s 1816 document, improved transportation, and expanded education (although the system still favored the upper classes).

Geffrard's rule seemed comparatively tranquil and even somewhat progressive.

Geffrard’s rule seemed comparatively tranquil and even somewhat progressive.

Geffrard also signed a concordat with the Vatican in 1860 that expanded the presence of the Roman Catholic Church and its preponderantly foreign-born clergy in Haiti, particularly through the establishment of parochial schools. The move ended a period of ill will between Haiti and the church that had begun during the revolutionary period.

In 1867 General Sylvain Salnave forced Geffrard from office. The overthrow profoundly unsettled the country, and Salnave's end came quickly.

In 1867 General Sylvain Salnave forced Geffrard from office. The overthrow profoundly unsettled the country, and Salnave’s end came quickly.

Intrigue and discontent among the elite and the piquets beset Geffrard throughout his rule. In 1867 General Sylvain Salnave–a light-skinned mulatto who received considerable support from blacks in the north and in the capital- -forced Geffrard from office. The overthrow profoundly unsettled the country, and Salnave’s end came quickly. Rural rebellion among anti-Salnavist peasants who called themselves cacos (a term of unknown derivation) triggered renewed unrest among the piquets in the south. After several military successes, Salnave’s forces weakened, and the leader fled Port-au-Prince. Caco forces captured him, however, near the Dominican border, where they tried and executed him on January 15, 1870. Successive leaders claimed control of most of the country and then regularly confirmed their rule ex post facto through a vote by the legislature, but none succeeded in establishing effective authority over the entire country.

Rebellion, intrigue, and conspiracy continued to be commonplace even under the rule of Louis Lysius Félicité Salomon (1879-88), of the National Party (Parti National–PN), the most notable and effective president of the late nineteenth century. During one seven-year term and the beginning of a second, Salomon revived agriculture to a limited degree, attracted some foreign capital, established a national bank, linked Haiti to the outside world through the telegraph, and made minor improvements in the education system. Salomon, the scion of a prominent black family, had spent many years in France after being expelled by Riviére- Hérard. Salomon’s support among the rural masses, along with his energetic efforts to contain elite-instigated plots, kept him in power longer than the strongmen who preceded and followed him. Still, Salomon yielded–after years of conflict with forces led by the Liberal Party (Parti Liberal–LP), and other disgruntled, power-hungry elite elements.

Political forces during the late nineteenth century polarized around the Liberal and the National parties. Mulattoes dominated the Liberal ranks, while blacks dominated the National Party; both parties were nonideological in nature. The parties competed on the battlefield, in the legislature, within the ranks of the military, and in the more refined but limited circles of the literati. The more populist Nationalists marched under the banner of their party slogan, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” while the blatantly elitist Liberals proclaimed their preference for “government by the most competent.”

Haitian politics remained unstable. From the fall of Salomon until occupation by the United States in 1915, eleven men held the title of president. Their tenures in office ranged from six and one-half years in the case of Florvil Hyppolite (1889-96) to only months–especially between 1912 and 1915, the turbulent period that preceded the United States occupation–in the case of seven others.

Although domestic unrest helped pave the way for intervention by the United States, geostrategic concerns also influenced events. The United States had periodically entertained the notion of annexing Hispaniola, but the divisive issue of slavery deterred the nation from acting. Until 1862 the United States refused to recognize Haiti’s independence because the free, black, island nation symbolized opposition to slavery. President Ulysses S. Grant proposed annexation of the Dominican Republic in 1870, but the United States Senate rejected the idea. By the late nineteenth century, the growth of United States power and the prospect of a transoceanic canal in either Nicaragua or Panama had increased attention given to the Caribbean. Annexation faded as a policy option, but Washington persistently pursued efforts to secure naval stations throughout the region. The United States favored the Môle Saint-Nicolas as an outpost, but Haiti refused to cede territory to a foreign power.

The French and the British still claimed interests in Haiti, but it was the Germans’ activity on the island that concerned the United States most. The small German community in Haiti (approximately 200 in 1910) wielded a disproportionate amount of economic power. Germans controlled about 80 percent of the country’s international commerce; they also owned and operated utilities in Cap Haïtien and Port-au-Prince, the main wharf and a tramway in the capital, and a railroad in the north. The Germans, as did the French, aiming to collect the nation’s customs receipts to cover Haiti’s outstanding debts to European creditors, also sought control of the nearly insolvent National Bank of Haiti. This kind of arrangement was known technically as a customs receivership.

Officials in Washington were especially concerned about Germany’s aggressive employment of military might. In December 1897, a German commodore in charge of two warships demanded and received an indemnity from the Haitian government for a German national who had been deported from the island after a legal dispute. Another German warship intervened in a Haitian uprising in September 1902. It forced the captain of a rebel gunboat (that had waylaid a German merchant ship) to resort to blowing up his ship–and himself–to avoid being seized.

Reports reached Washington that Berlin was considering setting up a coaling station at the Môle Saint-Nicolas to serve the German naval fleet. This potential strategic encroachment resonated through the White House, at a time when the Monroe Doctrine (a policy that opposed European intervention in the Western Hemisphere) and the Roosevelt Corollary (whereby the United States assumed the responsibility for direct intervention in Latin American nations in order to check the influence of European powers) strongly shaped United States foreign policy, and when war on a previously unknown scale had broken out in Europe. The administration of President Woodrow Wilson accordingly began contingency planning for an occupation of Haiti.

Escalating instability in Haiti all but invited foreign intervention. The country’s most productive president of the early twentieth century, Cincinnatus Leconte, had died in a freak explosion in the National Palace (Palais National) in August 1912. Five more contenders claimed the country’s leadership over the next three years. General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, who had helped to bring Leconte to power, took the oath of office in March 1915. Like every other Haitian president of the period, he faced active rebellion to his rule. His leading opponent, Rosalvo Bobo, reputedly hostile toward the United States, represented to Washington a barrier to expanded commercial and strategic ties. A pretext for intervention came on July 27, 1915, when Guillaume Sam executed 167 political prisoners. Popular outrage provoked mob violence in the streets of Port-au-Prince. A throng of incensed citizens sought out Guillaume Sam at his sanctuary in the French embassy and literally tore him to pieces. The spectacle of an exultant rabble parading through the streets of the capital bearing the dismembered corpse of their former president shocked decision makers in the United States and spurred them to swift action. The first sailors and marines landed in Port-au-Prince on July 28. Within six weeks, representatives from the United States controlled Haitian customs houses and administrative institutions. For the next nineteen years, Haiti’s powerful neighbor to the north guided and governed the country.

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One thought on “Decades of Instability, 1843-1915

  • Johnson Berreth

    President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam never asked Charles Oscar to execute the political inmates. But Oscar made this odd decision alone. Before leaving the power, and in a letter sent to Charles Oscar, the president urged him to act as per his own conscience.