Haiti – The Island Of The Two Black Republics

OUR next journey is to a country where most of the people are negroes. It is the island of Haiti, comprising the two countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, both of which have a republican form of government, with black presidents and other officials.

It takes us less than a day to steam from Ponce to the town of Santo Domingo, on the southern coast of the island. We sail westward, cross the Mona Passage, and are soon coasting along the shores of what appears to be a huge mass of mountains rising steeply from the water and jumbled together in all sorts of shapes. One of the early explorers on his return to England was asked by the king what Haiti was like. In reply he took a sheet of paper, crushed it up in his hands until it was a mass of wrinkles, and then threw it down upon the table. “Haiti is like that, your Majesty,” said he, — “all mountains and valleys.”

And so it is. The mountains run in four ranges from west to east, with valleys and ‘plains between them. Their peaks are the highest of the West Indies. They are in fact the summits of the subterranean ridge which, extending above the water, forms the chief islands of this archipelago. With the glass we can see the highest mountain from our boat; it is Loma Tina, not far from Santo Domingo, almost two miles in height.

The mountains are not unlike those of Puerto Rico, as we saw them from the sea, save that they are more rugged and grander. They are heavily wooded, with dense thickets of ferns on the summits. There are clouds resting upon them as we sail along the coast, and we can see fleecy masses of vapor nestling here and there in the green laps of the hills. It is on the mountain tops that the rain-fall is heaviest, for there the air is coldest and it wrings the most water from the trade winds. These winds blow against the northern side of the island, and therefore that side has plenty of rain, while on the south side the lower slopes have not quite enough. There are many rivers, however, and on the whole the island is fairly well watered.

Haiti is naturally rich. Sugar cane grows upon it, as well as anywhere in the West Indies; and coffee, tobacco, and cacao thrive on the slopes of the mountains. Its forests are especially fine, including mahogany, cedar, and dyewoods ; and in the mountains there are rich deposits of iron, copper, and gold. All tropical fruits grow here as well as in Puerto Rico, and the country might be a great garden if its people were as industrious as we are. Considering its natural resources, one would expect to find that the natives were exceedingly prosperous. They are just the reverse. Let us examine into their history and see if we can tell why.

Haiti was one of the first islands discovered by Columbus, and the very first to be colonized. When Columbus landed, upon it in 1492, he described it as like the most beautiful provinces of Spain, and the Indians as excellent people. Speaking of it to the king and queen of Spain, he said:

” I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better land nor a better people. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, each sentence accompanied with a smile. Although it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.”

The next year after this some Spanish settlers came to the island and founded a colony. They at once began to oppress the natives and to enslave them. They forced them to work in the mines and on their plantations ; and when the natives objected, they beat them or killed them. Columbus estimated that there were a million natives in Haiti at the time of his landing, but the Spaniards treated them so badly that within less than fifty years they had all disappeared. After that Haiti was almost deserted. The plantations, which had been cultivated by the Indian slaves, were neglected, and the cattle, hogs, and dogs ran wild.

A little later the buccaneers, some bands of French pirates who had settled on the island of Tortuga, off the western end of Haiti, gradually came across and took possession of that part of the country, importing negro slaves to work their plantations. This was also done by the Spaniards in other parts of the island, and within a few years the most of the population was negro.

The western part of Haiti through these buccaneers became a French possession, and when, in the later part of the eighteenth century, the French people overthrew their kings in the great revolution, and established a republic, they declared that the slaves of Haiti should be free.

The French Republic of that time was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte, who made himself Emperor. Napoleon did not believe in freedom, and he ordered that the negroes of Haiti be brought back into slavery. They refused to submit, and fought for their liberty in a war which ended in the success of the negroes, and the establishment of a negro republic with negro officers, and with laws prohibiting any white man from owning land.

This was early in the last century, when the United States was still a young nation. Since that time the western part of Haiti has had frequent changes of government. It has had negro emperors, kings, and presidents, but no white rulers. It has had many revolutions, but in recent years it has been a republic, and so we find it today.

The eastern part of the island, where we now are, was governed by Spain about three hundred years. Slaves were also introduced here, but many of them married into the families of their masters and with the few Indians who were left, so that the population is now made up of negroes and of Spanish and Indian mulattoes.

For a time this part of the island was part of the republic of Haiti, but in 1844 it became independent, under the name of the Dominican Republic, or Santo Domingo. Each country has a form of government much like ours, with a congress and officials elected by the people. Each has its president, but the president of the Dominican Republic is chosen by popular vote, while the president of Haiti is elected by Congress. In both countries the blacks own the lands and do most of the business.

But Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Re-public, lies just before us. We can see the spire of the cathedral reaching high above the city wall. The town is like a city of the Middle Ages. It was planned by Columbus, and that very wall was built centuries ago.

We land, and with a mulatto guide who speaks English take a walk through the streets. How shabby and dirty everything is ! The houses are of Spanish style, with immense doors and windows. They are close to the sidewalks, and we can look in as we go along the streets. Some are built around courts, so that they appear to have a garden inside the house. The walls are of the brightest colors, and the black and yellow people standing against them furnish splendid subjects for our cameras.

In the suburbs are mud huts thatched with straw or palm leaves, with poorly dressed men and women, and half-naked babies. There is little work going on, and all seem shiftless and lazy. There are negroes everywhere. We see them sitting on the sidewalks, on the doorsteps, and standing in groups here and there, smoking and chatting. The language is Spanish. The people have the manners of Spain, and every one is very polite.

We visit the cathedral, where some of the family of Columbus are buried, and then go to the government offices. The officials tell us that the Dominican Republic comprises about two thirds of the island. It has an area of eighteen thousand square miles, and just about as many people as St. Louis. There are no large cities, the chief town having only ten thousand inhabitants. This is Santiago, situated in a rich valley north of the central part of the country, and connected with the harbor of Puerto Plata, the principal port on the north coast.

Leaving Santo Domingo by steamer, we make our way along the southern coast of the island to its western end, and turning north and then east, pass into the Gulf of Gonaives (go-na-ev’) and come to anchor at Port au Prince, the capital of the Haitian Republic.

Port au Prince is much larger and more prosperous than the town of Santo Domingo. It has over one hundred thousand people, and we can see from the ships in the harbor that it has considerable trade. Haiti exports a great deal of coffee, sugar, and cotton. It produces every-thing raised in the tropics, and also some fruits of the temperate zone, such as peaches, strawberries, and blackberries.

As we go through the streets we meet but few whites. The chief merchants, lawyers, and doctors are colored. There are colored policemen, colored soldiers, and colored customs officials, all dressed in gay uniforms. The republic has about two million inhabitants, and of these, nearly all are of African descent.

How well dressed some of the black people are and how fine they look ! The men are straight, tall, and well formed. They are polite, and we are surprised to observe that most of them speak only French. They speak it well, too. Many children of the better classes are sent to Paris to be educated, and French is the language of the schools. It is also used in the government offices and in the stores. The poorer people speak a mixture of French and the native language.

Port au Prince has wide streets which cross one another at right angles. It has some stone and brick houses and many of wood. On the edge of the city are villas with palms and other trees about them, and in the town business buildings and large frame structures containing the government offices.

We take carriages for a drive out into the country. Our black coachman takes us rapidly through the dust up hill and down. We go by many small farms and now and then a large estate owned by a black. Along the road are cabins or shacks in which the poor people live ; many of them are shiftless and live from hand to mouth.

In the far interior the people are ignorant and superstitious, and in the mountains some are said to be almost as barbarous as the savages of Central Africa. They believe in witches and spirits, and it is charged that they sometimes have human sacrifices.