Tour Of The Caribbean – Haiti

THE island of Haiti, or Espanola, was discovered by Columbus, during his first voyage, on December 6, 1492. He was fascinated with it from the moment he came in sight of its shores. He found the climate to be like May in Cordova, and the hills and valleys to rival in loveliness those of Castile, so he called the island Espanola. It was destined to be associated in his career with little more than disappointment and misfortune.

He made the north coast of the island, and on Christmas Eve sailed into Acul Bay. Near here his own ship, the famous Santa Maria, went haplessly ashore and became a total wreck. Somewhere under the sands about this bay are still lying the brown keel and bilge timbers of this great three-masted galleon of 100 tons in which the discovery of the New World was made.

Among the crew of the Santa Maria were an Englishman named Tallarte, or Allard, and an Irishman who is entered on the ship’s books as William of Galway. How these two adventurous mariners came to find themselves at Palos, whence the expedition sailed, is unknown. They probably enlisted for the venture as a means of escaping the rigours of a Spanish gaol. Anyhow Columbus when he returned home the first time left Allard and William behind on Haiti with forty others. They were enjoined to collect gold and to form a colony at a spot named La Navidad, where a fort had been already built. This was in January 1493.

Now Columbus did not return to Espanola until November 1493, and in the meanwhile no tidings had reached him of this first city of his founding. He approached La Navidad on his second coming with the most eager interest. So impatient was he that he sent a boat ashore with an exploring party as soon as he came in touch with the coast. On the sands of a lonely river, fringed no doubt by the green sea grape, the party landed. The first noticeable things they happened upon were two dead bodies, one with a rope round its neck and the other with a rope round its feet. They were two of the crew of the Santa Maria. In such wise was the admiral welcomed to his new possessions in the earthly paradise.

Columbus hurried on to La Navidad and reached the haven at nightfall. There was no light to be seen on the shore. He fired off two guns, expecting still a joyous response from the beach, a feu de joie from the fort, bonfires, Spanish cheers, and a crowd of beaming men in hurriedly paddled canoes, tearing across the bay. No answer came. La Navidad was silent.

He landed at daybreak with vehement anxiety. No boat could be seen in the harbour. There was not a soul on the beach. As he jumped ashore the land crabs scuttled away to their holes. He made for the fort. It was deserted and in ashes, while among the cinders, as he kicked them to and fro, were bleached bones and fragments of clothing. In some native huts in the thicket he found a Moorish mantle, an anchor, and a dead man’s head wrapped up in a basket.

The truth came out at last. La Navidad had ceased to be. Every one of the company of forty-two was dead, including Allard of England and William of Galway. The colonists, as soon as the admiral’s ship was out of sight, had abandoned themselves to every kind of excess. The robbing of the Indians and the seizing of their wives and daughters became favourite pastimes. Murder followed incidentally. Some of the settlers died of their debaucheries ; others succumbed to disease ; while those who remained were butchered by the infuriated natives.

Thus the attempt to fill the coffers of Spain with gold, to found a city, and to diffuse the blessings of civilisation among a godless and benighted people came to piteous failure. At La Navidad were reaped the first fruits of Spain’s “glorious conquest and discovery.” The most that could be claimed in the matter of glory was that six poor heathens, taken to Spain by Columbus on his first leaving Espanola, had been received, through baptism, into the Holy Faith, and had so secured ” the safety of their souls.”

Columbus the dreamer—quite undismayed by the disaster at La Navidad—sailed eastwards along the coast, and established another city, which he called Ysabel after that lady with the rare blue eyes, her Most Catholic Majesty the Queen of Castile. This was in December 1493. The city was to become one of the marvels of the world. It was to outshine all the glories of Cathay. It was to dominate a country more favoured than the golden Chersonese, more full of riches than the plains of Ophir ; for this was the veritable land of Havilah, of which it had been truly said and the gold of that land is good.”

The city of Ysabel never rose beyond a poor patch of mud and wattle huts, with perhaps a stone fort and a pretence at a quay. The hidalgo who had sailed with Columbus as a conqueror of strange lands and a founder of cities, was pictured by his friends in Seville as strutting along a causeway in Ysabel, paved with gold, attended by cringing Indians who carried before him baskets full of precious stones and incredible spices. In reality the famished aristocrat, sick with fever, was probably sitting on a box full of rotten stores, his silk doublet in rags, his hose in holes, his feet well nigh shoeless. He was pricking patterns with his sword in the fetid mud which made up the only street of the City of Despair, wondering if there was any slum in Spain so pitiable and so comfortless.

Ysabel, the long forgotten, is now buried beneath the jungle.

Nothing remains to point out its exact locality but the ruins of a single pillar almost hid among the bushes near the beach.”

Finally Columbus, hearing of gold in the south of the island, established the town of San Domingo at the mouth of the Ozama River. The town flourished, waxing rich and very famous, and exists to this day as the chief city of the island.

Spanish rule in the beautiful island of Espanola was terrible beyond all thinking. The whole native population was exterminated, as has been already detailed. ” If there be any powers of hell, they stalked at large through the forests and valleys of Espanola. Lust and bloody cruelty, of a kind not merely indescribable but unrealisable by sane men and women, drenched the once happy island with anguish and terror. And in payment for it the Spaniards undertook to teach the heathen the Christian religion…. In the twelve years since the discovery of Columbus, between half a million and a million natives perished ; . and as the Spanish colonisation spread afterwards from island to island, and the banner of civilisation and Christianity was borne farther abroad throughout the Indies, the same hideous process was continued. In Cuba, in Jamaica, throughout the Antilles, the cross and the sword, the whip-lash and the Gospel, advanced together ; wherever the Host was consecrated, hideous cries of agony and suffering broke forth until happily, in the fulness of time, the dire business was complete, and the whole of the people who had inhabited this garden of the world were exterminated, and their blood and race wiped from the face of the earth.”

In 1505 negro slaves were introduced into Espanola. It was a memorable occasion ; the squalid beginning of a terrible end. The event itself was nothing more than the landing of a company of black men and women on the beach. They could hardly crawl out of the boats, so crippled were they from having been cramped for weeks in a putrid hold. Their very bodies were indented with the marks of the planks. Huddled together like frightened animals, they cowered on the sands, muttering miserably as they whisked the flies from the sores left by the last slash of the whip. Some would happily be dying ; all would be famished for want of food ; all wide-eyed with wonder and alarm.

In this poor fashion there rose upon the horizon of Espanola a small black cloud, no larger than a man’s hand. It was a cloud that grew ever wider, rounder and darker, a cloud in whose hollows was the rumble of thunder. It grew, until at last it covered the bright island and buried it in night.

By the-time of the French Revolution there were some 500,000 black slaves in Haiti. By this period, as the outcome of exuberant bloodshed, the west part of the island (that now known as Haiti) had passed into the hands of France, while Spain held still the eastern portion—the present territory of Santo Domingo. With the Revolution slavery was abolished, and in 1794 the National Assembly of France—with little knowledge of what they were doing—proclaimed the equality of all citizens in the island, irrespective of colour. Then the great thunder cloud burst, and there began a war between the blacks and the whites which for ferocity and diabolical viciousness remains without an equal in the world’s history.

The blacks had centuries of cruelty and oppression to wipe out, since the day when the first boat-load of negroes had landed. No quarter was thought of on either side. Villages and crops were committed to the flames. Captives were burned alive. Wholesale massacre was the order of the day. If the negroes were guilty of hideous atrocities on white women, the French, on their part, hunted fugitives with Cuban bloodhounds and spared neither the aged nor the children.

The blacks were led by the famous Toussaint Breda, by him who was known as ” L’ouverture “—the way of escape. It was through him, as through a bright portal, that the oppressed hoped to gain freedom and peace. He had been first a slave, then a coachman, and finally the general of the revolutionary forces. A fearless as well as a brilliant man, he was finally captured by treachery and died in a dungeon in France.

After him came the demon Dessalines, who, when he had cleared the island of the French, caused himself to be crowned as Emperor of Haiti under the title of Jacques I. His reign, marked as it was by extraordinary debaucheries, was very short ; for after he had been two years upon the throne he was happily assassinated. This was in 1806.

The blacks in their war with the French had, however, on their side a more powerful ally than either Toussaint or Dessalines. The Yellow Death fought on the side of the slave, for it is estimated that no less than 26,000 of the French army perished of the fever.

To Dessalines succeeded Christophe, one of the most ludicrous figures in modern history. He was a mulatto slave who took upon himself the title of Henri I. He created a copious black aristocracy, whereby the waterside porter became a duke, and the footman a marquis. He drew up a code of laws, the Code Henri, in imitation of the Code Napoleon. His court was as gorgeous as the court in an opera bouffe. More than that, he built the palace of Sans Souci, an unbelievable edifice worthy of the ” Arabian Nights.” The ruins of this fantastic edifice still crown certain gracious heights near Cap Haytien. Henri I. did one wise thing : he shot himself after a burlesque reign of some thirteen years.

The subsequent history of the island is concerned largely with disorder and violence, with revolutions, pillage and bankruptcy, with the pulling down of one ruler or the suicide of another.

Espanola is now divided into the Black Republic of Haiti and the Mulatto Republic of Santo Domingo. Of the former Froude gives this account in his work on “The English in the West Indies.” ” They speak French still ; they are nominally Catholics still ; and the tags and rags of the gold lace of French civilisation continue to cling about their institutions. But in the heart of them has revived the old idolatry of the Gold Coast, and in the villages of the interior, where they are out of sight and can follow their instincts, they sacrifice children in the serpent’s honour after the manner of their forefathers.”