Going After Charlemagne - The US Marines in Haiti

Going After Charlemagne - The US Marines in Haiti, 1915 - 1918


By William R. Trotter

It took ten years of savage fighting before the Haitian people drove out the last of the Napoleonic armies that had propped up a harsh, exploitative colonial regime. This was a singular achievement – the only successful Black revolt in regional history of a slave population against their white masters. But the protracted fighting left the island’s once-flourishing economy in ruins and its infrastructure on the verge of collapse. No longer united against a common foe, the revolutionary army soon fragmented into regional militias, whose services were for hire to whatever local strongman offered the best prospects of steady pay, supplemented by plunder. The French pull-out, of course, left a huge power vacuum, and although the civilian leaders of the revolt at length produced a modern, liberal constitution, there was no centralized authority capable of turning its eloquent ideals into a political reality. The only semblance of law and order was sporadically maintained by the bayonets of various warlords’ private armies; brute force, not the rule of law, was the only thing that prevented total anarchy, and the new republic’s Presidency was up-for-grabs to any would-be ruler who could assemble enough muscle to seize it.

By the late 19th Century, in the words of one Haitian historian, “the entire country was an armed camp”. A putative central government existed, on paper, but it had no real power to implement reconstruction plans or carry out social reforms. The populace longed for order, and the once-disciplined “national army” had deteriorated into a fractious armed rabble, badly led, rarely and miserably paid, and regarded by the civilian population not as a stabilizing institution but more as predatory brigands.

A typical Caco guerrilla.

In Port-au-Prince, the portals of the Presidential Palace became little more than a revolving door through which passed a tragi-comic array of tin-pot tyrants who managed to seize transient power, but could not hold on to it long enough to affect visible improvements. During the period between 1809 –1879 an estimated total of 70 coups, palace revolts, and gangland-style assassinations installed and quickly deposed a succession of murderous buffoons in the Presidency.

Rural discontent gradually coalesced into the so-called “Caco” movement, a growing scourge of armed peasants, operating out of the mountainous northern wilderness near the Dominican border. When the chance arose, they became hired guns for whichever political aspirant could enlist their firepower; in between mercenary gigs, they preyed on the local peasant population, which had precious little to spare during the best of times.

This prevailing state of internal chaos opened once again the portals for foreign exploitation, both economic and political. French and American corporations used their financial clout to gain control of whatever resources Haiti still possesed from which monopolistic profits might still be wrung.

The early years of the Twentieth Century brought no improvement in the lot of Haiti’s vital, talented, but crushingly oppressed people. Between 1911 and 1914, six different men were “elected” President of Haiti and every one of them was either murdered or forced into exile. During the last years of this chaotic period, American diplomats, who could see the early signs of war darkening the skies over Europe, grew increasingly apprehensive about the growing influence of the small but powerful German community in Port-au-Prince. By keeping a low profile and maintaining disciplined focus, the German expatriates had gradually gathered the reins of economic power and political influence, in some cases by intermarrying with prominent members of the country’s elite, educated mulatto minority, thus circumventing a key Constitutional principle which forbade foreign ownership of Haitian land. By the eve of World War One, German financiers or dummy corporations had gained controlling interest of 80 percent of Haiti’s import/ export commerce, ownership of the port’s primary docking and warehousing facilities, and had bought control of the nation’s utilities. Whenever the Germans deemed it to be in their interests, they poured money into this-or-that revolutionary faction, by means of high-interest loans which the revolutionary regimes promised to repay once they had attained power.

Concerned about the rapid growth of German influence in Haiti, the U.S. State Department, in 1912, organized and financed a consortium of American investors presided over by the National City Bank of New York, to serve as a counterweight. The move was shrewd; very soon the NCB had bought controlling interest in the Banque National d’Haiti, the country’s only solvent commercial bank, which, conveniently, also functioned as the national treasury.

In early 1915, an especially cunning and ruthless new dictator named Jean Guillaume Sam clawed his way into the Palace, and sought to consolidate his power by massacring 167 political prisoners who might otherwise have stirred up opposition. This proved to be as grave a mistake as it was a barbarous deed, for many of the executed men were members of prominent mulatto families. In a burst of spontaneous outrage, the clans organized a mass of rioters, who swept through the capitol’s streets, broke into the Palace, and lynched Sams from a convenient lamppost.

The most likely successor in view was an ardently anti-American demagogue named Resalvo Bobo, whose inflammatory speeches included not-so-veiled threats to nationalize American businesses. When Bobo’s “election” appeared certain, Woodrow Wilson decided it was time to get tough about the situation in Haiti. He dispatched a battalion of Marines, along with a small flotilla of cruisers and gunboats, to “protect American and foreign interests and to preserve order.”

Acting decisively the Marines quickly launched a surprise raid on the Cacos’ stronghold of Ft. Reviere and captured it. But instead of suppressing the Cacos, this strike, together with the obvious signs that an Occupation had begun, only inflamed their resentment and rallied new recruits to their cause. Skirmishing broke out within weeks, and it was soon evident that the United States had a low-grade, smoldering, but vicious little guerrilla war on its hands.


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