Hesketh Prichard’s Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti is a travelogue written by a British explorer who set out in 1899 to become the first European to cross the interior of Haiti since the defeat of the French in 1803.
This book is valuable for two reasons:
1.) First, Prichard traveled across and reported on the state of Haiti in 1899, which was 16 years before the US occupation in 1915. Thus, the dismal condition of Haiti in 1899 cannot be laid at the doorstep of “American imperialism.”
2.) Second, Prichard’s eyewitness account of Haitian society in 1899 brings to life the dry statistics – export tables, infrastructure spending, exports per head, etc. – that I found in Victor Bulmer-Thomas’ The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars and other academic sources.
According to Bulmer-Thomas, Haiti in 1900 was spending around 10 percent of its national budget on education (more than 90 percent of adults were illiterate), less than 3 percent on agriculture (mostly on salaries of public officials), and “almost nothing” on public works like public utilities and infrastructure projects. 60 percent of the Haitian national budget was absorbed by military spending and debt service.
While traveling across Haiti, Hesketh Prichard learns from a guide that “when you see a bridge go around it” has become a “national proverb,” so he spent much of his time fording hundreds of creeks and rivers. When in Port-au-Prince, he speculated that “road-mending appears to be a lost art.” In one case, he describes a Haitian road as a mixture of “a farmyard, a thunderstorm, a horse-pond, and a fat ploughed-field” spread over with “unwholesome green scum.”
Port-au-Prince is described as “about the filthiest place in the world,” a city of “gutters and garbage,” where “open drains” run in the street and “refuse of all indescribable sorts lay inches deep in the street.” These drains “with all their contaminations” flow down and fill up the beautiful blue horseshoe harbor like a backed up toilet. Viewed from a distance, this “distended caricature” of Paris looks “worth travelling 5,000 miles to see,” but once you enter it, “your next impulse is to travel 5,000 miles to get away again.”
In a memorable passage, Prichard describes the immaculate dress of urban Haitian women going about their daily lives in this Third World cesspool:
“Among this accumulated dirt, black ladies, in all cases well-dressed – many of them in the handiwork of Parisian artists – pick their perilous way or drive past in buggies atilt at impossible angles over the unevenness of the streets.” (Prichard, p.34)
Like so many things in Haiti, this scene also sounds reminiscent of the sapeurs back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In southern Haiti, Jacmel where Prichard disembarks is a city of “empty houses with smashed shutters, fire-scarred shells” standing in “pitiless sunlight.” The business of the town is entirely in the hands of Syrian merchants. There are no carriages, pavement, or hotels to be seen, but plenty of shouting and gesticulating negroes living in ungainly wooden houses erected along dirty streets.
In the north, Cap-Haïtien (formerly Le Cap, the ‘Paris of the Antilles’) is described as “a sparrow’s egg in the nest of an eagle.” It is a city of “knee high, overgrown” stone ruins among which the present inhabitants have built rude wooden dwellings. In this “old dead city,” the “riotous life and struggles” of the present day negroes takes place within the “broken shell of its fallen palaces and aqueducts and baths, and whose walls have mostly sunk to the ebb-tide level of destruction.” Nature and neglect are “wiping out the remembrance of them from the face of the earth.”
Agriculture in the Cul-de-Sac plain and elsewhere in Haiti has fallen into a ruinous state like all of the colonial era plantations and infrastructure. The ignorant, lazy, but kindhearted peasants who Prichard finds in the interior are living almost naked in slave huts indistinguishable from those a contemporary Belgian might find on the banks of the Congo River. They practice voodoo and live in thrall to pagan witch doctors much like their ancestors in pre-colonial West Africa.
This farce of a country is ruled by an innumerable caste of generals:
“Hayti is governed by Generals in all sizes. I wonder how many of them there are in the country. I wondered all the time I was there. I am still wondering. The General is so ubiquitous that it leads you to doubt whether it may not be possible that to be a General is no compliment, not to be one is in the nature of a slap in the face.” (Prichard, p.17)
Prichard jokes that even he was frequently addressed as “general” by the people while traveling through Haiti. He speculates about what might happen in the event of a new invasion of Haiti by a foreign power:
“If, however, the State ever calls them to its service, it is unlikely that the troops will be left without a General. Hayti calculates to throw at any moment 8,000 men into the field, and of these only a smattering will not be full Generals.” (Prichard, p.20)
Prichard describes a review of the Haitian army by President Tirésias Simon Sam on the Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince:
“Every scene has its dominant note, that aspect which first strikes the eye and afterwards lingers longest in the memory. Here it was struck by the negro Generals. There were three hundred of them at least. Pink Generals, green Generals, blue Generals, and Generals clad in the paler Cambridge tint; the plain was stiff with generals, score upon score, important, imposing, each in a web of gold lace, each mounted upon a small, long-tailed but excellent horse, each riding well, though after the splayfooted fashion of his race, each aware that the eyes of the world were upon him, and each determined upon keeping them fixed there.
They galloped hither and tither across the open square, they ambled along the ranks; they impressed themselves obtrusively upon the attention. To be a General it is not even necessary to have been a soldier or an officer of lesser rank, the title being bestowed for political purposes or, as an article of the Haytian Constitution has it, “for eminent services rendered to the State.” (Prichard, pp.25-26)
In 1915, only one Haitian soldier put up any resistance when the Americans landed in Port-au-Prince, a private named Joseph Pierre.
It was this useless class of “generals” who contracted the loans in 1874, 1875 (General Domingue) 1896 (General Hyppolite), and 1910 (General Simon) who put Haiti into the crushing cycle of foreign debt that brought about the US occupation. The infamous French indemnity of 1824 was finally paid off by Haiti in 1883.
“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,” so we say, but Hayti, as her custom is, twists the order round, for the smallest flea is the soldier, and upon him feed a whole series of larger fleas.” (Prichard, p.53)
In his final chapter, Hesketh Prichard asks: Can The Negro Rule Himself?
After summarizing his experiences, which includes the contemporary state of Haiti’s infrastructure, educational system, religious life, hospitals, police, prisons, media, judiciary, public utilities, military, agriculture, trade, administration and port towns, Prichard concludes that the negro “has not indeed come within measurable distance of success” in any category after nearly a hundred years of independence.
Over a hundred years after Prichard wrote those words, Haiti is worse off in almost every way than it was when Where Black Rules White was first published in 1900. Thanks to Ostara Publications, this classic is still in print and has its own place on my bookshelf.
Note: Here’s a link to Thomas Jackson’s review of Where Black Rules White at American Renaissance.