Even today, Sir Spenser St. John’s Hayti, or, The Black Republic still enjoys a reputation as the most negative book ever written about Haiti.
Spenser St. John served as the British consul in Haiti for thirteen years in the 1860s and 1870s. The first edition of Hayti, or, The Black Republic was published in 1884. The second edition, which was rewritten as a response to public criticism, was published in 1889.
St. John is the founder of the “retrogression school” of Haitian development. His Hayti, or, The Black Republic was a commercial success which spawned numerous progeny. These include Hesketh Prichard’s Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti, Blair Niles’ Black Hayti: A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter, William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (which popularized the “zombie” in American culture), and John Houston Craige’s Black Bagdad and Cannibal Cousins.
Simply put, St. John describes Haiti as a nation in decline, and depict Haitians as an exotic African people who are incapable of European progress:
“In spite of all the civilising elements around the Haytians, there is a distinct tendency to sink into the state of an African tribe. It is naturally impossible to foretell the effect of all the influences which are now at work in the world, and which seem to foreshadow many important changes. We appear standing on the threshold of a period of great discoveries, which may modify many things, but not man’s nature.” (St. John, p.ix)
“Wherever you may go in Hayti, you come across signs of decadence, not only from the exceptional prosperity of the French period, but even of comparatively recent years.” (St. John, p.18)
In much the same way, we now say that parts of Detroit have become “blighted,” or neglected by their present inhabitants.
“I know what the black man is, and I have no hesitation in declaring that he is incapable of the art of government, and that to entrust him with framing and working the laws for our islands is to condemn them to ruin. What the negro may become after centuries of civilised education I cannot tell, but what I know is that he is not fit to govern now.” (St. John, p.xi)
“The vexed question as to the position held by the negroes in the great scheme of nature was continually brought before us whilst I lived in Hayti, and I could not but regret to find that the greater my experience the less I thought of the capacity of the negro to hold an independent position.
As long as he is influenced by contact with the white man, as in the southern portion of the United States, he gets on very well. But place him free from all such influence, as in Hayti, and he shows no signs of improvement; on the contrary, he is gradually retrograding to the African tribal customs, and without exterior pressure will fall into the state of the inhabitants on the Congo.” (St. John, p.134)
“I now agree with those who deny that the negro could ever originate a civilisation, and that with the best type of educations he remains an inferior type of man. He has as yet shown himself totally unfitted for self-government, and incapable as a people to make any progress whatever. To judge the negroes fairly, one must live a considerable time in their midst, and not be led away by the theory that all races are capable of equal advance in civilisation. (St. John, pp.134-135)
If this sounds like a brutal assessment, Sir Spenser St. John is prepared to justify his sweeping indictment of Haiti. The chapters in this book include “General Description of Hayti,” “History Before Independence,” “History After Independence,” “The Population of Hayti,” “Vaudoux-Worship and Cannibalism,” “Cannibalism,” “The Government,” “Religion, Education, and Justice,” “The Army and Police,” “Language and Literature,” and “Agriculture, Commerce, and Finance.”
Port-au-Prince, the capitol of Haiti, is described as “the filthiest town I have ever seen.” It is a city of shabby buildings and “grovelling huts” with “a few decent-looking dwellings.” The streets are a “receptacle of every species of filth” imaginable which forces you to “walk in the sun or perform in the shade a series of gymnastic exercises exceedingly inconvenient in a tropical climate.” The port is clogged up with garbage and refuse from open sewers washed into the stagnant, foul-smelling bay by the tropical rains.
Cap-Haïtien, which was destroyed by the 1842 earthquake and never restored to its former condition, is described as a city of “ruins overgrown with creepers.” St. John and his companions used to “wander about the ruins” and “could not but feel how little energy remained in a people who could leave their property in such a state.” After the earthquake, he notes “the countrypeople rushed in to plunder the place” and “none lent a helping-hand to aid their half-buried countrymen.”
The Haitian countryside is described as “abandoned to the small cultivators.” Three fourths of the plains which used to support the colonial era plantation economy are uncultivated and “occupied by scrub.” Scattered here and there are “groves of fruit-trees and bananas clustering round rude dwellings.” The peasants who live there harvest coffee beans from wild trees and crush sugarcane to produce rum. The bridges are “generally to be avoided.” The neglected roads have degenerated into unpaved “bridle-paths.” Railroads, which were unknown in the French era, but which had spread everywhere in contemporary Cuba, are never mentioned.
St. John is full of praise for Haiti’s natural environment:
“I have travelled in almost every quarter of the globe, and I may say that, taken as a whole, there is not a finer island than that of Santo Domingo. No country possesses greater capabilities or a better geographical position, or more variety of soil, of climate, and of production, with magnificent scenery of every description, and hillsides where the pleasantest of health-resorts might be established. And yet it is now the country to be most avoided, ruined as it has been by a series of self-seeking politicians, without honesty or patriotism, content to let the people sink to the condition of an African tribe, that their own selfish passions may be gratified.” (St. John, p.20)
In the twentieth century, Haiti’s geographical position became even more advantageous after the construction of the Panama Canal. Haiti has an excellent port in Môle-Saint-Nicolas directly astride the Windward Passage which is the major commercial artery between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Like the transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, non-existent railroads), St. John found education to be equally neglected, “not more than one in ten of the children of school-age attended the educational establishments.” He found that teachers were unpaid and incompetent. The education system was a mere patronage network,”education in Hayti is too often sacrificed to political exigencies, and a master of a high school is chosen not for his capacity, but for his political leanings.” When the American occupation began in 1915, virtually the entire rural population was illiterate.
The Haitian judicial system is anti-White, “the white foreigner, unless he pays heavily, has but slight chance of justice being done to him.” This hostility to foreigners is one of the primary causes of Haitian underdevelopment, “the spirit of the old saying remains – that the whites possess no rights in Hayti which the blacks are bound to respect.” The unwillingness of the Haitian judiciary to respect property rights crippled foreign investment during the American occupation.
The two chapters on “Vaudoux Worship and Cannibalism” and “Cannibalism” are by far the most controversial section of the book:
“In 1878, two women were arrested in a hut near Port-au-Prince; they were caught in the act of eating the flesh of a child raw, and on further examination it was found that they first sucked all the blood from its body, and that part of the flesh had been salted for later use.” (St. John, p.248)
There are numerous passages in the book like the one above.
In the second edition, St. John expanded his chapter on “Cannibalism” to amass even more evidence of its existence in Haiti. He quotes extensively from American newspapers, Haitian newspapers, conversations with Haitian political leaders, eyewitness accounts, and most compellingly, trials where evidence was presented and Haitians were convicted of cannibalism in front of his fellow European diplomats.
The existence of cannibalism and voodoo in Haiti had great shock value in Western Europe and the United States, but there is little doubt that both of these practices were imported along with the slaves from West Africa. Nearly two-thirds of the slaves in Saint-Domingue on the eve of the Haitian Revolution had been born in Africa. Both voodoo and cannibalism were still widely practiced in West Africa in the 1880s. It was commonplace in the Congo for African tribes to smoke, salt, and eat their defeated enemies out of the belief that eating their flesh bestowed magical powers upon the victors.
There’s not much in Hayti, or, The Black Republic which I haven’t already come across in several other sources. It is a highly accurate, readable, and entertaining portrait of the dismal state of Haitian society in the 1880s.
Note: In the years ahead, technological progress would continue to come slow to Haiti: the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the internet and so on would follow the example of the railroad and steam engine in the nineteenth century.
A few days ago, the New York Times had an article about Haiti which described how off road four-wheel drive vehicles are being used to overcome the deterioration of the latest round of roads built by foreigners there in the 1970s.