Haiti History 101: Haiti By the Decades: The 1890s


The 1890s begun with Florvil Hyppolite as Haiti’s president (being a Haitian, his name was actually Louis Mondestin Florvil Hyppolite). According to the book Haiti and Her Detractors, Haiti’s Constituent Assembly had met in the city of Gonaives September 24, 1889 and on October 9th, they elected Mr. Hyppolite to the presidency for a period of seven years.

Left: A portrait of Haiti’s president Florvil Hyppolite. [Image: Via Moun.com]

In the book, Encyclopedia of African American History 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period o the Age of Frederick Douglass: Three-volume set edited by Paul Finkelman, with the relevant chapter written by David M. Carletta, the assertion is made that prior to Hyppolite’s election, there had been a power struggle of sort between him and another fellow, a Mr. François Denys Legitime. This is corroborated by Leger’s book as well. According to Carletta, during the civil war between Hyppolite and Legitime, representatives of Hyppolite had promised the United States Mole Saint Nicolas, a Haitian territory, in return for protection and aid. Leger asserts that Legitime had the support of the British and the French during the civil war. Following Hyppolite’s election, contends Leger, U.S. president Benjamin Harrison sent David Blaine his secretary of State to make the claim. Blaine had General Consul to Haiti Frederick Douglass accompany him to negotiate. Carletta credits Antenor Firmin, Haiti’s then Minister of External Affairs, with eliminating the idea, as such an arrangement (Firmin said) would be a violation of the Haitian Constitution; even a lease was out of the question.

Here is a lithograph (photo sketch) made during that period of the meeting between Florvil Hyppolite and Frederick Douglass. The elegant lady in black is identified as Hyppolite’s wife Adelaide Marcial Florina Charles.

[Image Credit: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site/Museum Management Program/U.S Department of Interior Museum Management Program, State of Virginia]

The year 1891 (month: January), saw the birth of Cleanthe Desgraves, who in the year 1929, would become one of Haiti’s first known female novelists with the publication of her book Cruelle Destinée [Cruel Destiny]. In 1891, Antenor Firmin published his book Haïti et la France [Haiti and France], which chronicled the colonial and diplomatic relationship between the island and the European power. The prolific think tank published Une Défense, another book the following year. Later in the 1890s, (1898), he released Diplomate et diplomatie [Diplomat and Diplomacy].

Historian Marc Pean labels the 1890s as a period in which there was a huge campaign against the Vodun religion, particularly in the city of Cap Haitien. His writings specifically point to the year 1896, in which prominent men of the period assembled in Cap Haitien and formed La Ligue Contre le Vaudou [The Anti-Voodoo League]. According to Pean, Cap Haitien archbishop Francois-Marie Kersuzan was at the head of this association, as well as Adhemar Auguste, a prominent attorney based in Cap Haitien, a Mr. Elie Benjamin, a Mr. Thalès Manigat (a prominent business and future minister), a Mr. Annibal Beliard, Antenor Firmin, and Cincinnatus Leconte, a future president of Haiti.

Haiti’s future president Cincinnatus Leconte and Annibal Beliard (above) were founding members of La Ligue Contre le Vaudou, an anti-Vodou league, founded in 1896 in Cap Haitien. [Image Credit: Marc Pean’s book]

The League had its own newspaper, according to Pean, which made its debut on the Haiti’s newspaper publishing market on March 14, 1896. The aforementioned Elie Benjamin used his marketing know-how to increase the paper’s circulation from 1,000 to 5,000 copies. Pean contends that La Croix had several sections, including a regular column entitled “Mefaits du Bocor” [Misdeeds of the Vodou Priest]. The league organized committees in major cities of the country, including Aux Cayes.

Writing in the book Leaders of Haiti: 1804-2001, historian Max Manigat points out that in 1896, in spite of his doctor’s attempt at stopping him, Florvil Hyppolite headed towards Jacmel to squash a rebellion by General Jeannis Merisier. Hyppolite had a heart attack and fell off his horse, and died. According to Michel S. Laguerre in the book The Military and Society in Haiti (page 56), Merisier had hopes of being the future leader of Haiti.

A portrait of Merisier Jeannis, Hyppolite’s nemesis. [Image via Bonzouti.com]

Max Manigat contends that during his administration, Hyppolite built Haiti’s famed iron market, and was responsible for a great number of public works projects. Pean, for his part, points at the rural farming reforms he started. With Leconte, as his Minister of Agriculture, Hyppolite ordered a series of country-wide agricultural study, whose purpose was to see what grew the best in which region of Haiti.

Tiresias Auguste Simon Sam was elected on March 31, 1896 and saw Haiti through the rest of the decade, as president. Here he is:
Manigat maintains that Tiresias Simon Sam continued the public work projects started by Hyppolite, and started a streetcar service in Port-au-Prince. Manigat also mentions that Arab migration to Haiti was at its height during this time. He also points out at a series of bad loans that Tiresias Simon Sam undertook and coffee’s declining processes, among the financial problems during that time.

What was the price of living at this time? Well, for one thing, according to Pean, bread was one cent, and mori was a penny a slice! And those were 1896 prices!

Manigat as well as Leger write extensively of what was known as the Luders Affair. In September of 1897, Emile Luders born in Haiti of a German father and a Haitian mother, was arrested for assaulting a policeman. Luders had been deported to Germany by Haitian officials after serving a jail sentence stemming from the assault; he had also been ordered to pay a fine. Luders was a German citizen, and according to Manigat, the German Minister in Port-au-Prince demanded that the judge attached to the case be dismissed and the assaulted policeman be relieved of his post. The Haitian government refused outright. Germany sent two gunboats to Port-au-Prince’s harbor. In December of that year, Germany seized two Haitian ships and gave an ultimatum to Haiti: either $20,000 be paid to Emile Luders and readmit him to Haiti, or be attacked. Tiresias Simon Sam agreed to pay the fine. The Germans took the Haitian flag and spread feces all over it. This led to a national outrage, according to both Pean and Leger.

A newspaper illustration showing German government officials in Port-au-Prince.

The year 1897, saw the publication of the poetry volume Rires et Pleurs [Laughter and Tears] by Oswald Durand. It was Durand’s first published book in 14 years.

Oswald Durand posing for a photograph. [Image Credit: via Gerald Bloncourt website]

Durand, it turns out, was also the editorial director of Le Nouvelliste, which could be purchased for 5 pennies. One gourde could get an avid newspaper reader a whole month’s subscription.

The front-page of the Aug 1, 1899 issue Le Nouvelliste, a newspaper that still exists today. [Image Credit: University of Florida Libraries Collection]

According to historian , when it was first launched, Le Nouvelliste was actually called Le Matin. It had to relaunch under new investors, and did so under its new name Le Nouvelliste.

The year 1899 marked a turning point in industrialism and entrepreneurship in Haiti. According to Marc Pean, on January 29, 1899, a financial syndicate led by businessman Joseph Clement Eusebe of Cap Haitien, Cincinnatus Leconte of Port-au-Prince—then Haiti’s Minister of Public Works—formed Le Chemin de Fer du Nord. Le Chemin de Fer du Nord (Railroad Company of The North) had an initial capital of 500,000, and sold 10 shares at a time to investors ($1000 per shares). The railroad company would ease the connection between Cap Haitien and other Haitian cities, and would establish a farming school, and export tropical fruits among other plans.

Haiti’s future president Cincinnatus Leconte was a founding member of Le Chemin de Fer du Nord, a railroad company that launched in Cap Haitien in 1899.

Pean asserts that entrepreneur Nemours Auguste had tried something similar a few years before, backed by French venture capitalists. But men like Antenor Firmin had opposed Haiti’s participation, pointing out that $175,000 per kilometer was financially unjust, since similar projects in other countries in South and Central America had cost less ($39,000 per kilometer in Bolivia, $60,000 per kilometer in Brazil, $50,000 per kilometer in Brazil). The capitalists in return pointed out that Haiti’s landscape with its mountains, hills, would need tunnels to facilitate the railroads, and the the cost could not be compared to those countries. Auguste eventually sold his startup to Eusebe and company.

By the early 1900s, however, Pean reports that the dream of the financial syndicate had become a reality, with this train schedule:

6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Cap Haitien
8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Lacombe

A bird’s beak view of Port-au-Prince in the 1890s. [Photo Credit: H. Pelman]

The post-mortem photo of a girl, who died in Haiti in the 1890s.

A country family going to market in the 1890s. Photo Credit: Private collection.

This, dear readers, concludes this installment of Haiti History 101. Until next time, faithful and studious pupils!

Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious

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