|Charlemagne Peralte - In
1919 the US murdered him and put the body on display.
Black Arabs and
and the Legend of Charlemagne Peralte (Excerpt)
by Cali Ruchala
February 20, 2003
(For the FULL article, go to:
...If you believe that "peacekeeping" is a recent development
- a side-effect of a chaotic, post-Soviet world - you're wrong there,
too. "Humanitarian intervention" is even older than Wilson's
shop-worn slogan about making the world safe for democracy. By far,
its greatest excesses and its most catastrophic effects were felt in
what we might consider the Iraq of the early 20th century, an island
nation that America had long coveted and was always on the verge of
taking. Under the guise of furthering democracy, stamping out chaos
and spreading golden prosperity - the Holy Trinity of stated aims in
today's "humanitarian interventions" - the United States invaded
the second sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere: Haiti.
THE FIRST AMERICAN
occupation of Haiti began in 1915 - not that you would
know there was one before 1994 if you read American textbooks, in which
case you will be equally surprised to learn that the it lasted for nearly
twenty years. The pretext for the first "humanitarian intervention"
in Haiti came about following the lynching of the Haitian president
by an angry mob following years of instability, coups and, as a contributing
factor, the international isolation of the world's first free black
That within the next two years the United States also occupied the Dominican
Republic, much of Cuba and purchased the Virgin Islands under similar
humanitarian pretexts was a remarkable coincidence. By the end of World
War I, America had established garrisons on every major island of the
Greater Antilles (save for British Jamaica), making the Caribbean America's
sixth Great Lake.
Aside from the stated humanitarian concerns for the plight of the Haitian
people, the unofficial reason for the Haitian Occupation (told to those
who could bear to face that America was not always the narcissistic
embodiment of honour and fairness that it was cracked up to be) was
to prevent Germany - soon an enemy on the battlefield - from preying
on the shipping lanes from the Panama Canal. American troops didn't
leave Haiti until 1934 - well past the fall of the Kaiser, the birth
and decay of the Weimer Republic and the rise of the previously mentioned
The first Haitian Occupation is important to keep in mind these days,
because it follows the bold arc and descent of most foreign policy adventures
past and present. Haiti, even then one of the poorest countries in the
Western Hemisphere, was low-hanging fruit for a nation with dreams of
empire, and American Marines met with only scattered resistance as they
fanned out from Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince. Iraq's army - soundly
thrashed in the first Gulf War - is almost certainly as poor a foil
for an American invasion today.
Some Haitians initially welcomed the Occupation, and some Iraqis will
certainly do so as well. Those who trembled with rage at the sight of
a white ruler of his land were isolated, lonely figures in 1915. It
was the decisions made by the Americans after they landed - and the
arrogance with which the military and civilian authorities conducted
themselves - which drew thousands of bitter partisans into the ranks
a guerrilla leader with a golden name: Charlemagne Peralte.
IN THE EARLY days of the Occupation, the military authorities
did attempt to win over the Haitian people to their side. Through flattery
and a sometimes patronizing if well-intentioned benevolence, Admiral
William Caperton, who led the original invasion of the island, was able
to set up a puppet regime of collaborators and secured a legal basis
for the occupation in the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915. Caperton
an old hand at this game - one of a corps of military leaders hardened
by decades of occupations around the world - and he believed that greasing
a few palms and humouring local intellectuals and bureaucrats that they
were still in control of something made military rule that much easier.
But Caperton was replaced after just one year by officers who preferred
the stick to political savvy. Caperton's very first order to his troops
in Cap-Haitien commanded them to treat Haitians with the "utmost
kindness and consideration," with "a cheerful word, a friendly
pat on the man's back or the horse's rump." To his successor, General
Littleton Waller, Haiti's people were epitomized by a man he called
"the blackest bluegum nigger you ever saw."
The general - who, following the finest Hollywood traditions, must be
loved because of his blunt honesty and irrepressible feistiness - was
not fooled by his new charges. "These people are niggers in spite
of the thin varnish of education and refinement," he concluded.
"Down in their hearts they are just the same happy, idle, irresponsible
people we know of."
Waller's comments about "real nigs," and his concern for what
his neighbors in "Norfolk and Portsmouth would say if they saw
me bowing and scraping to these coons" obviously had a detrimental
effect on his relations with the Haitian collaborators that Caperton
had gathered around the American military leadership. America's client-president,
Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, complained to the State Department about
the leading American officer's behavior. Waller responded by
threatening to pull his troops out of Port-au-Prince, leaving Dartiguenave
and his government to face the angry mobs that just a few years after
the Occupation began had already sized up the collaborators as traitors.
Besides, his protests would hardly fall on sympathetic ears when the
Secretary of State himself was heard to exclaim of his country's southern
neighbours, "Just imagine! Niggers speaking French!"
Dartiguenave had good reason to fear his own people. Under cover of
his regime, the Americans had overturned long-standing provisions of
Haitian law which were held especially dear in consideration of the
Haitians' background as the descendants as slaves, and the numerous
foreign interventions by white nations during the slave
revolt which eventually freed the island. In the
past, it had been illegal for foreigners to own property in Haiti (though
nothing prevented the foreign spouses of Haitians from owning as much
as they could buy). A considerable body of correspondence on this issue
between the State Department and American military authorities in Port-au-Prince
survives, highlighting the importance of the grimy economic dimension
to the "humanitarian occupation."
To cover for this and other unpopular provisions contained in a new,
American-sponsored Constitution, Dartiguenave insisted that the law
should be followed and the National Assembly convened to deflect attention
from his own role in its propagation. To the outrage of the American
military authorities (but perhaps not to Dartiguenave), the Assembly
rejected the new Constitution altogether, and began to write their own.
The idea that a puppet regime could walk on its own was too much. It
was in the process of being drafted when General Waller's subordinate,
Major Smedley Darlington Butler, walked into the convention and read
a proclamation browbeaten from Dartiguenave which dissolved the Assembly
The legislature would not sit again for twelve years (a scarce improvement
over the situation in Bosnia
today, where parliaments are dutifully elected but all major decisions
are inevitably declared "at an impasse" and forced through
by decree of the foreign High Representative). The American minister
in Haiti announced that, like
the "nationalistic dinosaurs" freely chosen by the people
of Bosnia (as High Representative Paddy Ashdown calls them), the Haitian
Assembly was "in every way reactionary and opposed to the best
interests of Haiti, refusing to adopt any article permitting foreign
ownership of land in any matter whatsoever... it was decided in a conference
held at the [American] legation on June 18... to prevent the Assembly
from passing such a Constitution by causing its dissolution, if occasion
it, preferably by a Presidential Decree, but if necessary by order of
the Commander of the Occupation."
This is, barring the particulars, the precise language which is used
to suspend deputies, ban candidates, jerryrig elections and otherwise
demolish all democratic institutions in Bosnia.
It all worked out fine in the end: a plebiscite was held in which American
troops handed out the ballots and the new Constitution was ratified.
When the ballots were counted, a total of 98,225 voted in favour, only
768 opposed. Another new article enshrined in the inviolable Haitian
Constitution declared that all acts of the military
occupation forces were now legal. A similar provision exists in the
Dayton Accords, spelling out immunity for international peacekeepers
in Bosnia, and the fear of occupation troops being prosecuted for violations
of law is behind the current American opposition to the foundation of
the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
As far as the economy and foreign property ownership was concerned,
in the course of the nineteen year occupation, Haiti's economy was twisted
from somewhat self-sustaining, with significant German and South American
influence, into full-fledged dependency of the United States. Mission
FINISHED WITH THE messy business of "building democracy"
(as the tribe of peacekeepers and peaceseekers call it today), the American
authorities now turned toward rebuilding Haiti's infrastructure, particularly
modern roads needed for an uninhibited flow of crops and raw materials
to the port cities. Protection for the new roads, which had hardly been
necessary in an agrarian, subsistence economy, was
entrusted to a new Gendarmerie, trained and equipped by American forces.
They were soon pressed into duty coercing their fellow Haitians into
Washington had been reluctant to advance the sums necessary for such
a massive undertaking. Waller's subordinate, Major Butler, found an
old law on the books which called for local citizens to contribute free
labour to the construction of public works. Thus, virtual slavery was
reinstituted, with unpaid bands of peasants forced into compulsory manual
labour. An army investigator, Lt. Col. Richard C. Hooker, later
reported that the compulsory work system (descended from French feudal
law and called the corveé) was responsible for a "reign
of terror," with peasants abandoning their villages whenever the
Marines and the Gendarmerie rolled into town.
Less than a year after it was instituted, the corveé led to the
first major uprising of the Occupation. The insurrection was led by
a former Haitian officer (dubbed a simple "bandit" by the
American military and some historians who should know better), one Charlemagne
Peralte. He had been demoted for his fierce anti-Occupation views shortly
after the invasion, and later resigned his commission. Peralte had already
been arrested once and put to forced labour on the roads. He escaped
from captivity and formed a provisional government while calling for
popular uprising from the mountains. Thousands of Haitians flocked to
It's true that Peralte might have started as an outlaw (by special order,
the traditional Haitian term for rebels, cacos, was prohibited in military
paperwork, and American forces were instructed to call enemy combatants
"bandits" instead). But Peralte would soon become the premier
Haitian martyr of the 20th century, and they were American guns slung
over American shoulders that created his legend.
In a special operation, a squadron of twenty-two American Marines put
on Al Jolson-style blackface (probably without as much white around
the lips) and crept into Peralte's camp. Peralte was alerted and ran,
but the Marines shot him before he could escape into the bush. The leader
of the squadron, Sgt. Herman Hanneken, was given a Medal of Honor for
what was tantamount to assassination, and instructors in the military
today still point to the murder of Peralte as a textbook case of liquidating
an enemy's leader in order to disperse his forces.
Peralte was just one of what the Marine Corps itself estimated as 3,250
Haitian "bandits" killed between March 1919 and November.
Most of them were armed with knives and clubs, like the maroons, the
runaway slaves who escaped imprisonment and formed their own communities
up in the mountains. But Peralte would become Haiti's iconic Che Guevara
thanks to an egregious error that today's military instructors are careful
not to mention.
Not satisfied with being Pontius Pilate, the American authorities took
the role of St. Paul, too. They carried the dead guerrilla leader's
body to his hometown of Hinche, tied it upright to a door and photographed
him. Copies were circulated throughout Haiti as an illustrated lesson
in what would happen to those who rebelled against
the Occupation and the "best interests" of the Haitian people.
The scarecrow became an inspiration as Peralte's body in the photograph
was a dead ringer for Christ at the Crucifixion. The image was burned
into the Haitian consciousness, and Peralte is still considered one
of Haiti's greatest heroes today.
The American public might bristle that someone who wanted to kill them
- in this case, a Haitian guerrilla - is lionized as a friendly nation's
ultimate patriot. In the Third World, it's incomprehensible that someone
like Sgt. Hanneken was not only decorated with a high award, but is
still celebrated today by the self-appointed custodians of American
prestige for what he did in the service of crass imperialism. Nobody
disputes the facts of Hanneken's operation, but the reluctance to call
it what it was - and it was an assassination - suggests a reluctance
to face reality, as does the continued reference to Peralte as a kind
of African bandit king, sans loincloth - the prototypical savage standing
in the way of American Progress.
BUT THE TRUE agony of the Haitian Occupation was experienced
afterward, in its shadow. America left behind an infrastructure still
in tatters, an economy wholly dependent upon absentee foreign landowners,
and a powerful native Gendarmerie deliberately cultivated in their own
image - as arrogant occupiers quick to the draw. (The same was true
on the opposite end of Hispaniola, where Rafael Trujillo assumed command
of the reinforced Dominican Guardia a year after America's departure
used it as the basis of his 31 year dictatorship.)
In the twenty years following the Occupation, the Haitian army emptied
more clips into Haitian bodies than they fired at foreign interlopers.
(The death toll would be far greater if it weren't for Papa Doc Duvalier's
subordination of the raucous Gendarmerie in favour his own private militia,
the rapacious Tonton Macoutes.) Oddly enough, the State Department fought
hard to thwart Haitian President Jean Bertrand
Aristide's plans to dismantle the Haitian army, riddled with graduates
from the School of the Americas, former CIA assets and ordinary, run-of-the-mill
psychopaths. They only dropped their opposition when Aristide agreed
to form a new national police corps - and accepted a special American
mission to help train them.
But one person did seem to learn something from all this: Smedley Darlington
Butler, who had leaned on Dartiguenave to ram through a new Constitution,
dissolved the National Assembly and petitioned the State Department
to "cook up" some pretext to "drive the Germans out of
this country," since it was proper, given the American investment,
that "after the war we should control this island."
Butler, one of the most decorated soldiers in the history of the Marine
Corps and recipient of two Medals of Honor and the Distinguished Service
Medal, became unspeakably disillusioned with his accomplishments. His
service record reads like an itinerary of all the "peacekeeping"
and "humanitarian interventions" Wilson's enlightened and
honourable foreign policy brought to a benighted world. After his
retirement in 1931, Butler wrote, "I helped make Mexico, especially
Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti
and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues
in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics
for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long.
I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown
Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought
light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.
In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
"I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am
sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never
had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties
remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups.
This is typical with everyone in the military service."Looking
back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The
best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated
on three continents."
A NUMBER OF the names and locales in the above might seem exotic or
incongruent in comparison with the modern world. Perhaps they are, and
the period of wild American imperialism which ended, sort of, with the
Great Depression and Roosevelt's preoccupation with America's domestic
problems in the 1930s has no bearing on the United States and the world
today. But I think it does. The Monroe Doctrine, which once drew a line
in the ocean and marked off the Western Hemisphere as America's exclusive
sphere of interest, now seems to apply for most of the world, without
From the pressure placed upon the Macedonian government to accept a
special "peacekeeping" contingent to disarm ethnic Albanian
guerrillas who had rebelled without provocation in 2001 (and the insistence
that the Macedonians too rewrite their Constitution, an incredible notion
if it were proposed to an American); to the "anti-narcotics advisors"
in Colombia and Uzbekistan; to the "anti-terrorism experts"
dispatched throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus and
Africa, and some other places we don't know about, American power is
flexed throughout the world under a variety of guises. Using refined
Wilsonian language, the Clinton Administration accelerated the process,
bringing peace in the white afterburn from a Tomahawk, restoring order
from isolated bases in a bone-dry desert, and spreading democracy from
the barrel of a gun - literally. The breadth of America's armed forces
across the globe is something Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt couldn't
have imagined in their wildest dreams.
The Bush Administration is still using Wilsonian jargon these days,
praying for the mademoiselles of Afghanistan and the unscrubbed masses
of Iraq to be delivered from their oppressors. But there's a harder
edge, and Bush has the advantage of an unlimited mandate - his very
own war in distant continents - to justify an unchecked expansion of
America's occupation of places around the world. If Afghanistan and
Kosovo seem like unattractive targets to you, you're not alone: the
American public believed the same thing during 19 year occupation of
the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Aesthetics and the finer tones of diplomacy distinguished General Waller's
policy of force from Caperton's policy of conciliation with the Haitian
people. But both were in service of an occupation, and a close look
at recent disasters in Somalia and Bosnia - one sudden and searing,
the other a slow-motion car wreck - indicates that a policy of force
inevitably supplants a policy of conciliation as the subject people
become more hostile and disgruntled men begin to join with one another
in prohibited associations. Repression is the response, terror the reaction
to that and rarely, if ever, do things end as relatively peaceful as
they did in Haiti. The Haitian Occupation was a success by only one
measure: American bodybags did not weigh down the mailboats.
We are too early along to see a corveé, but it will happen eventually,
because governments can't learn from their mistakes. They're not human
beings, they're just run by them. And we'll give more medals to soldiers
who kill bandits, not knowing we beatified another Charlemagne Peralte.
Copyright 1998-2005 Diacritica Press and Sobaka Magazine. All Rights
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not endorse the opinions expressed in other articles by this same author.