Carlton Meyer, “The Colonization of Haiti in 1915” (Tales of the American Empire, 11 December 2020)
In this short video, running just under 12 minutes, TotAE narrator / director Carlton Meyer excels in giving yet another history lesson of the violence and chaos the US has been leaving around the world over the past 150 or so years in its pursuit of material profit, power and influence. In this episode Meyer outlines the history of US invasion, occupation and devastation of Haiti, beginning with US naval harassment of the small, impoverished nation in 1857 which escalated to US Marines arriving in Port-au-Prince in 1914 and taking US$500,000 worth of gold from the country’s sole commercial bank the Banque Nationale d’Haiti and transferring it to the National City Bank of New York’s vaults – in effect, assuming control of the country’s finances. The following year, US President Woodrow Wilson sent 330 Marines to occupy Port-au-Prince, ostensibly to protect American and foreign business interests. (The reality was that the US saw the German business community in Haiti as a threat to American business interests: the Germans had intermarried with the Haitian elites and as a result were entitled to own land in Haiti which other foreigners could not do.) The US promptly began controlling Haiti’s administrative and financial institutions, took over the country’s customs houses, installed a new Haitian President and compelled him to accept and impose a new Haitian constitution that allowed foreigners to own land in the country. Haitian citizens were conscripted into virtual slave labour forces to work on public projects such as building roads and other infrastructure for the benefit of American businesses.
For a good part of the video Meyer focuses on Haitian Cacos (rebel) resistance to US rule and the US Marines’ slaughter of rebels armed with knives, machetes and not many rifles, and the severe punishment and killing the Marines inflicted on villages where rebellions broke out. One major Cacos leader, Charlemagne Péralte, was assassinated in 1919 by US Sergeant Herman Hanneken and his corporal after both had secretly been led to Péralte’s camp. Péralte’s body was taken by the Americans, tied to a door and the corpse was photographed; the photograph was later publicised throughout Haiti to discourage rebellion (in fact, it had the opposite effect and galvanised even more opposition). For his action against Péralte and other exploits in Haiti, Hanneken was decorated and promoted to Second Lieutenant.
After Péralte’s death and Hanneken’s promotion, the video glosses over much of the rest of Haiti’s occupation by US forces and how Haitians resisted the US presence in other ways. Meyer is not so good at detailing the non-military avenues by which Haitians fought back against the American occupation, including reaching out to people in the US, and black American people in particular, for help and support. As time passed and Woodrow Wilson was replaced by subsequent Presidents, the US government attitude towards its occupation of Haiti changed to the extent that eventually the Americans left the country in 1934 – though not before changing Haiti’s education system drastically to emphasise vocational training (in effect, treating Haitians as nothing more than robots or a pool of slave labour) and breaking the economic and political power of the German-Haitian community. The Americans continued to control Haiti’s finances however and this control surely was significant in prolonging Haiti’s poverty and suppressing its development economically and politically.
The video works best as an introduction to Haiti’s history from 1900 on, and as an example of the way in which the US invades and occupies other nations whose resources are much coveted by American corporations and elites, and the brutal American treatment of those nations’ peoples who resist occupation. Had the video drilled down even deeper into how the occupying Marines behaved in Haiti while serving there, it would have shown very clearly parallels between their unbecoming behaviour and the behaviour of US soldiers in other parts of the world (in Japan, South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan for example) where they have been stationed. Viewers come away with the depressing realisation that the US never learns anything from previous experiences of occupying nations, bringing destruction, violence and chaos, treating the people as racial inferiors born to serve others, and leaving a mess in the form of environmental destruction and institutions such as Americanised school systems that ignore the people’s real needs but prepare them only for manual slave labour. In the case of Haiti, viewers will wonder whether the country serves as a dumping ground for American desires to reinstate the culture and economy of Confederate America, and also as a target to thump to show black Americans and other minority groups in the US that they should know their place in society … as an inferior servant class.