“Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

William Pickens
William Pickens (1881-1954)

This is the third entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The previous post can be found here.

1903 was a demanding year for Pierre Nord Alexis. After seizing the Haitian presidency in a coup, the octogenarian politician had to plan a grand party. Haiti would celebrate one hundred years of independence in 1904, an extraordinary feat given the attempts made by the United States and Western Europe to diminish Haitian sovereignty in the preceding decades. The commemoration of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent efforts made to sustain its gains thus had to be remarkable. It had to be worthy of Toussaint Louverture, of Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Alexis established a National Association for the Centennial to ensure that it was. Among its other tasks, the Association staged a competition for the composition of a national anthem. The winner was La Dessalinienne. In January 1904, hundreds of thousands of celebrants flocked to the new Palais du Centenaire in Gonaïves while thousands of their compatriots heard the official introduction of the new anthem in Port-au-Prince. As the ode to the fathers of Haitian independence rang out among the descendants of former slaves, government authorities christened the Place des Héroes de l’Indépendence and unveiled monuments to the nation’s most cherished heroes including Louverture and Dessalines. Surely, the celebration organizers must have thought, these ancestors would be proud.

Others were not so certain. In particular, Rosalvo Bobo questioned why his compatriots were celebrating at a time when the corruption of the Haitian state threatened to undermine national progress. “Centennial of our freedom,” he scoffed.

 No. Centennial of blacks enslaving blacks. Centennial of our follies, of our turpitudes, and, amidst unceasing pretensions, of our systematic retrogression. Centennial of our fraternal hatreds, and of our triple weakness: moral, social, and political. Our Centennial amidst murders in our towns and countryside. Centennial of our vices, of our political crimes. Centennial of everything that could be most hateful inside the breast of men. Centennial of the ruin of a country by misery and filth. Centennial of humiliation and, perhaps, the definitive degradation of the black race, by its Haitian representatives.[1]

Bobo was severe in his critique. But he did not offer it without aim or purpose. The Haitian intellectual sought to recover the prosperity of the recent past, which was evidenced, in part, by the sizable contingents of Germans, Syrians, and other foreign businessmen who pursued commercial ties with Haitian elites and flocked to Haitian cities. His remarks, then, were a call for reform akin to the jeremiads that flourished among his African American contemporaries who demanded improvements in their communities or in the broader U.S. society. To that end, Bobo urged Haitians “to ask forgiveness from Dessalines, from Toussaint” and “work to emerge from the stupor of an entire century.” If they did, he promised that

1904 will not be a celebration of nothing at all, but the first year of the existence of a gathering of brave black people working modestly and with dignity to be a people. And the tiny republic of Haiti will be able to be a huge thing to all of Europe! And the old continent will be able to take notice, in the year 2004, of the first centennial of the GREAT FREEDOM of the HAITIAN PEOPLE![2]

Yale student William Pickens was less sanguine about the prospects of Haitian independence. In February 1903, the son of former slaves entered the annual “Ten Eyck Prize” oratorical competition at his university. His oration was about Haiti. Pickens first argued that Haiti commanded the attention of Americans because its history shed light “upon the much-mooted questions which involve the welfare of the whole southern section of our country.” He proceeded to elucidate his version of that history. Pickens asserted that the success of the Haitian Revolution was illusory. “With the gain of absolute independence,” he maintained, “the uncivilized horde gained the most efficient weapon of self-destruction” and “destroyed every trace and hope of internal civilization.” In Pickens’s reckoning, they relapsed “into a savagery and cannibalism comparable to any state of their African ancestry.”[3]

This was no call for internal reform. It was a plea for occupation. The future NAACP field secretary surmised that “the savage and the child to rise to higher things must feel the power of a stronger hand.” Haitians, in other words, needed to submit themselves to American civilization. In fact, Pickens assumed that U.S. policymakers were uniquely suited to undertake a benevolent intervention in Haiti because they were “schooled as no other in the problems of the negro race.” He insisted that Haitians would accrue numerous benefits from the proposed foreign intervention because “under American institutions the blacks as a race have reached the highest plane of civilization of which the negro’s history has record—a fact sometimes obscured by the remonstrance against injustice and oppression.” For Pickens, flattering influential whites and critiquing the purported failures of black self-government in Haiti thus became a convenient means of validating his own success while making a case for the inclusion of African Americans in U.S. politics and public life.[4]

To be sure, the shortcomings of this attempt to prove the “Americanness” of African Americans were apparent to some of his peers. John Edward Bruce was one of the countless Americans who learned of Pickens’s essay as it became the subject of newspaper headlines and gossip throughout the entire United States. He was less than pleased with it. In a column appearing in an April 1903 edition of The Colored American, the activist editor better known as Bruce Grit argued that the Yale student mistook “the temper of the Haitians” when he assumed that they “ought to submit to a benevolent assimilation.” The testimony of Haitians proved his point. Bruce quoted at length a Haitian resident of New York who was “greatly astonished” that an African American would vilify a country that had “maintained a Negro government . . . without the aid or consent of any outside nation” for a century. “I am very sorry,” the Haitian confidant told Bruce, “to see that Hayti is a subject of criticism even by the Negroes of this country, seeing that they have so much of their own trouble to mind.” How could a child of former slaves—a product of the Jim Crow South—not see that “in putting down our people he has equally spoken against the people of his own race in this country?”[5]

The salient question raised by Bruce and his Haitian friend was explicit. But their greatest concerns were more indirect. As the 58th United States Congress debated a resolution to annex Haiti, the two men expressed bewilderment over why Pickens would treat his subject with such callous indifference. How could he contribute to prevailing discourses about black inferiority? How could he not realize that white Americans were waiting for an excuse to take control of Haitian political, social, and economic life? How could he fail to see that U.S. imperialism in Haiti would have the same effect as Jim Crow in the United States? In sum, how could Pickens treat occupation as an academic question when it was a looming reality for those Haitians who foreigners disregarded as incapable of self-government?

Next month: “Ten Million Black People . . . are Watching:” Ambivalence at the Outset of the U.S. Occupation


[1] Rosalvo Bobo, À Propos de la Fête du Centenaire (1903).

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Pickens, “Hayti,” The Yale Literary Magazine 68, No.7 (April 1903): 234-235.

[4] Ibid., 236-238.

[5] John Edward Bruce, “Bruce Grit’s Melange,” The Colored American, April 18, 1903.

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Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of 'The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti.' Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

Comments on ““Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

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    This is a fantastic series of posts. This one, in particular, raises intriguing questions about the intersection of African American domestic politics and concerns among the African American community about U.S. foreign policy. I can’t wait to see what you do with this next!

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      Thanks for reading, Robert! I go deeper into the Pickens episode in my current book project and, as you say, it really does raise a lot of questions about the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy concerns. For instance, William Monroe Trotter criticized Pickens’s essay on Haiti for demonstrating what he perceived to be the worst of Washingtonian accomodationism. A lot to unpack there, for sure.

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