A 19th century emigrant’s guidebook to Haiti

The ‘Geffrard’ map of Haiti, from A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1861)
The ‘Geffrard’ map of Haiti, from A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1860)

In previous blogposts, I’ve looked at how how travel guidebooks to Haiti have reflected the concerns of the day, from the US occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century to the tourist boom of the 1980s. In the final entry in this mini-series, we can go back to the infancy of the guidebook itself and find Haiti there at the very beginning, giving a very different account of itself to the ones we’ve looked at so far.

The travel guidebook is a relatively young publishing phenomenon. Although guides were produced for the 18th century Grand Tour of Europe, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that companies like Thomas Cook started producing what were recognizably the first ‘package tours’ that the genre took off. The debut Baedeker guide in English – traditionally thought of as the first recognizably modern travel guidebook series – was published in 1861. Amazingly, its appearance was beaten by a year by the first printed guide to Haiti, although its target market was rather different to those seeking the sites of Classical Europe.

A Guide to Hayti was published by James Redpath in 1860 under the auspices of the Haytian Bureau of Emigration in Boston. Despite being independent for over half a century, Haiti remained unrecognised by the USA, which was fearful of the powerful draw the country held over both free and enslaved African-Americans. Haiti was similarly aware of its beacon status, and its government had already made attempts to encourage emigration. A movement in the 1820s sponsored by President Jean-Pierre Boyer had already seen around 13,000 African-Americans settle in the republic.

In 1859, Fabré Geffrard became president of Haiti, having overthrown Emperor Faustin Soulouque in a coup, and began to revisit plans to encourage emigration to Haiti. He enlisted the help of the Scottish-American abolitionist James Redpath, who was encouraged to set up an office of the new Haytian Bureau of Emigration. Land was given over in the Artibonite Valley for settlers, and a budget of $20,000 set for the enterprise. A key part of this was the production of a written guide to encourage potential emigrants.

Redpath sets out his stall in the book’s introduction with a polemic designed to get the blood racing:

There is only one country in the Western World where the Black and the man of color are undisputed lords; where the White is indebted for the liberty to live to the race which with us is enslaved; where neither laws, nor prejudices, nor historical memories, press on persons of African descent; where the people whom America degrades and drives from her are rulers, judges and generals; men of extended commercial relations, authors, artists and legislators; where the insolent question, so often asked with us, “What would become of the Negro if Slavery were abolished?’ is answered by the fact of an independent Nationality of immovable stability, and a Government inspired with the spirit of progress. The name of this country is HAYTI.

Much of the book continues in this inspirational tone. The history of the island – and especially the revolution – is cast in the most valiant light possible. The chapters on geography are an insight into a green island with ‘exhaustless forests’ now largely lost to modern deforestation, but a lush one that would surely have enticed those looking to cultivate their own land as free men (certain passages still hold true today: ‘Cockroaches and ants are the greatest threat to housekeepers; they eat clothing and books with an extraordinary gluttony’). All information is tailored to the potential settler – the best land and soil types for certain crops, the best climate for particular livestock, even the relative abundance of different wood for the cabinet-maker seeking a new life.

Everything in the book contrives to paint a very seductive portrait of country, and the text regularly reminds African-American readers that Haiti is a beacon of liberty in comparison to its northern neighbour. ‘Men of our race, dispersed in the United States!’ booms the Haitian Secretary of State FE Dubois in a separate essay. ‘The doors of Hayti are open to you.’

A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1861)
A Guide to Hayti by James Redpath (1860)

In truth, Redpath is more interested in this hard sell than providing detailed travel information to his potential emigrants. Writing with the sigh of a guidebook writer who has returned from an exciting research trip but is dismayed by the pile of notes that demand to be written up, he concludes:

It is neither possible nor desirable to put in to a Guide Book … all that emigrants will ask. Hence, in this volume, the reader will find the essential facts only; for further information, he must apply, personally or by letter, to the office in Boston, where certified copies of the Governmental guarantees, the journals of Hayti, books of reference, maps, specimens of the ores, and of the staple cultures of the Island, will be found.

As a result, the chapter ‘How to go, and what to take to Hayti’ merely takes up a brisk three pages. (It’s instructive to compare the guide with The Prairie Traveler, an exhaustive manual for wagon trains on the Oregon Trail published a year later). Redpath essentially instructs emigrants to bring everything they think they might need, from clothing (‘take as many summer suits as you can afford to buy’) and tools (‘every family ought to have a saw, hammer, and nails’), to reading material (‘English books can seldom be had for love or money’) and livestock. About the only thing that seems to be available to purchase in Haiti is cane furniture.

The Haytian Bureau of Emigration – which also opened offices in New York and New Orleans – succeeded in bringing over 2000 emigrants to Haiti. Of those who made the journey, the most celebrated emigrant was the church minister Joseph Theodore Holly, a noted evangelist for Haiti as a home for African-Americans. Holly helped found the Episcopal Church in Haiti, and was its first bishop. Thirty years after arriving in Haiti, he oversaw the construction the Sainte Trinité Cathedral, which become famed for its extraordinary Biblical murals by the masters of Haitian art, and later reduced to rubble during the 2010 earthquake.

The success of the Guide to Hayti was relatively short-lived. In June 1862, just over a year into the American Civil War, the United States finally gave diplomatic recognition to Haiti. Six months later, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, explicitly shifting the war aims of the Union and making abolition inevitable. The staunchest supporters of emigration now shifted their efforts inwards; Redpath himself left the Bureau to become a war correspondent.

In the second half of the 20th century, Haiti became known as a net exporter of people rather than a destination for emigrants. But with a neat irony, the Haitian tourism industry today is putting its biggest efforts into attracting the Haitian-American Diaspora back to the country for their vacations. Visitors today, however, are encouraged to bring their swimsuits rather than hammers and nails.

You can find the complete text of A Guide to Hayti online at the Digital Library of the Caribbean.