For almost a century after its independence in 1804, Haiti sat largely apart from the international mainstream, little-visited and ostracised by many. When it made headlines at all, it was as the recipient of the crudest form of gunboat diplomacy, when a naval cruiser from one of the major European powers or America would threaten to shell Port-au-Prince unless reparations were paid for some imagined slight against one of its nationals. On July 28 1915, all this was to change. The USS Washington weighed anchor in Port-au-Prince harbour and disgorged several hundred marines, who quickly took control of strategic locations.
For the next 20 years, thousands more Americans followed their army to Haiti – businessmen, missionaries and even the occasional tourists. And they all needed help when they got there. In short, they needed a travel guide. In a previous blog I talked about what the Haitian guidebooks of the 1980s could tell us about contemporary attitudes to the country, and it’s instructive to look at what literature was available for the many Americans heading to Haiti during the occupation. Of these, the most important was the bilingual Livre bleu d’Haïti (The Blue Book of Hayti), produced in 1920 under the auspices of the Haitian government.
The Americans were ostensibly in Haiti to provide stability to the country, and counter German influence in the Caribbean during a time of world war. However, the occupation also brought with it the opportunity to remake Haiti in America’s image. Having taken control of the banks, customs houses and the presidency, a new constitution (drafted by Franklin D Roosevelt) was forced through parliament allowing foreigners to own land for the first time since independence. Haiti was now a land of opportunity. The introduction to the The Blue Book of Hayti states the case very clearly:
Haiti is a very interesting country and if proper propaganda would make it rightly known to the outside world, most certainly its good and healthy climate would attract a great number of tourists which would render inevitable the construction of comfortable and large hotels [and] central parks which in time would bring the desired progress to the country. The Haitian soil, which has never been cultivated, contains immense wealth and would guarantee the development of industrial and commercial enterprises, and the main desire of the country is to interest foreign and especially American capitalists to invest in the exploitation of Haitian soil, mines and woods, which would certainly prove to be one of the best investments in the world.
The Blue Book of Hayti is a 260-page gazetteer to the country. There are sections on history, geography and the like, but what’s really important to its readers is making money and getting on in society. So, there are pages dedicated to customs warehouses, import businesses and municipal works, interspersed with biographies of the well-to-do Haitians you might meet or (possibly) receive a dining invitation from. With luck, you might run into the ‘genial and sympathetic personality’ of George Baussan, architect of the Palais National, or president-to-be Louis Borno (‘kindly of manner and benevolent of heart’). Photographic portraits are even provided for identification, and are particularly revealing – the leading Haitians are all pale skinned, the officers of the newly-reconstituted armed forces are American to a man, and women are represented in a peculiar seven-page spread entitled ‘Beauties of Hayti – Popularity Contest.’
It’s just possible that the visitor to Haiti is interested in seeing the country as much as making money from it. This was the earliest era of international cruising, and publishers were scrambling to produce guides to the new recreational travellers. The famous The South American Handbook, (updated annually and now in its 90th edition) dates from this period, while Haiti makes an appearance as part of a cruise itinerary in Frederick Albion’s A Guide to the West Indies, Bermuda and Panama (1920).
Much as many Caribbean guidebooks today still give Haiti the widest of berths, you get the sense that Albion could hardly bring himself to disembark when his ship arrived in Cap-Haïtien. ‘Let it be understood,’ he writes of anyone planning a trip to Haiti, ‘that he does it solely upon his own responsibility.’ The change of tone from the rest of the book is jarring. Elsewhere, Bermuda is described in painterly colours, Havana offers the visitor beautiful views and graceful ladies wearing mantillas, while readers are charmed by Jamaica’s English-style villages complete with boys playing cricket. As for Port-au-Prince, the visitor is ‘advised not to plan to linger in this city, unless certain of a welcome from the American colony which now numbers several hundred members.’
Those readers who forgot to pack their copy of The Blue Book of Haiti and it’s spotter’s guide to Haitian society would have found a welcome from the various social and sports clubs set up by the Americans. The Pétionville Club (which found unfortunate fame after the 2010 earthquake when its golf course became home to a large tent camp run by Sean Penn’s aid outfit JP/HRO) was established during the US occupation. Female travellers could join The Colony Club of Haiti, set up in 1924 by the wives of US Marines officers.
In contrast with the guidebooks of today, which sell themselves through offering as many chances for readers to experience countries as locals do, Albion wants to insulate as far as possible readers from accidentally encountering Haiti as it actually existed for Haitians. Take public transport for example:
The [buses] are ramshackle affairs and their seats hardly inviting. Get advice from a resident of your own class as to both carriage and motor service … There are perhaps 100 miles of so-called rail-roads in Haiti. Trains run at less than bicycle speed and, for that and other reasons, are seldom patronized by whites.
Likewise, those wishing to experience the wider country don’t find much encouragement:
[Jacmel] offers nothing startling beyond the fact that it claims 6,000 Baptists. There are no special attractions here for the traveller, as one may pursue his investigations of people and resources at better advantage in the capital, or at the Cape. The streets are no cleaner than they should be, and the hotels are, frankly, Haitian.
Ironically, those Americans who did manage to travel more widely in Haiti would probably ended up finding favour with the guidebook’s author. The US occupation prompted a mini-boom in travelogues and memoirs about Haiti visitors, all intent on appropriating its cultural capital. Books like William Seagrove’s Magic Island (and its spin-off Hollywood movie White Zombie) sold a twisted ‘Voodoo’-soaked Haiti to the American public. The potency of this imagery proved so powerful as to inform narratives about Haiti to the present day. In the 1970s the Haitian government even used this imagery to sell the island back to prospective American tourists, while in a May 2013 survey of package tourists visiting Haiti, 90% of respondents said that they’d hoped to see ‘voodoo performances’ during their trip.
Travel guidebooks have thankfully evolved a long way from the parochial and casually racist attitudes of the 1920s. But the US occupation of Haiti still casts a long shadow, and what makes these books interesting today is how much can be carried forward to the present. The relentless focus on the country being open for business (even down to a prescient comment about the potential for mining), the closed circle of many expats in Haiti and even the paternalist need for an occupying army to stitch the country together (only after anti-American banditry is eradicated can Haitians ‘in time learn to govern themselves in freedom’) – all find their echoes in the 21st century. Some narratives apparently take a little longer to change.