BOOK REVIEWS: WRITINGS ABOUT HAITI

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Haiti is remarkably isolated in the Caribbean. Her cultural links are with France and with Africa; her economic links (so far as she has any) are with the U. S. A. Her official language is French, but most of the population do not speak it, and Haiti is separated from the rest of the French-speaking Caribbean by a century and a half of independence. For these reasons among others, reliable information about the country is hard to come by, and it is particularly difficult to find sober discussions of social and political conditions in the republic.

Writings about Haiti fall into a number of categories. In the first place there are newspaper reports by visiting journalists who gather a few scraps of gossip during their visit, and expand these into the kind of sensationalist meal which their clients expect. The readers of the London Sunday Times were a few months ago treated to such a banquet, and were expected to believe that Dr. Francois Duvalier examines the entrails of goats in order to determine state policy, and that he sits for days in his bath with nothing on but a top hat. This kind of patent nonsense is frequently served up to a credulous public. Graham Greene’s book The Comedians falls into roughly the same category. The novel is based partly on fact and contains a number of half truths; it is partly fiction. The distinction between the two is, of course, never quite clear in a novel. One may take as an example the scene where a funeral is stopped by a detachment of milice, and the body is removed. A brutal and meaningless action.

In April 1959 the funeral of Clement Jumelle was stopped; Jumelle, a former minister in the Magloire government, was a leading opponent of Duvalier and determined to overthrow him by any means. In the previous August his two brothers had been killed in a gun battle with the police. He himself died in a foreign embassy, and his funeral was to become a rallying point for his supporters; it was clearly a political event. We may properly regret the kind of politics which is played in Haiti, but to hint, as the novelist does, that Duvalier invented the system is nonsense. Jumelle was playing the same kind of game as a cabinet minister, while Duvalier was in hiding. But after all it is the privilege of the novelist to present a judicious mixture of fact and fiction, to hint without stating, in such a way that he can neatly avoid the criterion of honesty which the historian must face. After all The Comedians is only a novel!.

A second kind of literature about Haiti comprises the hysterical outbursts of some Haitian exiles. An example of such writing is Duvalier. Caribbean Cyclone by Jean – Pierre Gingras (Exposition Press, 1967, $5.00). The author is described on the dust jacket as “scholar, writer and humanist …. Well known in international circles”. There is not the slightest attempt in this book to discover the underlying causes for Haiti’s problems; everything is attributed to the wickedness of Haitian presidents culminating in Duvalier. “Haitian history,” we are told, “has never recorded such a blood-chilling and corrupt despot … Everyone will agree that he is a most horrible jackal.” The book is full of such passionate opinions, and also contains a number of factual errors (there are at least two on page 110 ). Also anyone who can unquestioningly accept the judgements of Colonel Robert Heinl, former head of the U. S. marine mission in Haiti, must be viewed with suspicion. It would be difficult to point to any visitor to Haiti in the last decade who discovered less about the country than did Heinl. It is not merely being facetious to say that during his four and a half years in the republic he was taken for a ride. The less said about Gingras’s book the better.

I do not, of course, wish to imply that all the writings of Haitian exiles are of the same quality as Duvalier, Caribbean Cyclone. Quite different is the useful contribution of Remy Bastien to Religion and Politics in Haiti by H. Courlander and R. Bastien (Institute for Cross Cultural Research 1966, no price). The book, by two anthropologists is principally a discussion of the social and political aspects of voodoo. It is sober and serious in tone, if somewhat impressionistic at times. There are one or two factual errors; Soulouque came to power in 1847 not 1843; (when the news of his election was brought to Soulouque, lying on his hammock, he refused to take it seriously, believing himself to be the victim of a practical joke!) It is also probably a mistake to say, with Courlander, that in the 1957 election Duvalier had the support of “the commercial class”. Most of this group backed Dejoie, who received more votes in the capital than Duvalier did. Nevertheless the book is an important contribution to our understanding of Haitian society; and is incidentally attractively produced. Courlander, an American anthropologist has, of course, written previously on Haiti, and his name can well be linked with fellow countrymen M.J. Herskovits and James Leyburn, who in a previous generation greatly increased our knowledge of Haitian society. Leyburn’s book, The Haitian People (republished, 1966 Yale University Press, $2.45 with an introduction by Sydney Mintz) remains the best general study of Haitian society in the English language.