"Firmin and the United States" by Asselin Charles, Ph.D.

Chalres is Associate Professor of Language and Literature at America University of Nigeria. He translated Anténor Firmin’s book, De l’Egalité des races humaines (1885) to English.

In addition to establishing the structures of the new state, the paramount concern of Haiti’s leaders in the first decades of the country’s independence was the fear of the return of the French colonizers. In the evolving geopolitical context of the last third of the nineteenth century, however, the sense of threat to the young nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity no longer came from distant France but from the United States. Moved by the twin ideologies of manifest destiny and the Monroe doctrine, America was then asserting its right to intervene in the affairs of the countries of the region both diplomatically and militarily. The Haitian political class and intelligentsia of the time, divided as they may have been ideologically, agreed at least on the necessity to guard Haiti’s right to self-determination in the face of the hemispheric hegemon. In this respect, the intellectual who arguably best embodied this nationalist ethos and demonstrated both in thought and action the country’s historic position vis-a-vis the United States is Anténor Firmin (1850-1911), scholar statesman, polymath author of the groundbreaking anthropological work De l’égalité des races humaines and writings in such varied fields as political philosophy, history, and literary criticism.

Firmin exposed his thoughts on the United States and Haiti in great detail in M. Roosevelt, président des Etats-Unis et la République d’Haïti (1905) and to a lesser extent in his penultimate book, Lettres de Saint-Thomas (1910). In both works he evinced a two-fold attitude toward the United States, at once admiring and wary. Fluent in English, knowledgeable about American history and literature, he had a firm understanding of United States society, culture, and political tradition. He appreciated its people’s entrepreneurial spirit, relative egalitarianism, and democratic culture. Though in Lettres de Saint Thomas (91) he recognized the lack of affinity between Haitians, an essentially Afro-Latin people, and Americans, a people of Anglo-Saxon cultural make-up, he urged his countrymen, without abandoning their cultural, linguistic, and sentimental ties to France, to get to know their northern neighbor and to learn English, if only out of a pragmatic understanding of the economic, political, and cultural weight of America in the Western hemisphere.

But Firmin’s appreciation of the positive traits of the United States did not blind him to the two intertwined impulses which, in his view, underpinned the geopolitical strategy of the West in general and America in particular, namely racism and imperialism (see The Equality of the Human Races). Even though in 1905 he argued theoretically, in M. Roosevelt président des Etats-Unis et la République d’Haïti, that the United States had no plans to turn Haiti into a vassal state, he understood that under the right circumstances the great regional power would not shrink from seizing the territory of the first Black republic. Six years later, in his last work, L’effort dans le mal (1911), he would in fact prophesy to his countrymen that continuing political dissention and social deliquescence would invite foreign domination of Haiti, a prediction which was to come true with the United States occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934.

Firmin’s prediction was based on his understanding of hemispheric geopolitical dynamics and his knowledge of both his country and the United States. It was also grounded in his earlier experience as Minister of External Affairs (1889-1891) that had taught him that it was best to maintain a healthy wariness of the United States’ intentions toward Haiti, and indeed toward the countries of the hemisphere. The famous Mole Saint-Nicolas Affair (1991) illustrates quite dramatically Firmin’s patriotic resolve to preserve his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The outcome of the Affair testifies to Firmin’s diplomatic skills, to his ability to defend Haiti’s interests against the United States imperialist ambitions while, as he explained in Diplomate et Diplomatie (1899, quoted in Georges J. Benjamin, 1960) "striving to maintain cordial relations with Washington, the centerpiece of our international relations" (88).

In the 1880s the United States was searching for a strategically appropriate site in the Caribbean to establish a naval base and coaling station from which to control Central America during the construction of the Panama Canal, enforce the Monroe doctrine, and challenge lingering European influence in the region. The Mole Saint-Nicolas, on the tip of Haiti’s northwestern peninsula, was well suited for this purpose. The United States began negotiating with the Haitian government for the lease of this site, first through its diplomatic envoy to Haiti, Frederick Douglass, and subsequently through Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, whose involvement implied the threat of military force. The American Government demanded exclusive access to this portion of Haitian territory for the United States to the exclusion of all other nations. Resisting both diplomatic and military pressures, Firmin ultimately rejected the request, basing his refusal on Haiti’s Constitution and invoking the nation’s adamant adherence to the principles of national sovereignty. This elegantly diplomatic but firm passage of the letter sent by Firmin to Admiral Gherardi epitomizes the Haitian nationalist ethos: "Accepting your demand as conveyed in such a clause would be, in the eyes of the Government of Haiti, an outrage to the national sovereignty of the Republic as well as a flagrant violation of Article 1 of our Constitution; for in renouncing the right to dispose freely of its territory, it would tacitly be agreeing to the latter’s alienation" (M. Roosevelt et Haiti, 499).