"The Firminist War" by Joshua Clough

Clough is a doctoral student in the Department of History at DukeUniversity. His research is on ethnography and Haitian culture.

In the summer of 1902, Haiti erupted in civil war. On May 12, under pressure for his grievous handling of the Luders Affair, President Tirésias Simon Sam had resigned his office, creating a political vacuum. Pierre Boisrond-Canal was appointed provisional president until a new head of state could be chosen; however, frustrated by the constitutional provision granting the power of executive appointment to the National Assembly, citizens revolted in Port-au-Prince. In reaction, the National Assembly disbanded. In its wake, democratic committees assembled throughout the republic, selecting local delegates who gathered in Port-au-Prince to debate the terms of Haiti’s impending presidential election. After much deliberation, the representatives promulgated a new constitution with a notable expansion in democratic rights. Achieving their goal of more direct participation in the election process, enfranchised citizens would henceforth nominate local electors to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Animated by this sudden expansion of their democratic rights, citizens in every department registered in droves. Anténor Firmin quickly emerged a conspicuous front-runner. Although an important voice for political reform in the late nineteenth century, a disenchanted Firmin had returned to his native Cap-Haïtien by 1900 to practice law. Uneasy with his ongoing influence, the Sam government appointed Firmin Minister to Paris in 1900, seeking to rid the country of a potential political threat. Their machination, however, backfired. Firmin’s absence only galvanized his followers who welcomed him as a hero when he returned in late May with his sights set on the presidency. Firmin commanded a particularly passionate following among young voters attracted by his promises to end government corruption. These same promises also catalyzed Firmin’s opposition, who were determined to maintain their access to power.

Sénèque M. Pierre, former Secretary of War, and Callisthènes Fouchard, former Secretary of the Treasury, had also declared their candidacy, although Firmin’s greatest challenge came from Nord Alexis. Born to an elite and politically connected family—his father occupied a prominent position under King Christophe—Alexis had been a permanent fixture in Haitian military and political life since the late 1830s. After enlisting in the military while still a teenager, Alexis was quickly promoted to the position of senior officer under president Jean-Louis Pierrot (1845-1846). An octogenarian at the turn of the century, Alexis remained a feared general and influential political force. Moreover, as Minister of War in the Provisional Government, Alexis commanded a formidable army ready to reinforce his political ambitions.

In June, Cap-Haïtien became the frontline in a series of fierce political battles. Late that month, Alexis arrived in Cap-Haïtien with the official purpose of returning order to the city; however, on June 28, the day of the election, street battles between Firmin and Alexis’ partisans boiled over and civil war seemed inevitable. After two days of fighting, and steadily losing ground to Alexis’ forces, Firmin made his way to Gonaives where he denounced the Provisional Government and declared the elections fraudulent. Nevertheless, it was increasingly clear the election would not be decided at the polls.

On the field of battle, Alexis’ advantage was palpable. Nevertheless, the Firminists held an invaluable strategic asset in the Crète-à-Pierrot battleship. From July through August, Admiral Hammerton Killick and his crew patrolled Haiti’s coastal waters in the Crète-à-Pierrot, isolating and slowly demobilizing Alexis’ forces. On September 2, Killick intercepted a German steamer Markomania that was stockpiled with weapons bound for Alexis’ camp in Cap-Haïtien. Alexis wasted no time notifying the German officials who denounced this as an act of piracy and dispatched their own battleship Panther to Gonaives, where they demanded Killick forfeit the Crète-à-Pierrot as recompense. Unwilling to relinquish his ship to the Germans, Killick evacuated all personnel, took a seat on the bow, and lit a fuse he had fastened to the ships armory. Killick’s sacrificial detonation of the Crète-à-Pierrot marked the symbolic and substantive finale of the Firminist War. A month later, his campaign beyond repair, Firmin sailed for the Bahamas before settling in St. Thomas, where he died in 1911. On December 17, a conflict-weary population in Port-au-Prince declared Alexis the new President of the Republic.