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#5254: History of Fort Liberte and the Dauphin Plantation (fwd)

From: Perdue and Persinos <vtandwi@erols.com>


By way of reintroduction, and especially for the benefit of those who
have joined the Corbett list during the last two years, I am Bob Perdue,
a retired agricultural research scientist with an interest in the old
Dauphin Plantation and its environs, including Fort Liberte and,  for
the colonial period, the adjacent part of what is now Dominican
Republic.  During the colonial period, the northwestern part of  DR was
an extension of the "economic unit" that was then northern Saint
Domingue, controlled by the French

Several years ago I became involved in a project sponsored by the World
Christian Relief Fund, the objectives of which were to find a way to
make the abandoned Dauphin Plantation useful again.  While I became
involved initially because of my background in agriculture, I soon came
to the conclusion that the area's greatest asset is its history and its
economic future is probably more in tourism that in agriculture.  This
prompted my interest in the history of the area.

During the last two years I have had distractions that diverted my
attention to other matters but now I am back on track and hope to pursue
this project to completion.

I live in  Maryland just outside Washington, DC where there are
tremendous assets for study of Haiti.  Of special value are the Library
of Congress, the National Archives and the National Agricultural
Library.  Dauphin was a producer of sisal fiber which was a strategic
material during World War II and there are many useful documents in the
National Archives (especially letters from the American Embassy in
Port-au-Prince) and in a special collection on fiber plants at the NAL.

I began by compiling information on the area prior to the establishment
of the Plantation during the mid-1920s as this seemed so logical,
especially since there would likely be very little information
available.  This is in the form of a chronology, and though it has
reached more than 100 pages it is still only about 80% complete.  With
so few former Dauphin employees and their descendants still available I
decided to hold the chronology in abeyance and concentrate on the period
since the plantation was established.

I visited the plantation and vicinity several times, attended  reunions
of the "Dauphin Club" (former Plantation employees and their
descendants)  and interviewed many sources in Haiti, Canada and the
United States.

While the first part of the story, from the "beginning of time" to the
mid 1920s is best adapted to a chronology because there are so many
isolated events that do not directly relate to each other, the period
since is best treated in "chapters".  In  posts to follow shortly , I
will begin to relate what I have learned about the Plantation (and
northeastern Haiti) since it was sold after the death of the original
owner and developer.

These "chapters" will not be in logical order so here is a brief summary
of Plantation history to put things in perspective.

I still have questions and hope that list members may have answers.  Any
comments will be welcome.


In February 1926, Andre DeCoppet, a young Wall Street broker, head of
the firm of DeCoppet and Doremus, took a cruise on the Ancon, a ship
that would touch briefly at Port-au-Prince, en route to Panama.
DeCoppet left the ship in Port-au-Prince and, with a letter of
introduction, visited W. W. Cumberland, then American Financial Advisor
to the Government of Haiti.

He was coolly received until Cumberland sensed that DeCoppet was a
person of wealth, at which time he began to tell him about the promise
of sisal as a new crop for Haiti.  DeCoppet was all ears - for he had
dreamed of owning a tropical plantation.  Cumberland really captured his
attention  when he said sisal would yield a profit of a "hunnerd
percent" per year.

When DeCoppet returned to New York, he sent his associate, Bill Findley,
to evaluate the situation.  Findley's assessment was positive and he
cabled DeCoppet to come and join him.

Cumberland arranged a tour of potential production sites, guided by
Robert L. Pettigrew, a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, assigned to
the occupation force as Assistant Chief Engineer of Public Works.

The reconnaissance led to Habitation Mere, near Fort Liberte, where
Bertrand La Mothe had introduced sisal from the Dominican Republic and
had produced some fiber with a primitive decorticator.  Here, there was
a vast area of unoccupied and unutilized land, probably the one area of
Haiti where land sufficient for a large plantation could be obtained.
And sisal was there, not only on the La Mothe property in the Romeo
River Valley, but also on the higher drier, almost semi-arid land on
either side that was covered by a low, dense  thicket of tropical bush.

DeCoppet and Findley concluded that with sisal selling at 12 cents per
pound, a hundred percent profit was attainable.  Subsequently, Pettigrew
was offered the position of manager.  He accepted and on February 10,
1927 resigned from the Navy.

The following day, land clearing began with a crew of 75 men.  The
initial objective was a plantation of 2000 acres.

The big challenge was planting stock which was obtained by having  local
people scrounge all over the northeastern corner of Haiti for suckers
and bulbuls, the latter to be planted in a nursery.  By the end of 1927,
400 acres had been planted and an additional 600 acres had been cleared.

>From the very beginning there was an effort toward diversification,
first with a native cotton that thrived in nature but produced no usable
product under cultivation and later became a weed in the sisal fields.
Over the years, everything was tried, from peanuts and pineapples to
ramie and kenaf.  There was a continuing search for a new "string to the
bow", but nothing paid off other than sisal.

In late 1929, about 30 tons of fiber were produced and shipped to the
Plymouth Cordage Company.  It brought just over 8 cents per pound,
substantially below the selling price when the plantation was
conceived.  And ultimately the price dropped to almost 2 cents per

But land clearing and planting continued and more money was invested.
When the bank account in Haiti dried up a cable would be sent to New
York requesting more money with an explanation of the need.  DeCoppet's
faith never wavered; the response was always positive with a total
pre-war investment of about $1,000,000.  In the later years, as money
was needed, the cables were just one word: "funds".

By World War II, "West Bay Plantation", with headquarters at Phaeton,
had about 12,000 acres of sisal, a substantial narrow-gage railroad
system to bring leaves in from the field, power plant, decorticators,
and housing for both management and Haitian staff - and had become the
largest single employer in Haiti.  Taxes paid would eventually amount to
10% of the country's budget.

The Plantation survived and then thrived.  By 1933 it was paying its way
- and would ultimately produce a very generous profit.  The Dauphin
Plantation is an excellent example of what is required to establish a
new or "non-traditional crop" and bring it to profitability: total
dedication to an idea and a committed financial supporter who is not
easily discouraged.

As World War II approached, sisal was selling at about 4 cents per pound
which provided a reasonable profit.  In 1941 almost 21,000,000 pounds of
fiber were produced.

As the war began it was evident that half the world's production of hard
fiber would be in enemy hands and other sources threatened by
submarines.  Sisal fiber would become a strategic material, an important
source of rope for the U.S. Navy.  The Plantation was asked by the U.S.
Government to double its production and did so.  The area planted on
what would become "East Bay Plantation" totaled about another 12,500

The Plantation thrived during the immediate post-war years.  In 1953,
DeCoppet died and it was sold to settle his estate.  It was purchased by
the Haitian American Sugar Co.  Subsequently, Haitian sisal could not
compete with man-made fibers and HASCO sold the Plantation in 1970 to
Lonnie Dunn, a California businessman, who planned to raise cattle and
develop Fort. Liberte Bay as a harbor.  No more sisal was planted  but
that remaining in the field was exploited when market price temporarily
increased.   Finally, the Plantation was sold to Elias Cassis, a
Port-au-Prince merchant, who tried to revitalize it but failed to
succeed and turned the establishment over to the Government when he
could not pay taxes.  Today the Plantation is completely abandoned and
in ruins.