Notes from Bob Corbett 1997 or 1998

Recently I posted a piece by Ivan Sanderson who explored the Pine Forest in the late 1930s. Tonight I noticed a second book of travel reports by him. This one was from 1941. The section on Haiti was not of his own observations, but a group of Haitians were hired by him to find, kill and preserve one of the wild horses from the Pine Forest. Sanderson had suspected these were some link to stories of horses in the Americas BEFORE the Spanish coming. But, the horse head (intact) and skeleton they sent suggested that if these early horses existed, these in the Pine Forest were not they.

Given that I enjoy these travel literature books when I just have 15 or 20 minutes to kill, I noted another: CROSSROADS OF THE CARIBBEAN SEA by Hendrik De Leeuw, 1935. There were some astonishing observations in this work, but for the main part De Leeuw spends his time on a brief overview of the main lines of Haitian history and does very little observation and reports on his actual experience.

However, we do read this rather startling passage:

"The *Rensselaer* was steaming on to Port au Prince, the loftiest, the loveliest and the most entrancing of all the Antilles. Port au Prince might just as well be a city of the French Riviera. At first the harbor and the mountains of the city that we know must be ahead are but a vague silhouette in the violet distance, of a beauty beyond imagination. Across the bay of deepest blue, the purple of the mountains of La Gonaives (sic) loom up against the sky in the west, rivaling the azurean cast of the depths of the gulf.
"Spreading around the sweep of the great bay rise green hills, dotted with white residences scattered over the slopes and receding far into the main-tiered mountains. Beautiful villas stand in luxuriant gardens, wrinkled masses of green and blue and gray and orange, their dim wave of color relieved here and there by the pointed spire of a tree or by a crimson splotch of poinsettia breaking the blue and curved mountainside.
"In the center of the city rises the imposing white palace of President Stenio Vincent and a great cathedral of Gothic architecture lifts its spire, as we approached to a clearer view. The harbor teems with craft of wooden frames and flat-bottomed boats filled with naked boys, who paddle with little square flat pieces of wood. To the left, as we slowly make for the dock, where lumber and bags of native produce are piled high, the little boats paddled by the boys describe circles near our vessel. They have come to dive for coins and under their Creole chatter and their gay shrieks of laughter, they are on the alert, every eye watching the faces of the passengers on deck.
"We go ashore.....and find that we have set foot on the quaintest, loveliest and most romantic of all the West Indian isles. Picturesqueness and local color. These are the charms of Port au Prince, cosmopolitan yet demure with the Old World atmosphere of southern France, and possessing a charm all its own. Along the water edge, particularly, one becomes aware of a maze of color more intense than in any other tropical place, for the market, sprawled along the edge of the sparkling bay, swarms with violent hues.
"Perhaps the most novel impression of all is that of an invariable cleanliness. In fact, nowhere at these bayshore markets did I find any of the squalid filth that one may often see in the crowded districts of northern towns. It seemed that cleanliness was a habit here and a dirty Haitian could not be found anywhere around. He was simply an exception. Even the men on the wharves were clean, even those in rags, and there were many, to be sure, but they had been patched and mended, and gave evidence of much native washing. A most delightful trait."

[For many pages now follows a short history. Next is an interesting section that mentions the effects of the American Occupation. Since this book was published in 1935, I would expect that this was written toward the end of the Occupation, but while the marines were still in Haiti.]

"My visit with His Excellency, President Stenio Vincent, was most pleasant. On presenting my credentials I had been taken in hand by a splendidly informed adjutant, who, after acquainting himself with the nature of my business, communicated same to the Department of Foreign Affairs, where the appointment was arranged. I did not have to wait long. With prompt efficiency I was ushered up a wide staircase, past a hall where the anchor of the Santa Maria had found a resting place, to the study of the Chief Executive, a most amiable, energetic and brilliant man, a man of letters and a good linguist. Here, seated in a charmingly appointed antechamber overlooking the imposing and picturesque Champs de Mars, the President talked with me informally, saying very little of the period of American intervention, soon to be completely of the past, but more of the future of the Haitian people, which was so near to his heart.
"This chief of three million people seemed quite hopeful that the future would bring prosperity to his domain and, while he most modestly refrained from boasting, I could read between the lines that he was inordinately proud of the remarkable things that had been accomplished and of the great projects planned under his direction. President Vincent was the least bitter of all of the Haitians I met about the American regime, which had just come to an end. Much, he said, had been accomplished by the Americans for the good of the country, especially the regulation of public health and the lesson in technique of administering governmental affairs provided by American methods. While no country likes to be taken in hand by another, especially a country like Haiti, which has had such a turbulent past and such an uphill fight, President Vincent nevertheless declared himself in a measure thankful for the many good things that had come out of it. An ardent admirer of President Roosevelt, he was extremely happy to state that it was perhaps due to his meeting with the President on his last visit en route to Hawaii that the matter of earlier evacuation had been arranged, much to his gratification and to the universal gratification of all his people, to whom it came as a ray of sunshine after such a stormy time."

De Leeuw next talks quite romantically about the total delightful family style of Haitian peasants with men having multiple wives and everyone just as happy as a lark. He denounces other travel writers for having sensationalized the Voodoo religion which he announces has all but died out in Haiti and wasn't much of anything to begin with.

Another long history lesson follows and then the necessary visit to the Citadel, about which he says nothing specially new or different from most travel books before him.

Reported by Bob Corbett


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