Boots (and Books) on the Ground: A Glimpse of Occupied Haiti


Gendarmerie and Garde D'Haiti. One of many photographs included in the Monograph on Haiti, recently acquired by the Rubenstein Library.
From 1915 to 1934, American military forces occupied Haiti. The military occupation is documented in detail in the recently acquired Monograph of Haiti. Shown here: Gendarmerie and Garde D’Haiti (undated).

By Gwen Hawkes

The Duke University Libraries recently received an exciting new acquisition courtesy of the United States Marine Corps History Division. The book, an enormous metal-and-strap-bound compilation, is unassumingly entitled Monograph of Haiti. It was assembled by United States Marines during the U.S. occupation of that country. The Monograph provides a stunning snapshot of the island nation through the cool, calculating lens of an invading military force.

Duke was fortunate enough to receive the publication when the research of Holly Ackerman, Librarian for Latin America, Iberian, and Latino/a Studies, collided with the generosity and enthusiasm of the staff at the Marine Corps Archive. J. Michael Miller, Director of the Marine Corps Archives History Division, was instrumental in allowing Duke to acquire the Monograph, working through the necessary channels to ensure that it was free for public usage.

The Monograph contains a catalog of physical features of the Haitian landscape, maps, aerial photographs, and social and political information deemed important for the military to possess.
The Monograph came to Duke through the research of Holly Ackerman, Librarian for Latin American, Iberian, and Latino/a Studies, and the generosity of the Marine Corps Archives History Division.

From 1915 to 1934, American military forces occupied the nation of Haiti, one of the most controversial interactions in a long history of American involvement in the country. As the First World War unfolded across the Atlantic, the U.S. government feared the threat of a German invasion in Haiti. Although the threat never materialized, America continued to view her neighbor to the south with caution, even drafting a plan for “intervention” should such measures be deemed necessary.

Thus in the summer of 1915, following a popular uprising that led to the brutal death of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, the American government was poised to assert itself in Haitian affairs of state. American troops quickly took control of the island, beginning what would become a nineteen-year occupation. Elections were soon held for a new president and, unsurprisingly, the candidate favored by the U.S. government was placed in power. The new president, Phillipe Sudre Dartiguenave, quickly signed the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915, which ensured American influence in Haiti for years to come, until the military occupation ended in 1934. That year, as U.S. forces withdrew, they claimed to have created a firm foundation of democratic government and political stability in the nation. Such sentiments were belied by the decades that followed, during which Haiti was wracked by violence and turmoil.

Marines 013
U.S. Marines of the 1st Regiment in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1915, the year of the American invasion and occupation.

The Monograph of Haiti is a vivid remnant of these tense occupation years. The book, and others like it, was born of necessity. Marine forces found themselves stationed in a country about which they knew very little. Pertinent details about the country were quickly gathered together in the form of the Monograph. The document is an instrument of war, as its opening pages clearly proclaim: “The object of this book is to provide operative and war information upon the Republic of Haiti… so that anyone approaching its coasts will have the information necessary for a military invasion or a peaceful occupation.”

Within the book we find a catalog of physical features of the Haitian landscape as they would relate to a military occupation. The quality of roads, the width of bridges, the location of schools and water lines are all recorded in exacting detail. Numerous aerial photographs are also included, showing the full detail of the island as it existed almost a century ago. The book is not solely limited to mapping physical and geographical features. It also contains social and political information that was deemed important for the military to possess.

An aerial view of the Citadel in northern Haiti. The Monograph contains detailed physical and geographical illustrations of the Haitian landscape as it appeared in the early 20th century.
An aerial view of the Citadel in northern Haiti. The Monograph contains detailed physical and geographical illustrations of the Haitian landscape as it appeared in the early 20th century.

In its new home in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke, the Monograph is already receiving significant attention. Students in a graduate-level course offered this spring, “The Caribbean at Duke: Exploring Archives,” studied the Monograph as part of their exploration of the U.S. presence in the Caribbean during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The course was co-taught by Deborah Jenson, Professor of Romance Studies and Global Health; Holly Ackerman; and Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections in the Rubenstein Library. According to Hansen, “The statistics and cultural information about specific towns presented in the Monograph made it a particularly powerful tool for students.” However, the impact of the Monograph will not be restricted to Duke’s campus alone. There has already been discussion about digitizing the volume to enable researchers worldwide access to this fascinating source. The Monograph embodies an important moment in Haitian history, providing an opportunity for us to peer between the pages of time and glance into the past.

Gwen Hawkes (T’16) is an English major and Library Communications Assistant at Duke.


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