And I jocosely replied, “Then, sir, as they will not allow you to put a hot poker down their backs, you mean to make them pay for heating it!”
Frederick Douglass’s third and final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), incorporates the entirety of My Bondage and My Freedom and includes new chapters that take his story down from 1855 to 1881. Here, for the first time, Douglass narrates in detail his escape from bondage (he had omitted an account of it from his 1845 and 1855 volumes for fear of alerting slaveholders to his methods). Here the reader also finds accounts of Douglass’s complex relationship to John Brown, of his several meetings with Lincoln, and of his work in the Republican Party during the Reconstruction years and after. Of particular interest, in connection with the latter, are two chapters appended to a second edition of the Life and Times published in 1892. These chapters concern Douglass’s tenure as Consul General to Haiti in a period of great controversy, during which the United States sought a naval coaling station on the Caribbean island—the affair takes its unseemly place among the developments that led to war with Spain in 1898—and they reveal much about the American scene in the 1890s.
At the time of Douglass’s appointment as Consul General, Florvil Hyppolite was bringing his year-long rebellion against Haitian President François Légitime to a successful conclusion. With American backing, Hyppolite took power in August of 1889, only weeks after Douglass had been named to his new position. Unbeknownst to Douglass when he was dispatched to Port-au-Prince by President Benjamin Harrison, the United States government expected Hyppolite, in return for military assistance rendered during the revolution, to grant it a lease at the Môle St. Nicolas for a naval station. This, in turn, would be used to shore up U.S. military and commercial interests in the Caribbean. To effect this, Washington sent Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, together with a squadron of gun-boats manned by 2,000 sailors, into harbor at Port-au-Prince.
Douglass, angered that his authority had thus been undermined, nonetheless dutifully cooperated with Gherardi in the negotiations. Hyppolite ultimately refused to grant the lease; he knew a golden apple when he saw one. The restrictions the document placed on Haitian sovereignty, he maintained, were unduly harsh (the terms barred Haiti from leasing properties to any other foreign power). At the time, Hyppolite was still consolidating his position. Guerrillas stood ready to exploit any hint of weakness on his part—indeed, a coup was attempted during Douglass’s term in Port-au-Prince—and the new government could not afford to be seen as “repaying” the Americans for having brought it into power. The New York press blamed Douglass for the failure of the negotiations. His sympathies, they intimated, lay too much with the black republic: a white Consul General would have succeeded where a black one did not. The charge was as unfounded as it was malicious, and Douglass responded, after his term as Consul ended, in a pair of articles published in the prestigious North American Review and reprinted in the expanded edition of his Life and Times. There, he cites not only Admiral Gherardi’s arrogant gun-boat diplomacy as the cause for the failure, but also the illicit actions of an unnamed agent of a large steamship firm based in New York City, William P. Clyde and Company. Following are extracts from the second of the articles in question:
No one cause fully explains our failure to get a naval station at the Môle. One fundamental element in our non-success was found, not in any aversion to the United States or in any indifference on my part, as has often been charged, but in the
government of Haïti itself. It was evidently timid. With every disposition to oblige us, it had not the courage to defy the well-known, deeply rooted, and easily excited prejudices and traditions of the Haïtian people. Nothing is more repugnant to the thoughts and feelings of the masses of that country than the alienation of a single rood of their territory to a foreign power. This sentiment originated, very naturally, in the circumstances in which Haïti began her national existence. The whole Christian world was at that time against her. The Caribbean Sea was studded with communities hostile to her. They were slave-holding. She, by her bravery and her blood, was free. Her existence was, therefore, a menace to them, and theirs was a menace to her. France, England, Spain, Portugal and Holland, as well as the United States, were wedded to the slave system, which Haïti had, by arms, thrown off; and hence she was regarded as an outcast, and was outlawed by the Christian world. Though time and events have gone far to change this relation of hers to the outside world, the sentiment that originated in the beginning of her existence continues on both sides until this day. It was this that stood like a wall of granite against our success. Other causes co-operated, but this was the principal cause. Of course our peculiar and intense prejudice against the colored race was not forgotten. Our contrast to other nations, in this respect, is often dwelt upon in Haïti to our disadvantage. In no part of Europe will a Haïtian be insulted because of his color, and Haïtians well know that this is not the case in the United States. Another influence unfavorable to our obtaining the coveted naval station at the Môle was the tone of the New York press on the subject. It more than hinted that, once in possession of the Môle, the United States would control the destiny of Haïti. Torn and rent by revolution as she has been and still is, Haïti yet has a large share of national pride, and scorns the idea that she needs or will submit to the rule of a foreign power. Some of her citizens would doubtless be glad of American rule, but the overwhelming majority would burn their towns and freely shed their blood over their ashes to prevent such a consummation. Not the least, perhaps, among the collateral causes of our non-success was the minatory attitude assumed by us while conducting the negotiation. What wisdom was there in confronting Haïti at such a moment with a squadron of large ships of war with a hundred canon and two thousand men? This was done, and it was naturally construed into a hint to Haïti that if we could not, by appeals to reason and friendly feeling, obtain what we wanted, we could obtain it by a show of force. We appeared before the Haïtians, and before the world, with the pen in one hand and the sword in the other. This was not a friendly and considerate attitude for a great government like ours to assume when asking a concession from a small and weak nation like Haïti. It was ill timed and out of all proportion to the demands of the occasion. It was also done under a total misapprehension of the character of the people with whom we had to deal. We should have known that, whatever else the Haïtian people may be, they are not cowards, and hence are not easily scared. In the face of all these obvious and effective causes of failure, is it not strange that our intelligent editors and our nautical newspaper writers could not have found for the American Government and people a more rational cause for the failure of the negotiations for the Môle St. Nicolas than that of my color, indifference, and incompetency to deal with a question of such a magnitude? Were I disposed to exchange the position of accused for that of accuser, I could find ample material to sustain me in that position. Other persons did much to create conditions unfavorable to our success, but I leave to their friends the employment of such personal assaults. On the theory that I was the cause of this failure, we must assume that Haïti was willing to grant the Môle; that the timidity of the Haïtian Government was all right; that the American prejudice was all right; that the seven ships of war in the harbor of Port au Prince were all right; that Rear-Admiral Gherardi was all right, and that I alone was all wrong; and, moreover, that but for me the Môle St. Nicolas, like an over-ripe apple shaken by the wind, would have dropped softly into our national basket. I will not enlarge upon this absurd assumption, but will leave the bare statement of it to the intelligent reader, that it may perish by its flagrant contradiction of well-known facts and by its own absurdity.
I come now to another cause of complaint against me, scarcely less serious in the minds of those who now assail me than the charge of having defeated the lease of the Môle St. Nicolas; namely, the failure of what is publicly know as the Clyde contract. Soon after my arrival in Haïti I was put in communication with an individual calling himself the agent of the highly respectable mercantile firm of William P. Clyde & Co. of New York. He was endeavoring to obtain a subsidy of a half million dollars from the government of Haïti to enable this firm to ply a line of steamers between New York and Haïti. From the first this agent assumed toward me a dictatorial attitude. He claimed to be a native of South Carolina, and it was impossible for him to conceal his contempt for the people whose good will it was his duty to seek. Between this agent and the United States Government I found myself somewhat in the position of a servant between two masters; either one of them, separately and apart, might be served acceptably; but to serve both satisfactorily at the same time and place might be a difficult task, if not an impossible one. There were times when I was compelled to prefer the requirements of the one to the ardent wishes of the other, and I thought as between this agent and the United States, I chose to serve the latter. The trouble between us came about in this way: Mr. Firmin, the Haïtian Minister of Foreign Affairs, had objected to granting the Clyde concession on theground that, if it were granted and this heavy drain were made upon the treasury of his country, Mr. Douglass stood ready to present and to press upon Haïti the payment of the claims of many other American citizens, and that this would greatly embarrass the newly organized government of President Hyppolite. In view of this objection, the zealous agent in question came to me and proposed that I should go to Mr. Firmin, in my quality of Minister Resident and Consul-General of the United States, and assure him that, if he would only grant the Clyde concession, I, on my part, would withhold and refrain from pressing the claims of other American citizens.
The proposition shocked me. It sounded like the words of Satan on the mountain, and I thought it time to call a halt. I was in favor of the Clyde contract, but I could not see what I had said or done to make it possible for any man to make to me a proposal so plainly dishonest and scandalous. I refused to do any such thing. Here was my first offense, and it at once stamped me as an unprofitable servant. It did not seem to occur to this agent that he had made to me a shameful, dishonest and shocking proposition. Blinded by zeal or by an influence still more misleading, he seemed to see in it only an innocent proposal. He thereafter looked upon me as an unworthy ally, and duly reported me as such to his master and to other influential persons. He could not understand my conduct as proceeding from other or better motives than that of over-affection for the Haïtians. In his eyes I was, from that time, more a Haïtian than an American, and I soon saw myself so characterized in American journals.
The refusal to compromise and postpone the just claims of other American citizens for that of his master’s contract was not, however, my only offense. On obtaining a leave of absence from my post, in July, 1890, I, of course, as was my duty, called upon President Hyppolite before my departure, for the purpose of paying to him my respects. This agent at once sought me and desired me to make use of this visit of mere ceremony as an occasion to press anew the Clyde [Steamship Company's] contract upon the attention of the President. This I could not properly do, especially as I had on previous occasions repeatedly urged its consideration upon him. The President already knew well enough my sense of the importance to Haïti of this measure, not only as a means of enlarging her commerce and of promoting her civilization, but also as a guaranty of the stability of her government. Nevertheless, my refusal to urge in so unbecoming a manner a demand already repeatedly urged upon the attention of the Haïtian Government was made use of by this agent to my injury, both at the State Department and with Mr. Clyde’s firm. I was reported at Washington and to various persons in high places as unfriendly to this concession. When at last it appeared to the agent that the government of Haïti was, as he thought, stubbornly blind to its own interests, and that it would not grant the contract in question, he called at the United States Legation and expressed to me his disappointment and disgust at the delay of Haïti in accepting his scheme. He said he did not believe that the government really intended to do anything for his firm; that he himself had spent much time and money in promoting the concession; and as he did not think that Mr. Clyde ought to be made to pay for the time thus lost and the expense incurred by the delay and dallying of the Haïtian Government, he should therefore demand his pay of Haïti. This determination struck me as very odd, and I jocosely replied, ‘Then, sir, as they will not allow you to put a hot poker down their backs, you mean to make them pay for heating it!’
This rejoinder was my final destruction in the esteem of this zealous advocate. He saw at once that he could not count upon my assistance in making this new demand. I was both surprised by his proposal and amused by it, and wondered that he could think it possible that he could get this pay. It seemed to me that Haïti would scout the idea at once. She had not sent for him. She had not asked him to stay. He was there for purposes of his own and not for any purpose of hers. I could not see why Haïti should pay him for coming, going or staying. but this gentleman knew better than I the generous character of the people with whom he had to deal, and he followed them up till they actually paid him five thousand dollars in gold. But compliance with his demand proved a woeful mistake on the part of Haïti, and, in fact, nonsense. This man, after getting his money, went away, but he did not stay away. He was soon back again to press his scheme with renewed vigor. His demands were now to be complied with or he would make, not Rome, but Haïti, howl. To him it was nothing that Haïti was already wasted by repeated revolutions; nothing that she was already staggering under the weight of a heavy national debt; nothing that she herself ought to be the best judge of her ability to pour out a half million of dollars in this new and, to her, doubtful enterprise; nothing that she had heard his arguments in its favor a hundred times over; nothing that in her judgment she had far more pressing needs for her money than the proposed investment in this steamship subsidy, as recommended by him; nothing that she had told him plainly that she was afraid to add to her pecuniary burdens this new and onerous one; and nothing that she had just paid him five thousand dollars in gold to get rid of his importunities.
I do not now think that any earthly power outside of absolute force could have gotten for us a naval station at the Môle St. Nicolas. Still, to all appearances, the conditions of success were more favorable before than after the Clyde contract was urged upon Haïti. But instead of a proposition for a coaling-station at the Môle St. Nicolas, there was presented one for a subsidy to an individual steamship company. All must see that the effect of this was calculated to weaken our higher claim and to place us at a disadvantage before Haïti and before all the world.
Quite early in his narration of the Haitian episode, in a passage from the first of his two articles, and not included here, Douglass notes without comment that important diplomatic papers had been dispatched from Washington to Port-au-Prince aboard a Clyde steamer (such as the one in the photograph above). At the time, as Douglas explains in the second of his two articles, the Clyde company was attempting to persuade Hippolyte to invest $500,000 of his cash-poor national treasury in a new line of ships that would run between New York and Port-au-Prince. Quite improperly—and this is what most irritates & exercises Douglass in the passage just quoted—Clyde’s agent sought to secure a promise from him that the Consul General’s office would not merely lobby on behalf of the scheme, but would, in the future, refuse outright to negotiate on behalf of any competing shipping companies—a monopolistic policy which would, if carried out, grant the Clyde company a government-backed monopoly (such as, let us say, the “no-bid” contracts granted Halliburton and KBR in Dick Cheney’s and Geroge W. Bush’s Iraq). The proposition inevitably disgusted Douglass, who was nothing if not a man of principles, and he refused to be a party to the business. For this, as he accurately reports, he was castigated in the New York papers, which pretty clearly, in this regard, simply spoke for the Clyde company and its financial backers.
The Clyde affair, coming, as it did, in the midst of the Mole St. Nicolas negotiations, irredeemably impaired Douglass and Gherardi’s efforts to secure a naval station (and the two men did not share views as to how even that ought properly to be done). And when Douglass lets us know, in that telling aside, that the agent working covertly for Clyde was a “proud South Carolinian,” and that he made little effort to conceal his “contempt” for the black Haitians “whose good will it was his duty to seek,” the implications are clear. The agent, we are told, accused Douglass of being “more a Haitian than an American,” and, in the evocative symbolism of American racial discourse, his meaning was unmistakable: Douglass was a “militant” black, not a docile and pliable one. (One senses something today of the same sentiment on the right, as when the soi-disant “Tea Baggers” portray President Obama as illegitimate, as, indeed, and absurdly, more a “Kenyan” than an American: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.) After all, Haiti had, since it achieved its independence and overthrew French slavery, always symbolized to South Carolinians, and to Southerners generally, the offense, indeed the terror, of black autonomy. Douglass—or so the implication seemed to be—was what many in the South in the 1890s were already petulantly calling the “New Negro”: defiant, politically assertive, and determined to exercise his rights as a citizen. (Again, a contemporary parallel: “Rep. Lynn Westmoreland,” writes Jonathan Weisman in the Washington Post, “a conservative Republican from Georgia, let slip today what critics have been saying is the subtext of many of the attacks on Barack Obama: He’s “uppity.”) In any case, what the Clyde agent wanted was a deferential tool, and in Douglass he found instead “an unprofitable servant.”
This South Carolina agent for the Clyde Company epitomizes, in his actions, the ethic of the new regime in post-Reconstruction America: Northern capital was to work with Southern whites to effect the profitable exploitation of “black” labor—whether in the South or in Haiti—without regard for the dignity and independence of the laborers. The episode, as Douglass narrates it, is a sad but fitting allegory of the 1890s, and of the post-Reconstruction period generally.