Title: Bright Isle
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00028493/00001
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Title: Bright Isle
Series Title: Bright Isle
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Creator: Nock, Albert Jay
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To Munson Havens
25 January, 1937
I am now in Haiti, ready to bet with
anyone that it is the most charming and
interesting spot on this hemisphere.
It has something for pretty nearly
everybody. Its marvelous beauty goes
to the tourist's heart and stays there;
the student of civilization delights him-
self in hobnobbing with the people;
and the island appears to be a virgin
field for research-workers in almost
every branch of science I can think of,
from agronomy up and down.
Even an archaeologist might find
something to do here, for people occa-
sionally turn up artifacts of the earliest
known inhabitants, the tribe which
Columbus found, and which his noble
countrymen killed off so promptly that
there has not been an authentic trace
of their blood in the Haitian population
for a couple of centuries. No one seems
to know just what those folks were;
some sort of Indians, probably, for
they were copper-colored. They were
often raided by Caribs, however, so
probably there was some admixture of
blood resulting, since that is the usual
thing. Their numbers are estimated at
200,000, though I do not know on what
evidence. In his official report Colum-
bus gives these poor souls a great
character for gentleness, kindness and
hospitality. It would have been money
in their pocket, as Artemus Ward said,

'if they had given Chris a warm meal
and sent him home again ore the ragin
Billers.' In fact, I think you and I
might agree that it would have been a
good thing all round if the whole
Western Hemisphere had been let lie
fallow for fifty or a hundred thousand
years, or until such time as people came
along with sense and decency enough
to do the right thing by it; assuming,
of course, that such people ever would
come along, which I should say is
open to great doubt.
I have seen a small fragment of an
artifact in clay, showing the head and
face of some animal, very well moulded.
I am so ignorant of such matters that I
have no idea whether the thing was
originally part of a jug-handle or part
of an idol; it could do for either, as far
as I know to the contrary. Over on the
south side of the island there are cer-
tain mounds which appear to be artifi-
cial, like those in the Ohio Valley. It
might be worth while to cut a cross-
section of one of them to find out what
is inside, if anything; it would not cost
much. Perhaps the whole region is
worth a look-see by some competent
archmaologist, for I cannot get any
testimony to its ever having had one.
Biologists and anthropologists could
certainly do some business here. As
reckoned by political geography, the
blood-strains uniting in the present
population are Spanish, African and
French; Spanish and African since
1500, French since 1600. The Africans


were slaves imported by the Spanish
and French, and many French also
had a slave-status, having been brought
over under indenture, like our own
original settlers at Jamestown and
Plymouth. It is not generally under-
stood, I believe, that slavery in Amer-
ica was originally an institution; there
was no color or nationality peculiar to
it; it knew no such thing as a color-line.
So here in Haiti a man might be white,
black, brown, French, Indian, African,
anything, but if he bore the slave-
status, that was that, and he was sim-
ply out of luck.
But blood-strains do not follow po-
litical geography; and here is another
thing not generally known: Whereas
the original importations of low-grade
labor into our own country, for ex-
ample, were mostly 'clean-strain' (our
miscellaneous importations were rela-
tively late, following the development
of heavy industry), Haiti's were any-
thing but that. The French slaves were
of every strain from the Channel to
the Mediterranean; Bretons, Basques,
Normans, Poitevins, Picards, Angevins,
everything, bearing with them their
peculiar provincial dialects, customs,
habits of mind and temperament. Like-
wise the Africans were not all raked out
of one tribe, district or coast; they
came out of pretty nearly every tribe
in Africa, differing in language, social
customs and religious practices, and
often hostile one to another. The result
is a mixture such as I doubt exists
anywhere else in the world, and I would
suppose its biology might have some
points of special interest.
Nor is this all. Haiti was cut off from
the rest of the world after it emerged
from under the French domination and
set up for itself in 1804. It closed its
ports for twenty years, building a sort
of Chinese wall around itself, during
which time nobody came here; and for
various good reasons very few came
afterwards. Practically none of those

who did come got any further than the
port towns or had any contact, even
indirectly, with more than eight or ten
per cent of the people. Thus as far as
the great general mass of the population
is concerned, the country remained in
virtual isolation until the American
invasion of 1915, and even now there is
an accidental combination of factors
tending powerfully to maintain that
isolation; indeed, which make it almost
impossible of breaking down. Hence
the specific cultural peculiarities of a
civilization bred out of a most unusual
mixture of blood-strains and traditions
have been developed in more than a cen-
tury of isolation, unmodified by so-
cial contacts or biological adulterations.
One may put it that they have been de-
veloped under laboratory conditions,
and therefore they might be well worth
investigation by some pundit who is in
that line of trade.

But the man who really gets his
money's worth out of Haiti is the stu-
dent of civilized society, such as you
are, and such as I too pretend to be, in
a small way. You would be here but a
short time before you would be asking
yourself, if what you see is the upshot
of a century of isolation, precisely
what could a larger intercourse with
other nations do to improve it. You
know the conventional answer to that
question, and so do I, but if you could
make it stick in this instance, you are
just the man I want to see. Isolation is
supposed to be a bad thing for a coun-
try, and perhaps it may be, speaking
generally, though I must say most of
the arguments I have heard on that
point seemed to be specious. But has it
been bad for Haiti, and is it bad now?
The longer you stay here and the
closer you reckon the fat with the lean,
the tougher that query becomes; at
least, that is my experience. I confess
that when I tot up the balance of ad-
vantage and disadvantage, I am not


at all sure that Haiti would get a
net profit -mind you, I say a net
profit out of any freer intercourse
with the outside world than it now
I am speaking, of course, from the
point of view of civilization; and if one
takes the apparatus of civilization as
the index of civilization, as all good
Americans do, the answer is simple
enough. For you and me, civilization
does not mean the mere possession and
operation of machinery. It means the
humanization of man in society, which
the possession of machinery may or
may not tend to promote, and may
indeed actively discourage. Our coun-
trymen, on the contrary, can never get
it through their heads that a society
which sports a great array of schools,
banks, industries, railways, finance-com-
panies, newspapers, plumbing, house-
hold appliances and so on, may yet be
thoroughly uncivilized. Naturally they
cannot, for if they could it would set
them to examining their own society,
which in turn would set them to exam-
ining themselves, which in turn, as
Dickens's old lady said, 'is one of
those things that simply will not bear
thinking about.' Nevertheless the fact
stands; a society may have all the ap-
paratus of civilization there is, and
remain quite uncivilized; and on the
other hand, a society may reach an
enviably high degree of civilization
with but a small amount of apparatus,
and that too, perhaps, of hardly more
than a primitive order.
So when you look at our immense
and complicated array of apparatus
and see what we have done with it in
the way of actual civilization, and then
look at Haiti's and see what has been
done with that, you are bound to sus-
pect that there may be too much of a
good thing. A society may become so
absorbed in running the machinery of
civilization as to forget what it is that
the machinery is supposed to do, or

indeed to forget that it is supposed to
do anything. In such a case, obviously,
as in the United States, the people
have more machinery of civilization
than their natural capacity for civiliza-
tion enables them to use profitably;
and the result of their mismanagement
of it is so bad as to work against, and
ultimately to defeat, the very purpose
which the machinery is meant to
promote. Dissolving Haiti's isolation
would merely mean increasing indefi-
nitely the amount of its available ma-
chinery; and the question is whether
the example of other countries, notably
our own, does not strongly suggest that
this is something which can all too easily
be overdone.
I am not going to write you a general
dissertation on the subject in this boil-
ing hot weather, so by way of illustra-
tion I shall take only one conspicuous
piece of social machinery schools.
Ours, which are many, do so little to
civilize our society (indeed they work
mightily against the spread of civiliza-
tion, rather than for it) mainly because
they are set to the Sisyphean task of
educating people far in excess of their
abilities. Haiti has few schools; I am
told that only about one per cent of the
population can read. Perhaps a few
more than that know the alphabet, but
for actual reading it comes down to
something like one per cent. Very well;
now, my dear friend, candidly con-
sidering the natural capacities of our
own people, considering the kind of
thing they read, the purposes that guide
their reading and the uses they make of
what they read, would n't you say that
one per cent would be about right? I
think so. Regarding literacy as strictly
a device for helping to civilize a society,
does it not seem to you that our society
would to-day be much further on the
way to civilization if that device had
been left in the hands of those only
who have a sufficient natural ability to
make an appropriate use of it say,


at the outside, about one per cent?
I think so.
It comes down to this: Is it the object
of education to produce and foster an
l6ite, or to groom the mediocrity of the
masses? We in America think the lat-
ter; we call it by the absurd name of
'democratizing education.' The judi-
cious have always known better; they
have known that the dissemination of
culture is and must be an effect of the
high culture of such as are capable of
culture; in other words, of an Clite.
Trying to get at it the other way
around, as we do, results only in what
Mr. Michael Sadleir calls 'the decapita-
tion of the eminent in the interests of
the average,' and in the consequent
ostracizing of culture; which is pre-
cisely what the addiction to our theory
has brought about, just as Ernest
Renan long ago foresaw it would. As
far back as before you and I were born,
he said that a people committed to
our theory 'would long expiate their
mistake by their intellectual medi-
ocrity, the vulgarity of their manners,
their superficial spirit, their failure in
general intelligence'; and it does not
take much of an eye to see that this
expiation is now going on at full speed
and with no sign of respite.
In its virtual isolation, Haiti has
bred an lite which I must say is the
wonder and admiration of a visitor.
It is very small probably in about
the right proportion to the population
- but of a remarkably high and fine
order. I have conversed with several
specimens of it, and have read their
books. True, some have gone abroad to
put a mansard roof on their training
for some specialty, usually scientific,
but many have got on with what their
native schools were able to give them.
One of these latter told me he had got
all his education in the free schools of
Haiti, and had never gone outside the
island until he was forty-four; and he is
one of the most accomplished and

highly cultivated men in my acquaint-
ance anywhere. You see, I think, what
I am driving at. If Haiti's isolation
were dissolved, every foreign influence
would bring pressure, direct or indi-
rect, to 'democratize education'; yet if
Haiti's schools can produce even one
specimen as creditable as this man, it
strikes me that the Haitians may well
go very gingerly about a flirtation with
that theory, especially when they ob-
serve its effect on the civilization of the
countries which have adopted it. A
hundred years ago, New England's
schools were probably but little, if any,
better than Haiti's, yet they somehow
contrived to produce a very respectable
elite; and if the 'democratized' schools
of New England are now producing
any Channings, Holmeses, Lowells, Ev-
eretts, Emersons and Danas, I have so
far somehow not heard of it.
As with education, so with the other
avenues of intercourse with other na-
tions; commerce, finance, news-service,
transportation, tourist-traffic and so
on. I get the impression, whatever it
amounts to, that perhaps the Haitians
are doing pretty well as they are, and
that they have about all the machinery
of civilization that they can carry com-
fortably. The other day an American
who has been here a dozen years told
me that when he came an officer of our
invading forces said to him, 'I think
possibly your experience here may be
something like mine. In my first year,
when I saw what needed to be done and
how easy it was to do it, I felt I had to
pitch right in and get it done. In my
second year I was n't in such a hurry;
I was willing to wait a little and let
things have a chance to happen; and
now in my third year I catch myself
thinking, Well, it's their country, and
if they want it this way, why not let
them have it?'
Why not, indeed? The Haitian looks
happy, acts happy, and there is unani-
mous testimony that he is happy. How



many people do you know in your town
who fill that bill? I have not once seen
the hard, weary, vacuous face that you
and I see everywhere in our respective
bailiwicks. Does not a diffused general
happiness and contentment say some-
thing for the quality of the civilization
in which it prevails, even if the people
have no railways and can't read news-
papers? The Haitian can't freeze; the
climate won't let him. He can't starve
unless he wants to; the earth and its
waters are too prolific. Any sort of
shelter that will shed rain is enough,
and as for clothes, I'll take oath that
one garment is one too many, unless
you get up pretty high in the moun-
tains. 'Social security' is something
the Haitian does not understand at all.
He does not like hard work any more
than you or I do, and the average of his
natural intelligence and capacities runs
on about the same level as elsewhere.
He has exquisite good manners and is
amiable, kind, and especially obliging
to strangers. Foreigners who have lived
here for years tell me that you may go
where you will in the forests and fast-
nesses of Haiti, and the two things you
will never meet are a deadly varmint
and an ill-disposed Haitian. Defining
civilization as the humanization of man
in society, as you and I do, all this seems
to sum up to a degree of civilization
respectable enough, to say the least,
to breed doubt whether an indiscrimi-
nate inflow of foreign influence might
not cost more, in terms of actual civili-
zation, than it came to.

What most interests me here, how-
ever, are the factors which I spoke of a
moment ago as tending to keep up
Haiti's isolation. The most important
one is the constitutional provision that
no foreigner can own land in Haiti.
When Toussaint, Dessalines and Henri
Christophe who notwithstanding all
the rainbows squirted at them by
Wordsworth, Wendell Phillips and Co.,

must have been fearful fellows when
they threw off the French yoke in 1804,
they had seen enough of large foreign-
owned landed estates, very correctly
associating them with slavery. They
seem to have got a glimpse of the great
basic truth that it is impossible to ex-
ploit a people unless you first expropri-
ate them from the land. In this they
showed more sound economic wisdom
than has been shown by all our pro-
gressives, laborites, square-dealers and
new-dealers. Dessalines cut up the land
into small-holding peasant proprietor-
ships, and put a provision against for-
eign ownership into the constitution,
where it remained until the American
invasion of 1915.
Thereby hangs a nice story. As you
know, capital gravitates straight to any
field which offers two inducements:
abundant natural resources and an
abundant potential supply of cheap
low-grade labor. Haiti has no end
of both. Hence whole generations of
scoundrelly American imperialist enter-
prisers have licked their lips at the
thought of making it another Porto
Rico by expropriating the natives and
thus enabling themselves to exploit
them as thoroughly as the French did
years ago by the same method. But
that clause in the constitution has al-
ways been a killer; there was no way to
exploit the natives until it was got rid
of, and apparently the only way to get.
rid of it was by force. You no doubt
recall how in the 'seventies a group of
would-be exploiters wheedled Grant in-
to a scheme for forcibly annexing the
eastern half of the island, and how near
they came to succeeding.
The great chance came in 1915, when
all America's attention was focused
on the European war. A Heaven-sent
rumpus broke out in Port-au-Prince, in
the course of which a number of politi-
cal partisans, including the president,
were most laudably killed off; I say
laudably, for Haitian politics, what


there is of them, are as noisome, and
their politicians as verminous, as ours
are or as such are everywhere. Our
marines went in and took possession;
and in 1918 a new constitution, with
this cardinal provision left out, was
written by a pliant politician in our
Navy Department, and forced on the
Haitians at the point of the bayonet.
Like Poincar6's silly invasion of the
Ruhr, however, the thing did not pan
out; the Haitians would not stand
for it. We occupied Haiti for years,
hanging on hopefully, and getting out
as late as 1932, I think it was, only be-
cause the scheme was not practicable.
Its abettors finally saw that it would
have to be garrisoned in perpetuity by
about six marines per native, and would
cost more than could be got out of it.
The Haitians did not wait for our backs
to be turned before pitching out the con-
stitution of 1918, and adopting a new
one which restored the old provision.
People will tell you that we had to
invade Haiti in support of the Monroe
Doctrine: i.e., if we had not gone in,
other creditor nations would. Yet I can
very easily imagine some Grover Cleve-
land serving notice that our State
Department was no collection-agency,
and that we would neither go in our-
selves nor let anyone else go in; Haiti
might murder all the politicians it
liked not half enough of them being
murdered as it was. Others will tell
you that we went in because the Ger-
mans were about to establish a base
on the Mole-St.-Nicolas, commanding
the Windward Passage. Pretty thin,
my friend pretty thin. Not that I
would put any conceivable idiocy past
the Wilson Administration in the face
of its superb record, but if that were
the case, why should we have gone on
occupying Haiti for a dozen years after
all supposititious peril from the Ger-
mans had blown by? Can you believe
we would ever have got out if there
had been any prospect of making the

enterprise pay? Hardly. The whole
episode is simply a first-class exhibit of
economic imperialism backed up by
force of arms; in other words, an exhibit
of American politicians in cahoots with
American enterprisers all in all, as
our old friend Artemus said, 'a sweet
and luvly set of men. I'd like to own as
good a house as some of 'em would
break into.'
So much for that. The second factor
tending to maintain Haiti's isolation
is the absence of a middle class. Indus-
trialists and merchants are the sappers
and miners of a country's isolation;
indeed, as Mr. Jefferson said, rather
contemptuously, 'Merchants have no
country. The spot where they stand is
not as dear to them as that from which
they draw their gains.' Haiti has no
industries of any consequence, and few
merchants. Eighty-three per cent of
the people are in agriculture, which
they carry on in small independent
holdings, usually detached; the inland
settlements are mere hamlets, pretty
widely separated, and most of them are
unearthly hard to get at. Thus there is
no general contact of the people with an
organized merchant class, except in the
port towns; which from the point of
view of civilization is all to the good.
You remember Julius Cacsar's grim
observation that one reason why the
Belgians had managed to preserve so
fine a character was that 'drummers
almost never get through to them with
a line of goods which tend to effeminate
the spirit.' That holds for at least
eighty per cent of Haiti's population,
and it is one strong root of their per-
sistence of type.
Again, Haiti is very short on bridges
and roads; that is, what we would call
roads. What few it has are poor. Yet
while this is highly discouraging to for-
eigners, the natives seem to have all the
transportation they need, for they get
about on mules, and mules care nothing
whatever about roads; any sort of



footing suits them perfectly. One day,
wishing to reach a little settlement near
Grand-Goave, I had to shin up about
two hundred feet on a pebbly crum-
bling pathway that was almost per-
pendicular. It was a tidy climb; I was
well out of wind when I reached the
top; and going down again was even
harder than going up. Yet when I got
down I saw coming after me a caval-
cade of a dozen men and women
mounted on mules which walked down
that precipice as easily and surely
as you would walk down a flight of
steps. Neither the people nor the mules
seemed to think they were doing any-
thing spectacular, but I found it a most
remarkable and reassuring sight. For
all I can see, the island is about as
penetrable as it need be and ought to
be, consistently with keeping the envi-
able quality of its civilization unim-
paired. Aviation has come in; there is
a landing-field at Port-au-Prince; and
tourist-cruises have lately taken to
stopping ships there for a few hours;
but as long as the bulk of the popula-
tion remains as nearly inaccessible as
it is, the effect of these misfortunes will
doubtless be pretty well localized.
Lastly, and perhaps least important,
though well worth mentioning, the dis-
couragement of foreign capitalist enter-
prise has done a great deal to keep
the development of Haiti's natural re-
sources from touching off the get-rich-
quick spirit. If you could corner the
banana business, or sugar, or coffee,
I suppose it might run to some real
money, but the mischief of it is that
you can't get your hands on the land.
The best you can do is a middleman's
export business, buying by handfuls
from small producers, sorting the prod-
uct, and shipping it out; and while this
is a good business and very useful, one
does not get purse-proud on it over-
night. Easy money means exploita-
tion; and in so admirably safeguard-
ing themselves against exploitation the

Haitians have pretty well blocked up
the approaches to easy money, and
thereby have kept the rage for easy
money from running wild.
So there you have what seems to me
a most interesting combination of four
factors which must largely determine
the character of any society. Do you
know of just that combination existing
anywhere else? I do not, and I think a
journey here to observe it is well worth
while. I have the idea that it may
prove to be Haiti's surest guarantee of
sound and rational progress, absurd
as that idea undoubtedly would seem
to our countrymen, and perhaps even
to you. You know, we Americans have
no notion whatever of any progress
which does not go very fast; but the
obstinate fact is, as Sir James Jeans
says, that the only kind of progress
which can go very fast is progress

Haiti's lurid past, its long isolation,
and the grotesque features of its his-
tory, have stimulated sensational writ-
ers to produce outrageous libels on its
people and their civilization. I have
lately been reading some of them with
infinite disgust. It seems such an
unsportsmanlike, unmanly thing to tra-
duce a people who have made so
much of themselves in the face of most
undeserved misfortune; a people who in
1804 were a mere amorphous mob sud-
denly emancipated from atrocious con-
ditions of servitude, and who since then
have organized themselves into a pecul-
iarly interesting and attractive society
- and I believe a sound one quite
on their own, with no help or encourage-
ment worth speaking of. It is fair
enough, for instance, to be amused at
the splendiferous court of Haiti's re-
markable emperor, Faustin I, just as it
is fair to be amused at the extrava-
gances of the Court of St. James.
Faustin and his homemade dukes,
counts and princesses certainly must


have put on a gaudy show; 'Rastus was
on parade' in those days, no doubt about
it. But all that sort of thing is another
matter, and quite foreign to the wretch-
ed stuff that I am deprecating.
Suppose the Haitians do keep up an
exotic religious cult and an exotic ritual
- I do not know that they do, but it is
what they would naturally do and have
every right to do. Suppose they are
superstitious and have faith in Hexerei
- well, how about the witchcraft-
sodden regions of Eastern Pennsyl-
vania? Suppose their dances carry a
strong sexual implication and lead to
sexual excesses well, surely a person
who came down here from the United
States to look at anything like that
would be taking a busman's holiday.
My point is that in any serious view of
a people such matters are quite trivial,
and an exaggerated or exclusive con-
cern with them is unfriendly and inde-
cent; yet it is with these above all else
that our popular literature about Haiti
concerns itself.
The consequence is that visitors
come here with their minds stuffed full
of absurdities and their imaginations
cocked and primed for any untoward
adventure. Last Shrovetide, a year
ago, a woman who had just been dis-
gorged from a tourist-ship saw the usual
fancy-dress parade moving through the
streets of Port-au-Prince, and asked a
native what it was. The native, who
spoke no English, finally got the gist of
what she wanted through his head, and
said, carnivals. The woman legged it
back to the ship in full cry, and reported
that she had seen a huge procession
of cannibals. Only last week another
woman, who was told she could find
some article she wanted in a certain
small native shop, refused to go there
for fear she would be smitten with
leprosy; she had read somewhere that
native shops and native goods were full
of it, and catching it was practically a
sure-fire chance.

I am told that one who stays here a
fortnight never quite rids himself of the
fascinations which the island and its
society exercise, and is always hoping
to come back. I can easily believe that.
I met a man on shipboard who had
been here four years as an officer in the
invasion, and he said he had never seen
either place or people that he loved as
He was another of the fine type
I mentioned in my last letter, the kind
that gives one a just pride in one's na-
tionality. When I asked him what the
new president of Haiti was like, he said
he seemed to be a pretty good sort.
'The one before him lay down and let
us do anything we liked,' he said, 'but
this fellow made a lot of trouble for us.
We respected him for it, though, for of
course we hadno business there, and
we all knew it.'
What a queer country ours is! One
runs into so many people like this man,
people who are everything a human
being should be, in integrity, intelli-
gence, sensitiveness, instinct for the
right thing, sometimes everything even
in culture, and yet who are socially
ineffectual; they have no more influ-
ence in determining the course of our
collective public life than gnats on a
locomotive. Probably, though, we are
not exceptional; probably in other
countries as well, in Italy, Germany,
France, England, 'the revolt of the
masses' is as effectively suffocating
such people in the same quicksand of
ignorance, vulgarity and brutality. If
so and I believe really it is so it
makes an extremely blue outlook for
civilization at large.
This is a dismal tone on which to end
a friendly letter. Yet it is the best I can
do by way of a happy ending, for as
things stand at the moment, I swear by
the dog of Egypt vi; rbv Kbva, the
Socratic oath- I can see no happy
ending possible for anything, even a

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