Following the US invasion of Haiti in 1915, Charlemagne Peralte became the iconic image of the opposition to the American occupation. He earned this status from his unwavering courage and vision. He stood up to the far better armed Americans Marines and wrote to various powerful nations denouncing the human right abuses of the Americans. He envisioned a Haiti free of foreign domination and independent to pursue her own course. The US fought against that vision and attempted to cast dispersion on his organization, calling his freedom fighters bandits rather than Kako, as they called themselves. The more the US fought against Charlemagne Peralte, the more popular he became. On October 30, 1919 when the Marines finally killed him, and leafleted the country with his picture crucified on a door with the Haitian flag rising above his head, they inadvertently martyred him as the gatekeeper of Haiti's second independence.
The US landed in Haiti at Bizoton, near Port-au-Prince under the command of Admiral Caperton on July 28, 1915. Three hundred forty Marines disembarked in Bizoton equipped with machine guns and backed by 20 cannons aboard the USS Washington. At about the same time, another Marine landing took place in Cape Haitian under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Cole. Over the next few weeks, the force grew to 2000 Marines and finally to about 3000. They found little resistance from the collapsed government of Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, a government made bankrupt by the US who was able to freeze its assets through American control of the Haitian National Bank, owned by Citibank. In Port-au-Prince, and in Cape Haitian, the Marines overwhelmed the Haitian forces who could give no significant military resistance other than to look upon the foreign troops with utter disgust. If looks could kill, the US forces would have been immediately defeated. The Marines met their most significant challenge when they arrived at Leogane where Charlemagne Peralte was in charge.
The American troops arrived in Leogane aboard a train owned by James P. McDonald, an American businessman who played a central role in the events leading up to the invasion. Charlemagne Peralte barracked the Marines in the train and would not let them out until ordered to do so by the Haitian President. The US contacted Dartiguenave, their installed puppet president, and he gave the order to surrender. Charlemagne Peralte then left Leogane for his hometown Hinche and vowed that the Marines will get an appropriate response from him.
In response to a client government which was pushing Haitians off their farms to provide land to American agricultural companies, Charlemagne Peralte created his own government with Kako, the displaced farmers, as its army. He took on the title the Supreme Chief of the Revolution. His forces had some rifles but they were mostly equipped with farm tools and courage as their weapons. In June of 1919, in a letter to the British Embassy, he reported the Kakos to be 40,000 strong. In that letter, he explained that “… (Haiti) is a small nation that is trying to save its flag and its territory from the ambitions of a greedy nation...”
The US would not be deterred and conscripted people to work on roads to help penetrate areas occupied by Kako. At first these workers worked in chain gangs and were not paid. They could not return home after work. Those who attempted to escape were shot dead. Such working condition was tantamount to slavery and unacceptable to Charlemagne Peralte who wrote to the British and French embassies to seek military assistance and to denounce the 3000 farmers or Kako members killed. One form of torture used by the Marines in Haiti was called Banton Lanmò (death blow). It involved having a person bend over and then striking them behind the neck with a baton. For his complaints, Charlemagne Peralte received no responses and no assistance. Instead, these embassies forwarded the letters to US officials.
Charlemagne Peralte knew the indignation of involuntary and uncompensated labor because on October 1917, he was captured in Hinche and condemned to work for 5 years in a chain gang in Cape Haitian. He escaped his captors on September 3, 1918 and rejoined the liberation movement. He recruited people from other chain gangs to join the fighting. Realizing the glaring military mismatch between his soldiers and the US Marines, Charlemagne Peralte asked the people that he liberated from the chain gangs to come die with him and still they joined. Market women played an important supportive role for the Kakos as they walked the country buying and selling provisions and taking note of Marine positions.
After multiple battles with Charlemagne Peralte, the marines built a small airport in Gonaives and ordered 500 bombs. On August 13, 1919 the aerial bombings began. These aerial bombings resulted in Haiti becoming the first country in the Americas to be bombed from aircraft which Haitian farmers called zwazo mechan, evil birds. Still, Charlemagne Peralte survived these attacks until his cousin Conze who had been robbed by some Kako members was recruited by the US to work for the Marines. The US fabricated a story about Conze fighting and killing Marines and published the report in a newspaper that got Charlemagne Peralte’s attention, allowing Conze to join the Kako and be fast-tracked to lieutenant. As an undercover agent for the Marines, Konze organized Charlemagne Peralte’s assassination. The Haitian client government held a national event to decorate the Marines and later Konze for Charlemagne Peralte's death.
Charlemagne Peralt died but his vision to see Haiti as an independent nation did not perish. Others like Benoit Batraville and Josaphat Jean-Joseph continued the fight until Kako's final defeat at Fort Riviere. The US burned the homes of Kako sympathizers and bombed the Fort along with the Kako members that had sought refuge there.
When the New York Times and The Nation published articles about the Marine's burning and bombing of peasant homes, that helped to erode American public support for the occupation. With the efforts of Haitian activists combined with the support of some in the American press and in the NAACP, Charlemagne Peralte won the sympathy of the American public. He even got an unlikely ally, US presidential candidate Harding who exposed many of the US excesses in Haiti in his effort to vilify the incumbent administration.
After Charlemagne Peralte's death, the US Marines buried him without proper ceremony and held several burials at 5 different sites to create confusion as to where his remains were. Even in death, over the remaining 15 years of US occupation Charlemagne Peralte's popularity rose. Following the US departure in 1934, the government that the US left in place identified his remains and gave him a state funeral because he remained the person that the country felt most indebted to for its renewed independence.
Charlemagne Peralte became so renowned that he even influenced how people reported historical events preceding him. Because his Kako fighters fled to remote areas and raided villages for supplies, it was assumed that the Haitian Revolution was fought in a similar manner and brought about by maroon raiders of the French plantations. Haitian historians who lived through the Kako era mistakenly assumed that the Kako’s organizational structure was similar to that of the Haitian Revolutionary fighters. Charlemagne Peralte's tactic of striking from a hidden location helped to elevate the status of maroons into liberators who had fled slavery for their own personal freedom, gone into hiding, and returned to liberate those enslaved. In reality, leaders like Bookman, Biassou, and Toussaint Louverture never fled the plantation system. They organized the Revolution from within the structure that already existed on the plantations, and even used the plantations as their headquarters for conducting the Revolution. The commanders on various plantations who were responsible for overseeing the workers became the generals who commanded workers now turned into soldiers fighting for liberation.
Undoubtedly, some maroons did participate in the revolution but in general they were not its original leaders nor planners. So convinced were 20th century observers that the enslaved population must have fought like Charlemagne Peralte that in 1932, a popular Haitian poet, Felix Viard, wrote a piece describing Chalemagne Peralte as the last maroon. Jean Fouchard, a distinguished Haitian historian, who was born in 1906, and who lived through the Kako era, entitled his book about the Haitian Revolution, The Maroons of Liberty, a title undoubtedly influenced by what witnessed from the Kako “maroons”.
Charlemagne Peralte's name is often used as a passport to access the hearts of the Haitian people. President Aristide used that passport when he spoke out against the US backed Duvalier Regime. But after Aristide's government was reinstated by American troops, he stopped using the term “Charlemagne Peralteman”. It is as thought that passport had been revoked because Charlemagne Peralte's name can only be invoked by those who steadfastly defend Haiti’s right to be free of foreign occupation.
Charlemagne Peralte's battle against US occupation helped to shape Haiti’s future and helped to reshape how Haiti looked at its past. In the effort to get rid of the Americans, the sins of France in Haiti were overlooked so as to cast France as an ally and recruit her help for getting rid of the Americans. Books written by Haitians during the American Occupation often gloss over the atrocities committed by France on the island. Some Haitians claimed being Francophone, hoping that would recruit French help to get rid of the Americans who were seen as Anglophone, British, and more like France's traditional rival, England.
In fighting for Haiti's territorial rights, Charlemagne Peralte helped to revive national interest in Dessalines, the person who had decreed that only Haitians could be masters of the land. The Haitian National anthem which was composed in 1903 in preparation for celebrating the country's centenial in 1904, became known as the Dessalinean in the 1920's during the American Occupation. Charlemagne Peralte rekindled the nationalism that brought this change about.
Today, nearly 100 years later, Charlemagne Peralte remains the iconic figure of Haiti’s right to self rule. In no doubt, he deserves his place alongside the greatest of our national heroes and must be considered the founding father of Haiti's Second Independence.
A. Photograph of Charlemagne Peralte in the center surrounded by supporters
B. Photograph of an American training the American created Haitian Army to fight the Kakos
C. Photograph of Charlemagne Peralte pinned on a door by American Marines
David Nicholls Rural Protests and Peasant Revolts 1804-1869. Haitian History: New Perspectives. Routledge, New York, 2013
Laurent Dubois. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. Metropolitan Books /Henry Holt and Company. New York, 2011
The US Department of State Office of the Historian: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/Haiti, accessed on 7/23/15
Peter C. Bloch, Virginia Lambert, and Norman Singer. Land Tenure Issues in Rural Haiti: Review of the Evidence. Land Tenure Center. University of Wisconsin Madison. 1988
James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP: Self Determining Haiti, A series of 4 articles published in The Nation, 1920