Of all the Haitian presidents of the nineteenth century, Emperor Faustin I Soulouque attracted the most foreign criticism, and is still considered by some historians to be “the greatest disaster the country experienced in the nineteenth century.”
In 1847, Haiti was at the end of four years of political turmoil and civil war that followed the overthrow of Jean-Pierre Boyer. The mulatto elite that had ruled Haiti since 1820 had clung to power by installing a series of black puppets in power in order to appease the restive black majority.
When the elderly figurehead Jean-Baptiste Riché died from an overdose of aphrodisiacs in 1847, the mulattoes turned to Soulouque, the head of the presidential guard in Port-au-Prince, a loyal soldier who had developed a reputation for his stupidity, plainness, and lack of ambition.
Shortly after he was installed in power, President Soulouque dismissed his mulatto ministers and installed blacks in key positions. When a lynch mob began to demonstrate in front of the presidential palace in 1848, the presidential guard opened fired on the mulatto politicians inside. The massacre spread from the palace to Port-au-Prince, where every mulatto who showed his face was shot, and from there to southern Haiti where “murder and plunder followed in every district.” Thereafter, the mulattoes were crushed for the remainder of Soulouque’s ignominous reign.
In 1849, Soulouque launched his first invasion of the Dominican Republic (which had declared its independence from Haiti in 1844), but his army fled after 500 Dominicans put up resistance at Ocoa. A second invasion followed in 1850 which was checked by diplomatic opposition from Britain, France, and the United States. In the third and final invasion in 1855, Soulouque marched into the Dominican Republic at the head of a 50,000 man army which fled at the first shot.
After his massacre of the mulattoes and the first botched invasion of the Dominican Republic, Soulouque followed in the footsteps of Dessalines and had himself crowned Emperor Faustin I of the Second Empire of Hayti. According to Philippe Girard, “the move was so sudden that all that could be found was a crown of gilded paltry cardboard.” Three years later, a more formal coronation took place:
“On 18th April 1852 Soulouque was crowned Emperor under the title Faustin I. He had no fear of exciting discontent by lavish expenditure. He paid £2,000 for his crown, and spent £30,000 for the rest of the paraphrenalia. …
A fresh constitution was naturally required, and this was a strange medley of republican and aristocratic institutions. Soulouque did not disappoint his generals, and created a nobility: four princes and fifty-nine dukes headed the list, followed by innumerable marquises, counts, and barons. This contented the chiefs, and quiet reigned for a short time.” (Spenser St. John, Hayti, or, The Black Republic, pp.95-96)
Gustave d’Alaux describes this event in his book, Soulouque and his Empire:
“The president of the Senate carried, in his hand, a crown of gilt-pasteboard, made during the night. He placed it with formal precaution, on the august head of Soulouque, whose countenance became radiant at this desirable contact. The president of the Senate, then, attached to the breast of the Emperor, a large decoration of unknown origin – passed a chain about the neck of the Empress – and, pronounced his address; to which His Majesty Faustin replied with spirit:
“Vive la liberté” viva la égalité!” …
In the meantime, Faustin I, shut up in his cabinet, passed his entire time, in contemplation, before a series of engravings, representing the ceremonies of Napoleon’s coronation. Not being able to wait any longer, His Imperial Majesty had the principal merchant of Port-au-Prince called, one morning, and commanded him to order, immediately, from Paris, a costume, in every particular like that he admired in these engravings. Faustin I, besides, ordered, for himself, a crown – one for the Empress – a sceptre, globe, hand-of-justice, throne, and all other accessories, all to be like those used in the coronation of Napoleon. The finances of the Empire did not recover from these expenses for a long time; for all these objects were delivered, payed for, and what is more, used, as we shall see further on …”
… The words Sire or Emperor, in their opinion was too inexpressive, and they were substituted by – magnanimous hero, or illustrious sovereign, or illustrious grand sovereign.”
During his reign, Emperor Soulouque defaulted on foreign loans, plundered the Haitian treasury (primarily, receipts from coffee exports), and printed so much paper money that the value of the Haitian gourde, which bought five Spanish silver piasters in 1847, had depreciated to twenty Spanish silver piasters in 1859. (Girard, p.75)
Soulouque pioneered the creation of a paramilitary guard, the zinglins, to fend off challengers to his rule – the first African despot to do so, which later became the inspiration for Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoutes. He advocated afrocentrism and racial nationalism and embraced and openly practiced voodoo.
In his time, the Emperor Faustin I Soulouque was a staple of French and American cartoonists and satirists:
“In European and American eyes, no Haitian president quite exceeded Faustin Soulouque’s pomposity and ridicule. In the nineteenth century, he was a favorite of Western caricaturists and humorists alike, frequently derided as the black emperor of Haiti who aped European courts – the only emperor to serve as his own buffoon. …
Throughout his career, European newspapers and French caricaturists Cham and Honoré Daumier, presumably acting under the assumption that such an emperor should have no clothes, portrayed Soulouque as a simian-looking African clad in outrageous outfits.” (Philippe Gerard, Haiti: The Tumultuous History – From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation, pp.73-74)
In several of the caricatures below, the deposed Soulouque arrives France where he visits the zoo, searches for an apartment in Paris, ogles white women in a theater, and is presented with the crown of Byzantium. The other caricatures depict his military defeats and flight into exile in Jamaica with the Haitian treasury.
In 1858, a revolution began in Haiti which was led by General Fabre Geffrard, the Duc de Tabara, who succeeded in deposing Emperor Soulouque in 1859. He fled to Jamaica before returning to Haiti where he died in 1867.
Note: Just as there are parallels between François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the same is true of Emperor Faustin I Soulouque and Emperor Bokassa I of Central Africa. Like Bokassa, Soulouque before him was also accused of cannibalism.