Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People 1492-1971. By Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl. Houghton Mifflin, 1978. 785 pp.

A review by George P. Clark

Feb. 25, 1979, Louisville Courier-Journal.

The history of many a country might be said to be "written in blood," but surely none has bought the epithet more dearly than has Haiti, next to our own the oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere. The tropical island of Hispaniola, of which Haiti occupies the western third and the Dominican Republic the rest, lies 700 miles southeast of Miami, a mere two hours' flight by jet airliner.

It is also, some would say, the closest approach of Africa to mainland United States, a "fragment of black Africa," the Heinls call it, which has "remained more underdeveloped than much of Africa from which it emerged. Haiti is not merely the poorest country in the hemisphere but one of the poorest anywhere."

How Haiti fell into its present state is meticulously detailed by the authors, the one a retired colonel of the U.S. Marines who served in Haiti during the early years of Dr. Francois Duvalier's presidency (1959-1963), the other, like her husband, writer, historian and long-time resident of Haiti.

The blood first shed in Hispaniola was that of indigenous Indians, who, enslaved by the Spanish exploiters who followed Columbus, were almost completely exterminated within decades. To replace them, the Spaniards began importing black slaves from Africa, and the history of Haiti is intimately concerned with how the blood of black slaves and white masters was spilled in three centuries of Spanish and French rule, and how, finally, the blacks and mulattoes of Haiti have warred upon each other since the establishment of Haitian independence in 1804.

Legal succession of power has been almost unknown in Haiti since the beginning. When, in 1915, the United States intervened out of self-interest in the bloody events then going on in Haiti (the body of President Guillaume Sam had just been torn to pieces on the streets of Port-au-Prince), there had been in the past 72 years "at least 102 civil wars, revolutions, insurrections, revolts, coups and attentats," and during the almost entire period the United States had had to "send warships into Haitian waters to protect the lives and property of American citizens."

However galling to Haitian pride, the occupation of Haiti by American Marines, 1915-1934, saw more constructive undertakings and less shedding of Haitian blood than almost any period before or since. Certainly the ending of the occupation led to a decline of political stability which enabled Duvalier to seize power in the ruthless manner of many of his predecessors and to tyrannize Haiti for more than a decade as "President-for-Life."

It is with his death, in 1971, that the Heinls' history comes to a close. The story of the tenure of young President Jean-Claude Duvalier, hand-picked by his father "Papa Doc" to succeed him as President-for-Life, is for future historians to recount.

The Heinls have written an impressive history, richly documented and deeply felt. Like many other foreign observers of the Haitian scene, they have been able to deplore the traditional excesses of Haiti's leadership without losing sight of the fundamental gentleness and trusting nature of its common people. Their comment about Dr. Duvalier might be applied to many another Haitian exploiter of his own land: "He was unbelievably cruel while ruling a simple, kind, cheerful people ..."

Readers of this brilliantly-narrated history will complete it with a deep sense of compassion for the enduring folk of Haiti, whose history, written in blood, yields to a present written in mass poverty and the special privileges of a "republican" oligarchy.