Massacre River of blood

James Ferguson recalls the 1937 tragedy of the Massacre River, a bloody day in the histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Illustration by Darren Cheewah

The placid Massacre River (or Río Massacre) seems to belie its ominous name. Running in wide shallow bends and occasional faster-flowing channels, the forty-mile watercourse rises in the mountainous Cordillera Central of the Dominican Republic and makes its way through lush countryside to the Atlantic at Manzanillo Bay. On its way it acts as a sort of border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as well as a place for washing clothes, bathing, and socialising.

But this is a border that exists in name alone. Every day thousands of Haitians wade across the shallowest parts of the river, often carrying precarious loads, as they make their way to markets in the neighbouring country. Frontier controls exist in theory, but in practice the little town of Dajabón is easily reached from Ouanaminthe on the Haitian side through a hubbub of motorcycles, minibuses, and market traders.

Today the atmosphere is bustling but friendly. Yet seventy-five years ago — in October 1937 — the scene was one of unprecedented horror as the river literally ran red with the blood of murdered Haitians. In five days as many as twenty thousand people — men, women, and children — were killed in an act of calculated genocide, the only such event to have occurred in modern Caribbean history. The precise figures have since been questioned and are impossible to verify, but the reality of the event is not disputed.

The roots of the massacre lay in the island of Hispaniola’s tortuous colonial history. (Significantly, the Massacre River is not named after the events of 1937, but in memory of a much earlier colonial-era killing.) Originally Spanish, the island had been encroached upon by French buccaneers, and their enclave eventually developed into the French colony of Saint-Domingue, the world’s most prosperous exporter of sugar. The Spanish part remained relatively poor and sparsely populated, while the French third boomed, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of African slaves. Then from 1791 onwards came the tumultuous revolution which in 1804 led to the creation of independent Haiti.

After years of conflict, Haiti’s economy was almost destroyed, and in the following decades a series of dictators plundered what was left of its riches. The Spanish-descended inhabitants across the border sought protection as a Spanish colony but eventually chose their own independence in 1844. The two states co-existed uneasily, with attempted Haitian invasions rebuffed. Dominican leaders, mostly dictators like their Haitian counterparts, encouraged fear of Haiti, arguing that the Dominican Republic was essentially white and Christian while the “enemy next door” was black and voodoo-practising.

By the 1930s the nastiest dictator of them all, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, was firmly in power in the Dominican Republic, supported by the United States. The ex-plantation foreman ran the place like his personal fiefdom and killed anybody who offered opposition to his rule. Sugar had long been the mainstay of the Dominican economy, and because the country lacked manpower, Haitian workers were recruited in their thousands to do the backbreaking work most Dominicans refused. Underpaid and housed in primitive camps known as bateyes, the Haitians were forced by poverty at home to live and work over the border.

The 1930s, however, brought global economic depression and plummeting sugar prices on the world market. As conditions worsened in the Dominican Republic, heavily dependent on sugar exports, Trujillo realised that the Haitian cane-cutters represented the perfect scapegoat. The crisis could be blamed on poverty-stricken Haiti, and he conjured up the old spectre of Haitian invasion in a chilling speech made in Dajabón on 2 October, 1937:

For some months, I have travelled and traversed the border in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc, and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labour, I have responded, “I will fix this.” And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Bánica. This remedy will continue.

The “remedy” was also known in a macabre euphemism as el corte, the cutting or harvesting. Trujillo’s troops and police, readily assisted by some Dominican civilians, sought out Haitians and unceremoniously murdered them. Some were killed fleeing across the river, but most were murdered in and around the bateyes. In order to save bullets, it is said, the vigilantes used machetes, clubs, and knives. Those who survived were mainly the ones employed on the large US-owned plantations.

The details of the event are gruesome and have been recounted by various historians and journalists. They have also provided inspiration for powerful imaginative recreations of the massacre, not least in the Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat’s powerful book The Farming of Bones (2009).

Trujillo’s ethnic cleansing might well have gone unnoticed in the wider world, were it not for journalistic reports of the extent of the outrage. Pushed by public opinion in the US, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt eventually felt compelled to act against its ally Trujillo (the CIA would later mastermind his assassination), and ordered an inquiry and then reparations to be paid to the families of the Haitian victims. In the end, the Trujillo government handed over the sum of US$525,000 (reduced for no apparent reason from the originally agreed US$750,000) to the Haitian President Sténio Vincent. Not a cent ever reached the families of those killed or survivors, as the weak and corrupt Vincent pocketed the money.

The episode would appear unremittingly bleak were it not for the well-documented fact that not all Dominicans supported the massacre. Indeed, there is evidence that in many cases Dominican families sheltered Haitians they had come to know as neighbours. One child who was left behind when his parents were forced to flee was José Francisco Peña Gómez, adopted and given his Spanish name by kindly locals. He was to rise to the top of the Dominican political system, became Mayor of Santo Domingo, and ran twice for the presidency. In a historical irony of considerable proportions, he was beaten twice by the conservative Joaquín Balaguer — whose mentor and protector for three decades from 1930 had been none other than Generalísimo Trujillo, the architect of the massacre.

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