Faustin Wirkus: for king and country?

How did a young man from Pennsylvania become “king” of Haiti’s La Gonave? The unlikely story, says James Ferguson, started a century ago

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

More or less exactly a century ago, on 28 July, 1915, the first contingent of United States Marines disembarked in Port-au-Prince to begin what would be a nineteen-year occupation of Haiti. The previous four years had witnessed a state of anarchy on the island, with six short-lived governments and a series of armed rebellions. The final government to collapse was that of President Guillaume Sam, who had seized power in February and — unwisely — decided to murder 167 political prisoners in the capital’s main jail. An outraged mob pursued Sam from the presidential palace to the French embassy, where he was beaten senseless and thrown into the street to be torn apart by the crowd.

The US State Department and President Woodrow Wilson followed these grisly events with increasing dismay. Not only were US citizens in Haiti considered to be at risk, but the recently founded Haitian American Sugar Company and other economic interests were also vulnerable. Even more alarming was the prospect that Germany, already at war with Britain in Europe, might use the unrest as a pretext to mount an intervention in what the US thought of as its strategic “backyard.” A small community of some two hundred Germans, who had extensive investments in coffee exports and other businesses, lived in Haiti, and Washington worried they might act as a Fifth Column in destabilising American interests — and, in particular, the running of the recently opened Panama Canal.

The occupation was a long and humiliating experience for many Haitians, who found themselves attacked, abused, and sometimes exploited by the US military. It cost the lives of some two thousand cacos, peasant guerrillas who resisted US rule, and some hundred US marines and Haitian gendarmes. It was also a transformational experience for many of these American personnel, who up until now had no idea of where Haiti was and what the country was like.

Among these young men was one Faustin Wirkus, born in 1896 of Polish extraction into a gritty coal-mining community in Pennsylvania. From there, he escaped the drudgery of being a “breaker boy” by enlisting in the US Marine Corps. (Wirkus’s fascinating biography is expertly outlined by Beth Crumley on the Corps’ website.) Wirkus later admitted that nobody in his Company “could seem to get any idea as to where this Haiti place was.” Nevertheless, the young marine was nervous but also excited at the prospect of the unknown, as he embarked on 9 August on the Tennessee in the second wave of troop movements. His first impressions of Port-au-Prince a few days later “were altogether romantic. We seemed to be sailing into a city of past ages whose glory had survived all modern ugliness . . .”

The rosy glow was not to last. As Wirkus’s Company began to march along a filthy street into Port-au-Prince, the mood changed: “Fairyland had turned into a pigsty. More than that, we were not welcome. We could feel it as distinctly as we could smell the rot along the gutters.” It had not taken long for the predictable reality of the occupation to hit home.

 

Wirkus’s story, which he would later publish, was to take an unexpected and entirely unpredictable turn, however. After a year on duty in and around Port-au-Prince, he broke his arm in an accident and was sent back to the US to recuperate. A posting in Cuba followed, and in April 1919 Wirkus returned to Haiti as a sergeant in the Garde d’Haiti, the paramilitary police force set up by the US authorities. After six years of exemplary service, he was appointed resident commander of La Gonave.

Once the haunt of French buccaneers, La Gonave is a 287-square-mile island some fifty miles north-west of Port-au-Prince. Although largely barren and inhospitable, when Wirkus arrived it had a population of twelve thousand, who scraped a living from farming and fishing. Contact with mainland Haiti was infrequent, and traditional customs and social structures dating back to the arrival of enslaved Africans during the colonial past flourished.

Wirkus was, by his own account, a fair and efficient administrator, collecting taxes, acting as magistrate and dispensing advice on agricultural methods such as pig-raising. With a twenty-eight-strong local police force, he was effectively ruler of La Gonave. The only white man on the island, he claimed he was so popular that he was invited to become a member of the Congo societies, the semi-secret associations based around the island’s vodou temples. And it was only at the initiation ceremony that the extent of this popularity — and the role of a bizarre historic coincidence — became apparent.

La Gonave had been governed by a Faustin once before: Faustin Soulouque, who ruled as Emperor of Haiti from 1849 to 1859, before being driven into exile. A cruel and extravagant character, Soulouque (like others who followed him) used terror and persecution to deter opposition. Before his downfall, he had promised — or warned — his subjects that he would one day return, and this prophesy was remembered in La Gonave.

So it was that the white, square-jawed Polish-American marine Faustin Wirkus was received as the somewhat unlikely reincarnation of the black emperor, and crowned on 18 July, 1926, smeared with a chicken’s sacrificial blood. Wirkus related the event with gusto, drawing on all the stereotypical throbbing-drums clichés of “voodoo,” but remained phlegmatically modest. “They made me a sort of king in a ceremony I thought was just a celebration of some kind. I learned later they thought I was the reincarnation of a former king of the island who had taken the name of Faustin I when he came into power. The coincidence was just good luck for me.”

For all the clichés (and an undercurrent of racism very much of its time), the events were apparently true — although it has been subsequently suggested that they were a product of the imagination of journalist William Seabrook, whose lurid book The Magic Island (1929) first popularised the story. Beth Crumley, however, insists on the authenticity of Wirkus’s narrative. She points out, moreover, that the coronation was not to the liking of Haitian President Louis Borno, who visited the island in 1928. Soon afterwards, Wirkus was transferred back to the mainland, where he remained until 1931. When he left the Marines later that year, he decided to tell his story, and with ghost writer Taney Dudley he wrote The White King of La Gonave. It was a great success, and Wirkus became a sought-after lecturer. After a career as a salesman and a brief military stint in 1939, he died in 1945.

Wirkus’s story was, of course, positive propaganda for an American audience that chose to see the occupation as benevolent. It is also often disparaging in its treatment of Haitian culture, and all too often tends towards “exotic” stereotyping of the Tarzan genre. Part Boy’s Own, part classic yarn, its use of the most implausible coincidence is brilliant. But it is also a reminder, as cultural critic Mary A. Renda puts it, that “empire requires stories as well as guns.”