The History of La Gonave
At the time of the arrival of the Spanish on the island of Hispaniola (the island now occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), La Gonave was a paradise. The entire island was covered with vegetation which included many valuable tree species. It rained a lot and there were lots of birds. Mangrove thickets protected the coast and the sea harbored an abundance of fish. The Spanish, during the early years of exploration of the Caribbean, dropped off pigs and other domesticated animals as they visited the various islands. The purpose of leaving the animals was to create a food source for subsequent Spanish explorers. These animals flourished due to an ample source of plant matter on which to feed.
It is estimated that, at the time of arrival of the Spanish on Hispaniola, the native population was approximately one million. As the Spanish began to send some of the natives to Europe and began to enslave them and commit other atrocities against them, some fled to La Gonave. It was the last refuge for many as the native population of Hispaniola was rapidly wiped out. Eventually the natives on La Gonave perished but bones and other evidence of their existence were collected by Catholic nuns who much later arrived on the island. These artifacts can be seen in Anse-a-Galets.
In the early 1600s, French buccaneers arrived on the island. These white people did not build any houses; instead, they stayed in caves. Under French control, piracy was eventually wiped out ending the history of the buccaneers on the island. After independence from the French had been achieved, the French left the island and former black slaves discovered the natural wealth of the island and began to claim the land. They began to cultivate bananas, yams, mangos, sweet potatoes, manioc, maize and other crops. Animals that had been introduced by the Spanish were a source of food. In addition, some of the animals were slaughtered and the meat sold in Port-au-Prince. Word spread about the abundance that existed on La Gonave and more people came and settled. Many types of crops were being produced and the sea was a wonderful source of food.
When the United States occupied Haiti for the first time from 1915-1934, a U.S. police station was established on the island in the town of Anse-a-Galets. The Americans discovered on La Gonave a strong social system. The estimated 12,000 inhabitants of the island at the time were divided into ten “Congo” societies. Each society had a queen with a supreme queen, Ti Memenne, reigning over all. The queens decided what crops were to be planted and drummers provided a beat for workers in the field. Uncooperative members of society, as punishment, were forced to kill one of their own animals and serve it to others at a big party. The next day, attendees at the party helped the punished member in his garden.
In 1925 a young U.S. Marine sergeant named Faustin Wirkus became the officer in charge on La Gonave. An associate of Ti Memenne was declared that Wirkus was the reincarnation of Emperor Faustin of Haiti, one of the strongest leaders in the history of the country who ruled from 1847 to 1859. Faustin Wirkus was named King Faustin II, king of La Gonave. In 1929 when the president of Haiti discovered there was a king of La Gonave, he had Wirkus removed from his command on the island.
At the time of the first U.S. occupation, the soil was fertile, there was sufficient water and fish were abundant. As the population began to increase, pressures on the land increased. Cotton, sisal and tobacco, along with many food crops, were being produced. Trees were being cut to produce fuelwood. Some presidents of Haiti viewed La Gonave as a place to put unwanted members of society. The poor, vagabonds, convicts and political prisoners were sent to live in shelters built by the government. All of this hurt the reputation of the island which, in earlier times, had been viewed as a paradise.
In 1988, La Gonave was made part of Port-au-Prince. This gave the government in Port-au-Prince the right to exploit what remained of the resources of the island. Wealthy, influential inhabitants of the city began to remove the valuable tree species from the island. The wood was used for construction on the mainland or was exported. The Haitian system of government was imposed on the Congo society. Corruption and division resulted.
Over the past few decades, with population pressures and rape of valuable resources by the elite of Port-au-Prince, the quality of life on La Gonave has deteriorated. The once lush forests are gone. Much of the vegetation has been removed and serious erosion has occurred. With no vegetation to hold the moisture, rainfall is lost to the sea. Access to fresh water has become a critical issue. Over-fishing has resulted in a serious decline in the fish harvest. Desperate to produce charcoal in order to earn income, the mangrove trees that protect the coast are now being cut. Hunger is widespread. Employment opportunities are extremely limited. Many diseases are prevalent on the island but few people can afford medications and visits to the hospital. Transportation and communication are extremely inadequate and contribute to suffering on the island.
La Gonave, since the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola, has gone from a paradise to a state of neglect and suffering. The beautiful people of La Gonave want to restore their island to the paradise that it once was.
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