Tuesday, October 18, 2016

1865 Port au Prince Haiti

I found this passage in the Last journal of the Rt. Rev. George Burgess, D. D.: bishoop of Maine, when he traveled down to Port au Prince. In light of all the news the past few weeks, I thought it might bring light to another tragedy that hit the island of Haiti in 1865.

March 18. — Weary and jaded, yet thankful for a safe and smooth voyage, we entered the Gulf of Port au Prince, and approached the city in the middle of Sunday forenoon. Its site is extremely low, where it lies along the sea-side, but its streets rise steadily behind for a considerable distance. It had suffered most widely from a severe conflagration some eighteen months before ; nor is the eye arrested at the entrance by any very stately edifices. We, however, enjoyed a few hours of absolute delight, when, in the spacious precincts of the Consul, we were permitted to wash, to eat, to drink, to lie down and to take our rest, for a couple of hours. We arrived too late to allow of any morning services, and it is not usual to hold any in the afternoon. So we performed our offices of devotion at home; and tried to " rest, according to the commandment."

March 19. — Our first entire day in Port au Prince dawned brightly; but within an hour a tremendous calamity had begun. The city was on fire. In the very heart of one of its wealthiest regions of wellstocked warehouses and handsome mansions, the hand of the incendiary, as it seemed, threw in the seed of destruction. All the morning the land-breeze blew, and wafted the raging flame, which swallowed everything in its path, and widened its path on both sides. There was nothing like effective resistance; generally none at all; goods were removed, but the houses went down like stubble. A multitude of wild men and women, boys and girls, friends and pillagers, carried off all to which the owners could not look, and which the fire did not too soon ingulf. There were no engines of any force; and what was to me most fearful of all, if true, it was said that some of the people cut the hose of the engines. There was no organization; and, notwithstanding the presence of the President and his ten aides-de-camp, in uniform and on horseback, there was no real leadership. So the conflagration swept out of existence all that broad, best part of the town which covered the plain towards the edge of the sea ; and, when this was exhausted, the wind also lulled, and the dreadful work seemed over. But at this crisis all the residents said that when the seabreeze should spring up an hour or two later, it must waft the flame back upon its track, and towards other parts of the city still uninjured. Was anything then, done, attempted, proposed, or encouraged ? Nothing ; and the whole people waited in silence or in noise the coming of the sea-breeze which carried the flame just where it was expected, and, having rolled and roared over streets and squares, made its path up the hill, and in the evening died for lack of fuel. Oh what a mournful day for those who were wealthy, and in a few hours had not a change of raiment! What a tremendous blow to the city, the nation, all trade, all credit, all confidence! I was told that half the wealth of Port au Prince was no more.

March 20. — The night passed quietly, to the relief of many anxious hea_rts, which trembled lest in the depth of night the flames might revive, or some wretch might kindle them afresh. In the forenoon, I rode with my host, on horseback, through the desolated district, picking our way. It extended all along the plain to the right from the harbor, and to the foot of the higher ground, and a little up the slight ascent, and embraced, in general, the best dwellings and the busiest stores. The buildings were commonly reduced to utter ruin; being constructed with a thin brick wall and wooden casing, with an appearance of firmness which fire too soon shrivels away. Beyond this region, and outside of the town, we came to the Palace, which stands apart, and is spacious, but not handsome, and only one story high. Still beyond was a fine level plain, over which a horse could run with delight, and to which, even so far, houseless people had brought some of their goods, finding a sleeping-place under the open sky. The Cathedral, a large, white edifice, of plain.architecture, escaped the flames.
After our return home, the venerated President of the Wesleyan Missions in Hayti paid us a visit. He had lived at Port au Prince twenty years and more, and had never been seriously ill. He speaks, though not without Christian hope, yet in a spirit of depression, of the island and all its prospects.

March 21. — The cheerfulness of the sufferers, under their great losses, was something altogether surprising, and perhaps not to be lasting. We walked on the day after through a part of the ruins. President Geffrard rode by as we sat in our gallery, followed by two or three officers. He was in black, and appears to be about sixty years old; carefully and genteelly dressed, and riding a good horse.

Our friend, the Consul-General, whose guests we were, in conjunction with the Consul, at whose house we were, had just taken for his more peculiar residence a house commanding a glorious prospect from the heights, but three miles from the city, and almost inaccessible. There was no road fit for a carriage, scarcely for a cart. A person on horseback ascended without any serious difficulty, if his horse were surefooted and obedient. We were expecting much pleasure from a visit, if we could get there; but the great fire compelled Mr. Peck to open his doors to certain ladies who had lost their own roofs and all beside. They went out in a carriage, which broke down ; and they were compelled to struggle up the mountain on foot.
We had, in the evening, a most welcome rain, which quenched the remaining life of the flames.

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