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Caribbean Beat Magazine

The Lüders affair | On this day

One hundred and twenty years ago, a minor dispute in Port-au-Prince escalated into an international incident, with the German navy threatening to bombard the city. James Ferguson remembers this episode in the long history of foreign powers meddling in Haiti’s affairs

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

For much of the more than two centuries since its declaration of independence on 1 January, 1804, Haiti has been the victim of both foreign intervention and neglect. It took until 1862 for the United States, no doubt fearful of the example set by Haiti’s slave revolution to its own Southern states, to recognise the republic’s independence. Over the next century, the US would meddle in its unstable neighbour’s affairs, engaging in gunboat diplomacy to intimidate Haitian governments, culminating in a military occupation from 1915 to 1934. “Haiti is a public nuisance at our door,” said Alvey A. Adee, perennial US Assistant Secretary of State from 1886 to 1924. Even in the final decade of the last century and the first of this, US troops were sent into Haiti (in 1994 and 2004), first to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power and then to airlift him out of a coup.

Nor were the French, the former colonial masters of Saint-Domingue, much friendlier to the Haiti that replaced it. In 1825, still furious at the loss of its lucrative plantation colony and with warships ready to attack, France demanded 150 million francs in compensation for “lost” slaves and property from the civil war–devastated republic, reducing the debt to 90 million francs in 1838, to be paid over thirty years. This was the equivalent of US$21 billion in current terms. It was not until 1947 that all associated interest and fees were paid off, and by then Haiti was poverty-stricken and bankrupt. In 1915 — the year of the US invasion — it was estimated that eighty per cent of the government’s budget went on servicing the debt.

If this seems vindictive, then consider the events that followed the arrest in Port-au-Prince on 21 September, 1897 — 120 years ago — of one Emile Lüders. As his surname suggests, Lüders was of German parentage: his father was from Hamburg and his mother Haitian, and though born in Haiti, he retained German citizenship. On that day, he was at his business, the Écuries Centrales (Central Stables) in the bustling city centre, when the police arrived. They were looking for his employee Dorléus Présumé, suspected of theft, who happened to be washing a coach outside the stables. From upstairs, Lüders heard Présumé shouting and rushed down to help him. In the ensuing altercation, Lüders allegedly struck a policeman, and both he and Présumé were arrested.

In what seems like an unusually speedy process of justice, both men were sentenced to a month’s imprisonment by the Police Tribunal that same day. Perhaps foolishly, Lüders decided to appeal to the Correctional Tribune. It was then that it was discovered that his temper had already got him into trouble — he had been jailed for six days in 1894 for assaulting a soldier. The sentence was changed to one year’s imprisonment.

This news was transmitted to the German chargé d’affaires, Count von Schwerin, whose main task was to oversee the welfare of a community of about two hundred Germans, mostly coffee traders. He demanded Lüders’s immediate release as well as the firing of the police officers involved. When the US minister Powell also insisted that Lüders should be set free, the issue swiftly reached the desk of President Tirésias Simon Sam. For perhaps understandable reasons, Sam duly gave in, and on 22 October Lüders left Haiti for Hamburg.


All might have thought that was the end of the story, but Count von Schwerin had other ideas. He had alerted Berlin to the mistreatment of a German national and requested military support. On 6 December, two German warships, SMS Charlotte and SMS Stein, dropped anchor in the bay of Port-au-Prince. The Charlotte’s Captain Thiele was rowed over to a jetty, where he presented a written ultimatum to be delivered to President Sam. It demanded $20,000 in compensation for Lüders, his safe passage back to Haiti, a formal apology to the German government, a twenty-one gun salute to the German flag and — most cruelly — a reception in honour of Count von Schwerin. Sam was given four hours to agree. Otherwise the German warships, armed with powerful canonry, would open fire on the capital and the presidential palace, just a few blocks away from the waterfront. A white flag was to be raised over the palace if President Sam wished to capitulate.

Which he did. There is a longstanding belief in staunchly patriotic Haiti that the citizenry was prepared to resist the German attack, but this would have been foolish. The Haitians were outgunned, the city a potential tinder box of wooden houses and narrow streets. Perhaps the Germans would never have opened fire, fearful of an international incident, but who was to know? In the event, the money was paid, the apology issued, Lüders reappeared, and von Schwerin, in full diplomatic dress, attended the reception at the palace, drily described by Powell as “an unpleasant affair.”

It was certainly an unpleasant exercise in extortion and humiliation, which seems to have been overlooked by the US, the self-appointed policeman of the Caribbean at that time. The sense of powerlessness and shame was deeply felt in Haiti, and anger was directed at the president. Michael Largey recounts in his excellent book Vodou Nation how the editor of the Haitian newspaper L’Impartial published a notice after the event:

You are invited to attend the funeral of young Haiti, cruelly assassinated by President Tirésias Augustin Simon Sam. The funeral procession will leave the mortuary, located at the National Palace, to give itself to the court of Berlin. Port-au-Prince, 6 December 1897.

This seems a little unfair to Sam, who is generally thought to have done a good job in the eighteen months he was in power before the “Lüders affair.” He never really recovered, and resigned before his six-year term was up. He spent many of his remaining years in exile.

But at least he fared better than his cousin, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, elected president in March 1915. He unwisely ordered the execution of 167 political prisoners, many from among the capital’s wealthy elite. A furious mob burst into the French embassy, where he was hiding, and literally tore him apart. American warships just happened to be anchored in the harbour, and President Woodrow Wilson, fearful of a hostile Germany taking advantage of the chaos, ordered the Marines ashore. It was the beginning of the nineteen-year occupation that led to fifteen thousand Haitian dead and a sense of resentment that still lingers today.