[Documents menu] Documents menu

Date: Fri, 1 Nov 1996 14:23:33 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: Plantation Dauphin: some history
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9611011402.A1941-0100000@netcom2>

Plantation Dauphin: Some history

By Perdue and Persinos <73043.2411@CompuServe.COM>
1 November 1996

This is in response to your October 26 message in which you asked: "What actually is the Dauphin Plantation?" and referred to the "murder of the trades' union president of the Dauphin plantation."

The history of the Dauphin Plantation is my special interest and I think it is fair to say I am becoming something of an authority on the subject. This just means I know more about it than most others. I still have much to learn. I have visited the plantation several times in recent years, most recently last month, attended the 1996 reunion of the "Dauphin Club" (primarily descendants of former plantation workers), interviewed many former employees and their descendants and studied pertinent documents in our National Archives, Marine and Navy Historical Centers, etc. I live in Maryland near Washington so have ready access to many resources in DC.

At this time I cannot answer your question about the murder of the trades' union president but I remember something about labor problems coming up in an interview. My notes on this are still on tape and have not been transcribed. I will advise on this later.

But I can tell you about the plantation:

The best published source on this subject is THE STORY OF FORT LIBERTY AND THE DAUPHIN PLANTATION by Robert Pettigrew, the first manager. This book covers the story from 1926 to late 1955 when the plantation was sold to the Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO) though it does not account for many interesting events during this period.

The plantation was the greatly loved "child" of Andre De Coppet, a wealthy Wall Street financier who had dreamed of owning a tropical plantation. In February 1926, De Coppet, during a brief stopover of the ship Ancon in Port-au-Prince (the ship was enroute to Panama), visited with Dr. W.W. Cumberland, financial advisor to the Republic of Haiti. Cumberland told him he could make a profit of a "hunnerd" percent per year producing sisal in Haiti.

Sisal produces a fiber useful for products like rope and binder twine. The plant thrives in semi-arid areas.

After his return to New York, De Coppet sent his associate, W. W. Findley to Haiti to look into the opportunity. The latter came to Haiti confident that this was a hoax but was soon convinced sisal would be a good business opportunity and cabled De Coppet to come and join him.

They were taken in hand by Robert Pettigrew, then a Lieutenant Commander with the US Navy's Civil Engineer Corps, headquartered in Port-au-Prince. Pettigrew escorted them to a site near Port- au-Prince and later to the Fort Liberty area where they visited Habitation Mere where Bertrand de La Mothe had first introduced sisal into Haiti.

Subsequently, Pettigrew was persuaded to resign from the Navy and begin the development of what was to become one of the largest, if not the largest, and the best managed sisal plantations in the world. Dauphin sisal fiber, in time, became recognized as of the finest quality available.

In the Fort Liberty area there was a vast expanse of unoccupied land, too dry to support most crops but quite acceptable, as time would prove, for sisal. The Pettigrew family settled in to live temporarily at what has since become the Roi Christophe Hotel in Cap Haitien and land clearing for the plantation began on February 11, 1927. By the end of the year 400 acres had been planted, primarily with planting stock from Habitation Mere, and nurseries were established to produce more small plants to be transplanted into the field.

When the project was conceived there was a good demand for sisal fiber on the world market and the price was high. By the time the first Dauphin fiber was ready for sale the price hit bottom and it was a struggle to keep going. But keep going they did and by the beginning of World War II there were about 13,500 acres under sisal and the plantation had shown a reasonable profit. The land then under sisal was what would later become known as West Bay Plantation, the area extending southwest from Lake Romeo to the foot of the mountains and then northwest to the ocean with the western boundary along the river that flows by Terrier Rouge.

By the beginning of World War II, there was a modern decortication plant to remove the sisal fiber from the leaves, an extensive narrow-gage rail line to bring sisal leaves from field to factory, comfortable housing and other amenities like swimming pool and club house for the American staff and housing for Haitian staff and field workers. The plantation employed 4,000 people.

World War II cut off supplies of manilla hemp fiber, traditionally used for rope. Plantation Dauphin, on April 28, 1942, began clearing land east of Fort Liberty Bay on what would later be known as East Bay Plantation to increase the supply of sisal fiber to meet the U.S. Navy's increased demand for rope. Total acreage in sisal was increased to about 25,000 acres by the end of World War II. During the peak of land clearing the Plantation employed about 12,000 workers.

After the death of Andre De Coppet in August 1953, in order to settle his complex estate, the plantation was sold to HASCO and was operated by the twin Clark brothers, Bradley and Clark. But the market for sisal was on the decline. With the expansion of nylon production after the war, rayon was pushed off the market, and rayon producing facilities were converted to production of polypropylene fiber which soon became extensively used for binder twine and pushed sisal out of this, its primary post-war market.

The Clark brothers subsequently sold the plantation to Lonnie Dunn, a California and Texas business man who intended to raise cattle and had other ideas for a profitable future for the Dauphin Plantation. During his ownership the price of sisal increased and fiber production was renewed for a time but again diminished and Dunn sold out to Elias Cassis, a Port-au-Prince merchant, who tried to operate the plantation for several years but finally gave up and turned the property over to the Government of Haiti during the mid- 1980s in lieu of unpaid taxes.

Today, the Dauphin Plantation is in ruins, not so old as but almost as fascinating as the ruins of the four old French forts on East Bay Plantation along the entrance to Fort Liberty Bay and the extensive ruins from the French period distributed across the plantation. This is all a fascinating outdoor museum and steps are urgently needed to preserve what remains for it is a part of Haiti's history and heritage.

This note is based largely on the Pettigrew book which covers events through 1955. A few months hence I will provide a more detailed account of subsequent events.