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  • Môle St. Nicolas (Haiti)
    – When greed is added to improvisation
Geographic map of Haiti (author Rémi Kaupp, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

In 1763, following the Seven Years’ War, Môle St. Nicolas was just an abandoned site at the western tip of the northern peninsula of the colony of Santo Domingo (now Haiti). France, however, had great ambitions to developing this ideally located site. The vocation of Môle was initially strategic, because it controlled navigation towards Port-au-Prince and, more generally, between the southern coast of Cuba and Jamaica. Royal hydrographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin had also described it as a perfect site for growing vegetables and cotton, raising livestock, and having plenty of game to supplement the diet of any settler. In February 1764, when the Acadians arrived at Môle St. Nicolas, everything on paper pointed to success for this great colonial project. And yet, it was a resounding failure. Because beyond the difficulties inherent in adapting to a tropical climate, the local administration still had to be up to the task of moving from theory to practice…

The colonial project was well defined. The Acadians, most of them farmers or former farmers, first had to set up a rudimentary temporary camp. They were then tasked with building a barracks, a casemate, a hospital and an officer’s quarter for the French military, then a road from the headwaters of the Môle River to the Atlantic Ocean. This route was crucial for easily transporting provisions and tools to the colony. In return, each Acadian family was given full ownership of arable land along the river. The offer seemed tempting and the Acadians could hardly refuse it because they risked being locked in a prison built with their own hands! However, this enticing promise turned out to be a very bad deal…

An enticing promise without follow through

Môle St. Nicolas River
Môle St. Nicolas River, known as The Gorge (source Boukan Guinguette)

What we know of the first months following the arrival of the Acadians at Môle comes from a single source, the correspondence of a certain Bertand de Saltoris, a writer of the Navy responsible for overseeing the colony’s development. On the ground, the Acadians soon noticed the poor quality of the soil, because the course of the river was slowed down by dozens of tree trunks lying across, thus flooding the banks in many places. How could the colonial authorities have missed this reality before the arrival of the settlers? It was becoming urgent to use the Acadians to drain the river and divert its course, which would inevitably slow down the agricultural project of Môle, but to the benefit of Santo Domingo’s economy in the longer term. At least, that is what Saltoris proposed to the colonial authorities. But the man was greedy and career-conscious, deeply concerned about the good impression he was making on his superiors. And it was greatly to the misfortune of the Acadians…

Saltoris held the Acadians in high esteem (they were “the best people in the world”) and rejoiced that they both loved and feared him. When he had decided to forbid them from hunting, fishing and even washing clothes in the river, their reactions had been measured, although he was not shy about hunting himself. No doubt by submission, the Acadians had resigned themselves to accepting being malnourished by the colonial administration. This time, Saltoris was taking a big risk. He boasted to the colonial authorities that his Acadians would do the work of draining the river at a price much lower than that charged by a local contractor using white workers. The Acadians accepted this extra work, but on condition of receiving a salary, which the colonial authorities had no intention of doing so. The drainage work, therefore, progressed at a very slow pace, which left Saltoris full of bitterness…

Charles Henri d'Estaing
Charles Henri d’Estaing (public domain image)

In July 1764, when the new governor of Santo Domingo, Charles-Henri d´Estaing, made his first visit to Môle St. Nicolas, he expected to find a prosperous colony. Instead, he found a distressing sight. Of the 556 Acadians who arrived in the colony, 104 were already dead and the others almost dying. Saltoris had only cared about his own interests, lying to his superiors on all matters, treating the Acadians like slaves and even refusing to give milk to the children. He was sent back to Cap Français (now Cap-Haitien) and severely punished. So ended this lamentable episode, marked by improvisation and greed. Far remote from the big dream project, the colonial authorities had neglected to ensure the quality of the soil. Moreover, they appointed a totally incompetent manager. Nevertheless Môle St. Nicolas managed to survive, painfully though, with an Acadian population in poor health. In January 1765, when the hero of the Acadian resistance, Joseph Broussard, made a stop at Cap Français, many Acadians took the opportunity to leave with him for Louisiana. At least, they still had the hope of founding a new Acadia.