Haiti, Caco Revolts

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Haiti, Caco Revolts

The armed fighters of Haiti known as the Cacos are perhaps most famous for their battles with U.S. Marines during the United States's occupation of their country between 1915 and 1934. Yet their history predates the U.S. intervention. The term Caco, which derives from the name of the feisty red-plumed bird found on the island (many Cacos wore patches of red cloth and hatbands), originally referred to the former slaves who joined up against the French during the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). In the Cacos's revolt of 1867, armed bands from northern Haiti rose in opposition to President Sylvain Salnave (1867–1870). Throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in the northern region, the Cacos operated as hired armies for local chiefs and elite families. But they also worked nationally. Political contenders sometimes raised Caco armies to seize presidential power: between 1908 and 1915 seven presidents used these tactics.

The Cacos embodied Haiti's longstanding racialized tensions and regional and political divide. In the north, a darker-skinned black elite and poor were established, whereas in the south, lighter-skinned mulattoes held power. The Cacos were generally darker and came from humble origins, alternating their time fighting with cultivating small plots of land. Some had only old muskets and were more adept with rocks. Because the Cacos were compensated for fighting by looting and small amounts of cash, elites and the U.S. media often depicted the Cacos as bandits and pillagers. But for the protection they offered, the Cacos often won local mass support. In the Caco uprisings against U.S. intervention in 1915, 1916, 1918, 1919 and 1920, these rebels earned acclaim both locally and abroad as patriots and national heroes.

Indeed, the Cacos posed a problem for the U.S. Marines during the U.S. occupation of Haiti. In 1915 the Cacos objected to the presidential candidate, General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (d. 1915), who had ordered the killing of 167 political prisoners. The murders sparked public outrage, and the Cacos came from the north to Port-au-Prince with Rosalvo Bobo (1873–1929) to seize power. Rather than support Bobo, the United States helped install President Phillipe Sudré Dartiguenave (1863–1926), who signed a treaty placing the Haitian government under U.S. control for the next twenty years. The Cacos rebelled. The Marines tried unsuccessfully to disarm the Cacos through arms buyouts. Although they had superior machinery and supplies, the U.S. Marines were handicapped by the Cacos's guerrilla tactics, and it took more than a year to defeat them. The Marines blew up the Cacos's eighteenth-century stronghold in the north, Fort Rivière, in 1916.

Despite this loss, in 1918 the Cacos launched a second revolt in the north under the leadership of Charlemagne Masséna Péralte (1886–1919) and Benoît Batraville (d. 1920). Aimed against U.S. imperialism generally, and specifically against the forced unpaid labor draft known as the corvée, the Cacos's rebellion had wide public support. The U.S. occupation and the Marines' racism generated broad anti-American sentiment throughout the country. Tough fighting lasted until November 1920, and only with additional troops and the unprecedented use of aircraft did the Marines suppress the Cacos. But the high death toll of Cacos and Haitians generated worldwide attention and outrage, and resulted in a U.S. Senate inquiry. Even with considerable resistance and criticism, U.S. troops only withdrew from Haiti in August 1934.

In the early twenty-first century, Cacos are regarded as national heroes of Haiti. Although originally associated specifically with the north, the Cacos came to represent anti-imperialist and national struggles. In 1994 their leader Péralte was depicted on Haiti's currency.

See alsoHaiti .


Blancpain, François. Haïti et les Etats-Unis, 1915–1934: Histoire d'une occupation. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1999.

Gaillard, Roger. La guérilla de Batraville: 1919–1934. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Le Natal, 1983.

Michel, George. Charlemagne Peralte and the First American Occupation of Haiti, trans. Douglas Henry Daniels. Dubuque, IA: Kendall and Hunt, 1996.

Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Rogozinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and the Carib to the Present. New York: Plume, 2000.

                                         Meredith Glueck