- Beebe’s Shell-Shocked Fish: Modernist Form in Scientific Writing During the US Occupation of Haiti
If his 1928 scientific travelogue Beneath Tropic Seas: A Record of Diving Among the Coral Reefs of Haiti is to be believed, Dr. William Beebe quite enjoyed his 1927 trip to Haiti. “From the moment of my landing,” he wrote, “I have been the recipient of the most perfect hospitality at the home of the American High Commissioner, General John H. Russell, and Mrs. Russell. Here is the epitome of culture, of social grace, and of never ceasing consciousness of terrific responsibility in governing this great island,—tempering the fires of human volcanoes with justice, good humor, and restraint.”1 During his time at the American Commissioner’s home, as he waited for his ship, supplies, and research crew to arrive for a naturalist diving expedition funded by the New York Zoological Society, Beebe luxuriated in this tropical setting.2 He told his readers,
Contrast demands that I ask you to picture my contentment and happiness in working in a paradise of a guest annex, with man-goes, cocoa-nuts, oranges, and bread-fruit within reach from the verandah, with a lofty range of cloud-flecked mountains rising just at the back, and the great emerald and cobalt Gulf of Gonave before me; with books and swimming pools at hand, and all the other tools for the joy of mind and body.(Beneath, 7–8)
He cheerfully concluded, “The gods of expeditions have again been kind to me, and I can imagine no better place for a few months’ work than Haiti” (10).
This description introduces Beebe’s 1928 scientific travelogue, which frames Haiti as a tropical paradise, an ideal vacation spot [End Page 637] where visitors can work, play, relax, and socialize. But this account, of course, is not a description of Haiti. What Beebe recounts here are the pleasures of the home of the American High Commissioner, General Russell, and his wife, Mrs. Russell. Their home typifies a safe, domestic, American space, separate from what Beebe deems Haiti’s “human volcanoes” (7). Later, once his boat and supplies arrive, Beebe trades one domestic American outpost for another; he and his crew anchor their floating research laboratory far out in the bay, establishing “our new home” where they are “isolated from all of the troubles of life on shore” (15). “On the schooner,” Beebe wrote, “we were able to avoid dangers and annoyances such as malarial mosquitoes and inquisitive natives” (200–1).
In both of these spaces—on the anchored boat Lieutenant and in the High Commissioner’s home—Beebe inhabits and establishes American outposts in Haiti.3 Beebe finds these spaces enjoyable; they represent a safe and comfortable alternative to the rest of Haiti, which he occasionally reads about in the papers. Yet these separations exist only in Beebe’s mind; the Americanized spaces he occupies are domestic territory superimposed on foreign land and water. In applying American varnish to Haitian spaces, Beebe acts as an extension of the US military occupation, which dominated Haiti from 1915–34. US Marines first landed in Haiti during the summer of 1915 to quell violent political protests. US authorities claimed to be restoring peace and helping Haiti develop efficient forms of government, but the occupation’s motives were much murkier: US corporations held significant financial investments in the Banque Nationale d’Haiti and the US government saw Haiti as a strategic military location to help slow encroaching European influence in the Caribbean and Central America.4
On the surface, the occupation seems unrelated to Beebe’s trip; Beebe and his research team aimed to conduct scientific research and to test out new methods of observation using a diving helmet and an underwater camera. Beebe describes “Five chief objects” for the trip:
1. To prepare a list of Haitian fish, there being none in existence.
2. To study at close range and first hand by means of a diving helmet the life of a coral reef.
3. To obtain motion pictures of the life of a coral reef.
4. To test a wholly new idea of a floating laboratory.
5. To see how...