Engoulevent d'Hispaniola Caprimulgus ekmani Hispaniolan Nightjar

Caprimulgus Ekmani, the Hispaniolan Nightjar

Haiti and the island of Hispaniola have been studied by botanists and naturalists for centuries, not all of them looking for zombie powder. One of the best known naturalists to visit Haiti was Erik Ekman, a Swede who was in the country in 1917, and then later spent four more  years there, from 1924 to 1928, and another four in the Dominican Republic (where he died), discovering   — or at least naming  —  some 2,000 species previously unknown to Western science, including the exceptional bird above, which in camouflage resembles a lizard.


Erik Ekman, Swedish naturalist and botanist

One of my cousins, John Sabella, who is an associate dean for international programs at North Carolina State University, was recently in  Haiti to try to establish linkages and institutional exchanges between his university and the Haitian State University’s Faculty of Agronomy and Veterinary Sciences  (FAMV) at the Damien campus, 

John was never lucky enough to have seen Damien in its heydey, or at least while it was still standing: the beautiful French-colonial-style colonnaded building and the campus were severely damaged in the 2010 earthquake.

But I remember Damien from the late 1980s as a kind of dream one would pass by on the way out of town to the north on Route Nationale Number 1. It made you imagine a greener Haiti, this faculté des agronomes, if only agriculture could again be Haiti’s mainstay, instead of the global cash economy with its maquiladoras and subsidized imported Miami rice.

Behind a majestic stand of mangoes and a high wrought iron fence, you could see the building, a bit worse for wear but still visibly in the style of a very grand Louisiana plantation home; it was on the scale of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Sitting in your car outside Damien, you could fantasize yourself back into another century — not a better century, but another century — as the market ladies rushed up to offer varying kinds of mangoes to you, in the season. It was a shady, dreamy place, leafy and green like so many Haitian paintings, but not like most of Haiti.

So my cousin was there, and the Dean and faculty took him and his colleagues on a tour of the campus. John was shocked to see that in the almost five years since the earthquake very little work has been done to reconstruct a campus that was once a source of pride to Haitians. Nor do many of the billions of dollars promised to Haiti seem to have gone into this part of the university, which could be such a productive think tank for Haiti’s future.

As they were touring what passes for the campus, the FAMV administrators and faculty showed John Ekman’s collection, which was salvaged after the earthquake but is now in danger of being lost because of lack of adequate or indeed any climate control. The collection consists of over 30,000 specimens that are now being stored in metal cases in the “library.”

The Ekman collection, as it is stored today:

Ekman Collection (1)

According to John, it’s a “unique and priceless collection,” and NCSU and FAMV are now trying to establish a digital archive of Ekman’s specimens as well as locate a safe place in which to house and maintain the collection.

Ekman was yet another among the eccentric self-exiled lovers of Haiti, a white king, a mobile sovereign, able to live any which way in this place that forced no rules upon him. There are so many white kings whom I have met in Haiti in my quarter of a century there, including aid workers and journalists, anthropologists and ministers, celebrity helpers et al.

Here’s more about Ekman, apparently a true idiosyncrat. During his 17 years in the West Indies, the Swede received grants and fellowships amounting to about 100 pounds sterling per year, not a tiny amount back then, but he preferred to live, as one obituary put it in 1931,

as an anchorite, and deprived himself of every personal comfort. He slept in a shed or in the open air and dressed like a native workman in shirt and trousers. He became an intimate friend of the natives and partook of their simple food or simply lived on water and edible plants and fruits. But wherever he went, he always carried with him his herbarium and brown paper.


Ekman became an excellent guide to Cuba and Haiti, and many tourists from America and Europe asked him to accompany them, but when doing so he always refused to accept payment for his services. He knew practically every dialect of Cuba and Haiti, and the first words he acquired were the oaths, which together with an assortment of the most  expressive Swedish swear-words never failed to make a wonderful impression on the natives.


In spite of several highly remunerative offers to carry on political propaganda for certain dissatisfied party chiefs, he invariably refused to exert his power over the natives, and remained a poor wandering scholar, devoting himself to the gentle science of flowers, as a worthy compatriot and follower of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish “King of Flowers” of the 18th century.

Here’s Ekman in his later mode (a photo on a wall at Damien, today):

Erik Ekman (1)

Let’s hope the NCSU and the Haitian Agronomy Faculty can rescue Ekman’s work and preserve the results of his idiosyncratic and important communion with la terre Haitienne.

–Many thanks to John Sabella for his help with this post.


A giant fern in Haiti