It’s a trope so common in film that it’s become a tired cliché. An outsider arrives in a strange land, befriends the locals through compassion and a few twists of fate, and soon becomes some mix of savior and leader, all while learning valuable spiritual lessons from his humble adoptive people. But in Haiti in the late 1920s, an American marine actually lived this oft-recycled tale, long before "Dances With Wolves," "Fern Gully," "The Last Samurai," and "Avatar."
Faustin Wirkus was born in Prussia (in what is now present day Poland) in 1896, and was raised in the coal-mining country near Scranton, Pennsylvania. As was common in coal-mining communities, Wirkus worked as a breaker boy, whose job was to separate coal from slate, low paying and dangerous work that was done by hand. After meeting a visiting marine in the area who had returned from Nicaragua, he was taken by dreams of adventure (or anything else that might take him away from the life of a coal miner).
He left home in 1915, and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned his first tour of duty in Haiti. Civil unrest, and a series of coups on the island had prompted the United States, England, and Germany to send troops to protect their interests. It was on Wirkus’s first tour of duty, shortly after arriving in the capital, Port-au-Prince, that he first saw the densely jungled island just off the coast, La Gonâve. He later wrote about his first impression of the place in his book, The White King of La Gonave: The True Story of the Sergeant of Marines Who Was Crowned King on a Voodoo Island.
“The silent, sweeping town of Port-au-Prince, with its deserted streets, its placid bay, the pal-fringed shore, stirred me to such an extent that I took no notice of the mass of jungle and mountains sprawling in the bay to the westward. Someone asked, ‘What is that place over there,’ and a sergeant who seemed to know everything else said, ‘if you’re lucky you’ll never get any closer to that place than you are now. No white man has set foot on it since the days of the buccaneers. There’s a post on it now, but the men stationed there don’t usually come back-and if they do, they’re fit for nothing but the bug house…place is full of voodoos and God knows what else.”
Because of a series of injuries, Wirkus returned to the United States to heal, was stationed in Cuba, and was sent back to the US (the man had a knack for breaking his arms), before returning to Haiti in 1919, where he was made a lieutenant in the Garde d’Haiti. He developed a pretty badass reputation while stationed in an outpost at Perodin, a mountainous post in the interior of the Haitian mainland (one account claims he calmly shot a hiding rebel through the trunk of a palm tree).
After working as a sub-district commander at Arcahaie on the coast, Wirkus again became fascinated by Gonâve island, and after spending an overnight on the mysterious island in March 1920, unsuccessfully applied to be stationed there. Three prisoners were brought before the Marine for trial. The three were being tried for offenses against the Republic of Haiti. Wirkus granted them leniency for what he later described as “trivial voodoo offenses.” Unbeknownst to him at the time, one of the prisoners was the ruling queen of the the island, Ti Memenne. Before being transferred to Port-au-Prince for trial, the queen remarked to Wirkus “we will meet again.”
In the following months, Wirkus became the first white man in centuries to visit the interior of the island, and learned of their matriarchal system of rule, a traditional preserved by descendents of African slaves. He was welcomed by Queen Ti Memenne, who presented another prophetic statement that he would return. Once again, Wirkus applied to be stationed on the island, and this time, due to his reputation as a good soldier and leader, his superiors granted him a post as resident commander of La Gonâve in April 1925.
After a year and half on the island, and after bringing farming and social reforms (he held the first census), as well as joining the local voodoo organization, the Twelve Congo Societies, he was liked by the people of La Gonâve. The queen summoned Wirkus to her home, where she informed him that the Twelve Societies had nominated him king of the island in a secret ceremony.
Faustin Wirkus was crowned Faustin II, King of La Gonâve on July 18,1926. In addition to developing a rapport with the people through his reforms, he also shared a first name with Faustin Soulouque, an army general elected President, then crowned Emperor of Haiti, a position he held from 1849-1859, before being forced to abdicate. Before his exile from Haiti, Faustin I allegedly promised the people of La Gonâve that a descendent with his name would return to rule the island.
“They made me a sort of king in a ceremony I thought was just a celebration of some kind,” Wirkus later remarked, as reported by the United States Marine Corps Association and Foundation. “I learned later they thought I was the reincarnation of a former king of the island who had taken the name of Faustin I when he came into power. The coincidence was just good luck for me.”
Faustin II ruled side by side with Queen Ti Memenne for three years. The President of Haiti visited La Gonâve for the first time in 1928, and although impressed by what he saw as social progress for the island, he disapproved of a separate king ruling within his republic. He was then transferred back to the mainland in 1929. He returned to the United States in 1931, wrote a book and gave lectures on his experiences. Wirkus later spent WWII in DC and North Carolina in training and management capacities, dying of illness in 1945. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.