Jean Jacques Dessalines
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
Black men and women of independence movements
Part One — Haiti
In the United States, July 4 is the day that the country celebrates its independence (independence from Britain); however, some Americans believe that July 4 is a holiday for some, and others believe that it is celebrated all over the world. It is not. A young American once asked an immigrant, “Do you celebrate the 4th of July in your country?” The answer, of course was, “No, we have our own independence day.”
The West Indies is an archipelago located in the Northern Hemisphere and is situated between east of the main-lands of Mexico and Central America; north of South America; southeast of the United States and the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea on its east and west respectively. One of the largest islands of the archipelago is Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). It was Haiti that created the independence model for the rest of the West Indies and indeed the Black World.
The history of the West Indies over the past centuries has been inundated with European and American interference and domination. Most of the islands, at one time, were colonized/occupied by European and American powers, and the inhabitants were enslaved and brutalized. However, as of the dawn of the 21st century, there have been thirteen independent nations and a large number of smaller islands that are still colonial dependencies.
After independence, many of the newly formed nations struggle to maintain their hard fought freedom, though there were many lingering colonial attachments; hostilities; and the difficulties that came with growing pains.
HAITI — Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe
Historically, the first successful thrust toward independence occurred in Haiti which became the first Black independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. Under the skillful direction of Toussaint L’Ouverture, men and women defeated the French army at the end of the 18th century — just after the 13 colonies had defeated the British to form the United States.
After the Haitians proclaimed their independence, the French government used trickery and deception to destabilize the newly formed government. And when L’Ouverture was betrayed and captured by the French, Jean Jacques Dessalines became the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Under the country’s new constitution, Dessalines became the first leader of an independent Haiti and was remembered as one of its founding fathers.
Henri Christophe (1767-1820) was one of the three Black generals who led Haiti’s slave revolution and defended it successfully in a War of Independence against the armies of Napoleon. Christophe made Haiti a kingdom and himself king establishing a secure and prosperous modern Black nation that would command the respect of the nations of the world. He channeled Haitian energies on a massive scale into building an impregnable mountain fortress, the Citadel, one of the architectural wonders of the world. It still stands today and endures as a monument to Black resolution and aspiration.
They literally ran Napoleon’s army out of Haiti making that country the first black independent nation in the Western Hemisphere during the end of the 18th century and the turn of the 19th century. Haiti today is a footnote on the scale of developing nations; its people are at the bottom of the “food chain” and the conditions in the country are a scandal on the world stage. “How did this happen” became one of the great tragedies of human history.
L’Ouverture was the oldest son of a slave who was brought to the French colony located on the eastern part of the island. He learned French and possessed an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs, which he learned from his father. He preferred the simple life and as a devout Catholic, he got married and had a son. Around 1789, the French Revolution was raging in France; two years later, a rebellion swept the northern part of the island like a massive tidal wave. L’Ouverture joined the rebellion and with his organizational abilities, skills and leadership, he became their leader.
At first, L’Ouverture was fighting the British and the Spanish who considered the sugar and coffee plantations on the Caribbean colonies, their “sugar shacks” and “money trees.” L’Ouverture agreed to help the French army eject the British and the Spanish. He won several battles while aligning with the French; they proved to be treacherous and cunning, and the relationship was short-lived.
L’Ouverture, with the help of Dessalines and Christophe, then took on the French. With their assistance, he was able to capture most of the island by 1798 and secure the complete withdrawal of the British. Then he moved in and took over Santo Domingo, which had been ceded to France by the British and the Spanish left when they left.
As leader of the nation, L’Ouverture organized a structured government and instituted public improvements. He was widely renowned, revered by Blacks and detested by Whites — the French and the Americans. L’Ouverture’s activities did not go unnoticed by the U.S., a country that was prospering off slaves and their free labor.
In L’Ouverture’s government structure, he dictated a constitution that made no room for any French official. And he made that absolutely clear. But the French government was not satisfied with him, and vowed to get rid of him.
So the French again sent troops to engage L’Ouverture and to take back the island. His troops fought the French, but some of his officers reportedly defected to the French and others went to his rivals, Dessalines and Christophe. L’Ouverture eventually signed a treaty with the French general, who gave him the assurance that there would be no return to slavery and he retired with his family to their farm.
Three weeks later, the French raided L’Ouverture’s farm, took him prisoner and shipped him to France on suspicion of plotting an uprising. Once in France, he was imprisoned and aggressively interrogated. There, with failing health, malnourishment and mistreatment, he died of pneumonia in 1803.
Later on the island was divided into two countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
After L’Ouverture was betrayed and captured by the French, Dessalines became the leader of the Haitian Revolution. He was born in Grande Riviere du Nord in the Northern section of Haiti on/about September 20, 1758.)
Under the country’s new constitution, Dessalines became the first leader of an independent Haiti and was remembered as one of its founding fathers.
He had come up through the ranks starting as a regular soldier; after proving himself, he became an officer, first in the French army, fighting against the Spanish and the British who were trying to wrest the country away from the French. As a young army officer, Dessalines did not yet understand that his country, and indeed his people, would have been slaves regardless of which European power prevailed — the British, the French or the Spanish. During his time in the French army, Dessalines became skilled in the art of war.
Born a slave on a plantation, it is believed that Dessalines had two brothers, Louis and Joseph Duclos, who also took the name Dessalines. He was described as a handsome, red-skinned Black from Senegal, fearless in the field and unscrupulous off it.
When the slave uprising began in 1791, Dessalines became an eager participant and joined the slave rebellion. At first he enlisted to serve Spain’s military forces against the French, then he joined the “real” slave rebellion that was inspired by Dutty Boukman, a voodoo priest, and led by L’Ouverture.
The rebellion spreaded rapidly across the northern section of the island, lasting eventually for about 13 years. Dessalines became a commander and one of the principal lieutenants in the revolt that L’Ouverture led primarily against the French and some strains of the British. Combined, they became a formidable force against the invading French forces. Their forces achieved a series of victories against the French culminating with the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, where Dessalines led the charge and inflicted heavy losses on the French. That was the deciding battle of the Haitian Revolution; it forced the French to withdraw from the war and their richest Caribbean colony.
In March 1802, Dessalines and about 1,300 men defended a small fort that had been besieged by an 18,000-member French army. Though heavily outnumbered, Dessalines motivated by waving a lighted torch (flambeau) near an open keg of gun powder declaring that he would rather blow up the fort than surrender it to the French. The strategic significance of the fort was that it controlled access to the Cahos Mountains, but after a 20-day siege they were forced to abandon the fort due to a shortage of food and munitions. The monumental loss to the French signaled their ultimate defeat and the loss of their prized colonial possession.
Eventually Dessalines and L’Ouverture had a parting of the ways, and Dessalines briefly joined General Leclerc. After L’Ouverture was captured, Leclerc died from yellow fever, along with a large contingent of the French army. General Rochambeau replaced Leclerc and employed racial methods so brutal that they forced an unintended unifying of Dessalines and army officers Christophe, Andre Rigaud and Alexandre Pétion. In addition, it was learned that the French, through Rochambeau, were planning on re-establishing slavery in Haiti. Dessalines had become the leader of the revolution and in November 1803, he defeated Rochambeau in the Battle of Vertières and proclaimed the independence of Haïti on the 1st January 1804.
This officially ended the only slave rebellion in world history which successfully resulted in establishing an independent nation.
Prior to his surrender near Cape François, Rochambeau had taken five hundred Black prisoners, and put them all to death the same day. On hearing this and in response, Dessalines, brought five hundred White prisoners and hung them up in plain view of the French. It is ironic that some historians have charged that Dessalines was a bloodthirsty monster for his response, but they never so charged Rochambeau for the initial murders that triggered Dessalines’ response. Those who focused on Dessalines’ (mis)treatment of the French colonists never balanced those actions against his achievements as a fighter for his and his people’s freedom, notwithstanding, they were described as “non- Haitian” observers and were most likely White apologists for the evils of slavery.
As the first leader of the newly free and independent republic, Dessalines was considered a fierce warrior, and circumstances forced him to be strict and stern. So disdainful was Dessalines of the French that after declaring independence, he was reported to have created the Haitian flag (blue and red) by tearing out the white part of the French flag (blue, white and red).
A council of generals (Blacks and mulattoes) chose Dessalines to become the Governor General and in September 1804, he proclaimed himself Emperor. All citizens of Haiti, regardless of skin color, to be known as “Black.”
Dessalines was passionate about eliminating the caste system in the “new” Haiti and embittered towards both whites and gens de couleur (people of color, who were born of one French or two light-skinned parents).
After his victory, Dessalines tried hard to keep the sugar industry and plantations running and producing without slavery. Having been born and worked under the rigors of slavery for 30 years for White slave-masters gave him an indomitable anti-slavery and anti-White propensity. In addition, his life had been dominated by the atrocities of slavery and compounded by the atrocities of war. Dessalines did not trust the white French people and in declaring Haiti an all-black nation, he forbade Whites from owning property or land there.
He enforced a strict work ethic knowing that the hardships of slavery and war had to be followed by an equally strong regimen of plantation labor to maintain and sustain freedom and independence. Dessalines demanded that all able-bodied Black men work either as soldiers to protect the nation or as laborers on the plantations to generate crops and income to keep the nation going. His forces so rigid in its enforcement that that some Blacks felt slavery had returned.
Though they had parted ways, Dessalines incorporated many of L’Ouverture’s policies relative to running the country. Like Toussaint, Dessalines believed in tight regulation of foreign trade especially since it was foreign greed that brought Europeans to the shores of Haiti, and wrecked havoc on the country and its people. He favored trade with United States and Britain rather than with France; trade was essential for Haiti’s economy. Dessalines generously utilized light-skinned Blacks in his administration since most of them made up Haiti’s educated class and were capable of helping run the country.
(However, Dessalines may have erred thinking that the U.S. as a newly independent nation like Haiti, would have being closely aligned with its Caribbean “neighbor.” But instead the U.S. and Britain aligned themselves with France since they, like France and other Europe countries, had blood on their hands from the slavery of Blacks. They isolated Haiti and strangled it economically and diplomatically). The reparations that Haiti has been forced to pay to France of roughly $21 billion (2004 dollars) for about two centuries has been the first time in history that the defeated nation demanded reparations from the victor. And it was done in concert with backing of the Britain and Spain where were previous slavemasters, and the U.S. who also had slaves.
Dissatisfaction loomed in the Dessalines’ administration, just as it had occurred internally during the conflict against the French. The named conspirators plotting to overthrow Dessalines were Petion and Christophe. On October 17, 1806, while on the way to a meeting with rebels to stabilize his hold on the young nation Dessalines was assassinated. (Historical records about the exact location have been fuzzy; some records claim Pont Larnage as the location and others claim Rue L’Enterrement. Also there is a monument at the northern entrance of Port au Prince that is said to be the place where Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines was killed.) However, a Black woman named Défilée reportedly took his mutilated body and buried it.
Next week: HENRI CHRISTOPHE, ALEXANDRE PETION and DUTTY BOUKMAN