Jean Jacques Dessalines
In Memory of Dessalines
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Jean Jacques Dessalines
“One of the triumvirate that ran the French out of Haiti”
After the Haitians defeated the French army at the end of the 18th century and proclaimed their independence, the French government used trickery and deception to destabilize the newly formed government. And when Toussaint L’Ouverture (Toussaint) was betrayed and captured by the French, Jean Jacques Dessalines (full pronunciation–Ja Jak Desalean) became the leader of the Haitian Revolution. (Historical data have given his birth at different times and different places, but the most respected source has concluded that Dessalines 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 was/is widely regarded by Haitians as one of the outstanding heroes of the Haitian Revolution in the struggle against slavery and colonialism; and is affectionately called: ‘Papa Desalin’ (Father Dessalines). 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. That experience served him well later on when he fought for his own people against the French.
Born a slave on a plantation, it is believed that Dessalines’ parents were slaves who were brought to Haiti from West Africa. At that time, most slaves brought to the Caribbean were from that region. Haiti’s sugar cane crop was an economic bonanza for the European colonizers and it was the richest French colony in the Western Hemisphere due to its sugar plantations. Dessalines’ surname at birth was Duclos, which had been given to his father by his (father’s) owner, Henry Duclos, on whose plantation he worked as a laborer in the sugar cane fields until he was about 30 years old. (Adopting the masters’ surname was a tradition wherever slavery existed). Eventually a free Blackman named ‘Dessalines’ bought Jean Jacques Duclos who then took the name Jean Jacques Dessalines. There he worked for about three years and became a foreman.
Dessalines had two brothers, Louis and Joseph Duclos, who also took the name ‘Dessalines.’ He also had an aunt, Victoria Montou, whom he affectionately called “Toya”; they remained close until her death in 1805. He was married to Marie-Claire Heureuse FÅ½licitÅ½, with whom he had four daughters and three sons together, including a pair of twins. Dessalines also had six children from other relationships. 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 of the northern plains led by Jean FranÂois Papillon and Georges Biassou. This was the first action of what would eventually become the Haitian Revolution. Dessalines became a lieutenant in Papillon’s army and followed him to Santo Domingo, where 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 Toussaint.
The uprising/rebellion started as a mellow breeze and quickly mushroomed into a hurricane; it 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 Toussaint led primarily against the French and some strains of the British. Combined, Toussaint and Dessalines became a formidable force against the invading French forces. Their forces achieved a series of victories against the French culminating with the Battle of CrÂte-Ë†-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. (It also was the catalyst that facilitated the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S.; Dessalines had also written a letter to President Thomas Jefferson) and for which Dessalines was remembered historically.
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. Nonetheless, Dessalines’ men were able to force their way through the enemy lines and into the Cahos Mountains, with their army still largely intact. The monumental loss to the French signaled their ultimate defeat and the loss of their prized colonial possession.
The path to victory did not always provide smooth sailing; the waters of rebellion were often inundated with turbulent torrents of opposition that came from mulattoes, creoles and other light-skinned Blacks who had been afforded some “White” privileges. They generally opposed Toussaint’s leadership and Dessalines’ military activities, and some of them tried to establish a separate independent region in the southern section of Haiti.
Eventually Dessalines and Toussaint had a parting of the ways, and Dessalines briefly joined General Leclerc. Then Toussaint was captured in 1802 and 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 Henri Christophe, Andre Rigaud and Alexandre PÅ½tion. In addition, it was learned that the French, through Rochambeau, were planning on re-establishing slavery in Saint Domingue (Haiti) as they has recently done on the nearby island of Guadeloupe.
Dessalines had become the leader of the revolution and in November 1803, he defeated Rochambeau in the Battle of VertiÂres and proclaimed the independence of Saint Domingue–as the country was then called–and gave it the new name, Haâ€¢ti, on the 1st January 1804.
Rochambeau and his troops had surrendered and Bonaparte’s colonial army seceded its last remaining territory to Dessalines’ forces. This officially ended the only slave rebellion in world history which successfully resulted in establishing an independent nation.
Prior to his surrender near Cape FranÂois, 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 action 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. His motto was “Koupe tet, boule kay”–“Cut off the head, burn down the house.” It is important to note that the French army was fighting for wages from their government, regional domination, conquest, and chattel property (the colony, the sugar economy, and enslaved Black men, women and children); Dessalines and his army were fighting for their freedom and their nation. 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 out 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. As the ruler of Haiti, he announced the nation’s new constitution which included:
Freedom of Religion (Toussaint had declared Catholicism the official state religion, but apparently Dessalines had understood the vagaries of religion and remembered the inspirational effect of Dutty Boukman on sparking the rebellion);
All citizens of Haiti, regardless of skin color, to be known as “Black”–including the Poles and Germans (This served to eliminate the racial caste system that had developed in Haiti during the French rule. Europeans had inevitably been placed at the top of the hierarchy, followed by various divisional levels of light to brown skin in the middle, and dark skinned “Kongo,” referring to the dark-skinned Blacks–those from West Africa where most of the slaves had arrived from, at the bottom).
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). Though he ordered the killing of the French and their sympathizers who were left after his victory–remembering that Toussaint had defeated them three years earlier–Dessalines did display signs of compassion: he took in his old master, from whom he had acquired the name ‘Dessalines,’ and gave him a job in his house.
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. Some historians have described his methods as caporalisme agraire (agrarian militarism). He transferred his military prowess from the battlefields to the sugar cane fields as Toussaint had done: 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 Toussaint’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).
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 Alexandre PÅ½tion and Henri 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 DÅ½filÅ½e reportedly took his mutilated body and buried it.
Throughout the tortured history of Haiti, historians have distorted significance of the Haitian Revolution and its impact on freedom fighters. Dessalines’ memory has been reviled and generations of suffering Haitians have mistakenly blamed him for their lot. But by the turn of the 20th century, his legacy has been re-evaluated and reassessed and his proper place in history has been restored as one of Haiti’s founding fathers and an icon of Haitian nationalism.
The national anthem of Haiti, La Dessalinienne, is named in his honor, as is the city of Dessalines. And the inscription on his tomb near Palais National reads: “At the first canon shot, giving the alarm, cities disappear and the nation stands up.”
NOTE: SINCE THE JANUARY 12, 2010 EARTHQUAKE, SOME OF THE AFOREMENTIONED LANDMARKS MAY HAVE BEEN DAMAGED OR DESTROYED.