Jean Jacques Dessalines
Jean Jacques Dessalines was born in a sugarcane plantation in the Grande Riviere du Nord from enslaved African parents whose country of birth place are still unknown. The only early family members he had that history has kept, is his aunt whom he affectionately called Mantou and, two brothers: Louis and Joseph Duclos who would later adopt the last name Dessalines, after Haiti's Independence. Jean Jacques Dessalines, just like the rest of children born from two enslaved parents at the time, was also a slave. He worked under the extremely harsh conditions of a white French man named Henry Duclos, until he was sold to a freed slave who treated him much better. About 30 years old, Dessalines escaped and joined the slave revolution that was sparked by Bookman, after the Bois Caiman Ceremony in 1791. He joined François Papillon and Georges Biassou in the mountains who were already training a few escaped slaves. Under their mentorships Dessalines learned the art of fighting; although illiterate, Dessalines was an amazingly quick learner, he would later become a greater soldier than Toussaint L'Ouverture in terms of fighting abilities. Dessalines, under the command of his aforementioned mentors, traveled to Santo Domingo, the western part of Hispaniola, then occupied by Spain, to fight alongside the Spaniards against the French in Saint Domingue, the eastern part of the Island. There, he would meet the incredible Toussaint L'Ouverture. Jean Jacques Dessalines fighting skills propelled him to the rank of Lieutenant and when Toussaint L'Ouverture got promoted as Commander of the Spanish Army, he chose Dessalines as his chief Lieutenant.
Jean Jacques Dessalines was an intrepid soldier, a formidable general, great strategist, master tactician, ruthless leader and unforgiving commander. Dessalines quickly gained great reputation for the many successful engagements he commanded, but he acquired most of his reputation for the "Take no prisoners policy" he came up with. This policy consisted of burning entire plantations to the ground and cutting the head of all the whites. To make sure that all French were killed, he ordered the summary execution of all Europeans, the only exceptions were women, children, priests, teachers and doctors. " Haiti must be cleansed of every French taint" he said. Dessalines was one, if not, the most ferocious leader in Haiti's history, he was cruel to the extreme; he had a sanguine heart and spirit. Nearly all historians have labeled him as a blood thirsty monster who delighted in the sufferings of Europeans. In a bloody battle near Cap-Français, (now Cap Haitien), Rochambeau, a French General, took 500 hundred blacks and executed them all the same day, each with a gunshot in the head; Dessalines hearing of this, captured one thousand white French soldiers, brought them to within the sight of the French and hung them all up. Pamphile de la Croix, in a letter sent to France, said: "Dessalines is one of the most ferocious human beings ever born..." Dessalines made his victims endured the most excruciating tortures and the most horrible deaths. He used to bury his victims alive, impaling them upright on bayonets; his own specialty which came to be known simply as Baionettes; cutting and shooting the more fortunate. While there is absolutely no deny of the ferocity of Dessalines, a ferocity which even Toussaint L'Ouverture didn't like at all. Toussaint once said to Dessalines: " I said to prune the tree, not to uproot it." Toussaint was alway in favor of peaceful settlement of disputes, always doing his best to prevent bloodshed. Toussaint, although ordered the killings sometimes, wanted to keep his hand, reputation and conscious clean. But to understand Dessalines, one must take two things into account:
1- Dessalines was the kind of soldier necessitated in the battlefields at the time; a general willing to see plainly what was needed and not hesitating to respond bluntly.
2- The conditions that surrounded him as a child. If Dessalines became cruel, it was because of the treatments him and the other slaves received from the French masters. It is noted that when Dessalines escaped to join the slaves in the mountains, he was disfigured from lashes, all his body was covered with deep scars left by beatings. Plus the french were as cruel as Dessalines. French masters used to dump cane syrup on slaves, buried them but leaving their head out so they can breath and remain alive, while ants eat them to death; throwing disobedient slaves in boiling cauldrons of cane syrup was common practice among other despicable treatments. One can only imagine what effects these conditions had on the slave Jean Jacques Dessalines.
Dessalines and Toussaint are the most revered Haitian heroes, while Toussaint was a diplomat; military expediency distinguished Dessalines.
After the capture and deportation of Toussaint L'Ouverture by the French General Leclerc on May 5th, 1802; Dessalines assumed the post of Commander in Chief of the Haitian Army. The shift of power was immediately felt by both the French and the Haitian soldiers. He deemed that the war was now a revolution for total independence rather than colonial autonomy with emancipation, like Toussaint wanted. No more diplomacy.
"Liberty or death; to renounce forever to France, and to die rather than to live under its domination."
When Dessalines suspected that some of his generals, out of interest or humanity, may not have carried his orders fully, he took it upon himself to tour the country and pitilessly massacred every French soldier that fell in his way. Dessalines is said to have personally slaughtered anywhere form 5000 to 10.000 French soldiers.
On May 18th, 1803 in the City of Archaie, Dessalines took a french flag: Blue, white and red, tear out the white in symbolization of getting rid of everything white, gave the remaining two pieces to his god daughter Catherine Flon who would sew the first version of the Haitian Flag.
Dessalines commanded a major battle, Crête-à-Pierrot, fought for 20 days. March 4-24, 1802. General Leclerc, besieged the heavily barricaded fort. Surrounded, Dessalines and his troop were trapped inside the Fort, short of food and munitions. Dessalines launched a splendid call to his soldiers and boosted their courage. "Those ready to give up the fight for their freedom may leave, those who want to live free or die should stay and blow up the fortress rather than to give it up to the French." The fort was significant as it was sort of a gateway to the Artibonite River valley, the stronghold of France. Marie Jeanne, the only female soldier present was the first to chose to stay on the side of Dessalines, she took out her sword and encouraged the soldiers to urged they way through the French army, vigilantly waiting outside. Hungry, thirsty, outnumbered, they defeated the French lines and even killed their commander General Charles Dugua. On November 18th, 1803 Jean Jacques Dessalines led the last battle for Haiti's independence, the Battle of Vertieres.
Dessalines defeated the French army numerous times, the only place left was Vertieres, the night prior, the 17th of November 1803, the Haitian army positioned their guns to blast Fort Breda, located on the habitation where Toussaint L'Ouverture grew up. As the French trumpets sounded the alarm, Clerveaux, a Haitian soldier, fired the first shot. Capois La Mort (Capois the Death) mounted his horse, and under the command of Dessalines, led his demibrigade forward despite storms of bullets from the French located at the fort on the left, they kept running up the long steep ravine, a great number of Haitian soldiers died, and a bullet, killed the horse which Capoix La Mort was riding, he immediately got up, draw out his swords and shouted: Forward! Forward! as he continues to ran up the hills, another bullet hit his hat, but he kept on running and shouting: Forward! Forward! Another bullet hit his epaulette and he continued "Forward! Forward!" As Capoix charged forth, the French drum rolls a sudden cease-fire. The battle then stood still. A French officer mounted his horse and rode toward the intrepid Capoix La Mort and shouted:
He saluted the Haitian warriors, returned to his position, then the fight resumed. After what seemed an endless battle, the French Army was defeated. 20.000 Haitian soldiers defeated the 60.000 men French Army sent to Haiti by Napoleon Bonaparte; the largest single military deployment in France's History to date; to re-institute slavery. The Battle of Vertieres was of great significance; It marked the first time in the history of mankind that a slave army led a successful revolution for their freedom. This has never been duplicate by any other country in world's history. Haiti became finally independent, 3 centuries after King Caonabo and Queen Anacaona fought the first battle against outside invasion of their beloved land. On December 5th 1803, exactly on the 311 years anniversary of when the first Europeans set foot on Haiti's soil, on December 5th 1492; the French colonial army surrendered its last remaining territory to Jean Jacques Dessalines. He wasn't done though, more importantly, he prodded that a final act of massacre would send the most dramatic message possible to dissuade France and any other power, that this fledgling nation could never be reclaimed for slavery. The only group of white people who were allowed to stayed freely in the country were the Polish and German mercenaries who always were for the freedom of the slave population of Saint Domingue, and even fought alongside Haitian soldiers during the revolution. They settled in the north west part of the country.
On January 1st, 1804, following the actual massacre of the remaining French planters, from the city of Gonaives, Dessalines officially proclaimed the country's independence, renamed it Haiti, the very first name given to the land by the indigenous Taino/Arawaks. Under Dessalines command, Haiti became the First Black Republic on the face of the earth, the second independent Nation in the Americas; and undoubtedly one of the most remarkable moment in the global history of the human race. On January 1st, 1804, it was in Haiti that the Act of Independence as a genre began its trajectory from a single Nation's document to a global history. Dessalines made sure that the written Document would be called " Acte de L'Independance" Act of Independence rather than following the US, to call it "Declaration de L'Independance", Declaration of Independence. The freedom of the people was not acquired by a Declaration, but by Actions.
Dessalines, in Haiti's Act of Independence, left the future generations dreadful reminders of the crimes and atrocities committed by french colonists, and the extent Haitians had to resort to and put their feet down to renounce to slavery. He demanded that they be the judge of his actions:
"The moment of the crimes was upon us. Impartial reader, you will be the judge of who played the role of executioner and victim."
Dessalines approached the problem of slavery and Liberty, not in tragic and sentimental terms like those of Toussaint L'Ouverture, but with vivid and shocking affirmations and symbolism meant to continuously reintroduce the injustice and trauma of slavery, making the Nation took the oath that slavery would never be again tolerated. Dessalines stroke the 19th century with his astonishing words; no matter who repeated them or for what purpose.
"What a horrible wound we discover in humanity! Oh! Because we had the courage to lift this veil, let us hurry to shred the rest of this disgusting tatters! And let them never again appear on the surface of the globe"
"We swear never to yield them to any power on earth. The appalling veil of prejudice is torn to pieces and will sundered forever. Woe to whoever would dare to piece back together its bloody rags!"
Jean Jacques Dessalines chose Boisrond Tonnere, a mulatto who was a General in the Haitian Army as his secretary and dictated him the words for the Act of Independence. Boisron Tonnere introduced Dessalines in his writing of the Document.
"Haitians, freed of the anathema of prejudice, by a hero's courage, in reading this memoirs, you eyes will measure the abyss from which, Dessalines rescued you! And you slaves of all countries, you will learn from this great man, that every man carries liberty in his heart, and that he holds the key to it in his hands."
The very next day, on January 2nd 1804, Dessalines ask that Boisrond Tonnerre sends letters to the rest some countries, informing them of Haiti's Declaration of Independence. One of such letters were personally sent to the publisher of a major news paper in the United States, in Philadelphia; Samuel Relf, an avid American speaker against slavery, who was known by Boisrrond Tonnere.
" Mr Relf,
The Government confiding in your impartiality, hope that you will please to publish the enclosed Arrete. Although motives of a political nature required that this Arrete should at first be kept secret in order to insure its execution. It is at present the desire of the government to give it all possible publicity. -As evil disposed persons (Of whom unfortunately there are too many) will not fail to charge us with causing an indiscriminate destruction of the whites, whether good or bad, who have remained in the Island, it is right that the world should be undeceived by exposing the true motives which induced the government to a measure which has never affected and never will affect anyone but the guilty."
In an another Decree Jean Jacques Dessalines offered to pay for the repatriation of black and mixed races refugees from the Haitian revolution, and other Caribbean colonies, migrated to the states in the United States that didn't have slavery. As Haiti was the first and, the only Independent Black Republic in the world at the time, Dessalines was particularly against the idea of black people living in slavery in other countries.
" This Decree shall be printed, published, posted up; and a copy of the thereof shall immediately be forwarded to the Congress of the United States" (...) There shall be allowed to the captains of American vessels, the sum of forty dollars for each black individual they may restore to this country."
After the Declaration of Independence, Dessalines named himself Governor General for life of Haiti. He served in that role until September 22nd 1804, when he proclaimed himself Emperor of Haiti. He was crowned Emperor Jacques I in a coronation ceremony on October 6th in the city of Cap-Haitien, he later released the imperial constitution naming Jean Jacques Dessalines, Emperor for life with the right to choose his successor. The same constitution also specifies:
"Haitians shall henceforth be know only by the generic appellation of blacks"
Getting rid of social classification by skin color.
The destruction of properties, businesses and plantations left the new Republic Haiti economically devastated, plus the defeat of the French Army, the mightiest at the time by slave revolutionaries, making Haiti the first and only independent black nation at the time, didn't sit well with the rest of the Western World whose economy still depended on the labor of African slaves. The United States of America only 30 years older, and Haiti were the only two independent countries in the Americas, the remaining were colonies of England, France, Portugal and Spain. None wanted to do business with Haiti. US President Thomas Jefferson refused to recognize Haiti's Independence and joined force with France and set forth policies to isolate the new Republic founded by former slaves.
"Our policy with regard to Haiti is plain... we never can acknowledge her independence... The peace and safety of a large portion of the union forbids us to ever discuss it"
" Our policy towards Haiti... has been fixed...We trade with her, but no diplomatic relations have been established between us... we receive no mulatto consuls, or black ambassadors from her. And why? because the peace of eleven states will not permit the fruits of a successful negro insurrection to be exhibited among them. It will not permit black ambassadors and consuls to... give their fellow blacks in the United States proof in hand of the honors that await them for a like successful effort on their part. It will not permit the facto to be seen, and told, that for the murder of their masters and mistresses, they are to find friends among the white people of the United States"
They imposed a crippling economic embargo which prevented Haiti to sell its coffee and sugar. Keep in mind that before independence, Haiti was responsible for the supply of 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in the entire world, sugar and coffee were the equivalent of oil today. Dessalines tried very hard to keep the sugar industry and the plantations running; without slavery of course, but he enforced a harsh regimen of plantation labor. He demanded that all blacks work either as soldiers to protect the nation from outside invasions or work as laborers for the government to generate crops and income in order to keep the country going. He was so strict on enforcing this, that the new freed population felt that they were again being enslaved. Dessalines despotism and draconian labor policies forced disaffected citizens to plot against him. Even members of his own administration were involved in the conspiracy to overthrow him. Including Alexandre Petion and Henry Christophe. On October 17th 1806, on his way to Port-au-Prince, at the Pont-Rouge Dessalines got ambushed by his own soldiers, they opened fire and killed the iron fisted Emperor. His body was mutilated from the numerous shots. Charlotin Marcadieu who was traveling along, tried to save the Emperor's life, but him also was killed. Both bodies were left on the streets. A madwoman named Defilée who was passing by, recognized the Emperor's body, gathered, buried and guarded Dessalines remains in a final act of restorative devotion.
Jean Jacques Dessalines is the Man, the African, the slave, the Ruler, the General and ultimately the Emperor who's memories will never be erased in the soul of Haitians, in the written in blood history of Haiti and the history of black people in this world. He might be one of the most misunderstood leaders in History , but his courage, achievements and legacies are only that of a true Hero. One who resulted to any means necessary to say no to injustice and yes to freedom.
May the befallen Hero forever rests in peace.
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