Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758 - 1806) THE RISING SON

Publié le par hort


Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758 - 1806)

Born at the Cormiers Plantation north of Haiti in 1758, Dessalines was a slave on the plantation of Duclos who ran away to freedom at the age of 33. He was the principal lieutenant of Toussaint Louverture and became the General-in-Chief of the Revolution of St-Domingue after the deportation of Toussaint Louverture. He was a gifted soldier and distinguished himself during several combats, especially at the Battle of Crete-à-Pierrot. There he launched a splendid call to his soldiers and boosted their courage by leading them to blow up the fortress rather than give it up to the French. He led the indigenous army into victory over the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Vertières on November 18, 1803. 
On January 1, 1804, he proclaimed the independence of the colony, which he renamed Haiti. The same day he was acclaimed Governor-General-for-Life of Haiti, and on September 2, 1804 he was crowned Emperor under the name of Jacques I.Dessalines was assassinated in a revolt on October 17, 1806 at Pont-Rouge. He is remembered as the Father of the Haitian Nation and the Founder of the Independence of Haiti.




Rochambeau, with the remnant of his defeated army had scarcely retired from St. Domingo before the news of the death of Toussaint reached the Island. The announcement of this, together with the fact that their great general had died by starvation, assured the natives of the essential goodness of their cause, and the genuine vigor of their strength. They had measured swords with the whites, and were conscious of their own superiority. Slavery in St. Domingo was dead and dead forever. The common enemy was gone, and the victory had been gained by the union of the blacks and mulattoes, and these put forth a Declaration of Rights, in which they said: "The independence of St. Domingo is proclaimed. Restored to our primitive dignity, we have secured our rights; we swear never to cede them to any power in the world. The frightful veil of prejudice is torn in pieces; let it remain so forever Woe to him who may wish to collect the bloodstained tatters. We have sworn to show no mercy to those who may dare to speak to us of slavery." This document was signed by Dessalines, Christophe, and Clervaux, the three chiefs who had conducted the war after the capture of Toussaint.

The first of these were black, and represented that class of his race who held sentiments of the most extreme hatred to the whites. The second was also black, but of a feeling more inclined to moderation. The third represented the mulattoes, although he had none of the prejudice against the blacks, so prevalent in those days. Clervaux was a brave man, and had fought  under Toussaint before the landing of LeClerc and Rochanibeau.

By the daring manifested on the field of battle, his fierce and sanguinary look, his thirst for blood, Dessalines become the leader of the blacks in the war for liberty; and now that victory was perched upon their banners, and the civil government of the Island was to fall into their hands, he set his associates aside, and took the State into his own charge. Jean Jacques Dessalines was appointed governor-general for life. He was not only a life officer, but he had the power to establish laws, to declare war, to make peace, and even to appoint his successor.

Having by a show of mildness gained the advantage which he sought, - the acquisition of power, - Dessalines, a few weeks after his appointment as governor for life, threw aside the mask, and raised the cry of "Hayti for the Haytians," thinking by proscribing foreigners, he should most effectually consolidate his own authority.

From that moment the career of this ferocious man was stained with innocent blood, and with crimes that find no parallel, unless in the dark deeds of Rochambeau, whom he seemed anxious to imitate. The blacks, maddened by the recollection of slavery, and crimes perpetrated under its influence; maddened by the oft-repeated stories of murders committed by the French, and the presence of many of their old masters still on the Island, and whose bloody deeds Dessalines continually kept before them in his proclamation, were easily led into the worst of crimes by this man.

On the 8th of October, 1804, Dessalines was proclaimed Emperor of Hayti, with the title of Jean Jacques the First. A census taken in 1805 showed the population of that part of the Island ruled by Dessalines, to be only four hundred thousand.

The title of majesty was conferred on the new Emperor, as well as on his august consort, the empress; their persons were declared inviolable and the crown  elective; but the Emperor had the right to nominate his successor among a chosen number of candidates. The sons of the sovereign were to pass through all the ranks of the army.

Every emperor who should attach to himself a privileged body, under the name of guard of honor, or any other designation, was, by the fact, to be regarded as at war with the nation, and should be driven from the throne, which then was to be occupied by one of the councilors of state, chosen by the majority of the members of that body.

The emperor had the right to make, and approve and publish the laws; to make peace and war; to conclude treaties; to distribute the armed forces at his pleasure; he also possessed the exclusive prerogative of pardon. The generals of brigade and of division were to form part of the council of state. Besides a secretary of state, there was to be a minister of finances, and a minister of war. All persons were encouraged to settle their differences by arbitration.

[Corbett comments: This whole section is a summary of things which are in the constitution which Dessalines proclaimed in 1805. This entire constitution, in an English translation, may be found by clicking here.]

No dominant religion was admitted; the liberty of worship was proclaimed; the State was not to take on itself the support of any religious institution. Marriage was declared a purely civil act, and in some cases divorce was permitted. State offences were to be tried by a council to be named by the Emperor. All property belonging to white Frenchmen was confiscated to the State. The houses of the citizens were pronounced inviolable.

The Constitution was placed under the safeguard of the magistrates, of fathers, of mothers, of citizens, of soldiers, and recommended to their descendants, to all the friends of liberty, to the philanthropists of all countries, as a striking token of the goodness of God, who, in the order of his immortal decrees, had given the Haytians power to break their bonds, and make themselves a free, civilized, and independent people. This Constitution, which, considering its origin, contains so much that is excellent, and which even the long civilized States, of Europe might advantageously study, was accepted by the emperor, and ordered to be forthwith carried into execution.

The condition of the farm-laborer was the same as under the system of Toussaint L'Ouverture; he labored for wages which were fixed at one-fourth of the produce, and that produce was abundant. The whip and all corporal punishments were abolished.  Idleness was regarded as a crime, but was punished only by imprisonment. Two-thirds of the labor extracted under slavery was the amount required under the new system. Thus the laborers gained a diminution of one-third of their toil, while their wants were amply supplied. The mulattoes, or quaterons, children of whites and mulattoes, who were very numerous, if they could show any relationship, whether legitimate or not, with the old white proprietors, were allowed to inherit their property.

Education was not neglected in the midst of these outward and material arrangements. In nearly all the districts, schools were established; and the people, seeing what advantage was to be derived from learning, entered them, and plied themselves vigorously to gain in freedom what they had lost in slavery.

A praiseworthy effort was made by the framers of the constitution, under which Dessalines was inaugurated emperor, to extinguish all distinctions of color among the colored people themselves.

They decreed that the people should be denominated blacks; but such distinctions are far stronger than words on paper. Unfortunately, the distinctions in question, which was deeply rooted, and rested on prejudices and antipathies which will never be erased from human nature, had been aggravated by long and sanguinary contests between the blacks and mulattoes.

Aware of that individual superiority which springs from a share in the influences of civilization, the mulattoes of Hayti despised the uneducated black laborers by whom they were surrounded, and felt that by submitting to their sway, they put themselves under the domination of a majority whose sole authority lay exclusively in their numbers. The mulattoes really believed that their natural position was to fill the places in the government once hold by the whites. They would no doubt have forgotten their party interests, and labored for the diffusion through the great body of the people of the higher influence of civilization, if they could have secured those positions.

The mutual hatred between the mulattoes and the blacks was so deeply rooted, that neither party could see anything good in the other; and therefore, whatever was put forth by one party, no matter how meritorious in itself, was regarded with suspicion by the other.

The regular army of Dessalines was composed of fifteen thousand men, in which there was included a corps of fifteen hundred cavalry. They were a motley assemblage of ragged blacks, kept in the ranks, and performing their limited routine of duty through the awe inspired among, them by the rigid severity of the imperial discipline. The uniform of the troops had not been changed when the Island was erected into an independent power, and the red and blue of the French army still continued to distinguish the soldiers of the Haytian army, even when the French were execrated as a race of monsters, with whom the blacks of St. Domingo should have nothing in common. Together with the regular army of the empire, there existed a numerous corps of national guard, composed of all who were capable of bearing arms; though the services of these were not required but in some dangerous emergency of the State. The national guard and regular army were called into the field four times every year; and during these seasons of military movement, the government of Dessalines was over a nation of soldiers in arms, as they remained in their encampment for some days, to be instructed in military knowledge, and to be reviewed by the great officers of the empire.

Dessalines now put forth a proclamation filled with accusations against the white French still on the Island.

This ferocious manifesto was intended as a preliminary measure in the train of horrible events to follow. In the month of February, 1805, orders were issued for the pursuit and arrest of all those Frenchmen who had been accused of being accomplices in the executions ordered by Rochambeau.

Dessalines pretended that more than sixty thousand of his compatriots had been drowned, suffocated, hung, or shot in these massacres. "We adopt this measure," said he, "to teach the nations of the world that, not-withstanding the protection which we grant to those who are loyal towards us, nothing shall prevent us from punishing the murderers who have taken pleasure in bathing their hands in the blood of the sons of Hayti.

These instigations were not long in producing their appropriate consequences among a population for so many years trained to cruelty, and that hated the French in their absence in the same degree that they feared them when present. On the 28th of April it was ordered by proclamation that all the French residents in the Island should be put to death; and this inhuman command of Dessalines was eagerly obeyed by his followers, particularly by the mulattoes, who had to manifest a flaming zeal for their new sovereign, in order to save themselves from falling victims to his sanguinary vengeance. Acting under the dread surveillance of Dessalines, all the black chiefs were forced to show themselves equally cruel; and if any French were saved from death, it was due to the mercy of the inferior blacks, who dared not to avoid their generosity. Dessalines made a progress through all the towns where there were any French citizens remaining, and while his soldiers were murdering the unfortunate victims of his ferocity, the monster gloated with secret complacency over the scene of carnage, like some malignant fiend glorying in the pangs of misery suffered by those who had fallen a sacrifice to his wickedness.

The massacre was executed with an attention to order, which proves how minutely it had been prepared. All proper precautions were taken, that no other whites than the French should be included in the proscription. In the town of Cape Francois, where the massacre took place, on the night of the 20th of April, the precaution was first taken of sending detachments of soldiers to the houses of the American and English merchants, with strict orders to permit no person, not even the black generals, to enter them, without the permission of the master of the house, who had been previously informed of all that was about to happen. This command was obeyed so punctually, that one of these privileged individuals had the good fortune to preserve the lives of a number of Frenchmen whom lie had concealed in his house, and who remained in their asylum until the guilty tragedy was over.

The priests, surgeons, and some necessary were preserved from destruction, consisting in all, of one-tenth of the French residents. All the rest were massacred without regard to age or sex. The personal security enjoyed by the foreign whites was no safeguard to the horror inspired in there by the scenes of misery which were being enacted without. At every moment of the night, the noise was heard of axes, which were employed to burst open the doors of the neighboring houses; of piercing cries, followed by a death-like silence, soon, however, to be changed to a renewal of the same sounds of grief and terror, as the soldiers proceeded from house to house.

When this night of horror and massacre was over, the treacherous cruelty of Dessalines was not yet appeased. An imperial proclamation was issued in the morning, alleging that the blacks were sufficiently avenged upon the French, and inviting all who had escaped the assassination of the previous night to make their appearance upon the Place d'Armes of the town, in order to receive certificates of protection; and it was declared to them that in doing this they might count upon perfect safety to themselves.

Many hundreds of the French had been forewarned of the massacre, and by timely concealment had succeeded in preserving their lives. Completely circumvented by the fiendish cunning of Dessalines, this little remnant of survivors came out of their places of concealment, and formed themselves in a body upon the Place d'Armes. But the moment when they were anxiously expecting their promised certificates of safety, the order was given for their execution. The stream of water which flowed through the town of Cape Francois was fairly tinged with their blood.

Many of the great chiefs in the black army were struck with horror and disgust at this fiendish cruelty of their emperor. Christophe was shocked at the atrocity of the measure, though he dared not display any open opposition to the will of the monarch. Dessalines had no troublesome sensibilities of soul to harass his repose for a transaction almost without a parallel in history. He sought not to share the infamy of the action with the subordinate chiefs of his army, but without a pang of remorse he claimed to himself the whole horor of the measure.

In another proclamation, given to the world within a few days after the massacre, he boasts of having shown more than ordinary firmness, and affects to put his system of policy in opposition to the lenity of Toussaint, whom he accuses, if not of want of patriotism, at least of want of firmness in his public conduct. Dessalines was prompted to the share he took in this transaction by an inborn ferociousness of character; but a spirit of personal vengeance
doubtless had its effect upon the subordinate agents in the massacre. They hated the French for the cruelties of Rochambeau.

Although the complete evacuation of the Island by the forces of the French, and the ceaseless employment of the armies of Napoleon in the wars of Europe, had left the blacks of St. Domingo in the full possession of that Island, Dessalines lived in continual dread that the first moment of leisure would be seized by the conqueror of Europe to attempt the subjugation of his new empire. The black chief even alleged in excuse for the massacre which he had just accomplished, that the French residents in the Island had been engaged in machinations against the dominion of the blacks, and that several French frigates then lying at St. Jago de Cuba had committed hostilities upon the coast, and seemed threatening a descent upon this land.

Influenced by this perpetual solicitude, Dessalines now turned his attention to measures of defense, in case the French should again undertake the reduction of the country. It was ordered that at the first appearance of a foreign army ready to land upon the shores of the Island, all the towns upon the coast should be burnt to the ground, and the whole population be driven to the fastnesses of the interior.

He also built fortifications in the mountains is places of refuge in the event of foreign invasion. Always violent and sanguinary, when there remained no whites upon whom to employ his ferocity, his cruelty was lavished upon his own subjects. For the slightest causes, both blacks and mulattoes were put to death without mercy and without the forms of trial. The sight of blood awakened within him his desire of slaughter, and his government became at length a fearful despotism, against the devouring vengeance of which none, not even those of his own household, was safe. The generals Clervaux, Greffard, and Gabart died suddenly and mysteriously; and the aggressions of Dessalines, directed particularly against the mulattoes soon awakened the Vengeance of that jealous class, who were already displeased at their insignificance in the State, and at the exaltation of the black dynasty which seemed about to become permanent in the country. A secret conspiracy was accordingly planned against the black monarch, and when, on the 17th of 0ctober, 1806 he commenced a journey from St. Marks to Port-au-Prince, the occasion was improved to destroy him. A party of mulattoes lying in ambuscade at a place called Pont Rouge, made an attack upon him, and he was killed at the first fire.

Thus closed the career of Dessalines, a man who had commenced life as a slave, and ended is an emperor.


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