Dessalines, Jean-Jacques

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Dessalines, Jean-Jacques

c. 1758
October 17, 1806

Jean-Jacques Dessalines's origins are somewhat unclear. He was most likely born a slave in Grande-Riviere-du-Nord, Haiti, but there is also speculation that he was born in West Africa around 1758. In either case, he lived out the early part of his life as a slave to a free black, serving as a coachman. He escaped slavery in 1791 and joined the Haitian Revolution (17911804). Through his aptitude for military science and leadership he quickly earned the confidence of Toussaint L'Ouverture, commander of the revolutionary forces, and became his second in command.

During the revolution, Dessalines proved himself to be a brilliant general. In 1802 he and his soldiers captured the fort at Crete-a-Pierrot, where they fended off twelve thousand French troops before escaping through enemy lines. Yet only months later Dessalines followed Henri Christophe, another of L'Ouverture's principle officers, and deserted to the French side. Shortly after the defections, L'Ouverture was captured and shipped to the French Alps, where he died in prison. The Haitian people continued to fight against the French, and Dessalines soon came back to their side. After returning to fight against the French, he ruthlessly squashed any opposition to his leadership. This earned him a reputation for brutality and eventually led to his ascendance to control of the Haitian army. He assumed command of the revolutionary army on July 5, 1803, and led the final charge to independence. On November 18, 1803, the revolutionaries scored a decisive victory over General Rochambeau's army at the Battle of Vertieres, forcing Napoleon to abandon his claimsnot only to Haiti, but also to Louisiana and other French territories in the Americas. Haitian independence was achieved on January 1, 1804.

After independence, Dessalines attempted to consolidate his power over the war-ravaged state. Ironically this resulted in his sometimes emulating Napoleon. On September 22, 1804, Dessalines had himself crowned Emperor Jacques I. Among his first acts was changing the name of Haiti from its colonial moniker of Saint Domingue to its modern Arawak-derived name. A product of the Atlantic slave system, Dessalines maintained a bitter hatred of whites. During the revolution, Dessalines equated independence with the elimination of whiteness from Haiti, and he even established the style of the modern Haitian flag by ripping the white section out of the French tri-color flag. After the revolution, Dessalines ordered the extermination of all remaining whites, though some clergymen, as well as the Poles and Germans who had defected from the French army, were spared. Though they were phenotypically white, these soldiers were considered black in the Haitian racial schema, which was and is intimately connected to class.

On the economic front, Dessalines oversaw the emergence of the peasantry that would drive subsequent Haitian history. Postrevolutionary Haitians desired a tangible realization of their freedom, and land provided the basis for a sustainable future. Dessalines made cultivation the basis for land ownership thereby acquiescing to the desires of the people. This was a serious blow to the many mulattoes who had benefited from the French defeat by purchasing or confiscating large French plantations as the war wore on. In the aftermath of the war, Dessalines instituted a policy nationalizing all lands that had formerly been held by the French, and he issued a decree in February 1804 that nullified all gifts and sales of land made by the French during the war. This was quickly followed by the confiscation of more than five hundred properties in thewestern part of the country. The threat of enforcing this law in the mulatto-controlled South led to the uprisings that eventually resulted in the assassination of Dessalines. On October 17, 1806, he was ambushed in Port-au-Prince and killed by a group of mulatto officers. His body was mutilated. The period following his assassination was one of civil war between northern Haiti, under the black leader Henri Christophe, and southern Haiti, under the mulatto Alexandre Pétion.

The legacy of Dessalines, the "father of Haiti," is extensive. The anniversary of his death is commemorated each year as a national holiday. While the commitment of Dessalines to the peasantry ultimately resulted in his death, it earned him the continued reverence of the Haitian people. His invocation of the link between race and class set the tone for future black nationalism in Haiti.

See also Christophe, Henri; Haitian Revolution; Tous-saint-Louverture


Dupuy, Alex. Haiti in the World Economy: Class, Race, and Underdevelopment Since 1700. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1989.

Fick, Carolyn. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

LaCerte, Robert. "The Evolution of Land and Labor in the Haitian Revolution, 17911820." In Caribbean Freedom, edited by H. Beckles and V. Shephard, pp. 4247. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 1993.

Nicholls, David. From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti. Rev. ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

sean bloch (2005)