Dessalines, Jean Jacques (1758–1806)

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Dessalines, Jean Jacques (1758–1806)

Jean Jacques Dessalines (b. 1758; d. 17 October 1806), emperor of Haiti (1804–1806). In the early hours of an October morning in 1806, a fierce-looking black commander was trying to force his mount through a crowd of mutinous but stunned soldiers. Finally a shot rang out, the commander's horse rolled over, breaking and pinning the rider's leg, and with cries of anguish and curses rolling from the commander's lips, the stunned soldiers knew that their hated victim was mortal after all. They shot him to pieces and dragged his mutilated body from Pont Rouge to Port-au-Prince for public display. There but one person mourned his death—she was Défilée, an insane black woman. The object of her tears and flowers was the emperor, Jean Jacques Dessalines. No man in Haitian history has been more hated by his contemporaries or loved and respected by future generations of his countrymen than Dessalines.

Born on the Cormiers Plantation in northern Saint-Domingue, young Jean Jacques Duclos (later Dessalines) experienced many of slavery's horrors. Master Duclos sold both his parents and a favorite aunt to neighboring plantation masters, a clear violation of the Code Noir (1685), which mandated that slave families be kept intact. In the late 1780s a free black master named Dessalines acquired the now mature Jean Jacques Duclos. His new master often whipped him, leaving him only pain and a new last name. Small wonder that Dessalines despised whites, mulattoes, and authority by the time of the Haitian Revolution.

When the revolution began, Dessalines may have been a maroon (slave fugitive), but runaway or not, he soon joined the black rebels. When Dessalines joined Toussaint Louverture is unclear, but he became indispensable to the "Black Spartacus" once he did. With a viciousness rare in Toussaint's generals, he figured heavily in crushing the rebellion of Theodore Hedouville at Le Cap (1798), in defeating and punishing the mulattoes of South Province, led by André Rigaud, during the War of the Knives (1799), in suppressing the rebellion of General Moyse (1801), and in opposing the expedition of French General Charles Leclerc (1802–1804). Clearly Dessalines was a gifted field commander, who earned the title of "Tiger."

But Dessalines's brutal manner and greed often tainted these achievements. At one time Dessalines had thirty plantations and an income so large that he refused to join the Moyse rebellion on the grounds that plantation division, one of its demands, threatened his economic interests. When Toussaint sent him to South Province as an occupation governor following the War of the Knives, the Tiger murdered hundreds of mulattoes. He also slaughtered practically the entire white population of Haiti in 1804. And he enforced fermage (system of forced labor and government management on plantations), introduced by Toussaint, with a severity seldom seen in any of the old colonial masters.

C. L. R. James is among those historians who emphasize that Dessalines acted largely on his own. But others, among them Hubert Cole, believe that Dessalines usually acted with Toussaint's knowledge and approval, the War of the Knives providing their best argument. The brutal Dessalines served as a sort of alter ego for the gentle Toussaint. While Toussaint might have found Dessalines useful on the battlefield, he absolutely believed him unfit to rule the emerging black state. Toussaint was right.

Dessalines carried Haiti to independence on 1 January 1804 and himself to the emperorship at his coronation on 8 October 1804. That France might once again attack Haiti was his abiding fear and, as Hubert Cole indicated, may have triggered his mass slaughter of all whites in mid 1804. But his furious behavior extended to the mulattoes also. He once quipped that he murdered any mulatto who looked white during the massacres of 1804. Later he mellowed with regard to the mulattoes and remarked that blacks and mulattoes should intermarry and obliterate race lines. But rationality soon gave way to another volcanic eruption of rage in Dessalines. When the mulatto Alexandre Pétion refused to marry his daughter, Dessalines once again turned on them, and by the end of 1806 had planned their destruction. The Haitian national historian Thomas Madiou has treated Dessalines's social policies as those of a liberal. But other historians outside Haiti disagree. James Leyburn believes Dessalines brought social disaster on Haiti and fixed the caste system on the new state.

A reckless economic policy finally brought Dessalines down. He challenged mulatto land titles, put most of Haiti's able-bodied men under arms, enforced a harsh labor system, and neglected education. On 17 October 1806 most of Haiti rejoiced over his assassination.

See alsoLouverture, Toussaint .


W. W. Harvey, Sketches of Haiti (1827).

Thomas Madiou, Histoire d'Haiti, 4 vols. (1847–1904).

C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938).

James Leyburn, The Haitian People (1944).

Hubert Cole, Christophe: King of Haiti (1967).

Thomas O. Ott, The Haitian Revolution, 1789–1804 (1973).

David Nicholls, From Duvalier to Dessalines: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979).

Additional Bibliography

Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

                                         Thomas O. Ott