Jean-Jacques Dessalines was a leader of the Haitian slave indigenous army and the bravest character of his kind during the war of Haiti's independence, stated Réginal Souffrant a Haitian researcher. He was born in 1758 near Grande-Rivière-du-Nord, a small village located on the Northen part of Haiti not far from Cap-Haitien.
He lived on the plantation of "Vye kay" at a white colonist house, Henri Duclos, owner of a coffee-plantation, until he was bought very young by a free black man named Dessalines, who will give him his name and teach him to be a carpenter.
Dessalines lived a very difficult life. He was a rebellious slave and his body was covered with scars left by iron rods. He often rose against the inequality that rages in Saint-Domingue and appeared to be a true military engineer.
In 1791, after joining the insurgent slaves against the French authority of Saint Domingue, with Boukman and Biassou, he was promoted at the rank of senior officer among the soldiers bribed by Spain. But in 1794, after the abolition of slavery, he joined the French and distinguished himself in the war against the British. General under the command of Toussaint Louverture he was recognized by his energy and his courage, but also by a relentless cruelty. During the campaign against the general André Rigaud (1799-1800), who commanded an insurrection of men of color, he was so devoted and ferocious that he caught the attention of Toussaint Louverture.
In 1802, when the French commanded by General Leclerc arrived, Dessalines occupied in the colony the departments of the South and the West. On February 26, 1802, while the French, ruling Port-au-Prince, were heading to the city of Saint-Marc under the commands of general Boudet, Dessalines, who was controlling it ordered to set the city in fire and burned to the ground his own house of which the furnitures and the construction costed him a lot of money. Then, he went to Mirebalais, and after the defeat of “La Crête-à-Pierrot”
surrended himself to general Leclerc. Under the French, he kept his rank and his position. He sided then with Leclerc against Toussaint Louverture and chased the insurgents with the same ferocity that he had shown a few months before towards the Whites. He had ordered the massacre of approximately 1.200 colonists. In September 1802, he surrended to Leclerc, another black general, Charles Belair who had become a dissident. This apparent volte-face of Dessalines, according to historians, might be due to the fact that he was convinced of resuming sooner or later the fight against the French in a total war for independence, of which he intended to gain full control. That supposed to be primarily the elimination of his potential rivals including the black chiefs who, like Toussaint Louverture, could favour a compromise with the Whites. He would serve his enemies while waiting for the right occasion to turn against them. But, after Napoleon announced that he would re-establish slavery, he joined back the insurgents in 1802.
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Between May 15 to May 18, 1803, at the congress of Arcahaie, Dessalines took advantage to be the unit of commander. On November 19, commanding the indigenous army, he forced Rochambeau to surrender "Le Cap" today's Cap-Haitien.
Rochambeau had any other choice then to quickly order the evacuation of the island.
During the same year, after the departure of the French, Dessalines soon began the massacre of the white population except for the priests, doctors, technicians and some of the blacks. He gave back to Saint-Domingue its Indian name Haiti (Ayiti) and, in 1804, with the support of England, he proclaimed the independence of the new Republic.
On January 1, 1804, early in the morning, an official ceremony took place on the "Place d'Armes," in front of today's Cathedral of Cap-Haitien.
Dessalines recalled in a vehement speech in Creole, all the touments that the indigenous people had endured under the French domination. At the end, he exclaimed enthusiastically: “Let us swear to fight up to our last sigh for the Independence of our Country.”
As a result, a new nation was born, Haiti,
the first independent black republic in the world.
The day of the proclamation of independence, Dessalines was promoted governor general for life of Haiti and, on January 25, was asked to take the imperial title. Having accepted he was crowned in Port-au-Prince on October 8, 1806 under the name of “Jacques I, Emperor of Haiti”.
The First Haitian Empire (1804-1806) was a fierce dictatorship founded upon the army, which was the only stable force of the new State. The constitution of May 20, 1805 conferred the full powers to the Emperor, who had the right to choose his successor, but whose crown was not hereditary. The authoritarianism and the economic policy of Dessalines had provoked his fall. With his authoritarianism, he lost the support of the chiefs of the army which he worried a lot; with his economic policy, he disappointed the Blacks and seriously irritated the Mulattos. The unique richness of Haiti laid in the tropical agriculture whose products were used to pay the trades coming from the United States and the English Antilles, in particular the weaponry. The black farmers were subjected to a strict discipline and a harsh regimen of plantation labour described as agrarian militarism. He requested that all blacks either work as soldiers of his army or laborers in the plantations or fields. As his system began to emerge, many blacks fled into the hills to get away from it.
Furthermore, Dessalines needed to centralize most of the lands in order to make them more profitable. However, the great property, private or public, was not in favor of all the Blacks who wanted a land reform, in accordance with the Emperor's promises. The Mulattos who had considerably the land power and commercial interests, felt directly threatened by a tight regulation, which imposed the verification of the deeds, and the confiscation of many estates illegally occupied under the colonial administration, while other measures limited foreign trade which was essential for Haiti's sugar- and coffee-based export economy.
In 1805, Dessalines failed to expel the remainder of the French army from the ancient Spanish colony. In 1806, the Mulattos revolted in the South: they accused Dessalines of wanting to persecute them over and over. On October 14, 1806, an insurrection took place in the plain of "Les Cayes." Dessalines will die on October 17, 1806 in a ambush which was plotted by the insurgents in "Pont-Rouge", at the entrance of Port-au-Prince.
It was in "Marchand," on October 16, 1806, that Dessalines knew about the revolt and wasn't aware that Christophe had been appointed chief of the insurrection. Dessalines wrote him and told him to get ready to come and join him. To General Pétion who was also in the plot, he ordered him to go to "Les Cayes" with the troops of the second division of the West.
The Generals Guerin, Vaval and Yayou were together leading some soldiers who were disorderly walking, and by their promises get them to the cause of the insurrectionists. They also convinced colonel Thomas and the commander in chief Gédéon. But, Thomas who was reluctant to abandon Dessalines was replaced. Gédéon himself frankly agreed to be part of the insurrection and was immediately placed on "Place Vallière at the head of the third squad, which Pétion trusted by not disarming them. Gédéon informed Guérin that the emperor had requested to meet him in "Pont-Rouge" and wanted to see him assigned to that position. Guérin made Gédéon quickly changed himself and switched his uniform with an executive officer of the 21st squad from Léogane, who looked like him. This officer was placed in "Pont Rouge" in order to better attract the emperor to the trap.
On October 17, 1806, early in the morning, Dessalines left Arcahaie followed by its staff, the 4th squad, which had been sent to Montrouis to dress up. The emperor, ensuring that there was nothing extraordinary in town, continued his way without any suspicion. At nine o'clock, only steps away from Pont-Rouge, Dessalines escorted with chief general Boisrond Tonnerre, was confident enough to see in the middle of Pont-Rouge what he took for Gédéon and other soldiers. At the same time, he heard an order to prepare arms and the cries: “Halt, emperor! Halt, emperor!”
Dessalines just figured out he was trapped, and with the impetuosity he always had, he sprung with his horse in the middle of the bayonets shouting to the soldiers if they didn't recognize him. Sergeant Duverger from the 15th squad ordered to soldier Garat to shoot. The emperor who was missed at first hurled his horse at full speed. A second shot was fired and struck Dessalines this time. The emperor asked to one of his colonel Charlotin Marcadieu for help. Marcadieu came to his rescue but was brutally hit in the head by a sword. Both Charlotin Marcadieu along with Jean-Jacques Dessalines were killed and the officers who were at the tragic scene fled, except for one of the emperor's adviser who finally exclaimed: “The tyrant is killed! Long live freedom! Long live equality! ”
Dessalines was stripped and was left only with his underwear. His fingers were cut, so they could tear off his rings. His mutilated corpse was removed by some soldiers who have been assigned to transport him downtown. The supreme chief's cadaver was then thrown on the place of the Government. While the rabble profaned the disfigured remainders of Dessalines, one time their idol, a poor madwoman named Défilée who was passing by, saw the tortured corpse and suddenly ran to search for a coffee bag. She put the rest of Dessalines covered with blood and soiled mud in the bag, and placed him on a tomb inside the town's cemetery. Pétion sent two of his corporals who went to bury clandestinely Dessalines without any official religious ceremony.
Thus perished the founder of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, known as Jacques I. A tomb was carefully erected on the pit of Dessalines by Mrs. Inginac with this brief inscription: "Here lies Dessalines, deceased at age 48."
The national anthem of Haiti, La Dessalinienne
, is in his honor.
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