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Jean Jacques Dessalines - From Slave to Emperor of Haiti

Updated on December 26, 2018
Jean Jacques Dessalines
Jean Jacques Dessalines

The rebellion of the slave population on the island of Saint Domingue caused men to take a stand and fight for what they believed in. Through the Haitian Revolution there were those who left marks upon the island that would be remembered for years to come for these men helped to shape and mold the country now known as Haiti.

Jean Jacques Dessalines was one of these men. He was born a slave in 1758, and approximately thirty years later, he was among those who rose up in the rebellion and fought for his freedom. He rose in ranks to the position of lieutenant along with Henry Christophe under Toussaint L'Ouverture. From there the ex-slave who was illiterate would rise to the highest position on Haiti.

The  Jean Jacques Dessalines  Death and Legacy statue.
The Jean Jacques Dessalines Death and Legacy statue. | Source

When Toussaint L'Ouverture was tricked by the French and left to die alone in prison in the French Alps, Dessalines and Henry Christophe took charge of the army and continued the fight for freedom. Whereas before they were willing to negotiate, they quickly realized that they needed to achieve independence through was and war alone. Negotiations with France and its Emperor would only lead to trickery. Dessalines knew that in order to have complete freedom he had to fight mercilessly. Perhaps it was because of this that Dessalines is known as a bloodthirsty man who had no mercy on the whites he encountered.

Le Clerc, the brother-in-law of Napoleon had perished from yellow fever and French General Donatien-Marie Rochambeau took charge of the French army. His cruel treatment of the mulatto and black prisoners caused Dessalines to act in kind. It was said that Rochambeau would torture his captives, burn them to death and boil them alive in huge vats. He would hang them and drown them for all to see. When Rochambeau took five hundred of his captives and put them all to death on the same day, Dessalines hearing about it, responded by hanging five hundred white prisoners making certain that the French knew about it and understood that it was a reply to what Rochambeau had done.

"Revenge taken by the Black Army for the cruelties practised on them by the French" by J. Barlow
"Revenge taken by the Black Army for the cruelties practised on them by the French" by J. Barlow

When the dust had settled and the fight was fought, Rochambeau surrendered in November of 1803 after the Battle of Vertieres. Those who remained from the Black army were able to look into each others eyes and see freedom reflected there.

Haiti's flag
Haiti's flag

A New Country

Jean Jacques Dessalines declared Independence on the first of January, 1804. He created Haiti's flag by taking France's flag and ripping out the white part of it. He declared that the name of the former French colony would no longer be Saint Domingue but it would be called Haiti meaning 'mountainous' in the Tiano language. Haiti's struggle for freedom had lasted fifteen years.

Dessaline's work was not over yet, as a matter of fact, his work had only just begun. He had to decide what type of government should be established, how to organize the running of the country and how Haiti would interact with the rest of the world being the first black nation that was independent.

Tackling the easiest problem first, Dessalines named himself Emperor Jacques the first of Haiti. He was to be the first and last Emperor of Haiti for those after him would go on to form different types of government. Dessalines was a unique Emperor in that he was the only royal in the country refusing to grant nobility status to anyone else.

As Emperor, Jean Jacques Dessalines set about trying to restore Haiti's economy. He started a program aimed at reviving agriculture and tried to encourage industriousness rather than idleness. He ensured that the constitution of Haiti included accommodation for settlers who were either from Africa or India or were descendants of those peoples, and so, Haiti became a safe haven for those who chose to flee from slavery elsewhere.

The Emperor - Jacques I also known as Jean Jacques Dessalines
The Emperor - Jacques I also known as Jean Jacques Dessalines

The Dessalinienne - Haiti's National Anthem named for Jean Jacques Dessalines

For our country,
For our forefathers,
United let us march.
Let there be no traitors in our ranks!
Let us be masters of our soil.
United let us march
For our country,
For our forefathers.
For our forebears,
For our country
Let us toil joyfully.
May the fields be fertile
And our souls take courage.
Let us toil joyfully
For our forebears,
For our country.
For our country
And for our forefathers,
Let us train our sons.
Free, strong, and prosperous,
We shall always be as brothers.
Let us train our sons
For our country
And for our forefathers.
For our forebears,
For our country,
Oh God of the valiant!
Take our rights and our life
Under your infinite protection,
Oh God of the valiant!
For our forebears,
For our country.
For the flag,
For our country
To die is a fine thing!
Our past cries out to us:
Have a disciplined soul!
To die is a fine thing,
For the flag,
For our country.

Dessalines also made certain that there was no place for the white planters on the island, banning the white man from owning land in Haiti. He even went so far as to invite the French planters back to the country and kill them. His drastic measures probably came about because of his suspicion as Haiti was a new country that no one was pleased to accept.

Even though voodoo had a role in the Haitian Revolution, Dessalines tried his best to stamp it out. This did not please the people and Dessalines was unsuccessful.

The mulattoes felt that Dessalines was biased against them even though he did try to unite the blacks with the mulattoes to form a united country. When he decided to share all land equally the mulatto population became uneasy because the land that was owned by them could have been lost. Dessalines had gone too far and for this he was assainated in 1806. It was said that his own brother in arms Henry Christophe plotted against him.

Although he ruled Haiti for only two years, Dessalines began to try to bring about a haven for those who had once been slaves like him. He remains a hero to the Haitian people.


The Dessalinienne performed


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