100 Women of Haitian History: #1, Marie-Claire Heureuse Dessalines, Empress of Haiti

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claire heureuseWelcome to this special edition of Haiti History 101, the 100 Historical Women series…er 100 Women of Haitian History!

Today, we are going to be discussing Claire-Hereuse!

In August of 1858, a woman who had lived nearly a century died in Gonaives. She had been the daughter of Bonheur Guillaume and Marie-Sainte Lobelot in the city of Leogane, and had received an outstanding education.

Once, she had been Empress of the island nation that had declared its independence in 1804.

According to historian Deborah Jenson in the book Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution the Empress was born Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur (another historian adds Guillaume). In the Historical Dictionary of Haiti by Michael R. Hall states that she was born in a city in Haiti called Leogane, as is reported by the historian Emmanuel Dumay hints that Claire-Heureuse met her husband Jean-Jacques Dessalines during the time he was the commander of the Haitian army from the areas of Artibonite to Jeremie.

They married in 1801; this was her second marriage, as she had been married to a Frenchman a Pierre Lunic (he died in 1795). In 1805 when he crowned himself Emperor Jacques the First, she became the Empress of Haiti. By many historical accounts, Marie-Claire Heureuse was a courageous woman, and she stood up to her husband when she felt it necessary. The historian Philippe R. Girard, and many others report that she hid Michel E. Descourtilz, a French botanist and physician under her bed, when Dessalines begun the mass slaughter of the French during the revolution. She was also instrumental in preventing the deaths of many other French and German members of Haiti’s population, whether they had medical expertise or not, according to Girard.

She didn’t have any children of her own with Dessalines, but he had children with other women, including Célimène Dessalines (who would go on to marry a young general Bernard Affiba Chancy), Célestine, Serrine, Pierre, Sophine, Albert, Antoinette, Jacques.

The historian Charles Dupuy contends that the former First Lady of the Empire spent the last years of her life, living with the child Celimène had with the General Chancy. Another historian, Thomas Madiou, recounts that during the reign of King Henri Christophe, he had invited the former Empress to join his royal court, but she had refused.

Tune in next time dear Kreyolicious.com readers, as we get to know more women from Haiti’s past.

Images: via G/Images

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