Welcome to yet another edition of Haiti History 101. Yeah!
Did you know that January 1st is Haitian Independence Day? Well, did you? You did, didn’t you, being such a diligent student. Now let’s learn some things about that day and certain events that led to that day.
12. The Haitian Declaration of Independence was signed in the city of Gonaives, on, yes, January 1, 1804.
Future generations never fail to commemorate it. According to historian Jean-Robert Constant, in 1904 President Pierre-Nord Aléxis visited that city to mark the 100th anniversary of Haitian Independence Day. In 2004, the then-president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide held ceremonies to recognize two centuries of Haitian Independence. Constant also maintains that in 1954, Paul Eugène Magloire who was president of Haiti for some of the 1950s, traveled to the city of Gonaives to assist a special mass in honor of the day. A flag was adopted and sewn by a seamstress in Archaie on May 18, 1804. Her name was Catherine Flon. And Haitians make and eat soup joumou, a pumpkin soup that was reportedly only consumed by masters of the slaves.
11. The former slaves of St. Domingue and the freedmen, who led a successful slave revolt in 1791 did not act alone.
When one reads accounts of the Haitian Revolution, names like Toussaint L’ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Alexandre Sabès Pétion, Capois la Mort, Jeannot Billet, André Rigaud, George Biassou, Jean-François Papillon—turn up a great deal. But behind all these men there was a legion of women…women soldiers like Sanite Belair, Jeanne Lamartinière, Marie-Claire Hereuse (later an Empress alongside her husband Jean-Jacques Dessalines). Historians like Marcelle Desinor emphasizes the heroism of women like Henriette of St. Marc, Suzanne Simon-Louverture, Toussaint L’ouverture’s wife, and countless women who remain nameless and unmentioned in the history of Haiti.
10. And while the slave revolt of 1791 would be the first successful slave revolt in the new world, it wasn’t the first attempt.
In the book Roadmap to Haiti’s Next Revolution, Rubens Francois Titus contends that as early as 1522, when Haiti was under Spanish rule, there had been a slave uprising, albeit unsuccessful one. Titus also points at 1679’s uprising led by Padrejean a slave near Port-de-Paix, and another one in 1697 in an area of Haiti called Petit-Anse and Quartier Morin led by unnamed slaves. According to colonial expert Jacques Cauna, by the time Padrejean was captured, he had killed his master and continued his insurrection well into other parts of St. Domingue (Haiti) including La Tortue, Saint Louis and Port Margot. He led 25 other runaway slaves, and hid out in La Tarare, an inaccessible mountain. The buccaneers—seaside adventurers in Haiti—had to be recruited to put out this uprising. Even then, contends Cauna, some of Padrejean’s followers managed to escape to the other side of the island. Cauna also recounts how in 1691, Jeannot Marin and Georges Dollot were condemned to be burned alive after their plot to kill everyone from babies down in Port-de-Paix was discovered. In 1758, Makandal was burned at the stake for orchestrating a wide-scale poisoning of white planters and their families. Makandal had been born in Africa, and according to some sources was raised as a Muslim before being brought to Haiti as a slave. He was an expert botanist and had an impressive knowledge of plants (especially poisonous ones!) was also fluent in Arabic (according to some accounts).
9. Dessalines did not annihilate all the whites, or all the French after Haiti gained its independence.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines actually kept around the French clergy and members of the medical profession, among scores of others. He made a declaration that everyone in Haiti, and born of Haiti would forever be known as “black” regardless of color and racial heritage. As noted above, his wife and many others hid white French colonists and their families.
8. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was on the side of the French…after the slave uprising of 1791.
In the book The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War, Philippe R. Girard quotes correspondence from General Leclerc, a French general, who once called Dessalines the “butcher of the blacks”, meaning of course that Dessalines’ brutality was not limited merely to white Frenchmen. Girard maintains that in the years following the successful slave revolt, Dessalines left Toussaint L’ouverture and allied himself with the French, and while some historians claim that Dessalines was merely pretending to be on the French side, Girard points to actions on his part as being plain treacherous. Dessalines collaborated with the French army and had his one-time friends and allies Sanite and Charles Belair, former slaves and a soldier-couple, publicly executed. Girard even hints (um actually more than hints) that Dessalines betrayed Toussaint and helped led to his arrest and subsequent deportation to France, seeing him as a rival for the eventual rulership of a freed Haiti. Girard also contends that Dessalines wrote to General Le Leclerc that Jacques Maurepas and Henri Christophe were traitors to France, in an attempt to get rid of these two compatriots.
7. Yes, Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804. It took nearly a quarter of a century for France to acknowledge it.
In 1825, Jean-Pierre Boyer who was the then-president of Haiti signed a treaty with Charles X of France. The latter would agree to recognize Haiti’s independence on the condition that Haiti would pay France $150 million francs. Say what? Yeah! This sum was going to be taken from Haiti to compensate the French planters who had lost their property and slaves in Haiti. A sort of indemnification. Boyer agreed. According to some historians, this move made Boyer very, very unpopular among his countrymen. But Boyer’s rationale was no doubt that once France recognized that Haiti was a free country, Haiti would be acknowledged by the rest of Europe, as well as the United States. For as late as the rule of Henri Christophe—Boyer’s predecessor—the French were threatening to send naval forces to Haiti. As a matter of fact, throughout Christophe’s reign the French where hoping to reestablish their rule on the island, and Louis XVIII the French king sent Franco de Médina in hopes of doing so. Christophe had de Médina executed in Cap Haitien for spying. According to Let Haiti Live by Melinda Miles and Mary Eugenia Charles, not only was the indemnity put into effect, but the French insisted on a 50% exemption on import taxes, that Boyer also agreed to.
6. The Haitian Declaration of Independence was a collaborative affair.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines was illiterate, but he had two very educated men as his secretaries. One was Félix Louis Boisrond Tonnère and the other was Jean-Jacques Charéron. Historians like Thomas Madiou maintain that Dessalines was unsatisfied with earlier drafts of the declaration that were read back to him. Boisrond Tonnere reportedly made this grandiose comment: “To write up the act of independence, we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!” In 1851, this rather eloquent man would write one of the first autobiographies in Haiti Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire d’Haïti, par Boisrond-Tonnerre, précédés de différents actes politiques dus à sa plume et d’une étude historique et critique par Saint-Remy [Memoirs to Serve the History of Haiti by Boisrond Tonnerre, Preceded by Different Political Acts Attributed to Him and a Critical and Historical Study by Saint-Remy]. That’s some title!
5. Songs and slogans were motivational tactics used by the men and women of the revolution.
Many historians attribute the phrase “kase tèt, boule kay” to Dessalines, as being his motto through the revolution. Crush skulls, burn down houses, in other words.
Grenadye a laso
Sa ki mouri zafè a yo
Pa gin manman, pa gen papa
Sa ki mouri zafè a yo
Soldiers on the attack
Those who die, oh well for them
There’s no such thing as mommy and daddy
Those who die, oh well for them
The above is one of the battle songs that was popular during Haiti’s revolution that survives to this day. Oh!
4. The Haitian Revolution itself would go on to inspire a great deal of fictional literature in addition to historical accounts.
Frederic Douglass would go on to collaborate with William Easton in the writing of Dessalines, a dramatic tale: a single chapter from Haiti’s history in 1893. William Wordsworth, the celebrated British poet would write a poem in Toussaint L’ouverture’s honor. Out of all the Haitian founding fathers, Dessalines seems to be the only one who did not have much written about him. The aforementioned play by Douglass and Easton would actually be one of the few written in his regards (either fictional or historical). In 2010, Isabel Allende published a novel The Island Beneath the Sea is set towards the closing of 1700s Haiti.
3. The Revolution would also bring other repercussions.
“How did America manage to double its territory and end French colonial ambitions in the New World–without firing a shot?” asked Thomas Fleming in his book The Louisiana Purchase. The answer could be summarized in one word of course: Haiti. In 1803, France had to sell its property Louisiana in North America to the United States for $15 million dollars to help recoup its devastating financial losses in Haiti. Piyay for Etazini! C.L.R James, author of The Black Jacobins, maintained that The Haitian Revolution and Haitian Independence inspired men like Nat Turner and Vesey to initiate slave revolts in the United States.
2. The Battle of Vertières is cited by many scholars as being a pivotal moment in the fight for Haitian Independence.
Vertières was fought on November 18, 1803 and General Rochambeau and his troops had to ask the slaves for permission to return to France. Dessalines agreed. Another battle involved the fort Crête-a-Pierrot, an arsenal. According to Haiti, a Different Image by Nancy Toussaint, the French regained the Fort but loss twice many soldiers as the Haitian forces.
1. The story of the soldiers from Poland who became Haitians.
Historian Elizabeth Abbott notes in her book The Duvaliers and Their Legacy that the French hired seasoned soldiers from Poland to help fight for them in the war against the revolutionaries of Haiti. The Polish soldiers joined the Haitian side, and eventually married into Haitian families, and their descendants live to this day in an area of Haiti called Cazale.
Bonus: Boukman Dutty, a slave and his followers had a vodun(voodoo) ceremony in a place in Haiti called Bois Caiman. During the ceremony, a priestess unnamed in some accounts, but named Cécile Fatiman in others, slit the throat of a pig and had everyone present drink its blood. Some accounts even claim that there was some human blood drunk during the ceremony as well. Boukman and all present there swore their allegiance to the god of their ancestors and swore an oath to turn away from the God of the oppressors.
This concludes today’s edition of Haiti History 101. How many things did you learn today about Haitian Independence? Until next time!
Photo Credit: Haitian woman potrait: Portrait of a Haitian woman, François Malépart de Beaucourt 1786, Musée McCord; Battle Photo: January Sholowski; Boisrond Tonnere portrait from CIDHICA/via Ile en Ile