For a special segment of Haiti History 101, Kreyolicious.com decided to dig deep…very deep. After consulting a variety of sources, here are some things that we learned of Mr. Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Physically, he has been described as a short and stout, dark-skinned man. Career-wise, he has been described by historians like Charles Dupuy as an able military man who led Haiti after slave revolution leader Toussaint Louverture was deported to France. Born in Grand-Riviere, Haiti (although there has been sources that have speculated that he was born in Guinea), Dessalines rose within revolution army ranks and crowned himself Emperor Jacques I in 1805. Let’s see what else we learned…
1. His last name wasn’t Dessalines….originally.
The scholar and man of thought Dantes Bellegarde contends that the man now known as Jean-Jacques Dessalines was originally named Jean-Jacques Duclos—Duclos being the name of his first master. His next master was a black man by the name of Dessalines, who was his master at the time of the 1791 slave uprising.
2. He was not very educated.
He was not able to read or write, but he learned to sign his name. At the same time, various historians credit him for having—like Henri Christophe—the good sense to have himself surrounded by intellectuals and well-educated men. Educated men—Deborah Jenson notes in the book Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution—who were his secretaries, namely Justin Chantalatte, and Louis “Tonnerre” Boisrond.
3. He was a ladies’ man.
Marie-Claire Hereuse Bonheur was his second wife, according to Justin Placide. Charles Dupuy maintains that they didn’t have any children together. Placide contends that he had daughters with his unnamed first wife, but no sons. One of his favorite side chicks, according to Deborah Jenson—who cites Haitian historian Thomas Madiou as her source—was a lady named Couloute, a native of Jeremie.
4. He wanted black Americans to come to Haiti and not be under slavery in the USA.
The historian Justin Placide contends that Dessalines offered U.S. ship captains $46 for every black American they brought to Haiti from the United States. In the book Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, the scholars Richard M. Juang and Noelle Morissette write that Dessalines offered monetary rewards to slave traders who brought Africans— intended for slavery in the United States—to Haiti as freedmen. Sir James Basket, another historian, also makes this assertion.
5. He wanted Haiti to have a huge army.
Shortly after the Declaration of Independence in 1804, Dessalines had a proclamation sent out asking blacks and mulattoes who had left Saint-Domingue, Haiti’s colonial name, to return back to Haiti. As some of them were in dire financial straits, he offered to pay for their passage back to Haiti. Historians like Justin Placide, view this more as Dessalines’ attempt at repopulating Haiti. According to this same historian, Dessalines had a census done in 1805 that put the number of people of Haiti at 380,000—a huge drop from decades before—as a result of Dessalines’ massacres. Thomas Ott, a latter-day historian puts the population at 250,000). His proclamation, declared Justin Placide and James Basket, was really a way to recruit soldiers to replace the ones that had perished for the twelve year period of 1791-1803.
6. He had a sense of gratitude.
According to one of Haiti’s historians Justin Placide, Jean-Jacques Dessalines made his former master (who was living in Cap Haitien when he became emperor) his head butler.
7. One of his favorite hobbies was dancing.
He loved dancing so much that he had a dance teacher to teach him steps whenever he had some free time. According to Justin Placide, Dessalines loved to be told what a great dancer he was—though he was a mediocre one at best.
8. He wasn’t too much into booze.
While Haiti is famous for rum and for klerin, Dessalines abstained from alcohol, asserted Justin Placide. In John Relly Beard’s book The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Negro Patriot of Hayti, he writes that Dessalines had the best-stocked wine cellar on the island but almost always opted for water.
9. He had a reputation for being cruel and vengeful.
During Haiti’s slave uprising of 1791, as well as the Haitian Revolutionary War, Dessalines reportedly slaughtered the white populace of Haiti, and even fellow blacks. Theophilus Gould Steward maintains that his wife Marie-Claire Hereuse Félicité Bonheur had to beg for the lives of many of the whites, including a botanist who had to hide under her bed. Some contend that it is that violent tendency that led to Dessalines’ assassination in October 1806—that and the fact that he was perceived by generals like Henri Christophe, Alexandre Petion, of being a dictator. Foreign visitors like James Franklin, and Haiti’s very own Charles Dupuy, Thomas Madiou and Jacques Nicolas Leger (and countless others) maintain that Dessalines’ own entourage conspired with his opponents to bring about his assassination on October 17, 1806 on Pont Rouge (Red Bridge) near the entrance of Port-au-Prince. Dupuy asserts that both Christophe and Petion were in on the assassination plot and most likely masterminded it.
10. He was known as a competent general.
According to Revolutionary Freedoms: A History of Survival, Strength and Imagination in Haiti edited by Cécile Accilien, Jessica Adams, Elmide Méléance, Dessalines’ accomplishments are many. The book credits him with leading the pivotal Battle of Vertieres and pushing the French out of Haiti. The editors also ascribe the fact that the United States was able to gain the Louisiana Territory, to Haiti’s victory at that battle. They also ascribe Dessalines selection of a man named Francois Capois, as evidence of his talents as a commander. It was he who had the original Haitian flag sewn in 1804.
Oh, faithful pupils, this concludes today’s edition of Haiti History 101. Until next time! If you missed previous editions of Haiti History 101, CLICK HERE.