General Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Nation of Haiti

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was the leader of the Haitian Revolution which has given birth to the first black republic in the world and the second independent country in the Americas. The French West Indies colony of Saint Domingue has seen him as a slave, working in the fields until rumors that a revolution on the island was fermented in 1791, following all the turmoil that the 1789 French revolution has created in France and around the world. He did not participate in the call for the revolution at that ceremony in Bois Caiman. Others will mention “Bois Iman” because of the location of the wooden area closed to the residence of the Iman Bookman (homme du livre) who was a teacher of the Koran.

We have to place in consideration the atmosphere in the colony during this early 1790 period. In the background, so many causes of conflicts can be pointed: The French revolution of 1789 and the declaration of Human rights, the vindications of the “Affranchis” searching for more independence, the slave’s aspirations and their request for better conditions of living, the conflict between colons and their aspiration to more autonomy from the metropole, the maroons and the insecurity. In facts, a divided society where White Colons, Affranchis, Slaves owners, Slaves and Maroons are voicing their frustrations during a period of war between the superpowers in Europe. Although the French revolutionary government granted citizenship to the wealthier affranchis in April 1792, this law was never applied in Saint Domingue or other French colonies. Brief, colonial Saint Domingue was torn by rival factions, some supported by Spanish colonists from Santo Domingo, others by British troops from Jamaica and the presence of Leger-Felicite Sonthonax in 1793 as a commissioner from France trying to abolish slavery.

So, three years after the 1791 slave revolt, Jean-Jacques Dessalines has distinguished himself as the fierce lieutenant of Toussaint Louverture who first participated in the revolt as a negotiator for the revolutionary army of the Generals Jean Francois and Biassou in their vindications to the French General Assembly and to the Commissioner Sonthonax on the way of living in the colony of Santo Domingo. These generals used Toussaint Louverture mainly to help negotiate. Toussaint left the French Army to join forces with the revolutionary army under Spanish banner against France, in the search of better living conditions for the slaves and the abolition of slavery. Soon after Sonthonax abolished slavery in the north of the Island and later on all the island, Toussaint decided to return to the army of Napoleon with Jean Jacques Dessalines who he met while working with the revolutionary army and who will become fiercely one of his Lieutenant-generals. Toussaint Louverture later will declare himself Governor-General of Santo Domingo bringing the ire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Toussaint will also create a new constitution for the Island. Napoleon decided to raise the most powerful army to re-establish Slavery in its French colonies and sent his brother-in-law, Charles Emmanuel Leclerc, to restore order and bring back Toussaint in France. We will try to discuss these facts in more details.

It is important to take time to experience a little what living as a slave in the French colony of Haiti represented for our ancestor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the father of our nation, especially when we recently commemorated the 216th anniversary of his assassination at Pont Rouge:

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was born in slavery on a plantation called “Cormier” near Grand Riviere du Nord which belongs to Henry Duclos. He was named Jean-Jacques Duclos, on the 20th day of September 1758. We do not know much about his father but we believe that because most slaves were coming from the west or central west of Africa, especially Guinea, this surely was also the origins of his parents. Others believe that he was born in Guinea or in the kingdom of the actual Congo with all his family captured and bought in the French colony of Saint Domingue. We are aware at least, of the existence of two brothers Louis and Joseph Duclos and his mother Marie Elizabeth who died when the kids were very young. She introduced them to a friend on the habitation Cormier who cared for them at her death. Later the name Duclos was dropped for “Dessalines” when a free-man of the name of Dessalines purchased the plantation with all the slaves. Jean Jacques Dessalines worked on the sugarcane fields of the habitation as a laborer and rose to the rank of “Commandeur” (foreman) until his thirties. He married “Marie Claire Heureuse Felicite Bonheur” and enjoyed a very large family with more than 15 children. He worked during the next three years for his new master until the slave uprising spread across the Plaine du Nord in 1791. J-J Dessalines joined then, the forces of the insurrection led by Jean Francois Papillon and Georges Biassou at the age of 33. He became a Lieutenant and followed the leaders when they convey their allegiance to the Spanish Crown.

An interesting story about a special relation between Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Adbaraya Toya who served also on the habitation Cormier as a “healer”. She became a close friend of Marie Elizabeth, the mother of Jean-Jacques Dessalines who entrusted her son into Adbaraya care before her death. It is believed that Toya was originally from the actual Benin.  Jean Jacques Dessalines refers to Adbaraya Toya as his aunty. She gave evidence of her Dahomey Amazon Roots as an elite fighter used in the protection of the King of Dahomey. She probably was captured and bought to the island as a slave. Adbaraya was instrumental in showing Jean Jacques Dessalines how to fight as a soldier, in sharpening his skills into hand-to-hand combat and into the art of manipulating the knife. She taught him also many physical and tactical manoeuvers to defend himself in battle. This training helped Dessalines when he joined the revolutionary army. Adbaraya Toya also participated in the military activities despite of her old age at the time of the engagement. She surely helped as well in the training of the soldiers. At her death, a state funeral was offered to her while she was named “Mother of Haiti’s independence”. She is also considered as one of the bravest woman in the Haitian revolution and she was popularly called Victoria Mantou.

Jean Jacques Dessalines met Toussaint Breda while he was helping Jean Francois and Biassou revolutionary forces in their quest of vindications for better conditions of living and working for the slaves. In 1794, when Slavery was abolished by Sonthonax, supported by the General Assembly and stipulated in two French Constitutions, Toussaint Breda, later called Toussaint Louverture, switched camp again and re-instated the French Army with all his military honors and rank. Dessalines followed Toussaint move and became his chief Lieutenant and later rose to the rank of brigadier general in 1799.  Jean-Jacques Dessalines was brave and distinguished himself in many engagements. He was able to capture cities like Jacmel, Petit-Goave, Anse-a-Veau, Petit-Goave etc. A nephew of Toussaint, General Moyse, initiated a revolt in the north of the country and under the orders of Toussaint, Jean-Jacques Dessalines crushed the insurrection and become famous in his slogan of “no prisoners” and “burning houses” (Coupe tet, boule kaye) policy. He fought the Spanish and the British under the orders of Toussaint. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was unable to read and write but he was a quick learner under the wings of Toussaint Louverture. He was known for his brutality and his military tactics which justify his nickname of “Tiger”.

Toussaint Louverture was a military leader and as we saw, a former slave who gained control of several areas and earned the support and the respect of the French. He had his own political agenda and exhibited well his military skills to pacify different factions in Saint Domingue. He re-integrated the French army in giving nominal allegiance to France only once he knew that slavery was completely abolished. He became a skill negotiator after taking the task to help the revolutionary army but used his genius to deal later with the British. He restored Saint Domingue under colonial France and self-appointed himself “Governor-General” of the colony. Toussaint pacified the colony and bought his vision for an autonomic Saint Domingue. He imposed his own rules of law and forced Sonthonax to vacate the colony and to return to France. Soon Toussaint Louverture published his own 1801 constitution and named himself “Governor-for-Life. Napoleon Bonaparte did not appreciate such audacity and the facts that the commission was receiving multiple complaints generated by the white colons or the mulattoes, make him realize that Toussaint Louverture disposed of too much power, although he was still swearing loyalty to France.

The family of Josephine Bonaparte (Beauharnais), wife of Napoleon Bonaparte was also a slave-owning family who did not appreciate the decision of the General Assembly to abolish slavery and more, many other white and mulatto planters especially in the south of Saint Domingue were lobbying to re-impose slavery in the French territories. Toussaint by his actions, gave to Napoleon a reason for sending a large expeditionary force in the hope of restoring slavery. General Charles Emmanuel Leclerc was given the assignment to bring back the French rules in the colonies.

This was Jean-Jacques Dessalines who affronted the army of Leclerc in a major battle at La Crete-a-Pierrot from the 4th of March to the 24th of March 1802 with a force of 1,300 soldiers, ill-equipped and facing 18,000 attackers well-armed. Crete-a-Pierrot is a fortress located East of the town of Saint-Marc in the Artibonite Valley built up by the slaves and renovated by the British. Dessalines chose to defend it in the battle. General Charles Leclerc ordered the blockade of the Fort. General Jean Jacques Dessalines, to motivate his companions took a lit torch near an open powder keg and addressing the soldiers, he menaced to blow up the place if any French soldier were allowed to break through the lines. The defenders inflicted heavy casualties to the adversaries and resisted the 20-day siege until they were forced to abandon their positions because of a shortage of food and munitions. History will remember the presence of a woman soldier dressed in men’s clothing named Marie Jeanne Lamartiniere among the defenders. After inflicting heavy losses to the French attaquers, the defenders were able to force their way out through the enemy lines to take refuge in the Cabos mountains with their forces intact: A fact of war which will be recognized by the enemy. The General Debelle was wounded as well as the Brigadier General Devaux while General Charles Dugua lost his life. In sum, 600 soldiers were able to leave their position with Dessalines, proud and confident for having delivered a blow to the French troops of Leclerc and Rochambeau.

The French soldiers were also supported by mulatto troops led by Alexandre Petion and Andre Rigaud, both sons of white colons who opposed the rules of Toussaint Louverture. They both tried to establish the independence in the south of Saint Domingue, where many wealthy mulattoes were living on their plantations. The army of both generals were also beaten by the forces of Toussaint Louverture, years earlier when they affronted him in combat.

After the battle of Crete-a-Pierrot, Dessalines defected his friend Toussaint Louverture because he failed to announce to him and to all the rebel leaders that a recent ceasefire agreement was reached with the enemy. It is reported also that Toussaint may have sent a letter to Dessalines which never reached destination. In anyway Dessalines surrendered himself with his troops and was given the title of Governor of Gonaives while his wife received numerous official gifts from Jean Baptiste Brunet but when later, it became clear to him that the French intention was to re-establish slavery in the colony, he switched side again in company of Petion and Rigaud, in October 1802. Dessalines will become the uncontested leader of this new alliance with the approbation of all the mulattoe generals including Alexandre Petion. Some historians report that Dessalines wrote to Leclerc denouncing the conduct of Toussaint as “extraordinary” but the Yellow fever claimed him as a victim, soon after.

We know well the way Toussaint Louverture was invited to receive military honors by the French authorities, once he surrendered. He came alone, unarmed without his officers who earlier discussed with him their suspicion on the event. Indeed, he was betrayed and captured on the 7 day of June 1802. Toussaint was deposed of his titles and sent to Fort de Joux, in the Jura, France, where he died on the 7 April 1803 while an important French military expedition was dispatched on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte to reconquer the colony and re-instate slavery. Soon, all the generals of the indigenous army realized that the real dream of Napoleon was to restore Slavery on the island of Saint Domingue like he had already achieved in Martinique and Guadeloupe.

This is in 1803 that Jean-Jacques Dessalines joined the different groups of mulatto and black slaves which were fighting as well, for a single cause, after he learned of the intention of Napoleon Bonaparte to re-introduce slavery in spite of its previous abolition by the French General Assembly in 1794 and also the fact that 2 French national constitutions have adopted in their By-Laws such amendment. He took in charge the insurrection as the new leader of the Haitian Revolution. This will be an interesting chapter relating on the birth of the nation of Haiti once Jean-Jacques Dessalines expelled the French from the territory of Santo Domingo and proclaimed the entire island of Hispaniola (Saint Domingue), independent, on 1 January 1804 under the old Indian Arawak name of Haiti. The aboriginal name of HAITI became the name of the land of the Frees and the land of the Braves.

A replacement to General Leclerc came with the brutal General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau to enhance the efforts of the Metropole in re-instating slavery. In spite of this powerful French army, the rebels were victorious in many little fights through the country culminating to the final battle of Vertieres on 18 November 1803 which resulted in a major victory over the French troops commanded by Rochambeau on 18 November 1803. The French army surrendered to Jean Jacques Dessalines ending a long conflict, on the 4 December 1803. A declaration of independence was promulgated by Jean Jacques Dessalines on the 1 January 1804 while he chose the title of Governor-General-for Life. The country was re-named by his Taino or Arawak name of “Haiti” (Ayiti). General Jean-Jacques Dessalines carried the title of Governor-General-for-Life until the 22 September 1804 then unanimously, he was proclaimed “Emperor Jacques Premier” for life by the generals of the Haitian Revolutionary army, in Gonaives, Haiti. A coronation ceremony for the Emperor and the Empress was performed on the 6th of October 1805. Soon after a new imperial constitution was charted giving him the right to name his successor.

Slavery was abolished and prohibited anywhere on the territory of Haiti. HAITI made history in becoming the first country to abolish slavery permanently around the world. As a new country, it became important to keep producing sugar or other products from the plantations now that no slaves were available to work on the fields. It is said that not thrusting the white colons may have forced Jean Jacques Dessalines to order what was called the “1804 Haitian massacre” to render Haiti an all-black nation while refusing to any white person the right to own lands.

The remaining French army has fled to the east part of Haiti but Dessalines and Christophe decided to pursue them with an army of 20,000 men. The army killed all on their way even children were not spared, especially in the town of Moca were it is said that Christophe beheaded 40 children and more than 500 people. Dessalines imposed a harsh regimen on plantation labor called by one of our historian an “agrarian militarism” (Rolph Trouillot) in which he copied on the techniques of Toussaint Louverture requesting that soldiers defend the nation as laborers on plantations to raise crop. For him, this was the way to help the nation in imposing “forced labor”.  He put also the peasant back to work on plantations under military rules. Merchants from Great Britain and United States were given preference over French merchants to buy or sell the goods. Dessalines will use the mulattoes in the education system as managers, but finally will exterminate all French people on the island fearing a return of the French army. Nearly 5000 French may have been exterminated until his most influential generals started to demonstrate unhappiness and a show of resistance or defiance to Dessalines. The majority of mulattoes became also hostile to his actions.

Alexandre Sabes Petion and Henry Christophe felt that they were left out of the administration and began to conspire at overthrowing the Emperor. Jean Jacques Dessalines was assassinated near the city of Port-au-Prince, at Pont Larnage, Marchant (Pont Rouge) on the 17 October 1806 while he was on his way to fight the rebels. He was 48. His death bought a power vacuum that led to a civil war and a division of the national territories between Henry Christophe taking control in the North and Alexandre Petion in the West and South. Henry Christophe declared himself King Henry 1, in 1811 and managed to improve the economy in forcing former slaves to return to the plantations. He built the imposing Citadelle Laferriere and the Sans Souci palace prior to commit suicide in 1820 while a mutinous group of soldiers was approaching his doors.

There is a lot of controversy on the way one of the founding father of the nation, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines 1, lost his life. One stipulate that he was killed by Alexandre Petion at his domicile in rue d’Enterrement after a meeting to negotiate the destiny of the young nation. Others report that Dessalines was arrested and then beaten with deadly blows to the head. Others stated that he was ambushed and killed by fire arms. Our history books placed this scene at an ambuscade in “Pont Rouge” while he was riding his horse. Another version accuses his own men for shooting at him twice apparently hitting only once while his head was later split open by a sabre before being stabbed three times with a dagger. The mob desecrated and disfigured his remain: the body was dragged and dismembered to finally be abandoned on the public place. Nobody wanted to offer him proper burial until Defilee (Defilee Bazile or Defilee la Folle) of humble origin, picked up his mutilated body and buried it. What a destiny for one of the father of our nation! Nowadays, a simple monument reflects on the emplacement where the Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines, lost his life.

Maxime Coles MD (10-20-2020)
Boca Raton FL

NB: This page is dedicated to all of our young kids who grew up away from the motherland, unable to understand much about the facts of war in a so important history which make Haitians of an older generation, so proud of our ancestors. In these moments when the 216th anniversary of our independence is being celebrated in the country, it was certainly for us the occasion to bring to life, the man who gave so much to allow us to claim Haiti as our land. Vive Jean-Jacques Dessalines!


1-    The Legendary Dahomey Amazons are the real-life all-women’s army in Black Panther

2-    Jean Jacques Dessalines who ruled Haiti with an iron fist in 1804

3-    Gerad Mentor Laurent: “Six Etudes sur J J Dessalines.

4-    Haitian Constitution of 1805.

5-    Perry, James: Arrogant Armies Great Military Disasters and the Generals Behind Them (Edison: Castle Books, 2005) pp 78-79.

6-    Simmonds, Yussuf J (11 February 2010) “Jean-Jacques Dessalines;” Los Angeles Sentinel”.

7-    `Girard Phillipe R. (2011). The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon (Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War 1801-1804. Tuscaloosa, Alabama Press.

8-    Thomas Madiou: “Histoire of Haiti”. Henry Deschampst.3 (Port-au-Prince, 1989.

9-    Toussaint Louverture, Haitian Leader 1805: Everett Historical/

10- Corbett, Bob: The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803, An Historical Essay

11- Beard J R (John Kelly 1863); Toussaint Louverture : A Biography (Chapel Hill NC)

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