Jean-Jacques Dessalines: The Tiger Protects the Pearl

Table of Contents

Portrait of the first leader of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (19th century) By Louis Rigaud

Portrait of the first leader of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (19th century)

By Louis Rigaud

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who was Jean-Jacques Dessalines?

Jean-Jacques Dessalines (c. 1758-1806) began as a slave and eventually became the first president of independent Saint-Domingue, or Haiti. Under his leadership, Haiti made history as the first country to permanently abolish slavery. 

Dessalines wrote a letter to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, detailing his deep resentment towards Saint-Domingue’s French colonizers: “The people of Saint-Domingue, tired of paying with our blood the price of our blind allegiance to a mother country that cuts her children’s throats, and following the example of the wisest nations, have thrown off the yoke of tyranny and sworn to expel the torturers.”

In this article, the Zero Theft Movement will cover Jean-Jacques Dessalines, his contributions to the Haitian Revolution, and his violent reign. Slave labor majorly contributed to the unprecedented profitability of Saint-Domingue. Productivity does not equate to equality–a concept that potentially remains relevant to the U.S. economy today.

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Chained Beginnings 

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was born into slavery on Cormier, a plantation close to the Grande Rivière region in the northern parts of the Saint-Domingue’s French colony. Up until the age of thirty, he worked Henri Duclos’s sugarcane fields, where he eventually rose to the rank of commandeur (or foreman). 

Dessalines actually carried the last name Duclos for his first thirty years. He changed his last name to that of the affranchi (or free man of color) who bought him from Duclos. Jean-Jaques worked Des Saline’s fields for about three years and kept the new surname for the rest of his life. 

France treasured Saint-Domingue for its immense profitability. In fact, the colony was the wealthiest, most profitable colony in the whole world, receiving the nickname of the ‘pearl of Antilles.’ Coffee, sugar, cotton, indigo, cacao, Saint-Domingue produced all kinds of high-demand goods. Certainly the soil and climate created the optimal environment for production, but brutal slave labor, propped up by the transatlantic slave trade, supercharged Saint-Domingue’s process and profitability. At the colony’s peak, it created a tax base of one billion livres and sent 150-170 million livres worth of goods to France annually. 

Jean-Jaques Dessaline, like any other slave, experienced firsthand the same extreme violence and abuse of his owner. The anger burned inside for years, eventually exploding at the outset of the Haitian Revolution in 1971. 

A Bloody Revolution

Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the revolution, had successfully captured a third of the colony by 1792. Recognizing the growing ‘cracks’ in the pearl of Antilles and the instability in the ‘motherland’ due to the French Revolution, Britain and Spain joined together in a bid to capture the colony. The rebels actually allied with the invaders initially, violently seizing control of Saint-Domingue from plantation owners and government officials.

The French Empire, with its hand forced, resorted to winning over the revolutionaries by abolishing slavery. In 1793, French emissaries Léger Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel  proclaimed the end of slavery. The French Assemblé Nationale would later ratify the proclamation and apply it to the entire French Empire in 1794. Louverture, satisfied with the outcome, switched sides and spent most of the decade driving out the Spanish (in 1795) and British (in 1798) forces from Saint-Domingue. 

Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Dessalines had risen the ranks in the revolutionary army quite quickly. The same year Sonthonax and Polverel proclaimed the abolition of slavery, Dessalines was promoted to captain due to his courage in battle. Dessalines earned the nickname “the Tiger” for his military achievements. His leadership and prowess success majorly contributed in capturing the Spanish-controlled eastern half of the island. Louverture gave him the role of governor of the south.

Battle for Palm Tree HIll (1845) By January Suchodolski

Battle for Palm Tree HIll (1845)

By January Suchodolski

Source: Polish Army Museum

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The War of Knives

With the Spanish and British out of the equation, Louverture still needed to ensure their old colonizers would not attempt to enslave people of color once more. Saint-Domingue remained a part of the French Empire, although very much autonomous. Louverture, always wary, wanted to secure his position as the leader of the nation, and that required eliminating his local rival, Benoit Joseph André Rigaud.

Rigaud served as the commander of the mulattoes (mixed-race people). After many disputes, Rigaud and his army formally separated from the French Empire in 1799. He and Louverture could not come to an agreement over which of them controlled Petit and Grand Goave. The French Agent Philipe Roume had included the towns in Toussaint’s jurisdiction, but Rigaud refused to accept the decision. Toussaint eventually convinced Roume to declare Rigaud in rebellion against France. 

On June 16, 1799 Rigaud and his army attacked Petit Goave, slaying many with the sword. Hence, the name War of Knives. The conflict is alternatively known as the War of the South. Extreme violence and brutality ensued. Louverture sent his tiger, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to deal with Giraud’s separatist movement. Dessalines pushed back the separatists to their stronghold at Jacmel. By the time his army surrendered, Rigaud and several of his inner circle had fled to France but would return as part of Napoleon’s invasion in 1802. 

When the diplomatic and conservative Toussaint called the war off he reportedly said: “I did not want this! I told [Dessalines] to prune the tree, not to uproot it.

The Short Rule of Toussaint Louverture

Louverture had become the sole leader of the colony, and Jean-Jacques Desailles served in the inner circle. But the Haitian hero’s reign would last only a year, from 1801 to 1802. 

Louverture issued a constitution in 1801 expressing allegiance to France but also declared Saint-Domingue’s autonomy. He tried and failed to claim autonomy while still keeping the French at bay. Napoléon Bonaparte, having seized control of the French throne, did not take well to the constitution. He viewed it as an act of insubordination. Bonaparte looked to re-establish slavery and assert his dominance over France’s colonies. Saint-Domingue would serve as an example of the grave consequences that came with crossing the French empire. 

In 1802, Bonaparte appointed his brother-in-law Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc to command 30,000 soldiers in the effort to regain control of the Empire’s pearl. While Desailles once again displayed his talent for warfare, Henri Christophe (Louverture’s other general) and his 12,000 men defected to the opposition. The conflict overwhelmingly swayed in France’s favor, and Louverture accepts a retirement deal from Leclerc despite Desailles’s opposition.

Unsurprisingly, Leclerc reneged on the deal, deporting Louverture to a prison at Fort-de-Joux in the Jura mountains. The leader of Saint-Domingue died in his prison cell in 1803 due to an illness his captors had dismissed as fake.

Painting of Henri Christophe (1816) By Richard Evans

Painting of Henri Christophe (1816)

By Richard Evans

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dessalines’s Rise to Dominance

Christophe, Dessalines, and other commanders begrudgingly fought against their compatriots. They were undoing all they had achieved in the past. They knew that their visions for the colony shared little similarities with those of Bonaparte and Leclerc. If the leaders of the dying revolution continued on this path, they would once again find themselves in chains. 

Dessalines immediately took control of the rebel forces, assuming the rank of general-in-chief of his ‘Indigenous Army.” The opposing forces brutalized each other in an outright war. Only the eradication of the enemy, both sides believed, would achieve their respective goals. Yellow fever had significantly weakened the French army, allowing Dessalines to gain the advantage at a major turning point in the conflict. 

In the middle of 1803, Desailles made the final push to end the war at Cap-Français at Vertières. The two-day confrontation leff the once-prosperous city razed. On November 29, 1803, Lecler’s successor (Donatien Marie Joseph Rochambeau) signed a peace treaty with Dessalines. the evacuation of the French army. Dessalines promised to allow safe evacuation to the French soldiers and planters who wished to leave. He also vowed to not harm the plantation owners who wished to stay. Unsurprisingly, the Tiger reneged on the deal soon after, in a series of horrific massacres.

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Jean-Jacques Dessalines, from Slave to Despot

At the turn of the year, on January 1 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines officially declared the nation independent. It was at this point that Saint-Domingue received its new name: Haiti, or ‘Hayti.’ 

In his proclamation of independence, Dessalines swore “eternal hatred to the French” yet vowed not to interfere with the affairs of any of the other empires dominating the Atlantic. He later appointed himself Emperor Jacques I of Hayti, claiming total control over the government and military of the country. 

In 1805, Dessalines released Haiti’s first official constitution. The document outlined the prohibition of slavery, as well as established that Haitians were all a part of one family. While the document might have appeared as an attempt to eliminate the social, cultural, economic, and racial structures built by the French, the reality proved that little had changed. 

For one, Dessalines had made himself an emperor, not just a president or prime minister. He was given too much power by the people, allowing him to often do as he pleased. Furthermore, he forced many former slaves to return to plantation labor in service of the privileged few. It should be noted that Dessalines feared the French would return and felt that reviving the Haitian economy as quickly as possible was the only way to fund further battles.  

Leading generals of the army soured on Dessalines by late 1806 and plotted a coup. On October 17, rebels assassinated the Tiger just outside of Port-au-Prince. They made a macabre spectacle of his body. Generals Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion vied for supremacy, leaving the nation split for the next decade. 

Eliminate the Rigged Economy with the Zero Theft Movement

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was included in the Vodou pantheon under the name of “Ogoun Desalin.” He remains the only leader of Haiti given such an honor. Although a necessary figure in the Haitian Revolution, his legacy (like many others’) has its fair share of blood-red blemishes. Perhaps, he felt he had no choice when he forced liberated slaves back to the plantations, but it perpetuated an exploitative economic system thousands of Hiatians had died to eradicate. 

We can learn from world history (not just Haiti’s) how greed has left many enslaved and/or destitute. The problem is: that may not be a problem pertinent just to the past. Current societies, including the U.S., could have rigged systems that allow for the privileged few to unduly maximize their profits off of the general public. With big money and corporate lobbyists influencing our political system, Congress might not be working for the good of the public. That would mean corporations can unethically maximize their profits off of the American public. 

We at the Zero Theft Movement have created an independent voting platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to calculate the most accurate estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the United States. 

The public investigates potential problem areas, and everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas exist and start working on addressing them systematically. 

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Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

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