Saturday, February 5, 2011


Henri Christophe: the first black King in the Western Hemisphere

In 1767, Henri Christophe was born on the island of Grenada, a British colonial acquisition. His parents were slaves brought to Grenada with thousands of other west Africans to work in the sugar industry. The Africans that the English used as slaves in the sugar industry were known for their fierce and determined nature to resist the institution of slavery. The revolutionary nature of Henri Christophe has its roots deeply embedded in his African ancestry.

Henri's obstinate, argumentative, and obdurate nature led his father to sell his services to a French ship's Captain as a cabin boy, before had reached the age of ten. The ship's captain sold Henri to a French sugar planter in the French province on the island of Saint Dominique called Haiti, which was a Carib Indian name meaning "the land of the mountains." The brutality of the French planters led to much discontent among the slaves in Haiti. These acts of brutality were witnessed by Henri and set the stage for his role in the Haitian revolution.

Christophe participated in the American Revolutionary War in the French contingent. Sergeant Henri Christophe was among the five hundred forty-five Haitian free Negroes known as the Fontages Legion. Fighting to make men in another country free from oppression created a thirst for freedom within Christophe.

In June 1794, Haiti was threatened with the threat of the Spaniards and the English who wanted to share the wealth created by the sugar industry. The Spaniards constituted the greatest threat and a battle for control of Haiti ensued. The three principal figures in the Haitian revolution were Toussaint L'Overture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. Toussaint joined the French forces against the Spaniards and became a general of the slaves and marched to several villages, liberating his brothers who immediately joined his forces. After having distinguished himself in battle, Christophe was made a sergeant by Toussaint and later made a General by Dessalines. The French forces were defeated and Haiti was declared an independent republic on November 27, 1803. The republic of Haiti was divided into two states and Christophe was elected president of the Northern State in February of 1807, and Alexandre Petion was elected President of the Southern Repbulic of Haiti in March. The division between the republics was to last for a decade.

President Christophe set out to improve all aspects of life in the northern province. One of his major concerns and preoccupations was the defense of his country form internal and external aggression. He had a huge fortress built on a mountain peak overlooking the Le Cap harbor, three thousand feet above the sea. The citadel was named "la Ferriere," which means the blacksmith's pouch. The huge stronghold, which still exists today, was built in the shape of a ship, covering sixteen acres, with some of the walls soaring 140 feet high.

The education of the Haitians was Henri Christophe's second priority. He solicited teachers from the United States and Britain to build schools, which would ultimately raise the former slaves to a literacy level unequaled in the western hemisphere. To continue the improvement of Haitian life, Christophe decided to create the first black kingdom in the western hemisphe. At a council of state on March 28, 1811, he declared Haiti a kingdom, with himself as King Henri I. Christophe offered the ruler of the south, Alexandre Petion, the opportunity to be absorbed. Petion refused and the relationship between the two men and their respective countries remained strained until Petion's death in 1818.

In August 1820, Christophe suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. When the news spread of his infirmities, the seeds of rebellion began to grow. On October 2, 1820, the military garrison at St. Marc led a mutiny that sparked a revolt. The mutiny coincided with a conspiracy of Christophe's own generals. Some of his trusted aides took him to the Citadel to await the inevitable confrontation with the rebels. Christophe ordered his attendants to bathe him and dress him in his formal military uniform, place him in his favorite chair in his den and leave him alone. Shortly after the attendants left his side, Christophe committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart with a silver bullet. To prevent Christophe's body from being mutilated by the rebels, several of his aides buried him in quick lime. Henri Chrisophe, the former slave had risen to become the king of Haiti and sought to create a kingdom that would rival any that existed in nineteenth century Europe.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Revolutionary and First Ruler of Independent Haiti

Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Dessalines fought with Toussaint Louverture against the British and French. After turning against Toussaint and joining Leclerc, Dessalines eventually became the leader of the revolution. A fierce warrior, his motto was "Koupe tet, boule kay" - "Cut off the head, burn down the house." (Wilentz) Dessalines declared Saint-Domingue's independence on January 1, 1804, and became the Black republic's first leader: the self-declared Emperor of Haiti (1804–1806 under the name of Jacques I; French:Jacques, Empereur Ier d'Haïti). For an English translation of the Independence declaration see: Act of Independence.

"A handsome, 'red-skinned' Negro from Senegal 1, fearless in the field and unscrupulous off it." (Parkinson, p. 67)

"In a battle near Cape François, Rochambeau took five hundred black prisoners, and put them all to death the same day. Dessalines, hearing of this, brought five hundred white prisoners in sight of the French, and hung them up, so that the cruel monster could see the result of his own barbarous example. (Wells-Brown p. 112)

"Nearly all historians have set him down as a bloodthirsty monster, who delighted in the sufferings of his fellow-creatures. They do not rightly consider the circumstances that surrounded him, and the foe that he had to deal with." (Wells-Brown p. 111)

"Insofar as we can talk intelligibly about a caste system in post-colonial Haiti, Dessalines was it's adversary." (Nicholls, p. 39)

Jean-Jacques Dessalines letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1803.
On declaring independence, Dessalines is reported to have created the Haitian flag by tearing out the white out of the French tricolor. The Haitian national anthem La Dessalinienne is named in Dessalines honor.

Dessalines is widely regarded by Haitians as one of the outstanding heroes in the struggle against slavery and colonialism, in this spirit he is also affectionately called: 'Papa Desalin' (lit. Father Dessalines). He was the Governor-General of Saint-Domingue from November 30, 1803 to December 31, 1803, the day before the Haitian Declaration of Independence. In contrast many non Haitian observers have focused on Dessalines treatment of French colonialists and less on his achievements in the freedom struggle.

Dessalines Marriage and children

Note 2: Dessalines was married to Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité (1758 Léogâne - August 8, 1858), they had four daughters and three sons together, including a pair of twins. She was buried in St. Marc.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines had also six children from other relationships.

The Haitian Constitution of 1805

After becoming the ruler of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines promulgated the Haitian Constitution of 1805 on May 20 of that year. This constitution included the following important provisions:

  • Freedom of Religion (Under Toussaint Catholicism had been declared the official state religion);
  • All citizens of Haiti, regardless of skin color, to be known as "Black" – including the Poles and Germans (This was an attempt to eliminate the multi-tiered racial hierarchy which had developed in Haiti, with full-blooded Europeans at the top, various levels of light to brown skin in the middle, and dark skinned "Kongo", referring tho the region of Africa where most of the slaves had arrived from, from Africa at the bottom).

Dessalines Death

Pont-Rouge, site of Dessalines assassination
A conspiracy to overthrow Dessalines included Henry Christophe and Alexandre Pétion, who both succeeded him. Dessalines was assassinated north of Port-au-Prince at Pont Larnage, (now known as Pont-Rouge) on October 17, 1806 en route to battle the rebels.

Défilée, a woman, took the mutilated body of Jean-Jacques Dessalines to bury him.

The Tomb of Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Former Dessalines tomb at the Cimetière Intérieur.
On Dessalines tomb, in Port-au-Prince near the Palais National (Seat of Government), the inscription states: "At the first canon shot, giving the alarm, cities disappear and the nation stands up". (Péralte)

Note 1: Various sources give different birthplaces and/or dates for Jean-Jacques Dessalines, but respected Haitian historians such as Madiou come to the conclusion that Dessalines was born in the North of Haiti

See Also

Documents and Letters

From Toussaint Louverture

French Documents

Haitian Documents

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Toussaint L' Ouverture

The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon

Napoleon was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. But at the end of the 18th century a self-educated slave with no military training drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence.

Toussaint L'Ouverture
Toussaint L'Ouverture

The remarkable leader of this slave revolt was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint L'Ouverture, and sometimes the “black Napoleon”). Slave revolts from this time normally ended in executions and failure – this story is the exception.

It began in 1791 in the French colony of Saint Dominique (later Haiti). Though born a slave in Saint Dominique, Toussaint learned of Africa from his father, who had been born a free man there. He learned that he was more than a slave, that he was a man with brains and dignity. He was fortunate in having a liberal master who had him trained as a house servant and allowed him to learn to read and write. Toussaint took full advantage of this, reading every book he could get his hands on. He particularly admired the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophers, who spoke of individual rights and equality.

In 1789 the French Revolution rocked France. The sugar plantations of Saint Dominique, though far away, would never be the same. Spurred on by such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the early moderate revolutionaries considered seriously the question of slavery. Those moderate revolutionaries were not willing to end slavery but they did apply the "Rights of Man" to all Frenchmen, including free blacks and mulattoes (those of mixed race). Plantation owners in the colonies were furious and fought the measure. Finally the revolutionaries gave in and retracted the measure in 1791.

The news of this betrayal triggered mass slave revolts in Saint Dominique, and Toussaint became the leader of the slave rebellion. He became known as Toussaint L'Ouverture (the one who finds an opening) and brilliantly led his rag-tag slave army. He successfully fought the French (who helped by succumbing to yellow fever in large numbers) as well as invading Spanish and British.

Maximilian Robespierre

By 1793, the revolution in France was in the hands of the Jacobins, the most radical of the revolutionary groups. This group, led by Maximilian Robespierre, was responsible for the Reign of Terror, a campaign to rid France of “enemies of the revolution.” Though the Jacobins brought indiscriminate death to France, they were also idealists who wanted to take the revolution as far as it could go. So they again considered the issue of “equality” and voted to end slavery in the French colonies, including what was now known as Haiti.

There was jubilation among the blacks in Haiti, and Toussaint agreed to help the French army eject the British and Spanish. Toussaint proved to be a brilliant general, winning 7 battles in 7 days. He became a defacto governor of the colony.

In France the Jacobins lost power. People finally tired of blood flowing in the streets and sent Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, to the guillotine, ending the Reign of Terror. A reaction set in. The French people wanted to get back to business. More moderate leaders came and went, eventually replaced by Napoleon, who ruled France with dictatorial powers. He responded to the pleas of the plantation owners by reinstating slavery in the French colonies, once again plunging Haiti into war.

Napoleon Bonaparte

By 1803 Napoleon was ready to get Haiti off his back: he and Toussaint agreed to terms of peace. Napoleon agreed to recognize Haitian independence and Toussaint agreed to retire from public life. A few months later, the French invited Toussaint to come to a negotiating meeting will full safe conduct. When he arrived, the French (at Napoleon's orders) betrayed the safe conduct and arrested him, putting him on a ship headed for France. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be placed in a prison dungeon in the mountains, and murdered by means of cold, starvation, and neglect. Toussaint died in prison, but others carried on the fight for freedom.

Six months later, Napoleon decided to give up his possessions in the New World. He was busy in Europe and these far-away possessions were more trouble than they were worth. He abandoned Haiti to independence and sold the French territory in North America to the United States (the Louisiana purchase).

Years later, in exile at St. Helena, when asked about his dishonorable treatment of Toussaint, Napoleon merely remarked, "What could the death of one wretched Negro mean to me?"