Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Jean-Jacques Dessalines (Haitian Creole: Jan-Jak Desalin; French pronunciation: ​[ʒɑ̃ ʒak dɛsalin]; 20 September 1758 – 17 October 1806) was a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti under the 1805 constitution. Under Dessalines, Haiti became the first country to permanently abolish slavery. Initially regarded as governor-general, Dessalines was later named Emperor of Haiti as Jacques I (1804–1806) by generals of the Haitian Revolution Army and ruled in that capacity until being assassinated in 1806.[1] He is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Haiti.[2]

Jacques I
Emperor of Haiti
Reign2 September 1804 – 17 October 1806
Coronation8 October 1804
President of Haiti
Reign1 January 1804 - 2 September 1804
Born(1758-09-20)20 September 1758
Cormier, Grande-Rivière-du-Nord, Saint-Domingue, Haiti
Died17 October 1806(1806-10-17) (aged 48)
Pont Larnage (now Pont Rouge), near Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Burial17 October 1806 by Dédée Bazile
SpouseMarie-Claire Heureuse Félicité
Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Coat of armsJean-Jacques Dessalines Coat of arms.jpg

Dessalines served as an officer in the French army, when the colony was fending off Spanish and British incursions. Later he rose to become a commander in the revolt against France. As Toussaint Louverture's principal lieutenant, he led many successful engagements, including the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot.

After the betrayal and capture of Toussaint Louverture in 1802, Dessalines became the leader of the revolution. He defeated a French army at the Battle of Vertières in 1803. Declaring Haiti an independent nation in 1804, Dessalines was chosen by a council of generals to assume the office of governor-general. He ordered the 1804 Haiti massacre of French settlers in Haiti, resulting in the deaths of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, but declared that the Polish foreign mercenaries who defected from the French Legion could remain in the new country.[3] In September 1804, he was proclaimed emperor by the Generals of the Haitian Revolution Army and ruled in that capacity until being assassinated in 1806.[4]

Early lifeEdit

Taking the last name of the person who owned his mother at the time, Jean-Jacques Duclos was born into slavery on Cormier, a plantation near Grande-Riviere-du-Nord.[5] His father had adopted the surname from his owner Henri Duclos. The identity of Jean-Jacques' parents, as well as his region of ancestral origin in Africa, are not known, but most slaves trafficked to Haiti came from west and central West Africa.

Dessalines had two brothers, Louis and Joseph Duclos, who also later took the name Dessalines. The first was the father of Maréchal de Camp Monsieur Raymond Dessalines, created 1st Baron de Louis Dessalines on 8 April 1811, aide-de-camp to King Henry I, privy councillor, secretary-general of the Ministry of War between 1811 and 1820 and member of the Royal Chamber of Public Instruction between 1818 and 1820, who received the degree of Knight of the Order of St. Henry on 1 May 1811. He was killed by the revolutionaries at Cap-Henri on 10 October 1820. The second was the father of Maréchal de Camp Monsieur Dessalines, created 1st Baron de Joseph Dessalines in 1816, chamberlain to Prince Jacques-Victor Henry, the Prince Royal of Haiti, and major of the Grenadiers de la Garde, who received the degree of Knight of the Order of St. Henry on 28 October 1815.

Working in the sugarcane fields as a laborer, Dessalines rose to the rank of commandeur, or foreman. He worked on Duclos's plantation until he was about 30 years old. The slave Jean-Jacques was bought by a free black man named Dessalines, who assigned his own surname to him. From then on he was called Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines kept this name in freedom. He worked for that master for about three years, until the slave uprising of 1791, which spread across the Plaine du Nord.

Dessalines became increasingly embittered toward both the whites and gens de couleur libres (the mixed-race residents of Saint-Domingue) during the years of fighting the revolution against residents and foreign troops: French, British and Spanish. After the defeat of French royalists during the Haitian Revolution, he ordered the killing of all royalists to ensure that Saint-Domingue would be a nation.[6] Yet, after declaring himself Governor-for-Life in 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines was still willing to take his old master Dessalines into his house and gave him a job.


Ending slaveryEdit

In 1791, along with thousands of other enslaved persons, Jean-Jacques Dessalines joined the slave rebellion of the northern plains led by Jean François Papillon and Georges Biassou. This rebellion was the first action of what would become the Haitian Revolution. Dessalines became a lieutenant in Papillon's army and followed him to Santo Domingo, where he enlisted to serve Spain's military forces against the French colony of Saint-Domingue.

It was then that Dessalines met the rising military commander Toussaint Bréda (later known as Toussaint Louverture), a mature man also born into slavery, who was fighting with Spanish forces on Hispaniola. These men wanted above all to defeat slavery. In 1794, after the French declared an end to slavery, Toussaint Louverture switched allegiances to the French.[7] He fought for the French Republic against both the Spanish and British. Dessalines followed, becoming a chief lieutenant to Toussaint Louverture and rising to the rank of brigadier general by 1799.

Dessalines commanded many successful engagements, including the captures of Jacmel, Petit-Goâve, Miragoâne and Anse-à-Veau. In 1801, Dessalines quickly ended an insurrection in the north led by Louverture's own nephew, General Moyse. Dessalines gained a reputation for his "take no prisoners" policy, and for burning homes and entire villages to the ground.

The rebellious slaves were able to restore most of Saint-Domingue to France, with Louverture in control and finally appointed by the French as governor-general of the colony. Louverture wanted Saint-Domingue to have more autonomy. He directed the creation of a new constitution to establish that, as well as rules for how the colony would operate under freedom. He also named himself governor-for-life, while still swearing his loyalty to France.

The French government had been through changes and was led by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, was part of a slave-owning family. Many white and mulatto planters had been lobbying the government to reimpose slavery in Saint-Domingue. Napoleon was committed to restoring slavery in Saint-Domingue.[8]

Leclerc campaign to restore slaveryEdit

The French responded by dispatching an expeditionary force to restore French rule to the island, an army and ships led by General Charles Leclerc. Louverture and Dessalines fought against the invading French forces, with Dessalines defeating them at the battle for which he is most famous, Crête-à-Pierrot.

During the 11 March 1802 battle, Dessalines and his 1,300 men defended a small fort against 18,000 attackers. To motivate his troops at the start of the battle, he waved a lit torch near an open powder keg and declared that he would blow the fort up should the French breakthrough.[9] The defenders inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking army, but after a 20-day siege they were forced to abandon the fort due to a shortage of food and munitions. Nonetheless, the rebels were able to force their way through the enemy lines and into the Cahos Mountains, with their army still largely intact.[9]

The French soldiers under Leclerc were accompanied by mulatto troops led by gens de couleur Alexandre Pétion and André Rigaud from Saint-Domingue. Pétion and Rigaud, both sons of the wealthy with white fathers, had opposed Louverture's leadership. They had tried to establish separate independence in the South of Saint-Domingue, an area where wealthy gens de couleur were concentrated in plantations. Toussaint Louverture's forces had defeated them three years earlier.

After the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, Dessalines defected from his long-time ally Louverture and briefly sided with Leclerc, Pétion, and Rigaud. Dessalines was at least partially responsible for Louverture's arrest, as asserted by several authors, including Louverture's own son Isaac. On 22 May 1802, after Dessalines "learned that Louverture had failed to instruct a local rebel leader to lay down his arms per the recent ceasefire agreement, he immediately wrote Leclerc to denounce Louverture’s conduct as "extraordinary".". For this action, Dessalines and his spouse received gifts from Jean Baptiste Brunet.[10]

When it became clear that the French intended to re-establish slavery on Saint-Domingue, as they had on Guadeloupe, Dessalines and Pétion switched sides again in October 1802, to oppose the French. By November 1802, Dessalines had become the leader of the alliance [light skinned free coloreds] with the blessing of the most prominent of free coloreds, mulatto general Alexandre Pétion.[11] Leclerc died of yellow fever, which also took many French troops.

The brutal tactics of Leclerc's successor, Rochambeau, helped to unify rebel forces against the French. Dessalines, the leader of the Revolution after Toussaint's capture on 7 June 1802, commanded the rebel forces against a French army weakened by a yellow fever epidemic.[12] His forces achieved a series of victories against the French, culminating in the last major battle of the revolution, the Battle of Vertières. On 18 November 1803, black and mulatto forces under Dessalines and Pétion attacked the fort of Vertières, held by Rochambeau, near Cap-Français in the north. Rochambeau and his troops surrendered the next day. On 4 December 1803, the French colonial army of Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered its last remaining territory to Dessalines' forces. This officially ended the only slave rebellion in world history which successfully resulted in establishing an independent nation.[13]

In the process, Dessalines became arguably the most successful military commander in the struggle against Napoleonic France.[14] Dessalines then promulgated the Declaration of Independence in 1804, and declared himself emperor.[15]

Emperor of independent HaitiEdit

On 1 January 1804, from the city of Gonaïves, Dessalines officially declared the former colony's independence and renamed it "Ayiti" after the indigenous Taíno name. He had served as Governor-General of Saint-Domingue since 30 November 1803. After the declaration of independence, Dessalines named himself Governor-General-for-life of Haiti and served in that role until 22 September 1804, when he was proclaimed later Emperor of Haiti by the Generals of the Haitian Revolution Army.[16] He was crowned Emperor Jacques I in a coronation ceremony on 6 October in the city of Le Cap. On 20 May 1805, his government released the Imperial Constitution, naming Jean-Jacques Dessalines emperor for life with the right to name his successor.

Abolition of slaveryEdit

In declaring Haiti an independent country, Dessalines also abolished slavery in the new country. Thus, Haiti became the first country in the Americas to permanently abolish slavery.[17] Dessalines tried hard to keep the sugar industry and plantations running and producing without slavery. Born into slavery and having worked under white masters for 30 years, as well as having seen many atrocities by all peoples, Dessalines did not trust the white French people.[18] Between February and April 1804, he had the white Haitian minority killed by ordering the 1804 Haiti Massacre.[3] Dessalines declared Haiti an all-black nation and forbade whites from owning property or land there.

The remaining French forces meanwhile had fled to the Spanish side of the island and had holed themselves up in Santo Domingo. Dessalines and Christophe went after them at the head of 20,000 men. The Spanish side was a colony of fewer than 175,000 souls. The French force numbered perhaps 500 and the local colonial militia had no more than 1000 men. The armed Haitian juggernaut advanced sweeping everything in its path. In the town of Moca, one of the places that fell to Christophe, 40 children were beheaded; altogether more than 600 perished or were taken away in captivity as spoils of war, according to the eyewitness Gaspar de Arredondo y Pichardo.

Economic policiesEdit

Dessalines enforced a harsh regimen of plantation labor, described by the historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot as caporalisme agraire (agrarian militarism). As had Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines demanded that all blacks work either as soldiers to defend the nation or as labourers on the plantations to raise crops and help sustain the nation. His forces were strict in enforcing this, to the extent that some blacks felt as if they were again enslaved.

Dessalines believed in the tight regulation of foreign trade, which was essential for Haiti's sugar and coffee based export economy. Like Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines encouraged merchants from Britain and the United States over those from France. For his administration, Dessalines needed literate and educated officials and managers. He placed in these positions well-educated Haitians, who were disproportionately from the mulatto elite, as gens de couleur were most likely to have been educated.

Expulsion and killing of the white populationEdit

An 1806 engraving of Jean-Jacques Dessalines holding a severed French head.

With victory secured and thus the brutal war concluded, Jean-Jacques Dessalines would promptly order the execution of all French people on the island. The ensuing massacre took place in 1804 during the first several months, and the killings spanned the entire territory of Haiti. The death toll was estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000 people of all ages and sexes.[19]


Dessalines depicted on a 1916 Banque Nationale de la Republique 1 gourde note (1916)

Disaffected members of Dessalines' administration, including Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe, began a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor. Dessalines was assassinated north of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, at Larnage (now known as Pont-Rouge), on 17 October 1806, on his way to fight the rebels. Dessalines' assassination did not solve the tensions within the Haitian government, as his removal created a power vacuum that led to a civil war and a temporary partition of Haiti between Pétion and Christophe.

The exact circumstances of his death are uncertain. Some historians claim that he was actually killed at Pétion's house at Rue l'Enterrement, after a meeting to negotiate the power and the future of the young nation. Some reports say that he was arrested and was dealt a deadly blow to the head.[20] Another report says he was ambushed and killed at first fire.[21]

Yet another account recalls a brutal attack on him by his men. It says he was shot at twice and hit once. Then his head was split open by a sabre's blow and he was finally stabbed three times with a dagger, with the crowd shouting "the tyrant is killed".[22] The mob desecrated and disfigured his remains, which were abandoned on Government Square.[23] There was a lot of resistance to providing him with a proper burial, but Défilée (Dédée Bazile), a black woman from a humble background, took the mutilated body of the Emperor and buried it. A monument at the northern entrance of the Haitian capital marks the place where the Emperor was killed.


In 1804, the city of Marchand was renamed to Dessalines in his honour.

Shortly after his death, many men on the island changed their last names from their slave names to "Jean-Jacques" in honour of Dessalines. Some historians[who?] believe these men were soldiers of Dessalines.

For the remainder of the 19th century, Dessalines was generally reviled by generations of Haitians for his autocratic ways. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, Dessalines began to be reassessed as an icon of Haitian nationalism. The national anthem of Haiti, "La Dessalinienne", written in 1903, is named in his honour.

The Haitian humanitarian organization Fondasyon Félicité (FF), established in 1999 by Bayyinah Bello, is named after Dessalines' spouse Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité.

Dessalines was a great-grandfather of Cincinnatus Leconte, who served as President of Haiti from 1911 to 1912.[24][25]

Dessalines was a grandfather of Florvil Hyppolite, who served as President of Haiti from 1889 to 1896.

Dessalines was a grand-uncle of Nissage Saget, who served as President of Haiti from 1870 to 1874

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Gazette Politique et Commecial D'Haïti" (PDF). P. Roux, Imprimeur de L’Empreur. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  2. ^ "Independent Haiti". Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  3. ^ a b Philippe R. Girard (2011). The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence 1801–1804. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-1732-4
  4. ^ "Slave Revolt in St. Domingue".
  5. ^ "Jean Jacques Dessalines", Educando, March 2007.
  6. ^ Rogozinski, Jan (1999). A Brief History of the Caribbean (Revised ed.). New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 216. ISBN 0-8160-3811-2.
  7. ^ Sue Peabody, French Emancipation Accessed 27 October 2019.
  8. ^ Perry, James Arrogant Armies Great Military Disasters and the Generals Behind Them, (Edison: Castle Books, 2005) pages 78–79.
  9. ^ a b Simmonds, Yussuf J. (11 February 2010). "Jean Jacques Dessalines". Los Angeles Sentinel.
  10. ^ Girard, Philippe R. (July 2012). "Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Atlantic System: A Reappraisal" (PDF). The William and Mary Quarterly. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 69 (3): 559. doi:10.5309/willmaryquar.69.3.0549. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 August 2014. Retrieved 10 December 2014. a list of "extraordinary expenses incurred by general Brunet in regards to [the arrest of] Toussaint" started with "gifts in wine and liquor, gifts to Dessalines and his spouse, money to his officers: 4000 francs".
  11. ^ Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.
  12. ^ Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.
  13. ^ "Chapter 6 – Haiti: Historical Setting". Country Studies. Library of Congress. Retrieved 18 September 2006.
  14. ^ Christer Petley, White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of REvolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 182.
  15. ^ William Alexander MacCorkle, The Monroe doctrine in its relation to the republic of Haiti, Neale Publishing Company, 1915, p. 42.
  16. ^ "Gazette Politique et Commecial D'Haïti" (PDF). P. Roux, Imprimeur de L’Empreur. Retrieved 12 October 2017.
  17. ^ C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins (London: Penguin, 1938).
  18. ^ "A Brief History of Dessalines" Archived 28 December 2005 at the Wayback Machine, from 1825 Missionary Journal
  19. ^ Girard 2011, pp. 319–322.
  20. ^ Bob Corbet, "A Brief History of Dessalines". From American Missionary Register (October 1825, Vol. VI, No. 10, pp. 292–297).
  21. ^ W. M. Wells Brown, "The Rising Son". "Chapter XVI of The Rising Son the Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race 1874 (1874).
  22. ^ Thomas Madiou, "Histoire of Haiti", Henri Dechamps, t.3,( Port-au-Prince, 1989).
  23. ^ David Patrick Geggus, The World of the Haitian Revolution, Indiana University Press, 2009, p. 368.
  24. ^ Jacques Carmeleau, Jean Price-Mars and Haiti (Three Continents Press, 1981), p. 77.
  25. ^ Dantès Bellegarde, Histoire de du peuple haïtien, 1492–1952 (Held, 1953), p. 233.
  • Girard, Philippe R. (2011). The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence 1801–1804. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-1732-4.
  • Schutt-Ainé, Patricia (1994). Haiti: A Basic Reference Book. Miami, Florida: Librairie Au Service de la Culture. pp. 33–35, 60. ISBN 0-9638599-0-0.
  • TiCam (27 September 2006). "17 October: Death of Dessalines". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 16 October 2006.


  • Jenson, Deborah. Beyond the Slave Narrative: politics, sex, and manuscripts in the Haitian revolution. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Born: 20 September 1758 Died: 17 October 1806
Regnal titles
New title
Emperor of Haiti
22 September 1804 – 17 October 1806
Title next held by
Faustin I
Political offices
Preceded by
Napoléon I of France
as First Consul of France
Head of State of Haiti
22 September 1804 – 17 October 1806
Succeeded by
Henri I
as President of the State of
, later King of Haiti