Julia Gaffield: Dessalines Day, October 17

gaffield_haitian_PBWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Julia Gaffield, author of Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution. On January 1, 1804, Haiti shocked the world by declaring independence. Historians have long portrayed Haiti’s postrevolutionary period as one during which the international community rejected Haiti’s Declaration of Independence and adopted a policy of isolation designed to contain the impact of the world’s only successful slave revolution. Gaffield, however, anchors a fresh vision of Haiti’s first tentative years of independence to its relationships with other nations and empires and reveals the surprising limits of the country’s supposed isolation.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a man enslaved under French rule who played an important role in Haiti’s independence, became Emperor Jacques 1er of Haiti. His rule ended with his death during a military revolt in October of 1806, the anniversary of which is celebrated in Haiti as Dessalines Day, October 17. In today’s post, Gaffield argues that although Haitians mark the day as a celebration of the death of a tyrant, Dessalines’ legacy is actually more complex than that.


Otsego Herald, Cooperstown, New York, 29 March 1804, Vol. IX, Issue 470, Page 2.

Tomorrow, 209 years ago, generals of the Haitian army murdered Emperor Jacques 1er of Haiti. The military rebels then hacked his body to pieces before parading the corpse around the streets of Port-au-Prince. The emperor, one general reported, “believed that the art of government consisted of nothing but his tyrannical will and he indulged in the most villainous debauchery.”

Like his enemies on October 17, 1806, history has not been kind to Dessalines. Beginning with his ascent to power and continuing into the twenty-first century, Dessalines has been criticized for his use of violence during and after the Revolution as well as for his alleged political incompetence. Much of the criticism is a product of racist beliefs about his “African” character despite the fact that we do not know with certainty whether he was born in Saint-Domingue or in West Africa. His “Africanness” is almost always pitted against the “civility” and “moderation” of the earlier revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.

Dessalines’s abilities and successes have been “silenced in order to cast him as a bad apple in the (now) celebrated Haitian Revolution that changed the course of modern history. This oversimplified version of Dessalines as a revolutionary and state leader ignores his political achievements and reduces the Haitian Revolution to a palatable and whitewashed event during the Age of Revolution. It mirrors a reluctance to study the years after the Declaration of Independence. The revolution did not produce a democratic republic based on universalist principles of freedom and equality.

But we cannot pick and chose which parts of the revolution we remember. We must understand the revolution and its aftermath—as well as its leaders—in all their complexity.

Edward Corbet, 28 January 1803, The National Archives of the United Kingdom, CO 137/110
Edward Corbet, 28 January 1803, The National Archives of the United Kingdom, CO 137/110

Yes, Dessalines employed violence during and after the revolution—a fact that we should not forget. But we should work to understand the politics of that violence as well as the diplomatic measures that Dessalines negotiated in order to secure his country’s independence.

Rather than “an African, brutal and sanguinary in his disposition and altogether illiterate,” Dessalines must also be remembered as “His Midnight Majesty,” who confidently proclaimed Haiti’s independence to his citizens, to the world—to the “universe.” And ensured that no foreign power ever set foot on his territory as “master” or “proprietor.”

October 17 is Dessalines Day, a national holiday in Haiti, but Dessalines has not always been celebrated as a national hero. Slowly, scholars are beginning to unravel a more nuanced narrative of Jean-Jacques Dessalines as a state leader and are therefore gaining a better understanding of the development of Haiti as an independent country.

Julia Gaffield is assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. Her book Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution is now available. Connect with Gaffield by visiting her blog Haiti and the Atlantic World or following her on Twitter @JuliaGaffield.