Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part I: Chapter X

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Proclamation of independence—Saint-Domingue becomes Haiti—Dessalines, the first ruler of Haiti (January 1, 1804-October 17, 1806)—Intrigues of the English—Military organization of Haiti—Discontent provoked by Dessalines's administration—His death.

The struggle for supremacy had cost the lives of over 50,000 Frenchmen.[1] Dessalines desired to notify France by a solemn declaration that a new State had replaced her former colony. By a happy inspiration he chose for the proclamation of the Independence of Haiti the very spot on which had been enacted the treacherous deportation of Toussaint Louverture. Toward the end of December, 1803, he went to Gonaives, at which place he had given instructions to the generals of his army to assemble. On the 1st of January, 1804, they all met together on the Place d'Armes and swore to abjure forever allegiance to France, to die rather than to live under her domination. The oath was met by the ringing cheers of a people mad with joy. Enthusiasm reached its highest pitch when Boisrond Tonnerre, Secretary to the Commander-in-Chief, read out Haiti's certificate of birth, consisting of the following words:

"On this the first day of January, 1804, the Commander-in-Chief of the army of the indigenes, accompanied by the Generals of the army assembled for the purpose of taking the measures destined to secure the happiness of the country;

"After informing the Generals of his true intentions to give forever to the natives of Haiti a stable government, which he had previously done in a speech which aimed at acquainting the foreign Powers with the resolution to make the country independent and to enjoy the liberty acquired with the blood of the people of the island; and after taking the opinion of all present;

"Requested the Generals to swear to abjure forever allegiance to France, to die rather than to live under her domination, and to fight to the last for the preservation of their independence.

"The Generals imbued with these sacred principles, after proclaiming in a loud voice their unanimous adhesion to the resolution of independence, swore for all their posterity and to the world to abjure forever allegiance to France, and to die rather than to live under her domination.

"Done at Gonaives on the 1st of January, 1804, and on the first day of the Independence of Haiti.

"(Signed) Dessalines, Commander-in-Chief; Christophe, Pétion, Clervaux, Geffrard, Vernet, Gabart, Major-Generals; P. Romain, E. Gérin, F. Capois, Daut, Jean-Louis François, Férou, Cangé, L. Bazelais, Magloire-Ambroise, J. J. Herne, Toussaint-Brave, Yayou, Brigadier-Generals; Bonnet, F. Papalier, Morelly, Chevalier, Marion, Adjutant-Generals; Magny, Roux, Chiefs of Brigades; Charéron, B. Loret, Quénez, Macajoux, Dupuy, Carbonne, Diaquoi ainé, Raphael, Malet, Derenoncourt, Officers of the Army; and Boisrond Tonnerre, Secretary."

In order to efface the last vestige of an abhorred domination, the very name of Saint-Domingue was changed. The island assumed once again the name given to her by her first inhabitants and henceforth was known as Haiti.

That the young State conferred absolute power on its liberator is testified by the following act:

"In the name of the people of Haiti:

"We, Generals and Chiefs of the army of the island of Haiti, thankful for the benefits received from the Commander-in-Chief Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the protector of the liberty which we are enjoying;

"In the name of Liberty, Independence and of the people he has made happy,

"Proclaim him Governor-General of Haiti for life. We swear entire obedience to the laws he shall deem fit to make, his authority being the only one we acknowledge. We authorize him to make peace and war, and to appoint his successor.

"Done at the headquarters of Gonaives this 1st of January, 1804, and the first day of the Independence of Haiti."

"(Signed) Gabart, P. Romain, J. J. Herne, Capois, Christophe, Geffrard, E. Gérin, Vernet, Pétion, Clervaux, Jean-Louis François, Cangé, Férou, Yayou, Toussaint-Brave, Magloire-Ambroise, L. Bazelais, Daut."

The dictatorial power intrusted to Dessalines was the natural sequel of events. The generals who had just led the people to victory considered themselves to be the legitimate representatives of the country. According to their views, their most pressing duty was the immediate organization of a government capable of defending their newly acquired conquest. At the head of such a strong government they naturally placed their Commander-in-Chief. Not all the elation at their success, great though it was, could make them forget that they were to be prepared for all contingencies should France choose to renew the struggle. The Spanish portion of the island was still in her possession; she had thus a convenient basis for her military operation. In consequence the Haitians clung to their military organization. Instead of a Commander-in-Chief they had at their head a Governor-General, merely a change of title.

Pétion, Christophe, and Geffrard were respectively appointed Commandants of the Western, Northern, and Southern départements; Gabart was given command of the Artibonite. They were all animated by the one thought to be ready for an energetic defense in case of an attack by their former opponents. The soldiers were constantly kept on the alert. Profiting by the experience acquired on the battlefields, they began fortifying all the valleys and the summits of hills and mountains where it would be easy for them to stand their ground against an enemy superior in forces[2] Every citizen was compelled to join the army.

The municipal and judicial powers were all in the hands of the military authorities: Haiti was an immense military camp.

The task of the new Government was a difficult one. Everything had to be organized. Rochambeau's crimes had so much incensed the natives that the Frenchmen who had not accompanied the remainder of their army had been put to death. All functionaries of the Government and administration had to be created, from policemen to statesmen. In reality there were many worthy and gallant officers and brave soldiers; but experts in civil administration were scarce. Notwithstanding the absence of special knowledge on this subject, the natives to a man were determined to preserve the independence of the country they had just conquered. Dessalines courageously set to work. He began by rejecting the insidious overtures made by Great Britain. This power, whose advances to Toussaint Louverture had not met with success, believed that these people, whose existence seemed to be so precarious, would be more than happy to have its protection. In consequence the Governor of Jamaica lost no time in despatching Edward Corbed to Haiti with the object of obtaining the exclusive right to the commerce of the island and a quasi-protectorate. The request was denied; and Admiral Duckworth, angered by the failure of his scheme, threatened to capture the Haitian guard-ships. In the event of this Dessalines declared that he would at once prevent the English merchant ships from entering the ports of the island. This threat produced the desired effect; for just at that time the United States frigate Connecticut was at Gonaives and on board there was an agent sent to renew with Dessalines the commercial relations which had formerly been carried on with Toussaint Louverture. The Governor-General of Haiti was thus turning all his efforts toward safeguarding the dignity and the interests of his country.

In accepting the title of Emperor he was not prompted by mere foolish vanity. The Agents sent by France to Saint-Domingue had been known as Governors-General; the continued use of this title might therefore leave the impression that the Haitians were still dependent on the former mother country; thus it was thought proper to adopt another name more suited to the chief of a sovereign State. Bonaparte had just been proclaimed Emperor of the French. This seemed to be a particularly fit occasion to affirm once again the independence of the country. Accordingly Dessalines decided to assume the same title with which the ruler of France had been invested. In September, 1804, the army acclaimed him Emperor of Haiti. This new appellation added nothing to the dictatorial power with which he was already clothed. And Dessalines gave the best evidence of his great common sense by refusing to create a nobility. He avoided establishing any discrimination of rank; he even refused to allow any special privileges to be conferred upon his children: the equality of all citizens was to be the prevailing feature of the new State.

In becoming Jacques, first Emperor of Haiti, Dessalines did not lose sight of the necessity of making provision for the future good and tranquillity. The French were still in possession of the Spanish portion of the island. On the 5th of January, 1805, General Ferrand, who was in command of this portion of the country, ordered a sudden attack upon the Haitians, among whom only those under 14 years of age were to be taken prisoners, the others being destined evidently to be massacred; the boys and the girls under 10 years were to be sold and kept on the plantations of the colony; whilst those between the ages of 12 and 14 years were to be sold and deported.

To avenge this barbarous decree, Dessalines, at the head of 25,000 soldiers, invaded the Spanish territory. He started on February 16, and on the 6th of March his army, victorious in every encounter, began to lay siege to Santo Domingo, which would undoubtedly have fallen before him had not a French squadron appeared with reinforcements on March 27. Fearing the possibility of French troops being landed on the coasts of Haiti during his absence, Dessalines was obliged to raise the siege and to evacuate the whole of the Spanish portion. His apprehensions were happily unfounded: the French had made no hostile demonstrations against Haiti. Nevertheless, Dessalines took all precautionary measures. He availed himself of the opportunity to organize his Empire. On the 20th of May, 1805, the first Haitian Constitution was proclaimed. Slavery was forever abolished. Dessalines, whose surroundings and early training had not been such as would tend to fit him to act the part of law-maker, proved to be an able one. He enacted a military penal code, laws concerning illegitimate children and divorce and a law establishing the courts and their jurisdiction. By decrees he settled the respective limits of the military divisions of the territory; he opened some ports to commerce with foreign countries; he regulated the coasting trade and established import and export taxes.

Notwithstanding all his excellent good qualities, he was a man with whom it was hard to agree. Above all, Dessalines was a man of action, and he owed his success to his untiring energy and to the use of force. Slave, soldier, or general, he accepted or enjoined discipline: he was accustomed to obey or to be obeyed. He was thus naturally led to consider as the best method of government that passive obedience which, as a military chief, he used to exact from his subordinates. This system succeeded in the struggle with the French; why then should it fail when applied to the administration? Of a hasty and petulant temper the new ruler of Haiti was as quick in forming a decision as in its execution; in consequence, he did not tolerate any discussion of his orders. Hence he ruled the State as he was wont to command his soldiers as an absolute master. As a matter of fact, his rule was not far removed from the despotism of the French. The various Governors-General never had shown any respect for civil or political liberty. They relied upon the army and knew no restraint. To their minds the rights of the people were of no account. Having from his earliest years lived in such an atmosphere it was hardly possible to expect to find in Dessalines a liberal-minded ruler. And the purely rudimentary knowledge of his subordinates made them incapable of tempering the dictatorial power intrusted to him. A few of his economic and financial combinations were of necessity imperfect. In course of time these mistakes might have been remedied; and civil as well as political liberty would have prevailed. But Dessalines's contemporaries were very hasty men; his lieutenants took umbrage at the very tyranny they had contributed to create; and as the news spread that the most important amongst them were about to be arrested, they plotted a conspiracy. The discontent which some of the administrative measures had provoked among the people was taken full advantage of. The insurrection broke out on the 8th of October in the neighborhood of Port-Salut in the Southern Department. The insurgents acknowledged Henri Christophe, who was then Commander-in-Chief of the Army, as their leader. Pétion joined the revolt and caused the defection of the troops under his command. Port-au-Prince ceased accordingly to acknowledge Dessalines's authority. The Emperor, unaware of these events, had left Marchand, his capital, on October 15, en route for the South, where he was going to reestablish peace and order. On his way soldiers had been set by the conspirators; without the least suspicion of the trap set for him, he continued his way in full confidence, paying no heed to the warning which Colonel Léger, one of his aides-de-camp, gave him, as he was approaching Pont Rouge, at a short distance from Port-au-Prince, on the 17th of October, 1806. He did not realize the danger until he was completely surrounded on all sides. He tried to defend himself; but Garat, a young soldier, fired; Dessalines's horse fell to the ground. Charlotin Marcadieu, one of his aides-de-camp, hastened to his assistance. Just at that moment a volley of musketry was fired and Dessalines ceased to exist. Thus expired the liberator of Haiti, a victim of the sad customs of his time and of the very cause of liberty of which he had been the successful defender.

  1. Gastonnet des Fosses. La perte d'une colonie, p. 34.
  2. Christophe undertook the building of Laferrière, which later on became the Citadelle Henry; Pétion built Fort Jacques and Fort Alexandre. In the South Geffrard erected the Fort des Platons. Forts Campain, Cap Rouge, Bonnet Carré, Marfranc, Desbois, etc., were built in the mountains around Léogane, Jacmel, Anse-à-Veau, Aquin, and Jérémie, etc.