William Wells Brown - Dessalines

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Portrait of William Wells Brown
Monument to Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
A description of Jean-Jacques Dessalines from the 1863 book The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements by William Wells Brown (1814 1 Kentucky - November 6, 1884 Chelsea, Massachusetts). William W. Brown, a former slave and abolitionist, has a much more positive opinion of Dessalines than his contemporaries of European origin and over the more than 200 years since the Haitian Revolution this has become more of a mainstream view, with more writers elevating Dessalines and highlighting his accomplishments. The view of William Wells Brown contrasts sharply with the 1837 book by John Brown M.D The History and Present Condition of St. Domingo (excerpt). Part of which can be certainly explained by the authors different status within society.

JEAN JACQUES DESSALINES was a native of Africa. 2 Brought to St. Domingo at the age of sixteen, he was sold to a black man named Dessalines, from whom he took his own. His master was a tiler or house-shingler, and the slave learned that trade, at which he worked until the breaking out of the revolution of 1789, when he entered the army as a common soldier, under Toussaint. By his activity and singular fierceness on the field of battle, Dessalines attracted the attention of his general, who placed him among his guides and personal attendants; and he was subsequently rapidly advanced through several intermediate grades to the dignity of being the third in command. He was entirely ignorant of learning, as the utmost extent that he ever acquired was to sign his name. Dessalines was short in stature, but stout and muscular. His complexion was a dingy black; his eyes were prominent and scowling, and the lines of his features expressed the untamed ferocity of his character. He had a haughty and disdainful look. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, and loss of sleep he seemed made to endure as if by peculiarity of constitution. He bore upon his arms and breast the marks of his tribe. Inured by exposure and toil to a hard life, his frame possessed a wonderful power of endurance. He was a bold and turbulent spirit, whose barbarous eloquence lay in expressive signs rather than in words. What is most strange in the history of Dessalines is, that he was a savage, a slave, a soldier, a general, and died, when an emperor, under the dagger of a Brutus.

A more courageous man than he never lived. Fearing that his men, during the attack upon the fort at Crete-a-Pierrot, would surrender it, he seized a torch, held it to the door of the magazine, and threatened to blow up the fort, and himself with it, if they did not defend it. 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.

Rochambeau, the commanding general, from the landing of Napoleon's expedition to the entire expulsion of the French, was a hard-hearted slaveholder, many of whose years had been spent in St. Domingo, and who, from the moment that he landed with his forces, treated the colored men as the worst of barbarians and wild beasts. He imported bloodhounds from Cuba to hunt them down in the mountains. When caught, he had them thrown into burning pits and boiling caldrons. When he took prisoners, he put them to the most excruciating tortures and the most horrible deaths. His ferocious and sanguinary spirit was too much for the kind heart of Toussaint, or the gentlemanly bearing of Christophe. His only match was Dessalines.

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.

Although Toussaint was away from the island, the war seemed to rage with greater fury than at any former period. The blacks grew wild as they looked upon the flames; they became conscious of their power and success; gaining confidence and increasing their numbers, all the pent-up feelings and hatred of years burst forth, and they pushed forward upon defenceless men, women, and children. The proud, haughty, and self-sufficient planter, who had been permitted, under the mild rule of Toussaint, to return and establish himself on his former estate, had to give way again to the terrible realities which came upon him.

The fertile plains that were in the highest state of cultivation, the lively green of the sugar-cane that filled the landscape through boundless fields, and the plantations of indigo and coffee, with all their beautiful hues of vegetation, were destroyed by the flames and smoke which spread every where. Dessalines was the commander-in-chief in fact, though he shared the name with Christophe and Clervaux. Forty thousand French troops had already perished by yellow fever and the sword. Leclerc, the captain-general of the island, lay sick, the hospitals were filled, and the blacks had possession of nearly all the towns.

Twenty thousand fresh troops arrived from France, but they were not destined to see Leclerc, for the yellow fever had taken him off. In the mountains were many barbarous and wild blacks, who had escaped from slavery soon after being brought from the coast of Africa. One of these bands of savages was commanded by Lamour de Rance, an adroit, stern, savage man, half naked, with epaulets tied to his bare shoulders for his only token of authority. This man had been brought from the coast of Africa, and sold as a slave in Port au Prince. On being ordered one day to saddle his master's horse, he did so, then mounted the animal, fled to the mountains, and ever after made those fearful regions his home. Lamour passed from mountain to mountain with something of the ease of the birds of his own native land. Toussaint, Christophe, and Dessalines, had each in their turn pursued him, but in vain. His mode of fighting was in keeping with his dress. This savage united with others like himself, and became complete master of the wilds of St. Domingo. They came forth from their mountain homes, and made war on the whites wherever they found them. Rochambeau, surrounded on all sides, drew his army together for defence rather than aggression. Reduced to the last extremity by starvation, the French general sued for peace, and promised that he would immediately leave the island. It was accepted by the blacks, and Rochambeau prepared to return to France. The French embarked in their vessels of war, and the standard of the blacks once more waved over Cape City, the capital of St. Domingo. As the French sailed from the island, they saw the tops of the mountains lighted up. It was not a blaze kindled for war, but for freedom. Every heart beat for liberty, and every voice shouted for joy. From the ocean to the mountains, and from town to town, the cry was, Freedom!

Freedom! Thus ended Napoleon's expedition to St. Domingo. In less than two years the French lost more than fifty thousand persons. After the retirement of the whites, the men of color put forth a Declaration of Independence, in which they said, "We have sworn to show no mercy to those who may dare to speak to us of slavery."

The bravery and military skill which Dessalines had exhibited after the capture of Toussaint, the bold, resolute manner in which he had expelled the whites from the island, naturally pointed him out as the future ruler of St. Domingo. After serving a short time as president, Dessalines assumed the dignity of emperor, and changed the name of the island to that of Hayti.

The population of Hayti had been very much thinned by the ravages of war, and Dessalines, for the purpose of aiding those of his race, who had been taken away by force, to return, offered large rewards to captains of vessels for any that they might bring back as passengers.

One of the charges against Dessalines is based upon the fact that he changed his government from a republic to an empire. But we must consider that the people of Hayti had always lived under a monarchy, and were wedded to that kind of government. Had Toussaint allowed himself to be made a king, his power would have been recognized by Great Britain, and he would never have yielded to the solicitations of Leclerc, when that general's fleet landed on the island. Napoleon had just been crowned emperor of France, and it was not at all surprising that Dessalines should feel inclined to imitate the conqueror of Egypt.

The empire of Hayti was composed of six military divisions, each to be under the command of a general officer, who was independent of his associates who governed in other districts, as he was responsible to the head of the state alone. The supreme power was formally conferred upon Jean Jacques Dessalines, the avenger and liberator of his countrymen, who was to take the title of Emperor and Commander-in-chief of the Army, and to be addressed by the appellation of His Majesty--a dignity which was also conferred upon the empress, his wife, and the persons of both were declared inviolable. The crown was elective, but the power was conferred upon the reigning emperor to select and appoint his successor, by a nomination which required the sanction of the people to give it validity. The emperor was empowered to make the laws to govern the empire, and to promulgate them under his seal; to appoint all the functionaries of the state, and remove them at his will; to hold the purse of the nation; to make peace and war, and in all things to exercise the rights and privileges of an absolute sovereign. The monarch was assisted in wielding this mighty authority by a council of state, composed of generals of division and brigade. No peculiar faith in religion was established by law, and toleration was extended to the doctrines and worship of all sects. Surrounded by all the luxuries that wealth could procure, he was distinguished for the Roman virtues of abstinence and energy. Scorning effeminacy, he seemed ambitious to inure himself to the most laborious exercise and to the simplest mode of living. Dessalines was well schooled in the toils and labors of the camp. As his life was made up of extremes, so in his habits and personal endurances were seen great contrasts. Impetuosity and rapid movement were among his chief characteristics. He prided himself on his being able to surprise his enemies and taking them unprepared. Indeed, this was a leading trait in his military character, and places him alongside of Napoleon, or any other general, ancient or modern. As time smooths over his footsteps, and wears out the blood that marked his course, the circumstances attending it will, no doubt, be made to extenuate some of his many faults, and magnify his virtues as a general, a ruler, and a man.

The empress was a woman of rare beauty, and had some education, talent, and refinement. Her humanity caused her to restrain her husband, upon many occasions, from acts of cruelty. Though uneducated, Dessalines was not ignorant even of the classics, for he kept three secretaries, who, by turns, read to him.

As soon as he came into power, the emperor exerted every nerve to fortify the island, and to make it strong in the time of need. Much has been said of the cruelty of this man, and far be it from me to apologize for his acts. Yet, to judge rightly of him, we must remember that he had an ignorant people to govern, on the one hand, and the former planters to watch and control on the other. This latter class was scattered all over Europe and the United States, and they lost no opportunity to poison the minds of the whites against Dessalines and his government. He discovered many plots of the old white planters to assassinate him, and this drew out the ferociousness of his disposition, and made him cruel in the extreme. That he caused the death of innocent persons, there is not the slightest doubt; but that such a man as he was needed at the time, all must admit. Had Dessalines been in the place of Toussaint, he would never have been transferred from Hayti to France. Unlimited power, conferred upon him, together with the opposition of the whites in all countries, made him cruel even to his own race, and they looked forward with a degree of hope to his removal. The mulattoes, against whom he had never ceased to war, were ever watchful for an opportunity to take his life. A secret conspiracy was accordingly planned by this class, and on the 17th of October, 1806, while Dessalines was on a journey from St. Marks to Port au Prince, a party in ambuscade fired at him, and he fell dead.

Hayti had much improved under his management, especially in agriculture. The towns, many of them, had been rebuilt, commerce extended, and the arts patronized. Military talents have been ascribed to Dessalines even superior to Toussaint. He certainly had great courage, but upon the battle field it seemed to be the headlong fury of the tiger rather than the calm deliberation of L'Ouverture. Of all the heroic men which the boiling caldron of the St. Domingo revolution threw upon its surface, for the purpose of meeting the tyrannical whites, of bringing down upon them terrible retribution for their long and cruel reign, and of vindicating the rights of the oppressed in that unfortunate island, the foremost place belongs to the African, the savage, the soldier, the general, the president, and lastly the emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Note 1: The birth-year of William Wells Brown is sometimes given as 1815.

Note 2: Various sources give different birthplaces and/or dates for Jean-Jacques Dessalines, but respected Haitian historians such as Madiou, in his L'Histoire d'Haïti published in 1847, come to the conclusion that Dessalines was born in the North of Haiti near Grande-Rivière-du-Nord.
The text, as many dealing with the Haitian Revolution, has several passages that seem removed from the truth, in part explainable by the fact, that many early writers did never set foot on Haitian soil and that many materials they consulted, were presented not by Haitians but often by Europeans, who often had strong biases and also little in country experience.

See also


  • Wells Brown, William (1863). The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. Chapel Hill, NC: Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH. Online Publication - p. 110-117
  • Wikipedia contributors (2006). William Wells Brown. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:12, February 2, 2006 [1].

External links