Jean-Jacques Dessalines (September 20, 1758 – 17 October 1806) was a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti under the 1801 constitution. He was autocratic in his rule and crowned himself Emperor of Haïti in 1805.
Dessalines served as an officer in the French army when the colony was trying to withstand Spanish and British incursions. Later he rose to become a commander in the revolt against the same colonial power. As Toussaint L'Ouverture's principal lieutenant, he led many successful engagements, such as the Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, and employed brutal tactics against the enemy.
After the betrayal and capture of Toussaint Louverture in 1802, Dessalines became the leader of the revolution. He defeated French troops sent by Napoleon at the Battle of Vertières in 1803. Declaring Haiti an independent nation in 1804, Dessalines was chosen by a council of generals (blacks and mulattos) to assume the office of Governor-General. In September 1804, he proclaimed himself Emperor and ruled in that capacity until being assassinated in 1806.
Working in the sugar cane fields as a laborer, Dessalines rose to the rank of commandeur, or foreman. He worked on the plantation of a Frenchman named Henry Duclos until he was about 30 years old. During this time, Dessalines was known as Jacques Duclos; his last name given by his master, as was custom among the whites. He was then bought by a free black man named Dessalines, from whom he received the name he kept in freedom, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The master Dessalines treated Jean-Jacques well. Jean-Jacques Dessalines worked for him for about three years, until the slave uprising of 1791, which spread across the Plaine du Nord.
Dessalines was embittered towards both white and gens de couleur. After the defeat of the French royalists during the Revolution, he ordered the killing of all royalists to ensure that Saint-Domingue would be a nation.
After declaring himself Governor-for-Life in 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines took his old master Dessalines into his house and gave him a job.
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. He fought for the French Republic against both the Spanish and British. Dessalines followed, becoming a chief lieutenant to Toussaint L'Ouverture and rising to the rank of brigadier general by 1799.
Dessalines commanded many successful engagements, including the captures of Jacmel, Petit Goâve, Miragoane 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 following a "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 Saint-Domingue. 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 as governor-for-life, while still swearing his loyalty to France.
French government had been through changes and was led by Napoleon I, then calling himself First Consul. Many white and mulatto planters had been lobbying the government to reimpose slavery in Saint-Domingue. The French responded by dispatching an expeditionary force to the island, led by General Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. 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 break through. 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.
The French soldiers under Leclerc were accompanied by mulatto troops led by Créoles Alexandre Pétion and André Rigaud from Saint-Domingue. Pétion and Rigaud, both wealthy mulattos with white fathers, had opposed Louverture's leadership and tried to establish separate independence in the south of Saint-Domingue, where wealthy gens de couleur were concentrated. 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. When it became clear that the French intended to re-establish slavery on Saint-Domingue, as they did on Guadeloupe, Dessalines and Pétion switched sides again in October 1802, to oppose the French. Leclerc died of yellow fever, which took many French troops.
The brutal tactics of Leclerc's successor, Rochambeau, helped to unify the 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. 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 François 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, officially ending the only slave rebellion in world history which successfully resulted in establishing an independent nation.
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. Dessalines declared Haiti an all-black nation and forbade whites from owning property or land there.
He 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 either work as soldiers to protect the nation or as laborers in the plantations or fields to generate income to keep the nation going. 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 the 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 light-skinned elite, as gens de couleur were most of the ones who were educated.
Although reviled by generations of Haitians for his autocratic ways, 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, is named in his honor, as is the city of Dessalines.