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Alexandre Pétion

Alexandre Sabès Pétion (April 2, 1770March 29, 1818) was President of the southern Republic of Haiti from 1806 until his death. He is considered as one of Haiti's founding fathers, together with Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and his rival Henri Christophe.

Early life

Pétion was born in Port-au-Prince to a black mother and a wealthy French white father. Like other gens de couleur libre with wealthy fathers, Pétion was sent to France in 1788 to be educated and study at the Military Academy in Paris. In Saint-Domingue, many gens de couleur, often freed by their fathers, constituted a third caste between the whites and enslaved Africans. While restricted in political rights, many became educated and wealthy landowners, resented by the petits blancs, who were minor tradesmen. Before the slave uprising of 1791, they led a rebellion to gain voting and political rights they believed due them as French citizens after the French Revolution. At that time most did not support freedom or political rights for enslaved Africans and blacks.

Years of Haitian Revolution

Pétion returned to Saint-Domingue as a young man to take part in the Créole expulsion of the British from Saint-Domingue (1798–99). There had long been racial and class tensions between gens de couleur and enslaved Africans and free blacks in Saint-Domingue, where slaves outnumbered whites and gens de couleur by ten to one. During the years of warfare against planters or grand blancs, Spanish, English and French, racial tensions were exacerbated in competition for power and political alliances.

When tensions arose between blacks and mulattoes, Pétion often supported the mulatto faction. He allied with General André Rigaud and Jean Pierre Boyer against Toussaint L'Ouverture in a failed rebellion, the so-called "War of Knives", in the South of Saint-Domingue, which began in June 1799. By November the rebels were pushed back to the strategic southern port of Jacmel; the defence was commanded by Pétion. The town fell in March 1800 and the rebellion was effectively over. Pétion and other mulatto leaders went into exile in France.

In February 1802, General Charles Leclerc arrived with tens of warships and 12,000 French troops to bring Saint-Domingue under more control. Gens de couleur Petion, Boyer and Rigaud returned with him in the hope of securing power in the colony.

Following the French deportation of Toussaint Louverture and the renewed struggle, Pétion joined the nationalist force in October 1802. This followed a secret conference at Arcahaie, where Pétion supported Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the general who had captured Jacmel. The rebels took the capital of Port-au-Prince on October 17, 1803. Dessalines proclaimed independence on January 1, 1804, naming the nation Haiti. On October 6, 1804, Dessalines declared himself ruler for life and was crowned emperor.

Post-Revolution

Following the assassination of Dessalines on October 17 1806, Pétion championed the ideals of democracy and clashed with Henri Christophe who wanted absolute reign. Christophe was elected president, but he did not believe the position had sufficient power, as Petion kept powers for himself. Christophe went to the north with his followers and established an autocracy. The loyalties of the country divided between them, and the tensions between the blacks and mulattoes were reignited once again.

After the inconclusive struggle dragged on until 1810, a peace treaty was agreed and the country was split in two. While Christophe made himself king of the northern Kingdom of Haiti, Pétion was elected President of the southern part of Haiti in 1806.

Initially a supporter of democracy, Pétion found the constraints imposed on him by the senate onerous and suspended the legislature in 1818. Fearing a lack of political power, he turned his post into President for Life in 1816, going against his former beliefs.

Pétion seized commercial plantations from the rich gentry. The land was redistributed to his supporters and the peasantry, earning him the nickname Papa Bon-Cœur ("good-hearted father"). The land seizures and changes in agriculture unfortunately dealt a serious blow to the economy. Most of the population did little more than subsistence farming and exports declined sharply, reducing money available for investment in education and infrastructure.

Believing in the importance of education, Pétion started the Lycée Pétion in Port-au-Prince. Petion's virtues and ideals of freedom and democracy for the world (and especially slaves) were strong and he often showed support for the oppressed. He gave sanctuary to independence leader Simón Bolívar in 1815 and provided him with material and infantry support. This was vital aid played a defining role in Bolivar's success in liberating the countries of what would make up Gran Colombia.

Boyer was named successor to Pétion and took control following the death of Pétion from yellow fever in 1818.

References

  • Caryn Cossé Bell (2004). Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868. LSU Press. ISBN 0807130265.

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