Jean Pierre Boyer

Jean Pierre Boyer (1776-1850) was a president of Haiti whose most noteworthy activities were the promulgation of the Rural Code of 1826 and the negotiation of final French recognition of Haitian independence in the same year.

Jean Pierre Boyer was born in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 28, 1776, of a well-to-do mulatto family. Educated in Paris, he returned to the colony of Saint-Domingue to participate in the military campaigns of the 1790s. Exiled by the Haitian leader Pierre Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture, Boyer returned with the French troops of Gen. Charles Leclerc, whose mission was to break the power of Toussaint and his associates and to reintroduce slavery to the colony. When Boyer discovered this motive he switched to the Haitian side, serving with distinction in the final struggles for independence.

After Jean Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of independent Haiti, was assassinated in 1806, Gen. Alexandre Sabès Pétion emerged as the ruler of Southern Haiti. Boyer served him as secretary and minister and succeeded him as president of Southern Haiti upon Pétion's death in 1818. Soon thereafter, with the death of King Henri Christophe, the northern part of Haiti was peacefully reunited with the south.

Though the southern part of the country had a tradition of living under an "easy boss, " the north had a recent history of intense activity, economic progress, and a cash surplus in its treasury. It was Boyer's desire that his country progress without the repressive discipline of either a Christophe or a Dessalines. However, he was frustrated in these aims and actually presided over the disintegration of Haiti into a land of small, inefficient agricultural plots which produced only the food necessary for local consumption. The average Haitian spurned economic gain, seeking only to be his own master.


Rural Code

By 1826, with his treasury again empty, Boyer was convinced of the need to reintroduce discipline into Haitian agricultural life. After months of detailed planning, his famous Rural Code was promulgated on May 1.

The code reinstated the obligation of the masses to work on the land, to be legally attached to the land. A cultivator, once so classified, could not change either his class or residence without official permission. All workers were to bind themselves by contract to a proprietor. Laws against vagabondage and loafing were detailed and severe. The Haitian army was to enforce the code.

Unenforceable, the code failed. For 20 years the tradition of personal liberty had grown in Southern Haiti, and it greatly appealed to the population of the north after the end of Christophe's firm rule. The workers simply ignored the regulations. The large plantations, so necessary for a large-scale efficient agricultural system, were already broken up. Finally, the army itself, most of whose soldiers came from the peasantry, refused to enforce the code against its own social class.

Haitian Independence

The recognition by France of Haitian independence dealt the code its final blow. Boyer signed an accord whereby France renounced all claims against its former colony. Even though this involved an enormous cash settlement and 60 annual payments, Boyer felt the price worth paying to lift the fear of French invasion. The result was the utter disintegration of the Haitian army. It could not begin to enforce the Rural Code. As Leyburn (1941) says, "By gaining political security Haiti had inadvertently lost its last chance of economic prosperity through a system of enforced labor." Sharecropping now had become a way of life in Haiti.

Another noteworthy aspect of Boyer's rule was the inadvertent establishment of permanent caste lines. Though he desired to eliminate color distinction in Haitian society, he was frustrated by the unfortunate fact of life that literacy was low among the black masses. Therefore Boyer soon ran out of blacks to promote into government positions. Thus the government became the province of the educated mulattoes, while the army, affording social status and a sinecure, became the property of the blacks. These divisions in its society, which became entrenched during Boyer's time, still plague Haiti.

Events in Haiti finally caught up with Boyer. During the late 1830s, young intellectuals among the dominant mulatto class, knowing Haiti was falling hopelessly behind the rest of the world in its development, called on him to introduce forced labor into the agricultural sector. Boyer, having once tried this without success, did nothing. Revolution broke out early in 1843; Boyer was soon on his way to exile in Paris, where he died on July 9, 1850.


Further Reading on Jean Pierre Boyer

An excellent source of information on Boyer is James G.Leyburn's classic work, The Haitian People (1941; rev. ed. 1966), which presents an interpretive overview of the history, culture, and society of Haiti. Among other useful works is Selden Rodman, Haiti: The Black Republic (1954; rev. ed. 1961).