Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) was a Haitian nationalist and the first ruler of a free Haiti. Although he was a courageous military leader during the war of independence, he failed as administrator and statesman.
There is little detailed information on the exact origins of Jean Jacques Dessalines. Like the first great Haitian leader, Pierre Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture, Dessalines was of African descent and born into slavery in northern Haiti. Unlike Toussaint, he remained illiterate all his life.
In the turbulent decade between the great slave revolt of 1791 and final independence on Jan. 1, 1804, Dessalines was one of Toussaint's principal lieutenants. During the period when Toussaint was operating against the mulattoes in southern Saint Domingue (later Haiti), Dessalines captured Jacmel, one of their main strongpoints, and followed up his campaign by exterminating the survivors. This ferociousness marked Dessalines throughout his career.
When Napoleon sent his brother-in-law, Captain General Charles Leclerc, to return the colony to slavery, Dessalines was the commander of the important port city of Saint-Marc. Many generals defected but not Dessalines. He and Toussaint retreated into the interior, where in March 1802 Dessalines was finally overwhelmed in the battle of Crête-à-Pierrot.
After Toussaint was captured and spirited away to France, Dessalines emerged as the principal figure of the Haitian war of independence. Gen. Leclerc's forces had taken heavy casualties in the campaigns against the armies of ex-slaves and were now trying to cope with guerrilla tactics and, at the same time, with yellow fever. Leclerc died of the disease in November 1802. A year later Dessalines defeated Leclerc's successor, Governor General Rochambeau, in the battle of Vertieres, near the present city of Cap-Haitien.
On Jan. 1, 1804, Dessalines proclaimed Haitian independence at Gonaïves. Unfortunately for Haiti, Dessalines's qualities of personal courage were not matched by desperately needed tolerance, statesmanship, and magnanimity. He had himself named governor general for life, with the right to choose a successor, following this by crowning himself Emperor Jean Jacques I, but without creating a nobility. In his own words: "Moi seul, je suis noble" (Only I am noble).
His hatred of whites continued after Haitian independence, and he methodically butchered any white Frenchman he could find. Obsessed with fear of French reconquest, he drained off great amounts of energy and money to maintain a large standing army and to build a series of forts.
Dessalines faced the task of rebuilding a shattered agricultural, labor-intensive economy the only way he knew—by order and discipline. A citizen was either a laborer or a soldier. Prosperity of a sort was restored but at the price of personal freedom and without the superb administration which Henri Christophe's regime would soon have in the north. Though the lower classes grudgingly accepted his decrees, the mulattoes, many of whom were longtime landholders and people of education and position, refused to bow to his increasingly harsh demands. Jean Jacques I was assassinated in an ambush near Port-au-Prince on Oct. 17, 1806.
Further Reading on Joan Jacques Dessalines
An excellent source on Haitian history and personalities is James G. Leyburn, The Haitian People (1941; rev. ed 1966). Other useful works include C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938; 2d ed. 1963); Ludwell Lee Montague, Haiti and the United States, 1714-1938 (1940); Selden Rodman, Haiti: The Black Republic (1954); and Charles Moran, Black Triumvirate (1957).