After 3 years with the new master, Dessalines managed to escape in 1791 and joined the rapidly spreading slave uprising that was led by Jean François Papillon and Georges Biassou. After escaping from his master’s plantation, Dessalines joined Papillon’s army as a lieutenant. There, he met slave rebel Toussaint Bréda, or L’Ouverture, who was a commander of the uprising. L’Ouverture was also born into slavery and was fighting with Spanish forces on Hispaniola.
Their main aim was to abolish slavery (which later changed to the “independence of St. Domingue”). In 1794, the French Republic announced the end of slavery in France and all its colonies. With their goal achieved, both L’Ouverture and Dessalines then joined the French army to fight against the Spanish and British armies and the other pro-slavery factions within the Saint Domingue society.
Dessalines was illiterate but a fast learner. Soon, he rose to the post of the chief lieutenant of L’Ouverture. With his leadership qualities and military valor, he helped L’Ouverture gain victories in the eastern half of the island, which was under Spanish control.
In 1799, Dessalines became the brigadier general, the second-in-command to L’Ouverture, and was nicknamed “The Tiger” for his bravery. He led a number of expeditions and was known for his merciless dealings with the enemy and for burning enemy villages down.
The rebel troops succeeded in restoring a major part of Saint Domingue for the French, who nominated L’Ouverture as the governor general of the colony. Later, L’Ouverture made himself the “Governor-for-Life.” He initiated the process of creating a new constitution for the French colony.
When France came under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, the whites and mulatto plantation owners sought to make Saint Domingue a French colony once again and wished to re-establish slavery on the island.
Napoleon sent his army to reinstate French rule on the island. Dessalines and L’Ouverture fought against the invading French army led by General Charles Leclerc. Dessalines became famous for the Battle of Créte-â-Pierrot, which was fought between March 4 and 24, 1802. With his small army of 1,300, he fought against the 18,000-strong French army.
French general Leclerc was aided by mulatto leaders André Rigaud and Alexandre Pétion. After the Battle of Créte-â-Pierrot, General Leclerc came forward to discuss terms with the rebel leaders. At this point, Dessalines who had grown unhappy with L’Ouverture, moved to the French side. However, some historians/writers report that this was only part of his strategy to gain the confidence of the French, while he continued with their (L’Ouverture’s and his) fight for independence.
However, Dessalines’s move was believed to be partly responsible for L’Ouverture’s arrest by the French on June 7, 1802. He was deported to France, where he died after a few months.
Continue Reading Below
Soon, Dessalines realized that the French wanted to re-impose slavery in Saint Domingue. Thus, Pétion and he left the French side and went against them in October, 1802. General Leclerc and many French soldiers were struck by yellow fever, which proved fatal for Leclerc. General Rochambeau took charge in his place and soon became unpopular for his brutalities.
After L’Ouverture’s arrest, Dessalines became the commander of the rebels and was supported by the forces of mulatto general Alexandre Pétion. Because of Rochambeau’s ruthlessness, all the rebels united against the French.
Dessalines’s forces won several battles against the French and finally defeated the enemy on November 18, 1803, at the Battle of Vertieres. On November 30, 1803, Dessalines became the governor general of Saint Domingue. The French army handed over the last of their territories to the rebel forces on December 4, 1803.
Dessalines became a successful rebel commander who led the world’s only slave rebellion that culminated in the formation of an independent nation. He was one of the founding fathers of the nation.
Dessalines declared the independence of Saint Domingue on January 1, 1804, and named it “Haiti,” a name derived from Arawak. He declared himself the the “Governor-General-for-Life” of Haiti.
On September 22, 1804, the ‘Haitian Revolutionary Army’ declared Dessalines the “Emperor of Haiti.” The coronation ceremony took place on October 6, 1804, when he was crowned as Emperor Jacques I. His wife, Marie Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur, became the empress. The new country’s constitution was released on May 20, 1805.
Dessalines proved to be an authoritarian ruler. He imposed a forced labor system. According to him, harsh methods were essential to prevent the country from going back to a sustenance economy. He made it mandatory for all blacks to either work as soldiers or laborers. He confiscated the land owned by white people and made it illegal for them to own any land.
As he had suffered brutalities under white masters, Dessalines now ordered a brutal mass killing of the island’s white people. Between January and April 1804, 3,000 to 5,000 white people of all ages and sexes were killed. Dessalines is remembered in history for what is known as the 1804 Haiti Massacre.
Dessalines also brought in good reforms for the improvement of Haiti’s economy and carried out all his trade with either the U.K. or the U.S.A. However, people were dissatisfied with his severe regime. His lieutenants Alexandre Pétion and Henri
Christophe conspired against him, and Dessalines was assassinated in Port-au-Prince at Pont Larnage (present-day Pont-Rouge), on October 17, 1806. However, there are different versions of his death.
Later, Pétion and Christophe divided the country and ruled two different parts separately.
Though assassinated for his harsh rule, Dessalines is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the country. Haiti’s national anthem is named after him.