Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
When we started this series on the Haitian revolution, I said that we’d be covering events from the initial revolts of 1791 through to independence. And as you may have noticed, today’s episode is called “Independence”. But don’t freak out. This is not suddenly the final episode of the series. It is rather the third to last episode of the series. But today we will indeed make it to the final Declaration of Independence on New Year’s Day 1804. Then next week, we will cover Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s consolidation of the newly independent nation of Haiti, which will be preceded on a nightmarish purge of every white left in the colony. But that is where the arc of our revolutionary narrative will conclude. But we’re going to wrap things up completely the week after that with as concise a history of Haiti as I can write to bridge the gap between independence and today, because I think it will be really helpful to put all of this in a final historical context. We’ve already developed a lot of the threads that go on to define the future course of Haitian history, so it’ll really just be a matter of following those threads through to the end. Then after that, I will go on break to prepare for our fifth cycle of episodes covering Simón Bolívar, Grand Columbia and the struggle for Spanish-American independence.
So we left off last time with the death of General Leclerc, just the latest victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1802. But the ironic thing is that Leclerc actually managed to survive the yellow fever epidemic. By the time he died in early November 1802, the death clouds that had swept through the colony had more or less dissipated for the winter, and Leclerc was actually among the last men to die of yellow fever in 1802, which I’m sure was a huge consolation for him.
Leclerc was succeeded by his second in command, General Rochambeau, who has been popping in and out of the story ever since Episode 4.6, when he appeared just after the arrival of the Second Commission. But if we push it back even further, Rochambeau has actually been lurking around since way back in Episode 2.12, “Yorktown”. He served his father as an aide-de-camp during the American War of Independence and upon his return to France, obviously stayed in the army all through the French Revolution, even after his father quietly resigned in 1992, which we talked about in Episode 3.22., “War”.
Now, the Rochambeaus were old style liberal nobles, and after years of service in the Caribbean, Rochambeau the Younger wound up adopting the worldview of the old big whites. He was an enlightened supporter of free trade and self government and property rights, but simultaneously retrograde on more revolutionary ideals like liberty and equality. To be blunt, Rochambeau was a racist who did not think that blacks or coloreds deserved or were even capable of enjoying political, economic and social equality. Rochambeau also supported slavery and was party to the long intellectual tradition, which is somehow still floating around out there I might add, that blacks were better off as slaves. So when Rochambeau took over the French occupation in November 1802, he made little secret of the fact that his goal was the re-establishment of white supremacy and the re-enslavement of the blacks. In fact, he would soon say, quote, “The white color is now waging a war against the two others, and the colony needs to molt.” Then, on January 1st, 1803, he asked the naval minister for permission to formally restore slavery.
But if you can believe it, none of that is why General Rochambeau winds up one of the most hated figures in Haitian history. Well, I mean, it is, but there’s a lot of guys out there who oppose liberty and equality. So why does Rochambeau’s name conjure up such a specific hate?
Well, I will tell you. He took Leclerc’s belief that terror-is-all-I-have-left and just ran with it.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that Rochambeau actually pulled back from the genocidal plans that burst from Leclerc’s fevered imagination. And the terror program that he is about to implement was not about mass indiscriminate killing. But if you were caught as a rebel under arms or were linked to seditious activity, you became a target for some truly sadistic forms of punishment, which we’ll come back to in a minute.
The military situation that Rochambeau inherited was basically this: first, most of the French troops who had come over back in February were now either dead, wounded or invalids. Reinforcements that had arrived over the summer were in no better shape. If I’ve done my math right, by the end of 1802, somewhere close to 30,000 European soldiers had been sent to Saint Domingue. When Rochambeau took over, he could count on about 3000 men who could actually stand up and fight. On top of that, the colonial forces, the blacks and coloreds had almost all defected. All that was left were a few colored officers who just couldn’t quite believe that serving alongside the blacks was better than serving alongside the French.
So the first thing Rochambeau did was write back to Paris begging for reinforcement. He reckoned he would need as many as 35,000 more men to finish the job, which is insane, but you gotta ask. While he waited for these reinforcements, Rochambeau settled into a strategy of pure defense and he only had about 3000 healthy men across the island. Those forces turned out to be adequate for a strategy of pure defense. For the whole course of the revolution, the native forces have never been great at assaulting fortified positions and the winner of 1802-1803 was no different. Le Cap itself was assaulted repeatedly but the French also easily fended off various attacks on Môle-Saint-Nicolas, Saint-Marc, Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Les Cayes. All of them held firm.
But these constant attacks hid what was really going on out there over the winter of 1802-1803 and why the French could easily defend themselves with so few men. Because, as it turned out, the blacks and coloreds were not actually focused on expelling the French just yet. Instead, they were focused on consolidating the disparate rebel forces into a single unified rebel army.
So these various rebel forces fell into four basic categories.
First, there was the cohort of men surrounding the black generals like Dessalines and Christophe. These guys had all come out of Toussaint Louverture’s army and had been serving together for years. They had defected to the French back in May and then turned around and redefected back into rebellion in October.
Second, there were the colored generals and their men. Most of these guys had been partisans of André Rigaud and if they hadn’t actually served in Rigaud’s Legion of the South, they were at least very strong independent allies of it. Most of these colored officers, Alexandre Pétion, now the most prominent among them, had been exiled to France after the War of Knives. Then they had come back with the Leclerc expedition and only abandoned the French when Leclerc started to lose his marbles.
Third, there were all those independent guerrilla communities out there that had never reconciled to Toussaint or Rigaud or the French. And I didn’t talk about this last week, but these guys were almost uniformly African born. They had come to Saint Domingue just before the revolution had begun. And until just a few weeks ago, these guys had been fighting units led by Dessalines and Christophe and Pétion.
Finally, there was just a mass civilian population. Nearly all of them were now engaged in some level of resistance. And while they were never going to be properly trained or armed, they were all now ready to die before submitting to re-enslavement.
So over the winter of 1802-1803 three, there were amongst these four groups maneuverings and counter maneuvering, alliances and counter alliances, all aimed at answering two basic questions. First, will these various rebel factions be unified into a single rebel army? And second, if there is a unified army, who will be its commander in chief?
And despite the aura of inevitability that Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s rise to power takes in hindsight, it was not a foregone conclusion in November 1802 that Dessalines would emerge as the commander in chief of a unified rebel army. He was not popular with anybody. During the War of Knives, for example, Dessalines had led the brutal siege on Jacmel, while Alexandre Pétion had been the one enduring that brutal siege. And then, of course, just a few months ago, their roles had reversed with Dessalines inside Crête-à-Pierrot and Pétion leading the attack from the outside. So reconciliation between those two guys was not a sure thing. And then, of course, Dessalines had been playing bad cop for both Toussaint and the French. So both the independent communities out there and the cultivators kind of hated Dessalines’s guts.
But Dessalines had one big thing going for him. He was now the preeminent leader of the black regular army. Since this was now the largest, best trained and most cohesive part of the rebel forces, Dessalines’s word counted for a lot. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was not a beloved man. A lot of his new allies didn’t even respect him. But he could not be ignored. By the end of the year, even Pétion had reconciled himself to taking orders from his old enemy and he acknowledged Dessalines’s supreme authority.
Then Dessalines spent the next few months bringing everyone else into his command structure. Up in the North Province, for example, Christophe was trying to exert the army’s authority over the independent communities but was running into trouble because those independent communities had just spent most of the summer fighting against Christophe. One of their leaders, in particular a guy named Sans-Souci, was incredulous that he was now expected to obey Christophe’s orders. So in January, Dessalines rode up to try to broker a peace between Sans-Souci and Christophe. This attempt appears to have failed, however. But after Dessalines rode back to his headquarters in the mountains of the West Province, Christophe invited Sans-Souci to dinner to try again and promptly assassinated him. Which was no doubt personally gratifying but also a warning to the other independent leaders: either put yourself under our authority or we’re going to kill you. Most of the independents would ultimately resign themselves to joining, but more than a few said “Forget it!” and actively help the French from here on out, even with Rochambeau’s little reign of terror running in the background.
And so that brings us back around to Rochambeau’s little reign of terror. In the main, the best way to understand this is as a return to all of the terrible slave punishments that we talked about way back in Episode 4.2. Rochambeau is already talking about the blacks as if they’re a bunch of runaway slaves. He’s actually writing and speaking of them in those terms. So it’s natural that his reign of terror would take its cues from the old slave regime. And just like the old plantation managers and overseers, Rochambeau and his men developed cute little names for all the various forms of torture and murder that they were about to dole out.
To drown a man was to give a codfish a bath. A mass drowning was netting a big prize. Hanging a man was to promote him. Crucifying him was to raise him in dignity. Burning prisoners alive was called a hot operation and was usually done on a bed of cane stalks, which quickly blazed into torturous infernos. And though there is no name for it, Rochambeau’s men also discovered that you could kill a whole bunch of prisoners at once by locking them in the hold of a ship and pumping in sulfur gas. All over the island, this kind of exemplary terror became a daily occurrence even as it ceased to have any exemplary effect, because almost the whole population was now dead set on resisting the French at all costs. They weren’t even cowed. They were emboldened. And in the various battles and skirmishes of what was fast becoming a War of Independence, unarmed cultivators would simply run at the French line, only to get mowed down. So they wind up serving as little more than human shields for the better trained black and colored troops following them. But everyone was in live free or die mode. Before he died, Leclerc even commented on this in a letter to Bonaparte, saying, “The men die with incredible fanaticism. They laugh at death, and it’s the same with the women.”
By far the most infamous of Rochambeau’s terrorist tactics, though, were the dogs. Yes, the dogs. Shortly after he took over, Rochambeau inquired through French agents in Cuba about the possibility of purchasing special hunting dogs who had been trained to track down and attack runaway slaves. Rochambeau wanted to use these kinds of dogs to find rebel army camps, and on March 1st, 1803, the first batch of about 200 dogs arrived in Le Cap. What followed was an infamous incident that has to be fair, been embellished almost beyond recognition, but which remains at its core an act of horrifying cruelty.
Rochambeau wanted his new dogs to make a good first impression, and so he set up a fenced area in the courtyard of the government house in Le Cap, and into this enclosure, he put one of the dogs and then dropped in a black prisoner. The French spectators joked that this prisoner was descending into the arena in a deliberate classical reference to the old myth of Christians being fed to the lions. Rochambeau expected the dog to maul the prisoner, but apparently the dog was not interested. This is terrible and gross, but bear with me. A French officer climbed into the arena and slit the victim’s belly, which got the dog interested enough to attack.
Now, in the fullness of time, this incident has morphed into Rochambeau making a habit of feeding blacks to dogs. But as far as I can tell, it all goes back to this one incident. And just so you know, there is a version of this story that ends with the dog never getting interested and the prisoner living and later being released.
Now, this is not to say that Rochambeau wasn’t now revealing himself as a debauched sadist. He is and clearly was. But the myth of the dogs has overtaken the reality. But just to wrap up with them, the dogs weren’t even particularly effective in war. When they did go out on patrol, they usually just got in the way. And in one particular battle, they wound up attacking the French troops who were trying to retreat from a particularly vicious counterattack.
But like I just said, even after you peel back the layers of myth from Rochambeau’s terror, you’re still left with this guy as a despicable sadist, because his other most infamous moment comes shortly after relocating his headquarters back to Port-au-Prince in mid-March 1803. After arriving, he invited a group of colored ladies to attend a banquet. When dinner was over, he led them to an adjacent room that had been decked out in morbid black decorations. And in the center of the room were four coffins topped with skulls, which, according to the report, the ladies were told contained, quote, their loved ones. Now, it’s hard to tell if there were actually dead bodies in these coffins or if this was just some kind of elaborately cruel warning to the coloreds. But whichever it was, Rochambeau was, off to one side, delighting in the horror and tears of these poor women. So even if he didn’t do all of the things he was later accused of doing, General Rochambeau was a sick puppy.
So while this was all unfolding in Saint Domingue, events back in Europe, as usual, are about to dictate the course of the Haitian revolution. In January 1803, First Consul Bonaparte got the news that his brother-in-law Leclerc was dead and that the expedition was in very bad shape. Shortly thereafter, he got Rochambeau’s various requests for 35,000 men. And while that was never going to happen, over the next few months, the First Consul would continue to send more troops, though now even foreign auxiliaries were too valuable to send into what was clearly a death trap. Bonaparte was now sending off mostly captured deserters, various criminals and political enemies, though another 2500 Poles did get thrown into the mix. In all, another 10,000 or so soldiers would be sent by the summer of 1803, even though by then it was clear that this whole mission was a lost cause. Partly because, yes, Saint Domingue had turned out to be a death trap, but also because the recently achieved peace with Britain was already breaking down and a new war was fast approaching.
As late as early winter 1802, Bonaparte still held fast to his dream of a French dominated Gulf of Mexico and an expedition was outfitted in Holland that was supposed to sail for New Orleans and begin the process of taking over Louisiana. But the expedition had been delayed and delayed long enough that the harbor froze and the fleet was stuck in place. By the time the ice started to break apart in the spring, relations between France and Britain were breaking apart even faster and Bonaparte scrapped any plans to send this fleet off to the western hemisphere. In fact, recognizing that between the British navy and any American force that might join them, taking control of Louisiana was probably now out of the question and that his best bet would be to sell the land to the Americans. Which would A) generate some much needed cash to finance the war that he was about to start back up, and B) maybe generate enough goodwill with the American government to stop them from joining any nascent anti-French coalition.
On the other side of the Atlantic, this is exactly what President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison wanted to hear. They had been greatly distressed to learn about France’s acquisition of Louisiana, but they had been having a hard time expressing this distress to the French because Foreign Minister Talleyrand kept swearing on a stack of bibles that there was no secret treaty with Spain, Louisiana had not been retroceded to the French and that the Americans are crazy. Where did you hear these crazy rumors? That’s crazy!
As late as March 1803, the American ambassador in Paris, a guy named James Livingston, despaired at the whole situation. He wrote that the French weren’t ever going to talk about Louisiana. No mix of carrots or sticks would convince them to even admit it was now theirs to talk about. Whereupon Talleyrand called Livingston in for a meeting on April 10 and said, “Of course we have Louisiana. We’ve always had Louisiana. What are you daft? Anyway, we want to sell it to you. And not just some of it, the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel.” And so they did. In exchange for 60 million livres worth of cash paid over 15 years, the United States of America bought the Louisiana territory from the French consulate.
Now, as a hilarious coda to all this, there was a clause in the treaty with Spain that stipulated that the French would not dispose of the territory without consulting the Spanish government, which Bonaparte and Talleyrand did not do. And then Jefferson’s White House, of course, had no constitutional authority whatsoever to be making this kind of purchase. It’s actually one of the most famous cases of executive overreach in American history. But Bonaparte wanted to sell and Jefferson wanted to buy, and so they just did it. Anyway, this is all to say that the single greatest land acquisition in American history, land that doubled the size of the United States and still amounts to about 25% of its total land mass, was all basically thanks to the Haitian revolution.
Before we head back to Saint Domingue, I should also note in passing the final passing of Toussaint Louverture, because it was here in April 1803, the guard came in to check on Toussaint and found him dead beside the fireplace. Cause of death was most likely pneumonia, but it was never definitively diagnosed. But while Toussaint is now dead, all of his former lieutenants are about to make the final successful push for independence from France.
As the terms of the Louisiana Purchase were being worked out, and as old Papa Toussaint was dying, General Rochambeau was ready to launch his only offensive campaign of the war. He had gotten some reinforcements over the winter and now had enough men recovered from injury and disease to launch a campaign in the South Peninsula. Four columns of 500 men each, so 2000 men total, would march east along both the north and south coast of the peninsula, setting out from Les Cayes and Jérémie respectively. And these guys would clear out rebel nests and pacify the territory in between, with the ultimate plan being to create a cordon that would block rebel access to the South Peninsula and then they would roll up the colony from there. But this campaign turned out to be a debacle. The columns did a terrible job communicating with each other, independent rebel forces turned out to be everywhere, and the whole thing was just one long bloody skirmish. Everything stalled out and achieved nothing.
From this point on, Rochambeau is basically inert. He told his forces to sit tight in whatever city they happen to be holding, man the walls, and wait for the wave of reinforcements that he really hoped were about to appear on the horizon.
In hindsight, May of 1803 turns out to be the great pivot point of the War of Independence and the month when the French really and truly and forever lost control of Saint Domingue. Because in May, two really important things happened. First, the rebel army formally consolidated under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines. And second, war with Britain started up again. And in short order, the British navy would be moving in to blockade all the French held cities of Saint Domingue.
Now, since the rear rival of the British is pretty self explanatory, I want to focus in on events in the rebel camp, and especially a meeting held at the city of Arcahaie, a little town in between Port-au-Prince and Saint-Marc. I think aside from the Bois-Caïman ceremony that kicked all of this off, there is no more mythically patriotic moment in the Haitian revolution. The bare facts, as known, are pretty straightforward. By May 1803, Dessalines had come to terms with Pétion, but a few of the other old colored generals were still skeptical. Meanwhile, the independent black leaders were ready to join a final push to drive the French out, but probably wanted assurances that Dessalines wasn’t just going to turn on them as soon as the French were gone. So all these leaders got together in Arcahaie to hammer out their differences. There’s no official record of what happened or who said what, but we do know that from this point on, Dessalines will be recognized as the commander in chief of what is now being called the indigenous army.
But in the national mythology of the Haitian revolution, this meeting at Arcahaie represents the moment of final unity between the blacks and the colors, represented by the adoption of a new flag for the indigenous army. Until now, the regular army units at least, had continued to use the tricolor flag in battle. But Pétion had pointed out to Dessalines that this might be giving people the impression that reconciliation was still possible. So to leave no room for doubt that this was all now about independence, Dessalines dramatically cut the middle white stripe out of the tricolor flag. He said, the time has come to stop letting the whites keep the blacks and coloreds apart, and he tossed the white section aside. He then had his goddaughter Catherine Flon sew the blue and red sections back together to create a new bicolored flag. Blue representing the blacks and red the coloreds. Haiti continues to celebrate May 18 as Flag Day. That’s how important this moment is to the national mythology.
Now, did any of this actually happened? I’ll go with maybe, kind of, yes and no.
For one thing, it’s disputed whether Pétion or Dessalines was the one who first proposed the bicolored flag. Then there is evidence that the tricolor had been dropped actually back in December rather than at this all important Arcahaie meeting. And then further, there is subsequent evidence that the flag adopted by the indigenous army was not based on the tricolor at all, that it was not blue and red, but rather black and red. And then other reports counter this and say, oh, no, it was blue and red after all. If I’m feeling particularly lucid when I draft my concise history of post revolutionary Haiti, I’ll try to tie the fate of the Haitian flag into it, because its color, its meaning and its legacy will change depending on contemporary Haitian politics. If you Google it, the current Haitian flag is indeed the blue and red by color but it’s only been that since 1986 that was after Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown, because the Duvalier regime used the black and red flag. And so, yes, hopefully I’ll be feeling lucid because the design of the flag does mirror the course of Haitian politics.
Anyway, the indigenous army emerged on May 18, unified and ready to settle for nothing less than independence. Except, again, maybe not, because there are reports that as late as the summer of 1803, Dessalines himself was still not convinced that independence was actually the goal here. But now I’m just being a buzzkill and getting in the way of a good story.
The emergence of the indigenous army was ominous enough for the French, but even more ominous was the news that war with Britain was back on, which they found out because the British navy showed up to blockade their ports. Rochambeau and his men were now completely cut off, both from France and from each other.
This is all incredibly good timing for Dessalines and his new indigenous army, though. In June, he’s writing letters to both the British governor in Jamaica and the American government requesting both arms and supplies. The Americans, like a broken record, said that they were going to maintain neutrality, so they wouldn’t formally commit to anything. But American merchants, as usual, were all too happy to trade with Dessalines’s army. The British, meanwhile, were more upfront about everything and just made it a part of their war strategy to arm and supply the rebels, not because they supported the rebels, but because sowing chaos in Saint Domingue was an end unto itself.
So in the summer of 1803, the French cause is looking mighty hopeless. Besieged on land by the indigenous army and blockaded by sea by the British, things went from bad to worse. Yellow fever cropped back up, and though it was not as bad as it had been the year before, men and women were dying daily from the disease. And this was to say nothing of the famine that started to set in. And in case you’re wondering what happened to all the dogs, yeah, they went into the bellies of starving French soldiers.
With Rochambeau making no move to break out of this trap, the indigenous army now pretty much had the run of the colony, except for the few coastal holdouts, well armed and well supplied by the British and Americans, Dessalines undertook a methodical campaign of driving the French out of the various ports one by one. In July 1803, the French still occupied ten cities across the colony, and Dessalines’s strategy was simple: maintain a small covering force around each city to keep the French pin down, then mass everyone else at one particular city, force that particular city to surrender and move on.
The first of all was Jérémie. The French commander of the garrison was a particularly scummy scumbag, so the inhabitants of the city wanted him gone. And then the Polish soldiers under his command started defecting over to the rebels and the French position became untenable. On August 3,, the French tried to evacuate by sea but were captured by the British and taken to Jamaica as prisoners of war. The rest of the cities then fell one by one. On September 2, the Saint-Marc garrison just surrendered outright to the British navy and then in early October, the garrison in Les Cayes did the same thing and that became the basic pattern: the French forces surrendering to the British in exchange for getting them the hell off the island. Fort-Liberté and Port-de-Paix followed them soon after. Dessalines personally led the encirclement of Port-au-Prince using guns captured from Saint-Marc, but he would not have to use them. The garrison commander said, “If you let us leave peacefully, I won’t blow the city up on my way out the door.” Dessalines agreed to these terms and 1500 soldiers and fully 3000 civilians fled in a small fleet that somehow, and I’m honestly not sure how, slipped the British blockade and made it over to Cuba. By November 1803, only Le Cap and Môle-Saint-Nicolas were still under French control.
Inside Le Cap, Rochambeau, his officers and their entourage had turned the city into an end times little fantasyland, like how you might expect things to go if we all get told a meteor is going to come destroy the earth, and it all sounds pretty surreal. Rochambeau and company continued to throw parties every night, dance, drink, indulge in love affairs, get in fights over women kind of the way you might expect things to go when the end of the world is at hand.
The end of the world finally came on November 18, 1803, at the most famous battle in Haitian history this side of the siege of Crête-à-Pierrot, the Battle of Vertières. The indigenous army under Dessalines massed a force of 15,000 men outside Le Cap, symbolically centered on the plantation where the first slave revolt had been planned in August 1791. The last remnants of the French army, numbering about 2700 plus 500 local militia, fought as best they could and the casualty rate spoke to how well they fought. The indigenous army absorbed 1200 dead and 2000 wounded and the French just 130 dead and 400 wounded. But the overwhelming numbers of Dessalines’s army were overwhelming. The French were forced to retreat and the road to Le Cap was wide open.
Mostly understanding that the end had finally come, Rochambeau negotiated a surrender with Dessalines similar to the terms that had been worked out at Port-au-Prince: if you let us leave peacefully, I won’t destroy the city on my way out the door. Dessalines agreed and gave the French ten days to evacuate. But when the ten days were up, he found that Rochambeau was still just kind of dithering around, mostly trying to figure out a way to escape without being taken prisoner by the British. But by then, the British had closed the harbor completely, and there was no slipping through their blockade. Dessalines led 2000 men into the city, and Rochambeau had to admit that it was all over, and he and his men surrendered to the British. The last of the French occupation, about 3800 troops, administrators and their families boarded the last 17 ships of the French navy and were sailed back to England as prisoners of war. They left behind somewhere between 500 and 800 men who were too wounded or sick to leave, all of whom were massacred by Dessalines’s army. Between all the sailors and all the soldiers who had been sent to Saint Domingue in the 18 months since the Leclerc Expedition had first landed back in February 1802, the final death toll was just about 50,000. Now, since Napoleon will eventually kill 238,000,000,000,000 people trying to invade Russia, this is not the worst military disaster in French history. And in fact, Napoleon’s future disasters will tend to block out the memory of the Leclerc Expedition. But they shouldn’t. The French came in thinking that they were going to reconquer Saint Domingue, reinstitute white supremacy, re-enslave the blacks, and then go out and conquer the whole Caribbean. Instead, a handful of survivors were now being taken back to Britain as prisoners of war, and the blacks and coloreds were preparing to declare independence. Saint Domingue is now lost to the French forever.
Dessalines and his lieutenants did not waste much time proclaiming independence. On November 29, 1803, a declaration signed by Dessalines, Christophe and Clairvaux, all former generals under Toussaint Louverture, announced to the world that Saint Domingue was no longer a part of the French Empire. It was free and it was independent.
But this turned out to only be the first hastily thrown together declaration. It promised that life in the colony would go back to the way it had been before the Leclerc Expedition had shown up and pointedly still referred to this new independent nation as Saint Domingue. But about a month later, Dessalines was ready to be far bolder in his proclamations. Wanting to capture a real spirit of independence, he commissioned a new declaration. But the one that came back to him on December 31, 1803, was still not good enough. It was modeled on the American Declaration of Independence and spent a lot of time just rattling off a list of legalistic complaints. And Dessalines complained that it was flat out boring as hell. But he had already scheduled a big party for New Year’s Day to read the new declaration. And so another secretary stepped forward and promised to give Dessalines what he wanted. According to the official story, this guy said, “In order to draw up our active independence, we need the skin of a white to serve as parchment, his skull as an inkwell, his blood for ink and a bayonet for a pen.” Dessalines liked the sound of that and told the guy to get to work, which the guy did later saying, “After two cups of coffee and three shots of rum, the words came naturally.”
As I did with the American Declaration of Independence, along with this episode is a supplemental full reading of the Haitian Declaration of Independence, complete with its references to the French as vultures and tigers and swearing them eternal hatred and death if they ever tried to come back. It’s quite a bit livelier than the American Declaration, and when Dessalines read it on New Year’s Day 1804, the new nation of Haiti was born, because in this declaration, he renamed the colony Haiti after the old Taino name for Hispaniola, and this new nation of Haiti would remain free and independent from that moment on. It was the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to declare independence from its colonial masters.
Next week, though, Dessalines will take care of the last remnants of white power in the now former colony of Saint Domingue by ordering the execution of every white left on the island. And when that was done, he boldly declared himself Emperor Jacques I of Haiti.
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