Heroes of Haiti

by W.F. Burton Sellers


The recent and continuing occupation of Haiti by military forces from the United States and other United Nations countries has once again focused attention on this hapless nation. Unquestionably the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, if not in the world, Haitiís history is a long and tumultuous one.

The island of Hispaniola was originally discovered by Columbus in December l492 during his first voyage. The indigenous native Indian tribes were early extinguished by French and Spanish colonists as the island or parts thereof were at various times under the control of Spain, England and France. Finally by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 the western one-third of the island was ceded to France by Spain and the true development of Haiti as a French outpost began.

Haiti soon became one of Franceís richest colonies, with the development of large coffee, cacao, and sugar cane plantations, worked by slaves imported from western Africa by the French owners. By the middle of the 18th century Haiti was Franceís most valuable and productive overseas possession. However, by the latter part of the century Haiti was a seething powder keg of decaying racial relations along with corrupt and demoralizing social conditions.

The Negro slaves outnumbered the 40,000 ruling whites and the 24,000 mulattos by 10 to 1. Each class hated the other with consuming passion, making this country a perfect breeding ground for slave revolt. Ultimately such a revolt came to pass in the last years of the 18th and first years of the 19th centuries. On Jan. 1, 1804, Haiti became the first independent black nation in this hemisphere, one which won freedom from its masters by armed revolt, under circumstances to be described here.


French Revolution Lights Fuse

The storming of the Bastille on July 14. 1789 lit the revolutionary fuse in Haiti as well as in France. When the French deputies set slaves free in that month with their "Declaration of the Rights of Man," the freed slaves sent delegates to Paris to obtain their rights and seek representation in the French National Assembly.

Delegates representing the white planters in "Saint-Domingue," however, sought representation in the Assembly to the exclusion of the blacks and free mulattos, In Paris, most active in defense of the rights of the freed slaves was Vincent Ogé, a Haitian mulatto from Dondon who was resident in Paris.

Despairing of prevailing in France and recognized by the authorities as a "dangerous agitator," Ogé wished to return to Haiti to carry on his activities. Denied permission to leave France by a recent decree which refused authorization for "men of color" to leave the country, Ogé disguised himself, assumed a false name and escaped France via Great Britain and the United States and ultimately returned to Haiti on an American ship.

Ogé was joined by his friend Jean-Baptiste Chavannes in his activities in Haiti espousing the cause of the slaves and mulattos The two men soon acquired an armed following of 400 men who threatened reprisal against the authorities in Cap Haïtien unless the freedom decree was observed.

An attempt by 500 men of the National guard to disperse the Ogé group was repulsed. Next, a group of 1.500 regular troops armed with artillery forced the group to disband. The two comrades and some of their followers fled to the Spanish part of the island.

Ogé and Chavannes were extradited to cap where they stood trial and were condemned to an excruciating death on the wheel. Twenty-one of their adherents were hung and another 30 sentenced to the galleys. Thus perished, on Feb. 25, 1791, two of the early, though relatively minor, heroes of Haiti.

This terrifying repression did not produce the anticipated results. Instead, the mentality of the slaves changed. The words liberty, equality, fraternity, rights of man now rang in their ears. On the night of Aug. 14, a large number of slaves gathered in the Caiman Woods near the village of Morne-Rouge. There, a slave named Boukman, of Dahomian descent, born in Jamaica and an avowed vodou priest, wildly excited the slaves to bloody revolt with his rhetoric and cry of "Live free or die."

There followed a six week blood bath when the aroused slaves killed their masters, and any whites in sight, and burned the plantations. The whites, disconcerted at the start, soon regained the initiative over the poorly armed and badly led slaves and took their bloody revenge.

The whole plain outside cap was bathed in blood and ruins. Boukman himself was killed on Oct. 15, 1791, in an engagement outside Cap. His head was displayed on a pike in the Place dí Armes of Cap.

Almost concurrently with this bloody episode was an encounter near Port-au-Prince on Aug. 20, 1791, between a force of several hundred freemen joined by 300 slaves , who had named themselves "Suisses," and 300 regular soldiers.

The freemen-slave group was under the leadership of freemen named Beauvais, Lambert, Pinchinat, Rigaud and Doyon. A field of sugar cane about three miles outside the city shielded the whites. The "Suisses" set the cane afire, which encircled the whites, killing or wounding hundreds.

During the next several years there were frequent outbreaks of violence which a commission dispatched from France to Haiti by Napoleon was not able to ameliorate. The orgy of occasional fighting and destruction continued with the whites against the French, the mulattos fighting the whites and the slaves battling with both factions. Atrocities were inflicted on black, white and mulatto alike.

To further complicate this situation, France went to war with Spain and Great Britain, so that the eastern two-thirds of the island became involved in the bloody struggle in response to an appeal by the white French colonists and royalist sympathizers for aid against the mulattos and blacks.

In 1794 most of the western seaboard including the capital, Port-au-Prince, was in British hands.


Toussaint Emerges As Leader

Out of this melee, one Negro figure began to emerge as a leader of the blacks. He was Pierre François Dominique Toussaint . Toussaint was born in 1743 as a slave on the Breda plantation near Cap Français, now Cap Haïtien. He was largely self-educated, serving as a coachman when the bloodbath engulfed Haiti. Over the years, he had observed the tangled conflict between blacks, whites and mulattos, he had been deeply concerned over the injustices suffered by his fellow slaves.

Not an immediate participant in the slave uprisings of 1791, he is said to have assisted the white owners of his plantation to escape to escape to Baltimore before he became personally involved in the conflict. By now he was firmly dedicated to the Republican cause, believing that the future for his black people lay with self-rule but within the French colonial system.

Fighting vigorously with the blacks, he soon began to emerge as a national leader and military and political strategist. His opposition earned him the sobriquet of "LíOuverture," the opener. Henceforth, he was called "Toussaint Louverture."

In 1792, the French assembly repealed the decree of 1791 which had given the rights of French citizenship to all free persons of color in the French dominions. When Toussaint learned of this and also that Spain was at war with France, he took service with the Spanish of the eastern part of the island assisting them in overrunning a part of the French territory.

On Feb. 4, 1793 the National Convention in France abolished slavery in all its colonies. Believing that this signalized a victory for all that he espoused, Toussaint returned to the French cause, bringing with him an army of 4,000 black troops. The French Civil Commission named him a General of Brigade in recognition of his outstanding military leadership. As military leader, Toussaint forced the evacuation of both British and Spanish from Saint-Domingue, even signing the convention with the British General Maitland for their evacuation in 1796.

Named Lieutenant Governor of Saint-Domingue by the French on April 1, 1797, Toussaintís prestige with his own race was immense. Although still lacking control in the southern part of the country which was dominated by the mulattos, he administered his affairs so adroitly that he was able to undertake a campaign to free the whole island.

By 1801, he had consolidated his position to the point where the French officials were virtually without authority. Santo Domingo, capital of the old Spanish colony, had been captured; all slaves had been freed. A government of local autonomy had been established under a constitution that named him Governor General for life.


Napoleon Sends Troops

Although Toussaint did not proclaim the independence of the island, his actions alarmed the French government, now dominated by Napoleon as emperor. Napoleon in 1802 sent his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, at the head of a fleet of 70 warships and 25,000 men to Saint-Domingue to subdue Toussaint. Against this tremendous opposition, Toussaint, after considerable warfare, was obliged on May 1, 1802, to approve the capitulation of his military chiefs.

At the conclusion of a truce he retired to civilian life on his plantation near Gonaives. Shortly thereafter on June 10, 1802, he was taken captive through a ruse by Leclerc and sent to France. Here he was treated as a common criminal and consigned in a dungeon in the Fort of Joux in the Jura mountains of the Swiss Alps.

On April 7, 1803, after 10 months of captivity, this great black general was found dead in his cell of neglect and starvation. Although dedicated to the principle of racial equality, Toussaint never proposed independence from France. He sought only self-government for Haiti in its internal affairs.

Toussaint is not only a national hero of Haiti, but has been recognized by other countries as a great black leader.


Toussaintís Lieutenant Dessalines

One of Toussaintís lieutenants in the final years of his campaigns was Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines was born a slave at Grande Riviere du Nord in 1758. He had no formal education, but later did learn to sign his name. He gained a liberal practical education, however, after running away from his masters and joining bands of runaway slaves who harassed the slave traders and the plantation owners in the forests and mountains.

Acquiring skill in the leadership of men, he joined Toussaintís forces when the revolt against the French began. He followed Toussaint in his various allegiances and became one of his principal officers. When Leclerc wanted to negotiate for peace, Dessalines counseled against it, but finally yielded, against his better judgment. He accepted appointment as a general in the French army and served as Governor of the southern part of the island.

When Toussaint was made a prisoner, Dessalines resumed the fight against the French. Now he was convinced that Napoleon intended to re-establish slavery in Haiti, despite his promises to the contrary. He fought with savage courage and cruelty. What helped him more than his armed supporters was fever that decimated the French ranks and ultimately took the life of Leclerc.

A siege and battles at Crete-a-Pierrot brought Haitiís next heroes into prominence. Crete-a-Pierrot was a fortress atop a hill near the village of Petite Riviere which had been built by freed slaves in the early stages of the struggle and strengthened with redoubt by the British during their occupation of western Haiti.

In March 1802 the fortress itself had been further strengthened into a virtual citadel under the command of Dessalines, seconded by Magny, Martiniere, Monpoint and Larose, with a garrison of 1.200, mostly former slaves. In his continuing efforts to subdue the rebels, General Leclerc ordered an attack on the redoubt and fortress by 12,000 seasoned troops, veterans of Napoleonís campaigns in Germany and Italy. Repelled in this attack with the loss of 300 French soldiers and 50 officers, and with the loss of further lives in three additional unsuccessful assaults, Leclerc ordered a siege and continuing cannonade of the fortress. While this continued, hundreds of his troops were killed or died of fever.

Some 20 days after the initial French attack, the defenders were in desperate. They had no food, little water and hundreds of dead and wounded. The French, believing the defenders reduced to helplessness, advanced to overrun the redoubt. In the midst of this inferno what did they see but a young female mulatto wearing a red bonnet, sabre at her side, her waist knotted with a scarf and rifle in her hand, circling fearlessly in range on the walls of the redoubt shouting encouragement to the besieged.

This was Jeanne Marie, the wife of Brigade Commander Lamartiniere. As Haitian books record, "She fought like a brown Jeanne díArc !"

Lamartiniere looked in vain for Dessalines to come forth from the fortress with relief forces but only an old man, pretending to be an idiot, had worked his way through the French forces, to advise Lamartiniere that the fort was to be evacuated that night. After dark, on March 24, 1802 , the besieged rebels opened by bayonet a corridor through more than 10,000 French troops. Most escaped to fight another day.

Even the French commanders classified this withdrawal as "a remarkable feat of arms." For his role in the defense of Crete-a-Pierrot, Louis Daure Lamartiniere is recognized as another of Haitiís heroes. The other seconds-in-command have not received similar recognition.

In October 1802, Dessalines arranged a meeting with Alexander Sabes Pétion, a mulatto leader then fighting for the French, to discuss the possibility of a united front against Napoleon. Pétionís loyalty to his country was greater than to his cast.

After a two day conference at Arcahaie, he agreed to join his forces with those of Dessalines against the French.


Birth Of The Haitian Flag

It was at this meeting that the Haitian flag was born. It was created by Dessalines, who tore the white stripe from the French tricolor, thus eliminating the symbol of the white man from the emblem. The Haitian coat of arms was superimposed on the blue and red fields to complete the flag. This flag was officially adopted on May 18, 1803.

The combined forces of Dessalines and Pétion, aided by fever among the French and with the assistance of a British naval blockade, enjoyed great success against the French under Leclercís successor, Rochambeau, particularly in the south and the west. With 10,000 men Pétion and other leaders invaded the plain of the Cul-de-Sac on Sept. 16, 1803.

Joined by an additional 6,000 men coming from Jacmel on the south coast, a series of winning engagements soon led the forces to the environs of Port-au-Prince and its siege began. After three weeks of resistance, the French commander, fighting famine and the terroristic acts of the local population, capitulated and the rebels took over the capital on Oct. 17, 1803.

The remaining French forces, decimated by the struggles and disease, entrenched themselves behind a series of small fortresses outside the city of Cap Haïtien in the north. Dessalines gathered all the black combatants under François Capois, Henri Christophe and other leaders at Limbé, a few miles southwest of Cap, with the intention of capturing the city and driving the French from the country.


Capois And The Battle Of Vertieres

At 4 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1803, part of the forces began an attack on Breda, one of the outlying forts. Rochambeau surprised, left Cap and took a position with his honor guard on the entrenchments at the fort of Vertieres, between Breda and Cap. To take the objective specifically assigned to him, François Capois and his troops had to cross a bridge that was dominated by the fort at Vertieres.

Capois, on horseback, and his men met a hail of fire as they advanced. Despite a bullet passing through his cap, Capois urged his men forward. Even a bullet which leveled his horse and another which again passed through his cap did not stop Capois from flourishing his saber and leading his men onward with his continuing cry of "Forward!" Observing this, Rochambeauís guards applauded.

Rochambeau caused the firing to be stopped and sent a hussar forward with compliments for Capois! Then the battle recommenced.

Despite repeated and furious charges by Capois, who dealt death to many of the enemy, the battle was indecisive and Capois survived, earning the sobriquet "Capois-la-Mort" (Capois the Death).

The attacks on the fortresses continued and ultimately Rochambeau had to withdraw and evacuate the fort at Vertieres. The success of Dessalineís forces in taking the heights of Charrier, which dominated all of Capís outer defenses, forced Rochambeau to withdraw all his forces into Cap, and on November 19 he signed a convention that delivered Cap to Dessalines.

Ten hours later on November 20, Rochambeau was already a prisoner of the British.

Dessalines, at the head of the triumphant indigenous army, entered Cap on Nov. 30, 1803. On December 4, the French also surrendered the northwestern peninsula and Mole St. Nicolas to the victors and the French occupation and control of Haiti ended forever.

On an earlier occasion Dessalines had been introduced to a Boisrond-Tonnerre. Though very different in both physique and education the two formed an instant bond. They shared the same violent characteristics and both were driven by the same implacable hatred of all whites. In anticipation of proclaiming the independence of Haiti on Jan. 1, 1804, Dessalines had one of his secretaries prepare the necessary proclamation.

When the leaders were reunited at the home of Dessalines on Dec. 31, 1803, to review it, Tonnerre felt that it was much too mild and declared it should be written on parchment made from the skin of a white! When the same group met at 7 a.m. the next day at the Place díArmes in Gonaives for the independence ceremony Tonnerre was missing.

Soon found, it was learned that he had spent the entire previous night rewriting the proclamation, which was the one actually read. It was not on human parchment, but was vindictive and considered sublime by Haitians and classified Tonnerre as the father of the Act of Independence. Boisrond-Tonnerre was accorded heroes recognition on .

On Jan. 1, 1804, Haiti indeed became the first independent black country. Dessalines was named Governor General for life with the power to name his successor. Dessalines is now considered Haitiís true national hero.

Although he was a brilliant and savage soldier, Dessalines was not truly suited to governing. Not only did he massacre almost all the whites remaining in Haiti, but he exercised strong and sometimes repressive measures of control over his own people, who wondered whether they were any better off as freemen than they had been as slaves.

On Oct. 6, 1804, Dessalines had himself crowned as Jacques I, Emperor of Haiti, in imitation of Napoleon. As emperor, he ruled even more autocratically, dissension grew and open revolt began to appear. On Oct. 17, 1806, he was shot and killed by an unknown partisan from one of the revolting factions.


Petion Asserts Himself

When Dessalines died, Petion who had often been in political disagreement with him but had refrained from any serious interference with development of the infant Republic, began to exercise his political strength to seek a more republican form of government. Followers of the other of Toussaintís principal aids, Christophe, began to assert themselves.

A temporary compromise was reached with the election of Henri Christophe as president under a constitution drawn up by Pétion. This uneasy truce lasted only a short time, because Christophe began to exercise greater powers than the limited ones authorized by the constitution that restricted personal power of public officials.

The old racial animosities between the mulattos, who supported Petion and the blacks of Christophe, began to flare anew. Pétion's supporters met in Port-au-Prince, impeached Christophe as President and elected Pétion to the office on March 11, 1807. This resulted into two states - one in the north ruled by Christophe as Henry I - the other in the south governed by Petion as president for life.

Alexander Sabes Petion was by far the best educated of the revolutionary leaders. He was born in Port-au-Prince on April 2, 1770, of a white father and a mulatto mother. His elementary education was modest. At 18 he joined the militia. Later, he fought under the mulatto leader, Rigaud, against Toussaint and Dessalines in the civil war of 1800. After the mulattos were defeated, he went to France where he studied military tactics and munitions.

When Napoleon sent armies to Haiti to reduce the power of Toussaint, Petion joined them, because he then thought Toussaint was attempting to establish an autocratic dictatorship. It was while in this service that he was approached by Dessalines, made common cause with him, and expelled the French from Haiti.

As President of the southern part of Haiti for two terms, until his death from yellow fever on March 29, 1818, Pétion proved an able administrator. He gave financial stability to his administration by dividing the large plantations confiscated from the French among the men who had fought in the army of independence, thus establishing a rural democracy. He established a free school for younger children, a form of high school for boys in Port-au-Prince, and one of the first girlsí schools in Latin America. He also gave sanctuary to Simon Bolivar in 1815, assisting him with money, munitions and men when Bolivar returned to the South American continent for his wars of liberation from the Spanish.


Fascinating Henri Christophe

Perhaps the most fascinating of Haitiís early heroes is Henri Christophe. Born a slave on the British island of St Christopher on Oct. 6, 1767, he took his surname from the country of his birth. He ran away to sea when he was 12 years old by stowing away on a French brig. He was sold by its captain to a French naval officer to be a general handyman. Ultimately, he reached Cap Français where he was sold to the owner of the Crown Hotel. He eventually purchased his freedom, joining Toussaint in the early days of the revolt.

Almost seven feet tall and possessed of great dignity, Christophe was a commanding figure and quickly achieved a conspicuous place as one of Toussaintís trusted lieutenants. Along with Dessalines he capitulated and joined the French in 1802 when so authorized by Toussaint. After Toussaint was taken prisoner and the struggle against the French resumed, Christophe again fought the French, primarily in the north.

After the French were expelled and the new republic proclaimed under Dessalines, Christophe became general-in-chief in the north. Here he undertook the construction of one of the most fabulous structures in the western hemisphere. On the top of a precipitous mountain, Bonnet-a-líEveque, about 20 miles southwest of Cap Haïtien, a company of stonemasons and 20,000 native peasant laborers under the direction of the Scottish engineer Ferrier, began the building of an impregnable fortress overlooking the harbor. The construction took years; it was completed only shortly before Christopheís death.

The gallery, in which many of the 350 cannons were located, had been brought to the fort by superhuman effort and at the cost of many lives. During his reign in the north after he succeeded Dessalines in 1806, Christophe had other fabulous structures built. After having himself proclaimed king on June 12, 1811, he built the Palace of Sans-Souci at Milot. This palace was built on a scale of grandeur that has seldom been equalled. The great halls of state were cooled by a mountain stream conducted under their floors. There were banquet halls, an audience chamber, an arsenal, a presbytery, barracks and even a chapel.

As king, Henri ruled with an iron hand. Obsessed with a fear that Napoleonís forces would return, he drove his people to finish his fortress and exacted the most trying labors, often enforced with great cruelty. Ultimately his subjects began to revolt. Christopheís health and mind simultaneously began to give way; he became partially paralyzed. As tradition has it, he loaded a pistol with a silver bullet and took his own life on Oct. 8, 1820. Thus perished the last of Haitiís four major heroes (Toussaint, Dessalines, Pétion and Christophe), three of whom became chiefs of state after the revolution that won Haiti its freedom from France. Their intriguing stories and those of other heroes together constitute an amazing panoply of tales of black and mulatto heroes who brought a new nation into being.