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217th Anniversary of Assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Founder of Haitian Nation

October 17, 2023 marks the 217th anniversary of the assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the founder of the Haitian nation.

Dessalines participated actively in the slave revolt of 1791 and dedicated his life to the cause of freedom. Known to be a skilled strategist, he distinguished himself time and again in battle against the French colonialists. The words pronounced by Dessalines at the French stronghold of Crête-à-Pierrot are often repeated: "... I wish only to keep with me the brave. Those that want to again become slaves of the French leave the fort. Those, on the contrary, who want to die as free men gather around me." To which the garrison answered with one voice: "We will all die for liberty!"

A humanist, Dessalines profoundly valued human solidarity and freedom for which he also contributed to the liberation of the oppressed outside of Haiti. As the first Haitian head of state, Dessalines excelled as an administrator whose deeds were guided by the quest for social justice. One of the measures he took as of January 2, 1804, the day after Haiti declared its independence, was the suppression by decree of the hidden forms of colonial property. The constitution of 1805 confirmed the transfer of the colonial lands to the national heritage. The first objective of Dessalines' agrarian reforms was to permit the national wealth to be controlled by the state administration for the benefit of the new state. Concerned about an equitable distribution of the colonial property between the former slaves, he declared, "Attention, Negroes and Mulattos, we have all fought against the Whites. The properties that we conquered by spilling our blood belongs to all and I want that they be distributed equitably."

According to some economists, the agrarian reforms that he intended to achieve represented for that time the most advanced form of intervention of the state in the economy.

Dessalines was also responsible for the creation of the Haitian flag, an act which itself represented the fight for emancipation and freedom from French colonial rule. On May 18, 1803, the main leaders of the people of Saint-Domingue in rebellion against the French were called to the headquarters in Archahaie. Then a general and their commander, Dessalines sought to create a sign of solidarity that would signify the definitive separation from France and the rejection of absolutely all which could remind them of their enslavement. He asked that he be brought a French flag from which he tore out the white colour, leaving the colours blue and red. In the minds of everyone assembled this symbolized the unity of the Blacks and Mulattos. The blue and red Haitian flag was born.

According to one source, his actions, "though sometimes interpreted as racist, must be examined within their context. The French colonization had devastating consequences. Haiti's history is marked not only by the extermination of millions of Indigenous men and women who populated the island long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus but also by the bloodshed of thousands of kidnapped Africans who were condemned to the humiliation of the whip and rape of their families."

The name of Jean-Jacques Dessalines has gone down in history for creating the first modern nation ever which defined citizenship by virtue of being human, not a person of property or white colour. His profound reforms to develop the young nation and assist its people were amongst the most creative of his time. But to the privileged, Dessalines' nation-building project appeared like a threat and posed a danger to their interests. One of the main reasons for the plot against him was the opposition of the old intermediate class to the creation of a national heritage.

Dessalines was murdered on October 17, 1806 on the Pont-Rouge at the entrance to Port-au-Prince. Since that day, the people of Haiti have continued to hold high the flag of freedom they defined under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

(Source: "2004 A Noteworthy Year: In the Memories of the Bicentennial of the Independence of Haiti, the First Black Republic," Black History Month Committee (Gatineau) and Head Together International.)

This article was published in
Volume 53 Number 12 - October 2023

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