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The History of Haiti: 1804-1820

Part 2

The first leader of free and independent Haiti was Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave and victim of a cruel and brutal master, furious warrior, hero and leader of the last days of the revolution, and sworn enemy of whites, especially the French.

Two apocryphal tales, those wonderful pieces of folk tradition which every nation has, define Dessalines. At the Conference of Archaie in 1803, Dessalines was the person who reputedly tore the white stripe from the French tricolor and determined Haiti's flag to be two stripes, a blue and red one, to symbolize that the white had been ripped out of Haiti, perhaps as a prophecy of what was to come in a few months later.

Another famous tale of December 31, 1803, the eve of Haitian Independence, is that when the declaration of independence was read out the people protested it wasn't what they wanted to hear. Boisrond-Tonnerrer, an underling of Dessalines, reported called out This doesn't say what we really feel. For our declaration of independence we should have the skin of a blanc for parchment, his skull for inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for pen! (Cited in Heinl and Heinl, 1978). Dessalines reportedly took up this cry.

Certainly this hatred of whites, especially the French, dominated Dessalines' very short regime (2 1/2 years).

However, it was not mere hatred that moved him. To some extent the professed hatred of the French was a TACTIC. Dessalines, Christophe and Petion, the earliest Haitian leaders, were quite worried, even completely preoccupied, with the expectation that the French would come back and try to resubjugate Haiti. One recent work even suggested that some of Dessalines' declamation that the French were coming, and his harsh treatment of Haitian free workers, were, in part, tactics to remind them of the dangers of a French return, thus keeping the militarist spirit alive in order to insure a willing military readiness to defend the nation. (See, POLANDS'S CARIBBEAN TRAGEDY by Pachonski and Wilson)

Thus I would argue that two main factors dominate the short rule of Dessalines:

Dessalines first decided to get rid of the French who were in Haiti. Early in 1804, his first year of rule, he had the French killed, sparing only a few doctors, priests and essential exporters. It is generally thought that around 20,000 French were slaughtered, and it was a brutal and harsh extermination. This had important consequences for Haiti, giving her critics something concrete to latch onto and helping to build the picture of a savage nation incapable of being part of the world community.

At the same time, Dessalines, realizing the horrible economic position of Haiti decided to get the economy moving again and decided to reinstate the French plantation system and rebuild the sugar industry. This presented a difficult problem. How was one to get free people to do the work formerly done by slaves?

This was not a new problem, though the environment of the problem was new. The slaves had been free since 1794. Toussaint had introduced a system call FERMAGE and managed to significantly rebuild the sugar trade. After Dessalines, Henry Christophe would have even greater success with this system, but eventually the plantation system died out within the first decade of independence.

Under fermage the land belonged to the government. It would be leased out to managers and worked by workers who were obligated to remain on the land in much the same way that serfs were in Europe. The workers, while bound to the land, did receive 25% of the value of the crops to divide amoung themselves, and housing, food, clothing and basic care. However, their lives were vigorously regulated and discipline was strict. While the old slave whip was gone, discipline was carried out with the cocomacaque stick.

When Dessalines heard that Napoleon was to be made an emperor, he decided to do so too, and actually beat Napoleon to the coronation. On October 8, 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines became JACQUES I, EMPEROR. Unlike Henry Christophe a few years later, he did not create any other nobles, claiming that he alone was noble.

Perhaps that spirit characterizes much that went wrong with Dessalines. He was stern, even cruel, demanded unflinching obedience and ruled with an iron hand. This was not what most of the Haitian people thought that had fought a war of independence for, and discontent was widespread.

Aside from the massacre of the French, another of Dessalines' actions which had long-term affects was his invasion of Santo Domingo (today's Dominican Republic). He was able to rush across Santo Domingo toward the capital city, but was not able to take it, partially because of an accidental arrival of French ships. Eventually he had to withdraw. But the entire war had been so brutally effected by Dessalines and his troops that it laid the ground for the hatred between these two nations.

There was growing discontent with the rule of Jacques I. This was especially pronounced in the south and Dessalines marched on the south to put things in order. On Oct. 17, 1806, just short of three years after independence, Emperor Jacques I was assassinated as he marched.

Haiti was now plunged into a chaotic period of political maneuvering and civil war that divided Haiti into two nations under two different leaders for the next 12 years. Actually, at one time there were 4 Haitis, but for this story I'm just concentrate on the two main Haitis.

The civil war came about because of political maneuvering. Henry Christophe assumed that he would become the ruler to succeed Jacques I. Alexander Petion, leading political figure in the south and a mulatto, had other ideas. However, Petion's folks played up to Henry, then outmaneuvered him politically. They agreed to elect him president, but then saddled him with a constitution that left him with virtually no power, all the genuine power being reserved for senate, of which Petion was the head.

(It is interesting to note that a very similar constitutional tactic is being played out now. On March 29, 1987 Haiti received a new constitution. This constitution downplayed the position of president and elevated the role of prime minister. The first president to actually have to live under this new constitution has been Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who, from a constitutional standpoint, holds nothing like the powers of Haitian presidents from 1806 until today.)

At any rate, Christophe marched on the south, but the military move didn't settle anything, and a sort of stand off occurred. Finally, Christophe simply retreated into his strongly held north and declared the State of Haiti on Feb. 17, 1807. Shortly after, on March 9, 1807, Petion was elected president of the Republic of Haiti, and there were two Haitis.

And two very different Haitis there were. My position on them is this. The north (soon to become the Kingdom of Haiti) is well-known, flashy and quite interesting. But, it is the Republic of Haiti and the rule of Alexander Petion which is definitive of the future of Haiti. Given this view, I will briefly treat of Christophe's colorful rule, and focus on what seems to me the more important and formative of the two Haitis, Petion's Republic.

On March 26, 1811 Henry Christophe had himself crowned King Henry I and changed the name of his country to the Kingdom of Haiti. Unlike Dessalines, he created a large batch of nobles and organized his kingdom more along the lines of European monarchies. Henry was a dictatorial king, but a man who saw the importance of development and set out to bring his kingdom into the modern world. He began an ambitious project of education, at least for the children of the elite, and spent incredible wealth and energy on monuments and buildings.

Two of his most famous monuments were his own palace of Sans Souci in the village of Milot and the Caribbean's most famous monument, the huge citadelle on the mountain top of La Ferriere. The Citadelle had an ostensible military purpose. Like Dessalines, King Henry I expected France to attempt to re-invade and regain Haiti as a colony. Since no one formally recognized Haiti as an independent nation, she was, to the world at large, a colony in rebellion. Henry's fears were not without solid foundation. His plan for the Citadelle was to have an impregnable fortress to which he could retire with a large army and from this fortress carry on a guerilla war. The strategy was a very good one, thought the Citadelle never had to be tested for that purpose.

Perhaps the most startling achievement of Henry I's rule was that he was able to make the fermage system work quite well, at least to re-establish production of the sugar plantations. Henry I insisted upon and got vigorous discipline and enforcement of fermage and was able to return production of sugar to about 75% of what it was under the French prior to the revolution. That's an astonishing achievement given that the French were working with slaves and the Haitian were employing serf-like free people.

But this success in the production system was the beginning of the end of Henry I's power at the same time. The Haitian masses did not fight a war of independence to be introduced to a social system that looked to them very much like slavery. Many fled to the south where no such system existed, and others, while not feeling the ability or desire to flee, built up and increasing hatred of the system of Henry I, despite it's seeming success.

Henry's world came crashing down once Petion died in the south and Jean-Pierre Boyer, his successor, launched an attack on the north. This was a signal to those within Henry's realm that an uprising was possible. Many in the masses rose up in personal indignation of the fermage and other dictatorial aspects of Henry's rule. Many in the army and elite rose up in an internal power struggle. Henry's own failing health due to a stoke, weakened his position and finally on October 13, 1818, rather than be taken by his enemies, Henry I, Henry Christophe, committed suicide, thus ending the divided Haitis.

Alexander Petion's Republic of Haiti, established the economic and social system, and on my view, did much to determine what sort of nation this would be.

In is my own view that the rule of Alexander Petion, and his successor Jean-Pierre Boyer, is the most important rule in the history of Haiti. Obviously the this period from 1807 to 1818 under Petion and then 1820-1843 under Boyer is not possible without the revolution and the particular designs of Dessalines and Christophe, nonetheless, the far reaching impact of Petion's mode of government has shaped Haiti in a unique manner.

Alexander Petion was, in the main, a do-nothing leader. He lived a comfortable life in Port-au-Prince, was fair and quite honest, but didn't intend to exercise much force on his people. He had an army and did utilize them to keep things peaceful in his country, especially holding down the rebellion of Goman in the far western part of the southern peninsula.

Unlike Dessalines and Christophe, he did NOTHING to reinvigorate the economy. Consequently there was little economy. But the decisive decision of Petion was to redistribute land as a means of paying soldiers, since the treasury had no funds. This was the first land distribution program in the new world, unless one counts the colonial take over of native land as land redistribution. Petion divided the land into small portions, giving somewhat larger grants to officers and smaller ones to the common soldier.

The effect was that Petion created a country of peasants living on their own land doing subsistence agriculture and having little or no involvement with government, or the life of the cities, much less with the external world. Sugar virtually ceased to exist as a notable crop and coffee, which could be harvested by the individual farmer on his small plot, became the dominant crop.

Even this crop was not hugely significant economically. Given that the elite of the cities, primarily mulatto associates of Petion, were the coffee brokers, and that they paid the peasant only a tiny pittance for the coffee, there was a growing social instantiation of a radically and racially divided two class system.

On the one hand were the city based mainly mulatto elite, small in number and quite wealthy, mainly through the international trade of coffee. On the other side were the masses of poor black peasant farmers, eking out a living doing subsistence farming, supplemented by a tiny bit of trade with city markets, especially in coffee.

This form of life which emerged in Petion's Haiti is little different from the Haiti we know today. Things are not exactly the same. Haiti changed with the American occupation of 1915-1934 which brought about a much more direct international presence. Haiti changed with the noirist impact of the Duvalier regime which brought more blacks into the power elite. Haiti changed with the slow acquisition of small land plots by the elite, converting Haiti's peasantry more and more into share-cropping peasants than land owning peasants. Haiti changed with the introduction of drugs as a major economic and political fact of life in the 1980s, and Haiti has changed with the rise of the popular movement which both overthrew Jean-Claude Duvalier and eventually put Jean-Bertrand Aristide into power.

Despite all of this change, Haiti looks much like the world of 1818! The huge mass of Haitian people still struggles along doing subsistence farming and supplementing this with a bit of trade at the markets. The rich of the cities still make their money by ownership of rural land, and exporting crops which they've gotten from the peasant for share-cropping, or purchasing for a pittance at market. The elite are more color-mixed than in the past, but it is still a very tiny portion of the people, in the vicinity of 3% who live lives a great wealth, extracting that wealth from the peasants, who live lives of extreme poverty and powerlessness.

There is a great deal of debate in scholarly circles of what to make of Petion's rule. Was he this liberal leader who simply gave the people of Haiti what they wanted, or was he a clever politician who was able to control the country and people better by serving the interests of a tiny elite and tolerating the emisseration of the masses? I really don't know what the motives of Petion were, but anyone really wanting to explore this will find a good start in analyzing that literature in David Nicholls' book FROM DESSALINES TO DUVALIER. I'm less interested in figuring out Petion's motives than I am in seeing that this was indeed a critical historical period in determining the shape of the future of Haiti.

To be continued with:

  1. Continuing forward: the rule of Jean-Pierre Boyer and the consolidation of the Petion system.
  2. An analysis of the world of Petion, especially the judgment that this was a NEGATIVE impact on the national life of Haiti.