When C.R. Gibbs, a historian who founded the African History and Culture Lecture Series, heard the news of the brutal assassination of Moïse, he thought about history repeating itself.
“I thought about the past as prologue,” said Gibbs, a D.C. Humanities Council scholar and author of the book “Black, Copper, and Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment.”
Gibbs said the legacy of Dessalines still resonates throughout the African diaspora, where Dessalines is revered as a hero.
“Dessalines was resolute in fighting for the freedom of Black people — not only in Haiti,” Gibbs said. “If there is something about this great man that resonates today, we have to be impressed with his boldness, courage and dedication to the liberty of his people, his land and the larger Black world.”
In a 2007 interview that aired on C-SPAN, Randall Robinson, author of the book “An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President,” explained that the Haitian revolution was “the first and only successful slave revolution in the Americas. And it signaled the end of slavery throughout the Americas.”
During the Haitian revolution, Robinson said, an army of formerly enslaved Black people, led by L’Ouverture and Dessalines, defeated the armies of France, Spain and Britain in a 12-year war.
“Four hundred and sixty-five thousand slaves were in Haiti at that time,” Robinson explained. “It was the most productive, profitable French colony in the world — 465,000 slaves. Almost immediately, 40,000 of them joined the revolution.”
More than 150,000 people died in that brutal war for independence and freedom.
After the French were defeated, the United States refused to recognize Haiti, which became the world’s first Black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state, sending fear through other countries where slavery still held sway.
“Thomas Jefferson said that Toussaint should be reduced to starvation,” Robinson said. “George Washington lamented this impulse of the slaves, and hoped it would not be infectious.”
“Not only did the United States not recognize Haiti,” Robinson said, “it imposed sanctions on it, a global embargo, until the Emancipation Proclamation, over 60 years later.”
France also imposed sanctions on the new Haiti. More than 110 years after the revolution, “Haiti was still paying out 80 percent of its public resources to do debt service, and to meet that service on loans,” Robinson said, “to pay these reparations to France — the only case in history where a successful nation was caused to pay reparations to a losing nation.”
Even so, the anti-slavery revolution was remarkable. “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” Robinson said, “should be a household name in the United States, especially for African Americans.”
In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc to seize L’Ouverture and return slavery to Haiti. L’Ouverture was imprisoned in France, where he died of pneumonia in April 1803, according to historians.
But after L’Ouverture’s capture, Dessalines and other Black revolutionaries rose in a fierce rebellion, eventually running the French out of the country, then called Saint-Domingue.
After his victory, Dessalines wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, informing the U.S. president of “the events that have occurred on our unfortunate island since the arrival of the French and the revolution caused in France by the tyranny of their oppressive government.”
Dessalines explained in the letter dated June 23, 1803, that the people of his country whom he led in the revolution were “tired of paying with our blood the price of our blind allegiance to a mother country that cuts her children’s throats.”
He declared that Saint-Domingue was following the example of the American colonies, which fought a revolution to free themselves from England.
Saint-Domingue, Dessalines wrote, had “thrown off the yoke of tyranny and sworn to expel the torturers. Our countryside is already purged of their sight. A few cities are still under their domination but have nothing further to offer to their avid rapacity.”
Jefferson did not respond.
Some scholars say that Dessalines was born in West Africa around 1758; others believe he was born into slavery on Saint-Domingue, which may have produced more than 40 percent of the world’s sugar and coffee. Enslaved Black people in Saint-Domingue died at a high rate.
On Jan. 1, 1804, Dessalines became governor general and proclaimed independence for the island of Hispaniola, giving it the new name of Haiti, according to the National Archives.
In September of 1804, Dessalines crowned himself “Emperor Jacques I.”
According to historians, Dessalines himself oversaw a persistent policy of forced labor on plantations. To quell any White opposition, Dessalines seized land from White people and banned them from owning property.
“Perhaps fearing them as potential subversives in the event of another French invasion,” according to Britannica, Dessalines implemented a “campaign of extermination against the country’s white inhabitants in which thousands were killed.”
Soon, political rivals rose against the rule of Dessalines.
Two years after Dessalines claimed independence for Haiti, according to historians, he was slain.
But he wasn’t forgotten.
In 2018, after some debate about his massacre of White people, New York co-named a street after Dessalines in Brooklyn. Jean-Jacques Dessalines runs through a stretch of Brooklyn’s Little Haiti.
“This corner is where the history of Haiti and the history of the United States meet,” one resident told the New York Times. “It represents the power of our ancestors and their strength.”
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