The Revolution in Saint-Domingue 1804

Dessalines, the Flag, and Independence

Source: Beaubrun Ardouin, Études sur l’Histoire d’Haïti (Vol. 6). Dézabry et Magdeleine, Paris, 1853-1860;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2010.

With the capitulation of Cap Français and the seizing of Môle the last soldiers of the 1802 expedition sent to this island disappeared from the soil of the former French portion of Saint-Domingue. The conquest of this portion of the territory of the island had thus been completed. All that remained was the conquest of the other portion, the former Spanish colony, still occupied by some expeditionary troops. Given the situation it was unquestionably appropriate to delay this military undertaking in order to make clear to the inhabitants of the country, of France itself, and to the entire world the goal proposed by the chiefs who had led the resistance against the authority of the metropolis.

Liberty or Death! was the slogan chosen and inscribed by Dessalines on the native flag when he tore the white from the French tricolor.

In thus adopting a new rallying sign for his army he notified the French enemy of the resolution he and his lieutenants had irrevocably taken to proclaim Saint-Domingue’s independence after the victory. It would have been absurd for them to resist and emerge victorious in order to remain under the domination of France. The metropolis had too far abused its power by acting against the rights acquired by the black race, and which it had recognized, not to provoke that separation, which had become indispensable for the maintenance and preservation of those rights.

What is more, the conquest, the fortunate fruit of a just war, had resolved the problem posed since 1789 between the oppressed and the oppressors. It was every bit as legitimate for the men of the black race to rise up as it had been for the English colonies of North America, who had risen in revolt against their metropolis’ oppression for causes far less important in the eyes of humanity. The blacks had to fight to avoid falling under the ignominious yoke of slavery. Their right to own their country was more just, more legitimate, than that of the French in invading the portion of the country belonging to the Spanish, and than the rights of the latter, who brutally sacrificed its aboriginal population in taking possession of it.

And who had more of a right to the noble mission of proclaiming the so bravely obtained independence than the chiefs of the army who had spilled their blood on the battlefield while leading their brothers’ efforts? They were the natural representatives of the sovereignty of the nation that was to be established in the middle of the Caribbean. It was up to them alone to manifest its will in these circumstances.

Proceeding differently would have meant being forced in order to carry out their energetic resolutions to call for the assistance of most of the colonists and other Frenchmen who had remained on Saint-Domingue after the expulsion of the expeditionary army. Such an amalgamation would have been foolhardy. What is more, the military authority had always dominated the country, before and after the first revolutionary troubles, and the civic and political assembly formed by Toussaint Louverture in response to the follies of the colonial assemblies had proved the pernicious influence of the colonists on the public councils. Finally, the recent crimes committed against the population by Rochambeau and the reestablishing of slavery carried out in other French possessions had led to the determination to exclude all white men from the new society.

Moved by his obligations and dominated by the thought of promptly issuing a declaration of independence in the first days of December 1803, Dessalines ordered the return to their cantonments of all the troops that had participated in the taking of Cap Français, after having distributed to them a large portion of the money that came from a war contribution imposed on the whites of that city, as well as those of Port-au-Prince. These troops returned to their camps, wearing the laurels they’d earned on the field of honor. Their march was triumphal, and they everywhere received the benedictions of the populace that flocked to view them pass.

The general-in-chief didn’t delay in going to Gonaïves, sending an order to all the generals to meet him there in order to deliberate along with him about the form of the great measure that was going to be proclaimed. They were all there at the end of December, and along with them the adjutants general of their divisions and other secondary officers.

National tradition doesn’t reveal why Gonaïves was chosen as the place where the act of independence was to be written and signed. It was probably due to its more or less central position, near the settlements of Laville and Marchand, where Dessalines had already laid out the fortifications aimed at protecting the city he counted on founding there. It was perhaps also in remembrance of Gonaïves having been the first place he conquered from the French. Whatever the case, it is worthy of note that the First of the Blacks was put on board a ship in order to pitifully end his days in France after having prophesized the inevitable triumph of the liberty of his brothers. These things alone justified the foresight of his genius.

An idea had gained unanimous support, an idea whose author no one was certain of: that of restoring to the entire island, which was to form the new state, the name it had borne under its first inhabitants: HAITI. Victims of the cruel greed of the Spaniards, these fascinating island dwellers had shared the slavery and the sufferings of the first Africans brought to their land; they had resisted their tyrants together. Their memory demanded this new protest against the vain injustices of Columbus, against his peers who had made the name Saint-Domingue prevail. It was another way of breaking with the justly abhorred colonial past.

Among the officers of the general-in-chief’s general staff who also served as secretaries, Charérond and Boisrond Tonnerre distinguished themselves by their education received in France. Just Chanlatte, who was also raised there and who became Dessalines’ general secretary a short while later, was in the United States at the time, where he had sought refuge some time earlier.

Charéron was older than his colleagues and of a moderate character. He enjoyed Dessalines’ full confidence, and the latter charged him with writing the acts necessary under the circumstances. Of a methodical spirit, admiring the work of Jefferson, he sought to model the declaration of independence of the second people to free themselves from the European yoke after the earlier one. People say that he did good work on this, and laid out the rights of the black race and the just grievances of its native people against France. But it appears that it was a long enumeration of principles and facts which, because of the moderation of its author, lacked heat and energy.

Charéron had apparently not grasped the spirit of his time, and especially that of the general-in-chief of the natives. In keeping with the ideas of the times, a political independence conquered weapons in hand, amidst passions of all kinds, after unheard of acts of perfidy and cruelty, demanded language full of fury and vengeance, since the people were determined to exercise the latter against the French who remained in the country in accordance with the repeated promises that had been made them. In order to carry out these terrible reprisals terrible language was necessary.

On December 31 Charéron read his work to Dessalines in the presence of the generals and all the other officers. The ceremony of the declaration of independence was to take place the next day, January 1, 1804 in order to begin the new era with the new year. This long exposé of facts and principles produced an unfortunate impression on Dessalines’ spirit, which was ardent and animated by vengeance. He demonstrated formal disapproval of Charéron’s work.

Then Boisrond Tonnerre, a young man full of ardor, passionate, exalted by the crimes of Berger, Kerpoisson and their infamous henchmen that he had witnessed in Cayes , and by all those crimes committed in other places. He also better understood the situation than his colleague and, knowing the ideas of his general-in-chief, pronounced these blood-thirsty words: “In order to draw up the act of our independence we need the skin of a white man to serve as parchment, his skull for inkwell, his blood as ink, and a bayonet as the quill.”

Dessalines was transported by these inhuman ideas. “Yes,” he said,” this is positively what we need; it’s what I want. I charge you with the writing of these acts.”

Those present applauded or trembled in accordance with their private sentiments. But who among them could offer a moderate opinion once the dictator had thus pronounced himself? One must remember that era of violence and vengeance in order to understand the harmful influence that the crimes committed in 1803 exercised on people’s spirits. Given the respect owed human life, history must certainly condemn Boisrond Tonnerre for having thus excited Dessaline’s fury. But fairness also demands that we must recognize that he did nothing but interpret in bloody terms the intimate thoughts of his chief and many of his contemporaries. Vengeance and the forgetting of the most sacred promises contracted through written and voluntary conventions were on the order of the day. Many victims had already been sacrificed at Cap Français by order of the chief who had signed these acts. It is he and his memory that must bear the responsibility, just as it is the enemies who provoked these furies who must respond before history for the enormity of their crimes.

Boisrond Tonnerre set to work and passed the night writing the acts the circumstances called for in order to be ready for the next day’s ceremony. The acts must be judged in this light, since the pieces prepared by Charéron were not preserved.

This august, essentially military, ceremony saw assembled on Gonaïves’ Place des Armes the troops of various corps and the populace of the city and the surrounding countryside who, on similar days in the country, are always ready to celebrate the religious festival of the Circumcision. An extraordinary crowd was drawn because of the exceptional cause that attracted it.

The acts written by Boisrond Tonnerre were first read in the house occupied by the general-in-chief and received Dessalines’ approval. The generals and the other officers present must also have approved them. They were immediately signed, the proclamation to the people of Haiti by the general-in-chief, the act of independence by the latter and the other chiefs, and the act that conferred upon him the title of Governor General by the generals alone, who were now considered state councilors.

Surrounded by his brave companions Dessalines went to the Place des Armes where the sound of a military band greeted him. Mounted on the altar of the fatherland he first gave a vehement speech in Creole to the assembled troops and people concerning the goal of the ceremony. He then ordered Boisrond Tonnerre to read in the following order the acts he’d written:


It isn’t enough to have expelled from your country the barbarians who have bloodied it for two centuries. It isn’t enough to have put a brake on the ever reborn factions who took turns fooled by the phantom of liberty that France dangled before your eyes. By a final act of national authority you must forever ensure the empire of liberty in the country in which we saw the light of day. We must take from the inhuman government that for so long has held our spirits in the most humiliating torpor any hope of re-enslaving us. We must finally live independently or die!

Independence or Death! May these sacred words rally us and may they be the signal for our combat and our coming together.

Citizens, my compatriots, on this solemn day I bring together these courageous soldiers who, on the eve of receiving liberty’s final breath gave their blood to save it. These generals who guided your efforts against tyranny have not yet done enough for your happiness. The name “Frenchman” still darkens our land.

Everything there retraces the memory of the cruelty of this barbarous people. Our laws, our morals, our cities all still bear the French imprint. What am I saying? There exist Frenchmen on our island, yet you think yourselves free and independent of that republic, which it is true fought all nations, but which never defeated those that wanted to be free!

Victims for fourteen years of our credulity and indulgence, defeated not by French armies but by the lying eloquence of the proclamations of their agents, when will we tire of breathing the same air as them? What do we have in common with this people of executioners? Its cruelty compared to our moderation, its color to ours, the vastness of the sea that separates us, our avenging climate speak loudly enough that they are not our brothers, that they will never become so, and that if they find asylum among us they will again become the manipulators of our troubles and dissensions.

Native citizens; men, women, daughters, and children: gaze on all the sections of this island. You there: look for your wives; you, your husbands; you, your brothers; you, your sisters. Look for your children, your babes at the breast. What have they become? I tremble at the answer... The prey of those vultures. Instead of their victims, your consternated eyes see only their assassins, only the tigers with their victims’ blood still dripping from them and whose terrible presence stands as a reproach to your lack of sensibility, your culpable delay in avenging them. What are you waiting for to appease their shades? You wanted your remains to rest near those of your fathers when you drove out tyranny. Will you descend into their graves without having avenged them? No! Their bones will drive yours out.

And you, worthy men, intrepid generals who, paying no heed to your own misfortunes, resuscitated liberty by giving of your blood, know that you did nothing if you fail to set a terrible but just example for other nations of the vengeance which a people proud of having recovered its liberty and jealous of maintaining it must exercise. Frighten all those who would attempts to take it from us anew. Begin with the French! Let them tremble upon approaching our coasts, if not because of the memory of the cruelties they carried out here, at least from the terrible resolution we are going to take to punish with death whatever born Frenchman soils our land of liberty with his sacrilegious step.

We dared to be free; dare to be so by and for ourselves. Imitate the child that grows: its own weight tears the leading strings that become useless to it and hinders its march. What people fought for us? What people want to harvest the fruits of our labors? And what a dishonorable absurdity to win in order to be slaves. Slaves! Leave this epithet to the French. They vanquished in order to cease to be free.

Let us march on another road. Imitate those peoples who, being solicitous of the future and fearing to leave to posterity the example of cowardice, preferred to be exterminated rather than to be erased from the ranks of free peoples.

However, we must see to it that the spirit of proselytism not destroy our work. We must allow our neighbors to breathe in peace. May they live peacefully under the rule of laws they made themselves and let us not, acting like revolutionary firebrands, consider ourselves the legislators of the Caribbean, make our glory consist in troubling the repose of the neighboring islands. Unlike the one we inhabit, their isles weren’t watered with the innocent blood of their inhabitants. They have no vengeance to take against the authority that protects them. Fortunate in not having known the ills that destroyed us, they can only offer wishes for our prosperity.

Peace on our neighbors, but anathema on the name of Frenchman! Eternal hatred for France! This is our cry.

Natives of Haiti, my destiny was to one day be the sentinel who watched over the idol to whom you sacrificed. I watched and fought, sometimes alone, and if I was fortunate enough to place in your hands the sacred object you entrusted to me, it is now up to you to preserve it. In fighting for your liberty I worked for my own happiness. Before consolidating it through laws that ensure your free individuality, your chiefs who I have assembled here and I owe you a final proof of our devotion.

Generals, and you chiefs, gathered near me for the happiness of our country, the day has arrived, the day that will make our glory eternal: our independence.

If there exists among you a lukewarm heart, let it go far from here and tremble at pronouncing the vow that is to unite us.

Let us swear before the entire universe, before posterity, to ourselves, to forever renounce France and to die rather than live under its domination. To fight to the last breath for our country’s independence!

And you, people too long unhappy, witnesses of the vow we pronounce, bear in mind that I counted on your loyalty and courage when I threw myself into the career of liberty to fight the despotism and tyranny you had fought against for fourteen years. Keep in mind that I sacrificed everything for your defense: parents, children, fortune, and now I am rich only in your freedom; that my name has become a horror to all those peoples that want slavery and that despots and tyrants only speak it when cursing the day on which I was born. And if you ever refuse or complainingly accept the laws that the genius that watches over your destiny dictates to me for your happiness, you would deserve the fate of ungrateful peoples.

But far from me is this horrible idea. You will be the supports of the liberty you cherish, the support the chief who commands you.

Take the vow to live free and independent and to prefer death to anyone who wants to place you again under the yoke. Finally, swear to forever pursue the traitors and the enemies of your independence.

Execute at the headquarters in Gonaïves, January 1, 1804, the first year of independence.

Signed: J.J. Dessalines

During the reading of this proclamation, at the appeal made to the generals and the other chiefs who surrounded him, Dessalines, the officers, and the troops took the bellicose vow it contains. They did it with enthusiasm, with that masculine resolution they had put into defending the liberty of an entire people, an entire race of men doomed until then to the infamy of servitude. And at the appeal made to this people the population of Gonaïves, men and women, representing the young Haitian nation and the black race, also took the vow that connected it to the most distant future and which gave them a distinct fatherland.

How glorious they must have been, those warriors who at that solemn moment committed themselves before the heavens that had blessed their arms to fight till death in order to maintain their country’s independence, which they’d conquered at the cost of their blood.

It is for us, who glory in this, to admire the devotion of our fathers, placing themselves fearlessly before the colossal might of France, after having deprived it of its most beautiful colony!

And yet that France, with its heroic aspirations, which was so generous in its immortal revolution, would not recognize the independent political existence of such a people, pushed to that resolution by the influence of its principles and ideas! Did it not know that it was through the same influence that it drove from its soil the British legions the French colonists had called there? After having thus maintained its liberty in the name of France, which had proclaimed it in order to render homage to human dignity, did this people not have the right to maintain it against its own metropolis?

The following act was read by Boisrond Tonnerre in order to establish Haiti’s declaration of independence:

Today, January 1, 1804

The general-in-chief of the indigenous army, accompanied by the generals in charge of the army, summoned in order to take the measures that would lead to the happiness of the country;

After having made known to the assembled generals his true intentions: that of forever ensuring to the natives of Haiti a stable government, the object of his solicitude, which he did in a speech aimed at making known to foreign powers the resolution to make the country independent and to enjoy a liberty consecrated by the blood of the people of this island; after having gathered advice he asked that each of his assembled generals pronounce the vow of forever renouncing France, to die rather than live under its domination, and to fight for independence to their last breath.

The generals, imbued with these sacred principles, after having unanimously voted their adherence to the project of independence, have all sworn before eternity, before the entire universe, to forever renounce France and to die rather than live under its domination.

Executed in Gonaïves, this first of January, 1804, and the first day of the independence of Haiti.

Finally, the secretary read the following act:

We, generals and leaders of the armies of the island of Haiti, feeling gratitude for the benefits we have received from general-in-chief Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the protector of the liberty enjoyed by the people;

In the name of liberty, in the name of independence, in the name of the people he rendered happy, we proclaim him Governor General of Haiti for life. We swear to blindly obey the laws emanating from his authority, the only one we recognize. We grant him the right to make peace, war, and to name his successor.

Executed at headquarters in Gonaïves, this first of January, 1804, and the first day of independence.

Signed: Gabart, P. Romain, J-J Herne, Capois, Christophe, Geffrard, E. Gérin, Vernet, Pétion, Clervaux, Jean-Louis François, Cangé, Férou, Yayou, Toussaint Brave, Magloire Ambroise, L. Bazelais, daut.

The last two acts were as well received by the assembled troops and people as the proclamation of the general-in-chief had been. One was the consecration of the right inherent in every people that sees itself forced to resistance, the other of the fact rendered every bit as necessary by the war that had followed that resistance.

Independence had been the goal of the insurrection against French authority; the declaration of the leaders of the country received its sanction through its acceptance by the army and the people.

The dictatorship had invested Dessalines with all power; it was continued in his possession under the title of Governor General by the generals who had assisted him and already recognized him as dictator. The right to choose his successor was the same one that Toussaint Louverture had reserved to himself in his constitution of 1801.

But had there really been deliberations on the part of the generals in conferring the title of Governor General on Dessalines, as is affirmed by a national author? When it will later be a question of the title of emperor and the constitution of 1805 we will again see acts bearing the names of generals, without there having been any prior deliberations among them. But these acts were also accepted by them, by the army, and by the people.

It thus seems quite natural to us that in succeeding to the supreme power that Toussaint Louverture had exercised Dessalines would have thought that he had to take the title his chief had borne and that he also had consecrated his right to choose his successor. His will being known to his secretary charged with the writing of the act, as his colleague had been, Boisrond Tonnerre would have formulated it as the dictator would have liked. The generals would have signed it without having made the least observation in this regard. Were there not among them men who were capable of judging that the title of Governor General recalled the country’s former dependent relations with France? Could Boisrond Tonnerre have been unaware of this? But we can easily understand that the circumstances weren’t favorable to a discussion of this subject and that the character and the ideas of the dictator loaned themselves to this even less.

Nevertheless, we must note one essential element of this act: it is that though it conferred the dictatorship to Dessalines, this power, this extraordinary authority, was conditional. The generals swore to “blindly obey the laws” he would make, but not his personal will. And a passage of his own proclamation made it clear that these generals would assist in the making of laws “that would ensure citizens their free individuality.” They were thus state councilors, assisting the dictator in the legislation of the country. And this, in fact, is how they were considered.

It is clear that given the conditions, with the ideas of the era and a leader like Dessalines, it was not possible to conceive any other form of government. No political assembly emanating from the people was practical. But if it were to happen that the generals, as state councilors, were not to truly enjoy their attributes, we would see born a resistance to the abuse of dictatorial power, which would cause the fall of the dictator.

Whatever the case, the acts published in Gonaïves and immediately printed were sent to all the secondary authorities and were the occasion for public rejoicing. The army and the people in all the departments of the former French part of the island applauded the leaders’ resolutions. National independence was thus ratified and consecrated by the agreement and the unity of all the citizens of the new state.