Cymon is a geeky historian with a passion for finding out and researching peculiarities and historical coincidences and unsung heroes.
Today, sadly, the Caribbean country is known for poverty and suffering, particularly in the form of natural disasters such as hurricanes. We are all too well aware of the devastation caused to the island, most recently by Hurricane Matthew, which struck in October 2016, leaving one and a half million people in need of humanitarian aid.
The nation’s history however is both rich and proud, and rightly so. The first Caribbean nation to gain independence from its imperial masters, in this case the French, in 1804 (I’m guessing that Napoleon was too busy preparing for his own elevation to Emperor to worry about what was going on four and a half thousand miles away).
The First Haitian Empire
So number one and a bit of a surprise to me is the Empire of Haiti (or Hayti), one of the smallest empires in history, in fact only a little larger than Wales.
A bloody revolution started in 1791 when between one and two thousand slaves rose against their European masters, this amounted to the largest slave revolt since Spartacus some 1,900 years earlier. By the time independence was achieved, thirteen years later, 200,000 Haitians had lost their lives in the conflict. Add to this the deaths of their former subjugators (both the British and Spanish had become involved in order to weaken the French in Europe and, of course, gain the riches of Saint Domingue, Haiti’s colonial name, for themselves) and in total some 350,000 had died.
Jean Jaque Dessalines, 1st Emperor of Haiti
On 30th November 1803 Jean-Jaques Dessalines, a former slave who had risen to command the revolutionary army, was appointed Governor General and on 1st January 1804 he declared independence, naming the new country “Ayti” from the original native Taino tribe. Dessalines declared himself, initially as Governor General for life but didn’t waste time and the Generals of the Revolutionary Army proclaimed him Emperor on 22nd September that same year.
Immediately abolishing slavery and in the process becoming the first nation in Latin America to do so. One cannot deny the skills that such a man would need with such an achievement. Born a slave and enslaved for thirty years, to free himself and his people from cruel masters, in this case the French, but few European powers can claim not to have acted similarly. The path to freedom for the enslaved in the Americas had taken a huge step forward.
The new Emperor’s route here was powerful and for the people, took place in the soul. For many in the revolutionary army, all the way up to Dutty Boukman, one of the leaders of that first Haitian slave revolt, were devout vodous, Boukman himself a powerful priest.
Boukman's words, spoken, (or not?) at the political/vodue ceremony held at Bois Caiman, on the eve of the revolt, were perhaps the most inspirational to read, let alone how it would have felt to be there for it was certainly the message received.
“The Good Lord who created the sun which gives us light from above, who rouses the sea and makes the thunder roar–listen well, all of you–this god, hidden in the clouds, watches us. He sees all that the white god asks for good deeds. But this god who is so good demands vengeance! He will direct our hands; he will aid us. Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears, and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.”
— Dutty Boukman R Shilliam - Claiming the International, 2013 - books.google.com
Whether or not Boukman actually said these words is hypothetical, the people believed.
Boukman died soon after the revolution began, at the hands of the French, but Voduo spirit remained and it’s associations with sacrifice, demonic ritual and Catholicism was within the combatants.
Dessalines was as anti-French by this time as one could get, and probably with good reason given the savage way in which the slaves were treated by the colonial authorities and plantation owners. Soon after he came to supreme power he ordered the deaths of all the French on the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shared with the then Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (the modern day Dominican Republic).
Over a period of some four months or so up to five thousand French people, men, women and children were slain, many in barbaric ways. A white French woman could save her life by marrying a revolutionary. The French-creole population were also decimated.
The words of a senior revolutionary:
Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to consume faeces? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling couldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss? Have they not consigned these miserable blacks to man eating-dogs until the latter, sated by human flesh, left the mangled victims to be finished off with bayonet and poniard?
Dessalines himself oversaw and took part in many a massacre and the result was a genocide. Almost every white person had been exterminated, with the exception of the women who wed black revolutionaries and a group of Polish people who turned against the French. Dessalines described the Poles as “The white negros of Europe”. Some German medics also survived the massacre.
Of the Frenchmen who escaped, many made their way to the United States, particularly the former French colonies in the south. Word was spread about the dangers of allowing slaves to revolt and the fear of such happening in the slave owning states led to even harsher treatment for slaves there.
In his book “The Abolitionist decade 1829 – 1838” Kevin C Julius states:
“As abolitionists loudly proclaimed that "All men are created equal", echoes of armed slave insurrections and racial genocide sounded in Southern ears. Much of their resentment towards the abolitionists can be seen as a reaction to the events in Haiti.”
Nearly sixty years later in 1860 Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney wrote:
"I remember the horrors of St. Domingo (Haiti)" and said that the election "will determine whether anything like this is to be visited upon our own southern countrymen."
In the Imperial Constitution of 1805 Dessalines was declared Emperor for life as Jean-Jaques I, and had the right to name his own successor. All people living in the country were described as black, even the whites – women, Poles and Germans.
Following the massacre, Dessalines ordered his forces to pursue the French into the Spanish ruled, eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, Santo Domingo, although it was reported that as few as five hundred French soldiers had succeeded in escaping there. At the town of Moca, under the command of Henri Christophe, the Haitian force inflicted a brutal defeat on the remaining French and it is reported that forty children were beheaded, while some six hundred or so were killed or taken back to Haiti as forced labourers.
Dessalines tried to protect the economy by continuing its production of sugar but his methods were resented. The people soon found themselves in similar servitude as they had suffered as slaves, although now officially freemen. He attempted to deal with the surrounding British and Spanish colonies, which were, of course, driven by slave labour. This eventually led to his demise and he was assassinated on 17th October 1806.
Those who had invoked his removal included his lieutenant, Henri Christophe and the quadroon, Alexandre Petion, who had served as a general in the revolutionary army. Following Dessalines’ demise Christophe and Petion became rivals and divided the country.
Christophe became President of the State of Haiti in the north, Petion became president in the south. In 1811 Christophe created the Kingdom of Haiti in the north and he was proclaimed King Henri I in 1811. His methods were similar to those of Dessalines and he committed suicide in 1820, fearing a military insurrection.
Petion, as president in the south, gave sanctuary to Simon de Bolivar and supported him with supplies and men to aide him with his liberation of Gran Colombia (modern day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador, as well as parts of Peru and Brazil). He succumbed to yellow fever in 1818.
Christophe and Petion were succeeded by another revolutionary, General Boyer, who united the two states and created, for the first time, the nation of Haiti, which for a short while encompassed the whole island of Hispaniola.
The Second Haitian Empire
Following the end of the First Haitian Empire in 1806 and the divided rule of Christophe and Petion, the island of Hispaniola went through a changeable period. For periods of time the island was unified at others times, particularly the eastern (Santo Dominguo) came under French and Spanish rule. Then again it was independent or part of a unified country.
A return to Imperial status came about in 1849, some forty three years after the first Empire.
Faustin Soulouque, 2nd Emperor of Haiti
General Faustin Soulouque, at sixty five, had been appointed president by the power brokers in 1847. They considered him manageable, they were mistaken. It did not take him long to shake the shackles of his political masters. Creating a private army, the Zinglins, who harassed his enemies and were not above murder. A practising voduo, he surrounded himself with priests and priestesses, amongst his closest council. He was not averse to strengthening his power using extreme strong arm tactics.
Racial tension was to the fore, with the previously ruling class, mostly mulattoes, suffering at the hands of Faustin’s black faction, with the few whites that were left constantly living in fear. He used fear and intimidation to increase his power to the point where it was absolute.
An admirer of Napoleon, in August 1849 he coerced the Senate and Deputies to proclaim him Emperor. His coronation emulated his hero Napoleon’s in every way, with his robes an almost exact copy. As with Napoleon he created his own nobility, based on the French system, there were new dukes, counts and barons and thirty lady knights.
Wanting to expand his territories, Faustin three times attempted to conquer the eastern half of Hispaniola, since 1844 the Dominican Republic. His defeats were ignominious, personally leading his army to defeat, particularly notable was the rout inflicted upon him at the Battle of Las Carreras. Here the Dominican Republic fielded just 400 men, under General Pedro Santana, against a reported, though unconfirmed, 5,000 under Faustin.
As with many a despot, Faustin’s end came in 1858 at the hands of a previous ally. General Fabre Geffrard, whom the Emperor had elevated to the title Duc de Tabara in 1852, led a coup which successfully overthrew His Imperial Majesty. Abdicating in January 1859, at first he appealed to the French for political sanctuary but was refused. The British stepped in and he was taken aboard a Royal Navy ship and sailed to Jamaica, where he spent several years. The location of the former Emperor’s death is open to discussion. Some say it was in Kingston, Jamaica, whilst others contend that he returned to Haiti and died in his birth place, Petit Goave.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Cymon Snow