History

“Live free or die!” Independence Speech by General Jean Jacques Dessalines, 1804

The Haitian Slave Turned Revolutionary General

“There are men who are representatives of their race, of their nation, and of their generation. They are exceptional beings who are samples of their society, or they are at the forefront of humanity. They not only left their mark on their time but they also left their mark on the universal history of peoples and nations. They have the greatness and quality of eternal life. They belong to any time and any place. They are people who have accomplished unique facts and changed the course of history through their actions. At one point in their lives, they stood up, and they defied a system. They led the fight that opened the narrow path of justice, freedom, and equality for all. These men are called heroes, having a power of thought and a strength of unusual souls. God created them to make them forgers of conscience, revolutionaries, leaders of men, and leaders. They are the true kings of this world! Jean-Jaques Dessalines was one of those men—a genius of his race. He was a giant in the history of humanity.” Overview of Jean-Jacques Dessalines “Words from Beyond the Grave”

Dessalines is known as one of the founders of Haiti, then St Domingue. He was first General to 
Toussaint LOuverture. He was unable to read or write and his body was scarred with strokes from the whip of his black master. He ran away at about the age of 33 and joined the fight that started the French revolution.

He was known as the tiger and was said to be a born soldier. Many thought he excelled Toussaint as a military genius, yet he only learned to sign his name very late in his life. He had no sympathy with Toussaint’s policy to reconcile with the whites. His fearlessness and brutality struck fear in the hearts of his foes.

In 1804 he crowned himself emperor for life. Dessalines took out the white portion of the French flag which was red, blue and white and kept only the red and blue. The blue portion represented the blacks and the red the mulattoes. Dessalines was killed in a civil war between the mulattoes and blacks. He was conspired against by his army and unexpectedly arrested; in a struggle to escape he received a deadly blow.

One of the first acts of Dessalines was to encourage the return of negroes and mulattoes from the United States to Haiti. Although he was illiterate Dessalines was considered a great orator of his time, below is a  speech by the great Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines.

PROCLAMATION OF HAITI’S INDEPENDENCE BY THE GENERAL 
IN CHIEF, Jean Jacques Dessalines to the Haitian people in Gonaives, on January 1st 1804, year of  Haiti’s independence.

Translated from French into English by Noe Dorestant, E.E.

 “Live free or die!”

“Citizens,

It is not enough to have expelled from your country 
the barbarians who have bloodied it for two centuries; 
it is not enough to have put a brake to these ever 
reviving factions which take turns to play-act this 
liberty, like ghost that France had exposed before 
your eyes; it is necessary, by a last act of national 
authority, assure forever an empire of liberty in this 
country our birth place; we must take away from this 
inhumane government, which held for so long our 
spirits in the most humiliating torpor, all hope to 
resubjugate us; we must at last live independent or 
die.

Independence or death… May these sacred words bring 
us together, and may they be the signal of our 
struggles and of our gathering.

Citizens, my compatriots, I have gathered in this 
solemn day these courageous servicemen, who on the eve 
of harvesting the last crotchets rest of liberty, have 
given their blood to save it; these generals who led 
your efforts against tyranny, have not yet done enough 
for your well being…The french name still glooms our 
countryside.

All is there to remind us of the atrocities of this 
barbarian people: our laws, our customs, our cities, 
all bear the french imprint; what do I say? There are 
French in our island, and you believe yourself to be 
free and independent of that republic which fought all 
nations, it is true, but who has never been victorious 
over those who wished to be free.

Well what! victims for over fourteen years of our own 
credulity and our own indulgence; defeated, not by the 
french armies, but by the shamefaced eloquence of the 
proclamation of their agents; when will we get tired 
of breathing the same air than them? Its cruelty 
compared to our moderated patience; its color to our; 
the vast seas that keep us apart, our avenging 
climate, tell us enough that they are not our 
brothers, and that they will never become and that, if 
they find asylum amongst us, they will be once more 
the schemers of our troubles and our divisions.

Indigenous citizens, men, women, girls and children, 
bear your regards on all the parts of this island; 
look for, yourself, your spouses, your husbands, 
yourself, your brothers, you, your sisters; what do I 
say? Look for your children, your children, those that 
are being breast fed! What have they become?…I 
tremble to say it… the prey of these vultures. 
Instead of these interesting victims, your eye 
dismayed can only perceive their assassins; may the 
tigers that are still dripping their blood, and whose 
horrible presence reproach your insensibility and your 
slowness to avenge them. What are you waiting for to 
appease their souls? Remember that you have wished 
that your remains be buried near the remains of your 
fathers, when you had chased away tyranny; would you 
go down to your tomb without avenging them? No, their 
skeleton would push away yours.

And you, precious men, intrepid generals, whose lack 
of insensibility to your own misfortunes, have 
resurrected liberty by giving it all your blood; you 
should know that you have done nothing if you do not 
give to the nations a terrible example, but just, of 
the avenge that must exercise a proud people who have 
recovered their liberty, and jealous to maintain it; 
let us instill fear in all those whom would dare try 
to take it away from us again; let us begin with the 
French… May they tremble when they approach our 
coasts, if not by the memory of the cruelty that they 
have inflicted, at least by the terrible resolution 
that we are about to take to devote to death, anyone 
born french, who would dirty of his sacrilegious foot 
the territory of liberty.

We dared to be free, let us dare to be so by ourselves 
and for ourselves, let us emulate the growing child: 
his own weight breaks the edge that has become useless 
and hamper its walk. What nation has fought for us? 
What nation would like to harvest the fruits of our 
labors? And what dishonorable absurdity than to 
vanquish and be slaves. Slaves! Leave it to the French 
this qualifying epithet: they have vanquished to cease 
to be free.

Let us walk on other footprints; let us imitate these 
nations whom, carrying their solicitude until they 
arrive on a prospect, and dreading to leave to 
posterity the example of cowardliness, have preferred 
to be exterminated rather than to be crossed out from 
the number of free peoples.

Let us be on guard however so that the spirit of 
proselytism does not destroy our work; let our 
neighbors breath in peace, may they live in peace 
under the empire of the laws that they have legislated 
themselves, and let us not go, like spark fire 
revolutionaries, erecting ourselves as legislators of 
the Caribbean, to make good of our glory by troubling 
the peace of neighboring islands: they have never, 
like the one that we live in, been soaked of the 
innocent blood of their inhabitants; they have no 
vengeance to exercise against the authority that 
protects them.

Fortunate to have never known the plagues which have 
destroyed us, they can only make good wishes for our 
prosperity. Peace to our neighbors! but anathema to 
the french name! Eternal hate to France! That is our 
cry.

Indigenous of Haiti, my fortunate destiny reserved me 
to be one day the sentinel who had to watch guard the 
idol to which you are making your sacrifice, I have 
watched, fought, sometimes alone, and, If I have been 
fortunate to deliver in your hands the sacred trust 
that you had under my care, remember that it is up to 
you now to conserve it. Before you consolidate it by 
laws which assure your individual liberty, your 
leaders, which I assemble here, and myself, we owe you 
the last proof of our devotion.

Generals, and you, leaders, reunited here near me for 
the well being of our country, the day has come, this 
day which must make eternal our glory, our 
independence.

If there could exist amongst you a half-hearted, may 
he distance himself and tremble to pronounce the oath 
that must unite us.

Let us swear to the entire universe, to posterity, to 
ourselves, to renounce forever to France, and to die 
rather than to live under its domination.

To fight until the last crotchet rest for the 
independence of our country!

And you, people for too long misfortuned, witness to 
the oath that we are pronouncing, remind yourself that 
it is on your perseverance and your courage that I 
depended on when I threw myself in this career for 
liberty in order to fight against despotism and 
tyranny against which you struggled since fourteen 
years. Remind yourself that I sacrificed myself to 
jump to your defense, parents, children, fortune, and 
that now I am only rich of your liberty; that my name 
has become in horror to all nations who wish for 
slavery, and that the despots and tyrants do not 
pronounce it only while cursing the day that saw me 
born; and if for whatever reason you refused or 
received while murmuring the laws that the genius 
which watch over your destiny will dictate me for your 
good fortune, you would deserve the fate of ungrateful 
peoples.

But away from me this horrible idea. You will be the 
support of the liberty that you cherish, the support 
to the chief which command you.

Take then in your hands this oath to live free and 
independent, and to prefer death to all those who 
would love to put you back under the yoke.

Swear at last to pursue forever the traitors and the 
enemies of your independence.

Done at the general headquarter of Gonaives, this 
January 1st 1804, the first year of Independence.

Words of General in Chief: Jean Jacques Dessalines, 
hero of the Haitian war of Independence.

Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines, Father of Haitian 
Independence, 1804.

Translated from French into English by: Noe Dorestant, 
October 17, 1999, year 195 of Haiti’s Independence as 
part of his contribution and civic duty to bring 
people awareness of Haitian history and its not so 
distant glorious past. All rights reserved 1999.

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