“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!”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.