Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Jean-Jacques Dessalines 

(1758-1806)

DJ Name: JJ on the Juke Jam 

We know exactly when the U.S. declared independence from Mama Great Britain, and the events that led up to it: there were the annoying taxes, then the tea dumping and then the Revolutionary War. Ya know, the usual stuff. And we know the people who made it all happen: Paul Revere, who warned everyone that the British were coming, T(homas) Pain(e) who wrote “Common Sense” and George Washington, who led the revolutionaries to victory. But what about the movers and shakers in the French West Indies aka the islands under control of Maman France? 

Good ole colonialism led by European countries such as England, Spain and France was here, there and everywhere. Conquistadors, explorers and colonists alike said, “This land is your land? Nah, this land is my land.” For the sake of this week’s shuffler, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, we will focus on France and its control of many an island that weren’t its own, specifically one by the name of Saint-Domingue, which is today called Haiti. 

Jean-Jacques Dessalines was his name and revolution was the game. A self-declared emperor for life with an “Eye of the Tiger,” JJ shuffled up these juke(box) jams often while leading his “Lady Haiti:” 

Because he was a slave for a substantial portion of his life, not much is known about JJ Dessalines’ early years. It’s possible JJ was born in central West Africa and then transported to the French West Indian colony Saint-Domingue, which was a common path for many slaves during that period. But historians argue that JJ was born in Saint-Domingue under the name of Jean-Jacques Duclos, the surname of his first owner. Regardless of his origination, JJ worked as a field hand on a slave plantation and later rose up to work as a foreman. The island of Saint-Domingue was the most wealth producing of the French West Indies for Maman France because of its main crops: sugar and coffee — all grown, cultivated and cared for by the enslaved people. When he was about 30, JJ was sold to a free Black man named Dessalines — hence the name change. His new master proved to be cruel and brutal, but JJ worked on his land until 1791 when he began to feel the stirrings of a rebellion. 

As turmoil embroiled France and the guillotine came slicin’ down as the revolution unfolded, France’s grip on the colonies loosened. Marie Antoinette was growing increasingly busy sharing her cake with starving peasants in France. She and Louis XVI couldn’t be bothered ~too much~ with an island an ocean away. Their plates were full (literally) as people cried out against high taxes, increased prices, poor yearly harvests and another year of drought. So with absent overlords, the island’s enslaved seized their own opportunity to break free and JJ fled the plantation to join up with the rebel leaders. 

He met up with Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was quickly becoming the mastermind behind the organized mayhem. While he lacked skills in reading and writing, JJ was a fast learner in #streetsmarts and he became Toussaint’s right-hand man. And because of his ruthlessness in the revolt, he earned the nickname “the tiger” as he and Toussaint led men throughout Saint-Domingue freeing slaves. But while freeing the colony’s enslaved people was the initial goal, it wasn’t long before the revolt leaders set their sights higher: they wanted full independence. 

But — plot twist! — in 1793, France announced that it was abolishing slavery at home and in all of its colonies as well. France had an on-again off-again feud with Great Britain, and the two were currently goin’ at it on the battlefield. Spain, which owned the eastern side of the Saint-Domingue island, was also involved in the skirmishes, on the side of the Brits. Because of France’s sudden emancipation proclamation, the Saint-Domingue rebels decided to switch up alliances and instead sided with France against the other two Western European powers. As war waged on, JJ proved himself indispensable to Toussaint and the independence-slash-anti-Spain movement and they succeeded in securing the eastern portion of the island and saying, “¡afuera, España!” JJ rose through the rebellion ranks, earning the title of brigadier general. 

With the victory, Saint-Domingue was another step closer to complete independence from France. Toussaint was made Governor General of the colony and created a new constitution all the while still expressing his loyalty to Maman France. However, the plantation owners — some of whom were of mulatto descent (remember that history lesson from Rosa Campuzano Cornejo? Remind yourself here.) — were not having it. They refused to be led by a former enslaved person especially when they themselves could not own slaves because the system was abolished. So these “planters” (whose planting relied on the free and backbreaking labor of enslaved people) complained back to France that slavery needed to return to Saint-Domingue. Small but mighty military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, heard their cry and replied. 

He dispatched thousands of French troops to Saint-Domingue who were met by JJ, Toussaint and their fighters made up of free men and formerly enslaved people. They were under fire for months on end. As food and ammunition dwindled by the day and their fearless leader Toussaint was captured, the rebels of Saint-Domingue felt their island slowly slipping away. JJ Dessalines wouldn’t have this. So in a series of unexpected events, Jean-Jacques went on the attack and declared his allegiance to France. Some say it was a trick to gain the country’s trust so he could help release his pal Toussaint. Others say he grew weary of Toussaint’s control and sided with France to ensure his arrest. We need the receipts. Toussaint was imprisoned for eight months before he died in his cell. 

The trust established between the French and JJ didn’t last long. It became evident that Napoleon intended to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue. As a rebel with a cause, JJ renounced his support of France, rallied his troops and expelled the French forces from their island with an “Au revoir!” as the remaining French soldiers sailed home. On January 1, 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, as Governor-General, declared official independence and named the new island nation “Haiti” after an Arawak-derived name. It became the first Black independent republic in the world. 

A year later, JJ got a new groove and was promoted to Emperor (fo’ life). But really, he declared himself Emperor Jacques for life. While in charge, Emperor JJ reinstated many a policy formed during the days of Toussaint’s rule. For example, JJ put into a place a system of forced labor which, though it wasn’t quite slavery and the ownership of people, was a brutal system that relied on exploited workers. JJ went on the attack and confiscated acres of land from white people who inhabited the island and made it illegal for them to own property. Always one to aim even bigger, JJ led a campaign with a goal to eliminate the white population of Haiti completely. Dessalines ordered the deaths of 3,000-5,000 white island inhabitants. He didn’t want to risk in any way a return of white dominance over their island. 

JJ’s harsh rule wasn’t favored by many of the members of his regime, which consisted of many well-educated Haitians in key positions of government. Many mulatto elites rebelled against his control. The former rebel himself was not pleased with the backfire he was facing from current rebels against his policies. During his trip to put out a rebellious outbreak on his island, Jean-Jacques Dessalines was assassinated on October 17, 1806. JJ spent most of his life fighting the good fight for Haiti’s independence and freedom for enslaved people, and though his reign as Emperor is remembered as a ~bit~ scary, his impactful legacy lives on in more ways than one. October 17th is celebrated in Haiti as Dessalines Day and the name of the Haitian national anthem is “La Dessalinienne.” His impact even persists as far as 1,500 miles away in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, because Emmy’s street is named after him. Wow!

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