haitian history


1 - Haiti: Historical Setting |
5 - January 1, 1804 |


On January 1, 1804, Haiti proclaimed its independence. Through this action, it became the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere and the first free black republic in the world. Haiti's uniqueness attracted much attention and symbolized the aspirations of enslaved and exploited peoples around the globe. Nonetheless, Haitians made no overt effort to inspire, to support, or to aid slave rebellions similar to their own because they feared that the great powers would take renewed action against them. For the sake of national survival, nonintervention became a Haitian credo. 

Dessalines, who had commanded the black and the mulatto forces during the final phase of the revolution, became the new country's leader; he ruled under the dictatorial 1801 constitution. The land he governed had been devastated by years of warfare. The agricultural base was all but destroyed, and the population was uneducated and largely unskilled. Commerce was virtually nonexistent. Contemplating this bleak situation, Dessalines determined, as Toussaint had done, that a firm hand was needed. 

White residents felt the sting most sharply. While Toussaint, a former privileged slave of a tolerant white master, had felt a certain magnanimity toward whites, Dessalines, a former field slave, despised them with a maniacal intensity. He reportedly agreed wholeheartedly with his aide, Boisrond-Tonnerre, who stated, "For our declaration of independence, we should have the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen!" Accordingly, whites were slaughtered wholesale under the rule of Dessalines. 

Although blacks were not massacred under Dessalines, they witnessed little improvement in the quality of their lives. To restore some measure of agricultural productivity, Dessalines reestablished the plantation system. Harsh measures bound laborers to their assigned work places, and penalties were imposed on runaways and on those who harbored them. Because Dessalines drew his only organizational experience from war, it was natural for him to use the military as a tool for governing the new nation. The rule of Dessalines set a pattern for direct involvement of the army in politics that continued unchallenged for more than 150 years. 

In 1805 Dessalines crowned himself Emperor of Haiti. By this point, his autocratic rule had disenchanted important sectors of Haitian society, particularly mulattoes such as Pétion. The mulattoes resented Dessalines mostly for racial reasons, but the more educated and cultured gens de couleur also derided the emperor (and most of his aides and officers) for his ignorance and illiteracy. Efforts by Dessalines to bring mulatto families into the ruling group through marriage met with resistance. Pétion himself declined the offer of the hand of the emperor's daughter. Many mulattoes were appalled by the rampant corruption and licentiousness of the emperor's court. Dessalines's absorption of a considerable amount of land into the hands of the state through the exploitation of irregularities in titling procedures also aroused the ire of landowners. 

The disaffection that sealed the emperor's fate arose within the ranks of the army, where Dessalines had lost support at all levels. The voracious appetites of his ruling clique apparently left little or nothing in the treasury for military salaries and provisions. Although reportedly aware of discontent among the ranks, Dessalines made no effort to redress these shortcomings. Instead, he relied on the same iron-fisted control with which he kept rural laborers in line. That his judgement in this matter had been in error became apparent on the road to Port-au-Prince as he rode with a column of troops on its way to crush a mulattoled rebellion. A group of people, probably hired by Pétion or Etienne-Elie Gérin (another mulatto officer), shot the emperor and hacked his body to pieces. 

Under Dessalines the Haitian economy had made little progress despite the restoration of forced labor. Conflict between blacks and mulattoes ended the cooperation that the revolution had produced, and the brutality toward whites shocked foreign governments and isolated Haiti internationally. A lasting enmity against Haiti arose among Dominicans as a result of the emperor's unsuccessful invasion of Santo Domingo in 1805. Dessalines's failure to consolidate Haiti and to unite Haitians had ramifications in the years that followed, as the nation split into two rival enclaves.


Christophe's Kingdom and Pétion's Republic 

Many candidates succeeded Dessalines, but only three approached his stature. Most Haitians saw Henry Christophe as the most logical choice. He had served as a commander under Toussaint and could therefore claim the former leader's mantle and some of his mystique. Christophe was black like Dessalines, but he lacked Dessalines's consuming racial hatred, and he was much more pragmatic in this regard. His popularity, especially in the north, however, was not strong enough to offset the mulatto elite's growing desire to exert control over Haiti through a leader drawn from its own ranks. The mulattoes had two other candidates in mind: Gérin and Pétion, the presumed authors of Dessalines's assassination. 

In November 1806, army officers and established anciens libres (pre-independence freedmen) landowners--an electorate dominated by the mulatto elite--elected a constituent assembly that was given the task of establishing a new government. Members of the assembly drafted a constitution that established a weak presidency and a comparatively strong legislature. They selected Christophe as president and Pétion as head of the legislature, the earliest attempt in Haiti to establish what would later be known as the politique de doublure (politics by understudies). Under this system, a black leader served as figurehead for mulatto elitist rule. 

The only defect in the mulattoes' scheme was Christophe himself, who refused to be content with his figurehead role. He mustered his forces and marched on Port-au-Prince. His assault on the city failed, however, mainly because Pétion had artillery and Christophe did not. Indignant, but not defeated, Christophe retreated to north of the Artibonite River and established his own dominion, which he ruled from Cap Haïtien (which he would later rechristen Cap Henry). Periodic and ineffectual clashes went on for years between this northern territory and Pétion's republic, which encompassed most of the southern half of the country and boasted Port-au-Prince as its capital. 

The northern dominion became a kingdom in 1811, when Christophe crowned himself King Henry I of Haiti. Unlike Dessalines, who as emperor declared, "Only I am royal," Christophe installed a nobility of mainly black supporters and associates who assumed the titles of earls, counts, and barons.

Below this aristocratic level, life in the northern kingdom was harsh, but not nearly so cruel as the conditions that had prevailed under Dessalines. Laborers remained bound to their plantations, but working hours were liberalized, and remuneration was increased to one-fourth of the harvested crop. 

Christophe was a great believer in discipline. He brought African warriors from Dahomey (present-day Benin), whom he dubbed Royal Dahomets. They served as the primary agents of his authority. Incorruptible and intensely loyal to Christophe, the Dahomets brought order to the countryside. 

Many people were dissatisfied with the strictness of Christophe's regime. As productivity and export levels rose, however, the quality of their lives improved in comparison with revolutionary and immediately post-revolutionary days. 

In the more permissive southern republic, where Pétion ruled as president-for-life, people's lives were not improving. The crucial difference between the northern kingdom and the southern republic was the way each treated landownership. Christophe gave ownership of the bulk of the land to the state and leased large tracts to estate managers. Pétion took the opposite approach and distributed state-owned land to individuals in small parcels. Pétion began distributing land in 1809, when he granted land to his soldiers. Later on, Pétion extended the land-grant plan to other beneficiaries and lowered the selling price of state land to a level where almost anyone could afford to own land. 

Pétion's decision proved detrimental in the shaping of modern Haiti (see Growth and Structure of the Economy , ch. 8). Smallholders had little incentive to produce export crops instead of subsistence crops. Coffee, because of its relative ease of cultivation, came to dominate agriculture in the south. The level of coffee production, however, did not permit any substantial exports. Sugar, which had been produced in large quantities in Saint-Domingue, was no longer exported from Haiti after 1822. When the cultivation of cane ceased, sugar mills closed, and people lost their jobs. In the south, the average Haitian was an isolated, poor, free, and relatively content yeoman. In the north, the average Haitian was a resentful but comparatively prosperous laborer. The desire for personal autonomy motivated most Haitians more than the vaguer concept of contributing to a strong national economy, however, and defections to the south were frequent, much to the consternation of Christophe. 

Pétion, who died in 1818, left a lasting imprint upon his homeland. He ruled under two constitutions, which were promulgated in 1806 and 1816. The 1806 document resembled in many ways the Constitution of the United States. The 1816 charter, however, replaced the elected presidency with the office of president for life. 

Pétion's largely laissez-faire rule did not directly discriminate against blacks, but it did promote an entrenched mulatto elite that benefited from such policies as the restoration of land confiscated by Dessalines and cash reimbursement for crops lost during the last year of the emperor's rule. Despite the egalitarianism of land distribution, government and politics in the republic remained the province of the elite, especially because the control of commerce came to replace the production of commodities as the focus of economic power in Haiti. Pétion was a beneficent ruler, and he was beloved by the people, who referred to him as "Papa Bon Coeur" (Father Good Heart). But Pétion was neither a true statesman nor a visionary. Some have said that his impact on the nations of South America, through his support for rebels such as Simón Bolívar Palacios and Francisco de Miranda, was stronger and more positive than his impact on his own impoverished country. 

Although Christophe sought a reconciliation after Pétion's death, the southern elite rejected the notion of submission to a black leader. Because the president-for-life had died without naming a successor, the republican senate selected Pétion's mulatto secretary and commander of the Presidential Guard (Garde Présidentielle), General Jean-Pierre Boyer, to fill the post. In the north, King Henry committed suicide in October 1820, after having suffered a severe stroke that caused him to lose control of the army, his main source of power. The kingdom, which had been ruled by an even narrower clique than the republic, was left ripe for the taking. Boyer claimed it on October 26 at Cap Haïtien at the head of 20,000 troops. Haiti was once again a single nation. 

Haiti - a country study
Federal Research Division Library of Congress
Edited by Richard A. Haggerty
Research Completed December 1989