ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
What people fought for us? What people wanted to gather the fruits of our labor?
And what dishonorable absurdity to conquer in order to be enslaved. Enslaved?…
Let us leave this description for the French; they have conquered but are no longer free.
Books on Haiti and the Caribbean
Hubert Cole. Christophe: King of Haiti. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.
C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)
Josaphat B. Kubayanda. The Poet’s Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire (1990)
Myriam J. A. Chancy. Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (1997)
Paul Laraque and Jack Hirschman. Open Gate An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry (2001)
David P. Geggus, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
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The Rise of Emperor Dessalines
& the Decline of His Imperial Tyranny
The Conspirators against Dessalines
[Christophe] knew that Dessalines disapproved of his inclusion of both white and mulatto advisors in the group of administrators that he had formed at Le Cap and with whom he discussed events in the world outside and the future of his own troubled country, using their learning and experience to supplement his own lack of education.
In August he sent a schooner laden with flour to the principal ports of the West and the South, ostensibly to barter its cargo for sugar and coffee. But besides flour the schooner carried one of his confidential agents, Bruno Blanchet, who had conversations at Jérémie with General Férou, at Les Cayes with General Geffrard, and, on the return journey, at Port-au-Prince with General Pétion. The talks were secret, their purpose obscure — a tentative sounding of the generals’ attitude towards the emperor.
All of them were suspicious, none went further than agreeing that he was not entirely satisfied with the existing government. If Christophe intended recruiting allies in a plot against Dessalines, the attempt was a failure.
Rumour of Christophe’s criticism reached Dessalines’ ears, and in September he ordered his adjutant, Captain Dupuy, to summon him to Marchand where, he announced, he intended to kill him as soon as he arrived. This was no meaningless phrase, he had before now plunged a dagger into a man while talking to him, and his guards were trained to cut a man down instantly if the emperor fingered his snuffbox in a certain way.
Dupuy, having obtained Dessalines’ signature to the order, very courageously scribbled on a scrap of paper “Reply that you are sick” and folded this into the letter before handing it to the trooper of the Imperial Guides who took it to Le Cap. Christophe did as he had been advised, and the emperor forgot the whole affair, turning his wrath against Pétion and Geffrard instead.
He recognized Pétion intelligence and influence with his caste and planned to gain his allegiance by marrying him to one of his many illegitimate children, a young woman named Célimène. The proposal put Pétion in a quandry: he was attached to a woman with whom he was already living and by whom he had recently had a daughter, and he had been told that Célimène had already been the mistress of one of Toussaint’s nephews. After much hesitation he asked to be excused the honour. Dessalines believing that he had rejected Célimène because she was a Negress never forgave him.
Geffrard he suspected partly because he commanded the south, traditionally a mulatto stronghold, and partly because he had shown signs of resentment when Dessalines had sent him a harsh rebuke by month of a junior officer. He now became convinced that Pétion and Geffrard were plotting to bring Rigaud back to displace him, and during the second anniversary ball at the Imperial Palace at Marchand on January 1, 1806, he left left the festivities and went to his study, where he summoned Christophe, Christophe’s former lieutenant, General Paul Romain, and Colonel Pierre Toussaint, governor of the Saint-Marc district. To them he declared his conviction that Pétion and Geffrard were planning to proclaim Rigaud ruler of Haiti, in the interests of France. He proposed that the two mulatto generals should be murdered that night.
The situation was difficult. Still heated by his capering at the ball, the emperor was likely to fly into a rage if crossed; on the other hand, Christophe had no desire to see him begin a purge which might not stop until thousands had been smelled out and sacrificed, and which could precipitate an explosion in which Rigaud and the mulattos might well return to power. He suggested that the time might not be ripe; that both generals seemed to have strong backing from the troops and civil population of their provinces; that it might be advisable, in order to avoid the possibility of civil war, to keep them under surveillance and wait for proof.
Romain and Toussaint expressed the same opinion and Dessalines, after staring at them for several seconds, hurried out of the room and back to the dance floor, where he resumed his cavortings.
Both Christophe and Pierre Toussaint sent a word of warning to Pétion and Geffrard, and the two mulattos asked for an audience, in which they complained that the emperor was treating them coldly. When Dessalines poured out his misgivings about their relationship with Rigaud, they replied that they had never dreamed of supplanting the emperor. Dessalines at last assured them that his trust in them was unchanged — which was true, since he had none — and they returned to the West and South in an atmosphere of uneasy peace, determined to canvas support among their subordinate officers.
Dessalines played into their hands with a series of unpopular measures that culminated in a bad-tempered tour of the South during the course of which he stirred up more fear and hatred. Geffrard died suddenly in may and word went round that he had been poisoned by the emperor. Dessalines denied this — “when God took Geffrard he was in more of a hurry than I was” — but he had Geffrard’s papers impounded, seeking criminal correspondence with Christophe, against whom his distrust had now turned once more. Captain Dupuy, who conducted the investigation, assured the emperor that he had found nothing, whereupon Dessalines lost himself once more in the pleasures of the dance and the embrace of his mistress of the moment, Euphémie Daguilh.
The period of quiet was brief. he ran out of money and discovered that it was no longer flowing into the treasury as freely as before. he summoned to Les Cayes an accountant whom he had already used to investigate irregularities in the public finances of the West province and ordered him to hold a similar inquiry in the South. The news struck terror into the hearts of the prominent citizens of the region, for almost all of them had paid their taxes by promissory notes which they had no intention of honouring.
Dessalines left Les Cayes on September 8 after ordering the local garrisons to search every ship coming into their ports and, if they found André Rigaud, to “chop off his head” on the spot. He was passing through one of his periods of hysteria, suspecting everybody, talking interminably of blood and destruction. The mother of one of the officers of his personal guard having offended him, he ordered the son to have her beaten in public. Hearing of a quarrel between two members of his staff he ordered them to fight a duel to the death; he attended to see that his orders were carried out and forced them to fire shot after shot until, after twelve exchanges, one of them fell mortally wounded.
It was almost with pleasure that he received news on October 15 he declared with eager anticipation: “I will have my horse walk in blood up to his breastplate.”
Leaving General Vernet, the finance member, in command at Marchand and sending a warning note to Christophe, he set off with his staff and personal bodyguard.
Two battalions of the 4th demi-brigade were to follow him. He reached L’Arcahaye the next day and ordered three companies to light infantry and three of grenadiers from the 3rd demi-brigade to set out at once for Port-au-Prince, nearly thirty miles away.
They were not to enter the town but to halt by the Saint Martin plantation at the Pont-Rouge, so called because of its red painted guard rails. It was Dessalines intention to leave L’Arcahaye in the morning, ride down to Pont-Rouge, where the infantrymen would be rested from the previous day’s march, and lead them into Port-au-Prince, impressing any potential rebels among the citizens with this display of force, before continuing to the South with reinforcements from the Port-au-Prince garrison.
What he did not know was that the revolt had spread up from Les Cayes to Port-au-Prince and that Pétion and other generals of the West Province were already in league with those of the South.
Equally ignorant were Colonel Thomas Jean and Major Gédéon, who commanded the six companies of grenadiers and chasseurs. perhaps because of anxiety not to be overtaken by the emperor, the march discipline of their men was deplorable; they hurried along in disorganized batches, the senior officers riding at the rear to round up the stragglers. As the soldiers trotted forward, the field hands came to the side of the road and shouted slogans of liberty, reproaching them for serving the tyrant Dessalines.
At Pont-Rouge they were met by a group of rebel officers who harangued them and persuaded them not to halt but to continue into the town.
When Thomas Jean and Gédéon rode up to Pont-Rouge they suddenly discovered that they were among strange troops, who arrested them and took them to Pétion. Pétion invited the two officers to join him. Thomas Jean hesitated and was at once marched away under close arrest. Gédéon agreed and was awarded a colonelcy and Thomas Jean’s former command. An officer from the 21st demi-brigade of the same build as Gédéon — a plump man — was given Gédéon’s busby and scarlet trousers and sent to join the troops of the 15th demi-brigade waiting at Pont-Rouge.
(Dessalines, for purposes of morale and deception, had retained the former numbering of the demi-brigades, each of which was in principle composed of 1600 men. In fact, the army was not as large as he pretended — a piece of information relayed to London by Robert Sutherland, a British trader in Port-au-Prince, who was given a contract to supply the army with buttons and from this was able to calculate that its strength was not more than twenty thousand.)
By five o’clock the following morning — the hour at which Desalines was to leave L’Arcahaye — the trap was fully set. it is indicative of the hatred that he had managed to arouse in his subjects that as he rode closer to Port-au-Prince and the number of field hands who had knowledge of the ambush grew greater with every mile, not one of them offered a word or warning.
From a distance he saw the troops drawn up for inspection at the Pont Rouge and in front of them the scarlet-pantalooned, busby-topped corpulent figure of the officer whom he took to be Gédéon. As he rode unconcernedly forward, he was astonished to hear an aide-de-camp, Colonel Leger, who had served for a time with the 15th demi-brigade, suddenly exclaim: “But, Sire, these troops are from the South!”
“Impossible!” said Dessalines. “How could they be?”
Concealed behind the bushes at the side of the road were three or four of the rebel generals. it was one of these who now shouted “Halt!” and then, to the troops, “Form a circle!” Men dashed from the undergrowth to block the Arcahaye road, others pressed in from the sides. Dessalines screamed, “They have betrayed me!”
In the presence of hundreds of mutinous soldiers his fierce courage did not desert him. Raising his riding crop, he began to slash at the upturned faces around him.
Though their officers continued shouted “Open fire!” not one of the men dared to raise his musket. The emperor drew his pistol from the holster and shot one of the soldiers, then wheeled his horse to force his way back up the road. only at this moment did one young soldier summon up enough courage to fire — not at the terrible person of the emperor, but at his horse.
The animal fell, trapping Dessalines’ leg — and with his cry of “Help!” to his aides the spell was broken. The dreadful figure, human at last, lay thrashing defencelessly on the ground. Within a second it was riddled with bullets. Then the generals hurled themselves on it with dagger-thrusts and sabre-cuts and more pistol shots. the soldiers cut off the fingers to steal the rings and stripped off the clothing for the sake of the gold lace.
The body was dragged for more than a mile into the city, kicked and slashed and stoned by passers-by, and left in the place d’Armes to suffer whatever more indignities came to the minds of the citizens of Port-au-Prince, so suddenly emboldened in the presence of their emperor whose face was no longer recognizable.
He found only one mourner, a Black woman, long insane, named Défilée, who sat on the ground beside him weeping until soldiers came to take him to the city cemetery and bury him without a monument. For a long time after, she went each day to scatter wild flowers on the grave of the brave monster who had won Haiti her independence.
Source: Hubert Cole. Christophe: King of Haiti. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 6 May 2010