Abstract: Revered in Haiti as a Founding Father committed to his countrymen’s freedom and independence, decried by his white contemporaries as a bloodthirsty brute, the Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines was actually a multifaceted historical figure who borrowed much of his worldview and policies from the colonial plantation system of the Atlantic world.
Résumé: Vénéré en Haïti comme père fondateur de la nation, haï en son temps par les esclavagistes, Jean-Jacques Dessalines était en fait un personnage complexe inspiré par le modèle colonial de son temps.
Introduction (for the full text of the article, go to the William and Mary Quarterly).
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, slave, revolutionary, and first leader of independent Haiti (a.k.a. Saint-Domingue), has proved a divisive figure [Figures 1 and 2]. Nineteenth-century non-Haitian authors generally portrayed him as a bloodthirsty brute on account of his decision to massacre most of Haiti’s white population in the spring of 1804. Early Haitian historians were somewhat circumspect, acknowledging his courage and decisiveness in the struggle for independence, while lamenting the corruption and despotism that characterized his rule. Non-Haitian historians now tend to ignore him and instead focus their attention on Toussaint Louverture, but for the past 150 years, many Haitians, and particularly black nationalists, have held him as the father of independence. The national anthem of Haiti, the Dessalinienne, is named after him; his likeness adorns stamps; and his statue is featured prominently on Port-au-Prince’s Champ de Mars. Alas, Haitian scholarship has been polluted by racial politics: emphasizing his achievements is a way for black nationalists to minimize those of mixed-race revolutionary leaders like Alexandre Pétion or of more moderate figures like Louverture; criticizing him is a covert way to denounce the economic exploitation of Haitians by its army, black dictators in particular. As a result, books on Dessalines can be highly polemical and unscholarly.
Though assessments of Dessalines’s record vary immensely, most are based on a similar premise: that he was a radical with a profound hatred for slavery, colonialism, France, and white planters. To his detractors and admirers, Dessalines may have been a psychopath or a hero; but he was undoubtedly a rebel. One should be wary of such one-sided claims, however; Louverture’s own reputation underwent a thorough re-evaluation after scholars first submitted him to the rigorous standards of modern historical inquiry. One should thus approach his popular image with considerable caution until the scholarship develops.
Another unfortunate penchant of the historiography is scholars’ tendency to analyze Dessalines within a narrow national and racial context. Works written by his countrymen today describe him as a Haitian statesman preoccupied with independence and as a black nationalist whose policies prefigured the black-mulatto disputes that later plagued Haitian society. Nineteenth-century non-Haitian works, by presenting him as a crude slave eager to shed the blood of white planters, also confined him to a black and Haitian world. Deborah Jenson’s recent work brought much-needed attention to Dessalines as an independent actor and author, but she still analyzed him as a revolutionary of African descent, however articulate. What is too often left unmentioned is the fact that Dessalines grew up in a Creole colony at the confluence of French, American, and African influences, that he served for eight years as an officer of the French Republican army, and that he was acutely aware of the larger diplomatic and commercial networks in which he operated. Only by taking into account these larger trends (and accessing the U.S., British, and French archives that document Dessalines’s dealings with non-Haitian actors) can we fully comprehend his actions and relevance as a man inspired by, and fully integrated into, the Atlantic system in which he was raised.
This Atlantic system was characterized in the Caribbean by five major elements. First came the colonial bond, which (with the exception of the nearby United States) had remained unchallenged since the days of Christopher Columbus. Second came the international trade links that connected European metropolises with their colonies, particularly the exchange of foodstuffs and manufactured goods with tropical crops. Third came the predominance of the large plantation as the preferred unit of production, particularly for Saint-Domingue’s dominant export crop, sugar. Fourth, given the high labor needs of sugar plantations and the prohibitive death rate among white newcomers, came African slavery and the attendant slave trade. In turn, the arrival of five million African slaves in the Caribbean (one million of them in Saint-Domingue), along with pre-existing Native American settlements, European immigration, and widespread miscegenation, explain the fifth element that characterized integrated Atlantic societies like Saint-Domingue: the intricate fusion of races and ideas from three continents into a manifold Creole culture.
Leaving aside Dessalines’s youth and early career, about which too little is known to reach definitive conclusions about his views, a thorough reappraisal of Dessalines’s place in this Atlantic system must focus on the period 1802-1806, immediately prior to and after Haiti’s independence. These years saw Dessalines’s rise from relative obscurity to international prominence and marked the first time that documents by and about him became abundant. These, interestingly, showed him to be a skillful, even duplicitous individual willing to betray officers of color and to exploit black cultivators to further his political and economic interests—in other words, a fairly typical character in a tumultuous era and a commerce-driven region of the globe in which upward financial mobility and political survival loomed larger than moral scruples, national loyalty, and even race. In particular, archival findings show that Dessalines encouraged French officers to arrest fellow revolutionaries like Louverture, was long ambivalent about advocating independence from France, and maintained close relations with some white Frenchmen even after the 1804 massacres. He maintained diplomatic channels with Haiti’s neighbors (particularly Jamaica) in an effort to keep open the trade routes inherited from the colonial era. He also strove to preserve Haiti’s plantations (albeit in the hands of black and mixed-race officers rather than white planters) and made no effort to export the Haitian slave revolt. Further, Dessalines enforced a strict feudal system among former slaves and encouraged slave traders to import some of their human cargo to Haiti. It is clear from the sources, too, that he drew from a Creole culture that incorporated American and European influences as well as African.
All of these policies, it should be noted, were inspired by the “Atlantic system” defined above, not developed in opposition to it, and could have been embraced by colonial officials and planters of any race in the eighteenth century. One should of course not deny entirely the revolutionary nature of a rebel colony governed by a black ex-slave. But the reputation of Dessalines as a destroyer of worlds, one whose political agenda could be summarized as “couper têtes et brûler cayes” (cut off heads and burn houses), must be thoroughly reappraised, along with, by extension, the image of early Haiti as a pariah nation isolated from, and at war with, white Atlantic societies.
Dessalines’s cunning ways, occasionally conservative policies, and international savvy will come as a surprise to those of his admirers who view him as a one-sided Haitian patriot; these characteristics also stunned contemporaries like Louverture, who looked down upon him as an obedient and dim-witted executioner, only to see him outsmart and outlive them. In order to fully account for his actions, one must thus downplay ideological factors like his yearning for independence and abolition (cited by his admirers to the present time), or psycho-racial explanations like his innate thirst for blood (cited by his detractors in the nineteenth century). Instead, highly pragmatic and personal factors more convincingly explain some of his policies, starting with his economic interests as a planter, along with his political ambitions as an officer and statesman, his personal grudges and friendships, and the strategic and commercial needs of his new country. Despite the sharp contrast usually drawn between Dessalines and Louverture, each of whom has his supporters in present-day Haiti, the former’s combination of revolutionary activism with hard-nosed realpolitik eerily matches the latter’s, which suggests that, ultimately, one last dynamic may have been unfolding: Dessalines as a rebellious son, simultaneously emulating and betraying the man who had been his superior for so many years.
 Juan Lopez Cancelada, Vida de J. J. Dessalines, Gefe de los negros de Santo Domingo (Mexico City: Mariano de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1806); Anonymous, History of the Island of St. Domingo, from its First Discovery by Columbus to the Present Period (1818; reprint, New York: Mahlon Day, 1824), 179; Charles Mackenzie, Notes on Haiti Made during a Residence in that Republic vol. 1 (1830; reprint, London: Frank Cass, 1971), 143-145; Alfred Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 91.
 Thomas Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti 3 vols. (Port-au-Prince: Courtois, 1847); Beaubrun Ardouin, Etudes sur l’histoire d’Haïti, suivies de la vie du général J-M Borgella 11 vols. (Paris: Dezobry et Magdeleine, 1853-1860).
 For admiring works, see Timoléon Brutus, L'homme d'Airain: étude monographique sur Jean-Jacques Dessalines, fondateur de la nation haïtienne 2 vols. (Port-au-Prince: Théodore, 1946); Dantès-Bellegarde, Dessalines a parlé (Port-au-Prince: Société d’éditions et de librairie, 1948); Luc Dorsinville, Jean-Jacques Dessalines et la création du drapeau bleu et rouge haïtien (Port-au-Prince: Les Presses Libres, 1953); Gérard Mentor Laurent, Six études sur J. J. Dessalines (Port-au-Prince: Les Presses Libres, [1961?]); Hénock Trouillot, Dessalines ou la tragédie post-coloniale (Port-au-Prince: Panorama, 1966); Martin Renauld, Jean-Jacques Dessalines dans la guerre d'indépendance haïtienne: les stratégies utilisées pour imposer son leadership (Montréal: Université de Montréal, 2004); Gérard Desnoyers Montès, Dessalines face à l'armée de Napoléon Bonaparte (Montréal : SORHICA, 2006); Berthony Dupont, Jean-Jacques Dessalines: itinéraire d’un révolutionnaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006). For a rare look at Dessalines in non-Haitian scholarship, see Deborah Jenson, Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011).
 On the growing cult of Dessalines, see Joan Dayan, Haiti, History, and the Gods (1995; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 27; Michael Largey, Vodou Nation: Haitian Art Music and Cultural Nationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 74-89.
 For an example of politicized scholarship (on the origins of the Haitian flag), see Michel Aubourg, Le drapeau dessalinien: Contribution à l’histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’Etat, 1964), 38-40. On Dessalines and racial politics, see David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)
 Marie-Antoinette Menier, Gabriel Debien, and Jean Fouchard, “Toussaint Louverture avant 1789. Légendes et réalités,” in Jacques de Cauna, ed., Toussaint Louverture et l’indépendance d’Haïti (Paris: Karthala, 2004), 61-67.
 Jenson, Beyond the Slave Narrative.