Day 27: Black History Month: “‘I did my duty: I have saved my country. I have avenged America’: Dessalines’ Defense of Retributive Justice and Haiti’s Independence.”
In the first writing below, Haiti’s founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines defends his use of defensive violence as retributive justice against (the French colonizers and slave traffickers) to secure the harmony and unity of the freely-enslaved people of Haiti and the independence of the new Republic of Haiti, respectively. He made this public declaration in 1804 a few months after he signed the Haitian Declaration of Independence on January 1, 1804.
“Yes, we have replied to these real cannibals, war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage.
Yes, I have saved my country. I have avenged America. With all my pride and glory, I swear this in front of all mortals and the Gods. What does the judgment pronounced on me by contemporary and future races matter? I did my duty, and I have kept my own self-respect—that is enough for me. But what am I saying? The preservation of my unfortunate brothers, and the witness of my conscience are not my only recompense: I saw two classes of men who were born to love one another, to help and save one another, finally mixed and merged together, dashing toward vengeance, arguing who should have the honor of giving the first below.
Black and yellow, which the redefined duplicity of the Europeans have so long sought to divide you who today compromise a whole, a single family: do not doubt it, your perfect reconciliation had to be sealed with the blood of your executioners. You shared the same calamities, weighing on your heads, the same ardor for attacking your enemies, and the same promised fate. Now your common interests must render you forever one, indivisible and inseparable. Maintain this precious concord, this happy harmony among you. It secures your happiness, your salvation, your success. It is the secret of the invincible.”
In the second writing below, the first Head of State of the new Republic of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in a private letter to George Nugent, Governor of the British colony of Jamaica, asserts his subjectivity in diplomatic dealings with foreign powers and in the preservation of the freedom and independence of Haiti and the Haitian people. He also wrote this letter in 1804.
“Your excellency will permit me to explain that the General Toussaint dealt with the British Government as the subject or employee of the French Government, while in the current circumstances I cannot and should not negotiate except as the leader of the people that I command…The General Toussaint negotiated as a French General who was not certain about whether his government would approve the acts emanating from his authority, while I, the only leader of my country, I negotiate on behalf of my co-citizens, and don’t have to explain my actions to any other power, nor do I depend on any other governments to sign agreements or treaties.”
*** Source: “Writings: Jean-Jacques Dessalines,” translated by Julia Gaffield, in The Haiti Reader: History, Culture, Politics (2020) edited by Laurent Dubois, Kaima L. Glover, Nadeve Menard, Millery Polyne, and Chantalle F. Verna.
“Brooklyn Street co-named after Jean-Jacques Dessalines” (August 22, 2018)