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The many meanings of the Haitian declaration of independence

By Philippe R. Girard


Two hundred and ten years ago, on 1 January 1804, Haiti formally declared its independence from France at the end of a bitter war against forces sent by Napoléon Bonaparte. This was only the second time, after the United States in 1776, that an American colony had declared independence, so the event called for pomp and circumstance. Haiti’s generals, led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, gathered in the western city of Gonaïves, where they listened to a public reading of the Declaration by the mixed-race secretary Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre. A handwritten original has yet to be found, but early imprints and manuscript copies have survived.

Manuscript of Haitian declaration of independence
Early manuscript copy of the Haitian declaration of independence. Photograph by (c) Philippe Girard.

The declaration is well known to Haitians, who celebrate its passage every year on 1 January, Haiti’s national holiday. They mostly remember it for its fiery defiance. According the Haitian historian Thomas Madiou, its author Boisrond-Tonnerre got the assignment after promising Dessalines that he would use “the skin of a white man” as parchment, its “skull” as inkwell, and its “blood” as ink. “What do we have in common with this people of executioners [the French]?” he asked in the Declaration. “They are not our brothers, and never will be.”

But the Declaration, which historians are just beginning to study in depth, was actually a layered text whose multiple meanings were tailored for six different audiences: the French, Creoles, Anglo-Americans, Latin Americans, mixed-race Haitians, and black Haitians.

The main intended audience, arguably, was not Haitian but French. The Declaration was not written in Kreyòl, Haiti’s main language, but in very formal French. Many of the people present on 1 January 1804, for whom French was a second or third language, probably struggled to understand its elaborate style, but the French government did not. The very first paragraph explained that Haitians, had gathered for “an act of national authority,” pledged “to live independent or die,” and would destroy any French invading force. They meant it.

Figure 2: The Citadelle, built after 1804 by Henry Christophe, was meant to deter a French invasion. Photograph by (c) Philippe Girard.
The Citadelle, built after 1804 by Henry Christophe, was meant to deter a French invasion. Photograph by (c) Philippe Girard.

The Declaration also addressed the French Creoles still living in Haiti, who had committed unspeakable atrocities in previous years. “Avenge” their victims, Boisrond-Tonnerre urged his listeners, by punishing these “assassins and disgusting tigers.” In ensuing weeks, in a most controversial act, Dessalines personally supervised the massacre of most of Haiti’s white planters, then decreed that all the citizens of Haiti would henceforth be generically known as “blacks”.

But the Declaration had a gentler message for Haiti’s neighbors, Jamaica and the United States in particular. To those who feared that the Haitian Revolution would soon export itself, the Declaration promised “peace to our neighbors…. May [they] live in peace under the aegis of the laws they made for themselves.” Despite all the fears of the American plantocracy, Haiti indeed refrained from encouraging slave revolts outside Hispaniola in ensuing years.

To the many colonies still remaining in Latin America, the Declaration depicted Haiti as the symbol of the continent’s emancipation from European imperialism. Once known by the Spanish name of Santo Domingo, the colony was renamed “Haiti,” a word borrowed from the native Amerindians of the Caribbean. Similarly, Dessalines referred to his soldiers as the “indigenous army” and, more fancifully, “the army of the Incas.” “I avenged America,” he also explained in a 28 April proclamation. The Declaration, in a sense, was Haiti’s Monroe Doctrine.

The Declaration also had something to say to the Haitians who, like Boisrond-Tonnerre, were of mixed-race descent. Would they, as the sons and grandsons of white Creoles, be killed as well? No; in fact, Dessalines even hoped that a joint massacre of the whites would cement racial unity in Haiti. “Blacks and yellows [mulattoes],” he concluded after the massacres, “you now form a single family.”

Le serment des ancêtres. This 1822 painting by the Guadeloupean painter Guillaume Guillon Lethière, representing Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was housed in Haiti’s presidential palace until it was damaged during the 2010 earthquake. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Le serment des ancêtres. This 1822 painting by the Guadeloupean painter Guillaume Guillon Lethière, representing Alexandre Pétion and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was housed in Haiti’s presidential palace until it was damaged during the 2010 earthquake. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Last but not least, the Declaration had something to say to the vast majority of the people present on 1 January 1804: the black rank-and-file. Dessalines, a former slave, unambiguously confirmed their emancipation from bondage: “we dared to be free.” But the term “liberty,” which appeared repeatedly in the text, only meant “independence” and “abolition,” not “democracy.” The Declaration did not include a bill of rights and was enacted unilaterally by generals who months later declared Dessalines as their emperor. Eighteen hundred and four marked the end of colonial-era enslavement but also, unfortunately, Year One of Haitian militarism and authoritarianism.

How successful was Haiti’s declaration of independence in the long term? Some goals have eluded Haiti’s Founding Fathers: racial unity remains a work in progress in a country still divided by the color line and Haiti’s reputation in the Americas remains poor despite Dessalines’s reassurances to his neighbors. Formal slavery, on the other hand, disappeared for good (though forms of bondage like the restavek system have endured). The Declaration’s primary purpose, independence, was achieved: Haiti did gain its independence, which was belatedly recognized by France in 1825 (and the United States in 1862). Later centuries were less kind: Haiti had to endure two US invasions in 1915 and 1994, and Haiti is now in many ways a dominion of the United Nations and international NGOs that is in dire need of a second declaration of independence.

Philippe Girard, a native of Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean, is a Professor of History at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of many books and articles on the history of Haiti, including the upcoming French- and English-language The Memoir of Touissant Louverture.

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