Oct 17, 2020

Dessalines Day: Celebrating One of Haiti’s Founding Fathers

Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first emperor of a free Haiti, was assassinated on October 17th, 1806. Every year since, on that very same day, the people of Haiti gather to celebrate the life and accomplishments of one of the most instrumental leaders of the Haitian revolution.


Jean-Jacques Dessalines was born into slavery as Jean-Jacques Duclos on September 20th, 1758. He was assigned the surname Dessalines in his twenties by the master of the sugarcane fields he worked on, and he kept the name after the slave uprising of 1791. That uprising marked the beginning of the Haitian revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history.


During the revolt, Dessalines met a man named Toussaint Louverture. Louverture was leading the rebellion, and Dessalines joined him as his lieutenant. Together they pushed back Spanish and British forces, until Louverture was captured and deported to France in 1802. Dessalines then took up the reins of the revolution, leading the rebel forces to victory in 1804. His tactics were so brazen and so effective, that he is remembered as one of, if not the most successful military commanders against Napoleonic France.


It was, in fact, Dessalines who gave Haiti back its original name. In Gonaïves, on January 1st, 1804, Dessalines renamed the island Haiti after its indigenous Taíno name “Ayiti” and declared it an independent nation. He then declared himself Governor-for-life, and was later crowned as Emperor Jacques I in 1805. His reign was short but tumultuous, ending in his assassination by his political opponents in 1806.


The image of Jean-Jacques Dessalines was once tarnished, due to his style of leadership before his assassination. While this remains a historical source of contention, most Haitians in the 20th century have chosen to remember the man for his military prowess and his important role in the Haitian Revolution. Every October 17th on the anniversary of his death, Haitians celebrate “Dessalines Day”. Revelers take to the streets in parade, some dressed as the 18th century revolutionary leader himself, to celebrate his many victories during the Haitian Revolution, and to commemorate him as one of the founding fathers of a free Haiti.

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