Dessalines's American Proclamations of the Haitian Independence

Article excerpt

The moving public spectacle of the inauguration of the first black president of the United States in January of 2009 prompted many Haitians and friends of Haiti to think back to the ascension of the first black leader in a New World nation, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in January of 1804. The coming to power of Dessalines coincided with the celebration of the new nation's declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson described the U.S. Declaration of Independence as "an instrument pregnant with [...] the fate of the world."1 It was in Haiti, as David Armitage has noted, that the declaration of independence as a genre began its trajectory from a single nation's document to a "global history" of "imitations and analogues" (1 1). Haiti's own Acte d'indépendance is hardly fully described as an "imitation" or "analogue," however; it stands as one of the most remarkable monuments of Black Atlantic textual history. But do we fully understand the circumstances of the articulation and dissemination of the Haitian declaration of independence? This article revisits the history of the proclamation(s) of Haiti's independence to explore evidence of Dessalines's mediated but essential authorial role, which I will argue has been downplayed for two centuries, in part because of Dessalines's later iconic imperial role. And yet, Dessalines's production of the poetics of the independence not only reveals the remarkable innovations of the early construction of Haiti as a nation or, in Benedict Anderson's terms, "an imagined community," it also highlights the early period of independence as a time of intense and intentional media dialogue between Haiti and the United States as neighboring republics in hemispheric history.

From the time of the independence, some disclaimers about Dessalines's authorship have been made in the name of racism rather than scholarship. The French Journal des débats et lois du pouvoir législatif: et des actes du gouvernement, which was one of the newspapers in France arguably the most open to representations and self-representations of the postcolonial government in former Saint-Domingue, hastened nevertheless to state "the obvious," which is to say the editor's firm belief that all of Dessalines's proclamations were authored by renegade whites: "Il est également inutile de faire observer que la proclamation qu'on vient de lire n'est l'ouvrage ni de Dessalines, qui ne sait pas signer son nom,2 ni d'aucun individu de sa couleur"3 ("Nor is there any need to state the obvious, which is to say that the above proclamation is not the work of Dessalines, who is unable to sign his own name, nor of any other individual of his color"). Someday, the paper asserted, the blacks would be only too happy to acknowledge that their "atrocious counsel" should be attributed in fact to "apostate whites, who came from Europe to turn these ferocious animals against their own kind." Far from being a statesman with an oeuvre, Dessalines in this account is a ferocious animal and, at the same time, a puppet.

In Haitian historiography, nationalist pride inadvertently has fueled a parallel lack of attention to Dessalines's textual legacy, through unquestioning acceptance of distinguished nineteenth-century Haitian historian Thomas Madiou's account of Boisrond-Tonnerre's scripting of the Declaration of Independence. David Geggus summarizes the story that has been transmitted from history to history through the centuries:

Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre, who wrote the declaration of independence, was passionately anti-European but, Pariseducated, of mixed racial descent, and several generations removed from slavery, he had little personal connection to Africa. Dessalines entrusted him with writing the independence proclamation on December 31st after rejecting as too staid an earlier attempt by another French-educated mulatto, Charéron. Boisrond supposedly declared, "To draw up the act of independence we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen. …