Jean-Jacques Dessalines is one of the Haitian Revolution’s most poorly and least understood heroes. Beginning with his ascent to power and continuing into the twenty-first century, Dessalines has been criticized for his use of violence during and after the Revolution as well as for his alleged political incompetence. Much of the criticism is a product of racist beliefs about his “African” character despite the fact that we do not know with certainty whether he was born in Saint-Domingue or in West Africa. His “Africanness” is almost always pitted against the “civility” and “moderation” of the earlier revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.
Dessalines’s abilities and successes have been “silenced” in order to cast him as a bad apple in the (now) celebrated Haitian Revolution that changed the course of modern history. This oversimplified version of Dessalines as a revolutionary and state leader ignores his political achievements and reduces the Haitian Revolution to a palatable and whitewashed event during the Age of Revolution. It mirrors a reluctance to study the years after the Declaration of Independence.
Much of the discussion surrounding Dessalines has focused on his illiteracy and whether we should attribute the texts that he signed to him as an “author.” Deborah Jenson has argued that we should consider Dessalines to be the author of the texts that he signed even if a secretary put the ink of the paper. Other scholars have contested this claim. They argue that his secretaries played a much more involved authorial role; that they were not simply scribes. The discussion has been extremely productive in pushing us to reconsider Dessalines’s role in the revolution and then as head of state.
Several years ago, I proposed an edited volume of the texts attributed to Dessalines, but the publisher concluded that there was not a market for this material, especially in light of the question of authorship. This response renewed my conviction that there is a need for broader access to Dessalines’s texts in order to facilitate a larger conversation about his contributions to the Age of Revolutions.
With this in mind, I will be posting images or transcriptions of some of the documents/texts that I gathered over the years including those collected while researching my new book Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution). I will be posting documents signed or said to have been signed (copies or printed versions) by Dessalines. If you’d like to contribute your own sources or transcriptions and especially translations of the documents I—and I’m sure the rest of the scholarly community—will be extremely grateful! Please comment on the sources and tell me how you’re using them either in your research, in the classroom, or in engaging the larger society.
This is a work in progress and I hope that it will be collaborative. And I hope that we’ll learn more about Dessalines as a person and therefore more about the Haitian Revolution and the Haitian state.
**UPDATE** I have found a few dozen more documents during my research for an English language biography of Dessalines, tentatively entitled Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Freedom or Death (under contract with Yale University Press). I haven’t added them to the list, but I will as soon as I can!