The First Ruler of Haiti
In 1803, the first ruler of Haiti created a new flag. He ripped out the white stripe in the French red, white and blue flag and proclaimed to the world that he would rip white people from the nation. The remaining blue and red stripes would forever be known as the flag of Haiti.
That man was Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of Haiti.
Born in 1758, in Africa, Jean-Jacques Dessalines was enslaved in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. He later served as a lieutenant under Toussaint L’Ouverture after the 1791 slave revolt, and later, helped eliminate French control over Haiti. Dessalines renamed the colony Haiti in 1804 and declared himself its first emperor. Although he was despised for his brutality, he was—and still is—honored as one of Haiti’s founding fathers. Eventually, he was killed in a revolt on October 17, 1806, in Pont Rouge, near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
During his reign as emperor, Dessalines took drastic measures that he felt necessary for Haiti to stay independent. He enforced a system of forced labor to prevent Haiti from reverting back to a subsistence economy. To eliminate rule by whites, he confiscated their land and made it illegal for them to own property. Probably his most extreme measure was a campaign to eliminate the white population of Haiti. Between February and April, 1804, Dessalines ordered the deaths of approximately 5,000 white people of all ages and all genders.
Dessalines also tried to implement reforms to improve the economy of Haiti. He enforced a tight regulation of foreign trade, and favored commerce with Great Britain and the United States over his old enemy, France. He placed well-educated Haitians, primarily mulattos, into key positions in his administration, and the tiny empire flourished due to his wise decision making.
The exact circumstances of Dessalines death are still unknown. What is known is that people of all classes were upset with his draconian labor and agricultural policies including the peasants, the fair-skinned elite and the military. He was killed on October 17, 1806, possibly in an ambush led by Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe, who later split the country in two and ruled each section separately.
Despite his violent reign, Dessalines lives on as a figure of pride for Haitians. The day of his death, October 17, is a national holiday in Haiti. Dessalines’s legacy is embodied in Haiti’s national anthem, “La Dessalinienne.”