“The Haitian Revolution was accomplished on the one hand by slaves who were fighting primarily for the right to own themselves; and on the other by men, half free, who were contending primarily for the other half of freedom—their rights as French citizens. …They found themselves under the necessity of forming a political organization before they had grown into social being or had developed the consciousness of national life. Their consciousness was purely military, and the army was with them the nation.”
— Theophilus G. Stewart, 1914
The Haitian revolution, while notable for its accomplishment of defying the supremacy of racial injustice, also brought forth the notion that human beings should have the right to live as they so desire. It shattered the concept of total control imposed from without that had been situated within the European dominated system of Atlantic Slavery.
At the same time however, the Haitian revolution revealed the contradictions espoused by a systematically and brutally oppressed people who themselves sought power and self-rule. It clearly showed how the sword could serve as an instrument to both oppress and to liberate.
Unfortunately, the liberating sword of the revolutionaries, once used to splice the burdensome yoke of slavery, eventually consumed most of the heroes of independence within 15 years of the proclamation. It proved a much more destructive instrument when used to settle old scores between the formerly oppressed people who had won their independence.
Even Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the most important architects of the Haitian revolution and the individual responsible for the professionalization and codification of the Army, fell victim to betrayal at the hands of his own lieutenants, as he was arrested in 1802 and deported to France.
The following year, on November 17, 1803, Dessalines, in the town of Arcahaie, executed several officers on the eve of hoisting the newly designed flag. As soon as independence had been declared on January 1st 1804, most of the signatory members were killed by Dessalines’ trusted secretary, Boisrond-Tonnerre. Considered blood thirsty by many Haitian historians, Boisrond-Tonnerre misguided the Emperor to commit several crimes that later unleashed a civil war and ultimately resulted in the loss of Dessalines’ life.
Félix Boisrond-Tonnerre and Etienne Mentor’s hatred for the French and desire for a strong military were so complementary to Dessalines’ style of leadership that the trio was among the most feared and hated members of the Haitian military. They were personally responsible for the death of high ranking officers such as: Capoix, Gabriel David-Troy and Poutu. The country was once again bathed in blood, and accusations were brought against whomever Boisrond-Tonnerre and Mentor disliked.
Haunted by resounding memories of the brutality of slavery and the constant threat of its resurrection, the ideals of the liberators proved exceedingly militaristic. Hence, they constructed the nation in a way that relied on strict military stratification, despite having gained personal and collective freedoms. Ultimately, it was the legacy of slavery that was compounded by race and class divisions that served as a major hindrance to attaining relative democracy.
Haiti was excluded from the League of Nations in the years following independence, becoming not only a political pariah in Western world, but a complicated and consumed entity as a result of its social, political, class and religious contradictions. The only institution to create a significant presence in the country was the military, as the personal ambitions of its nation’s leaders were imposed by the might of the sword. Regrettably, the sword and the brutal display of force exhibited by Dessalines and his enemies have remained a constant theme throughout Haitian history. The interests of the state and its people were never fully adopted by the cadre of the Haitian military, despite its obligation to protect and serve the people. Instead, the military has been used as a tool against the people, protecting the wants of those in power.
A costly result of having the military assume so much power was a civil war that divided the country between 1806 and 1822 into four distinct political entities which later evolved into a republic and a monarchy. Each subsequent ruler set out to establish his own rules based on personal interests and desires. Not surprisingly, the economic growth of the country halted. A viable political culture was never established in Haiti, nor was a strong social and cultural cohesion ever fully attained. Unfortunately, the consequences of this first civil war are still with us, evident in the perceived distrust of people from the North by people from the South, and vice versa. In a sense, the military or the indigenous army that freed us from bondage, has, due to infighting and personal ambitions, placed Haiti in a destructive quagmire.
Boisrond-Tonnerre, Mentor, and Dessalines’ role in creating a divisive nation must be fully examined in order to understand our current predicament of having a society with weak institutions where the military unfortunately has been the source of problems instead of a source of pride. From the killing of Dessalines in 1806 to the 1991 coup against President Aristide, the Haitian military has been a detrimental force to political stability and even the existence of the nation. It is important to fully examine our past in order to salvage what is desirable and honorable, and also make sure that we do not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past by continually seeking power through the sword.
Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University. His column appears monthly in The Reporter.