David Geggus, University of Florida

To redress, perhaps, the biases of earlier generations that either ignored the Haitian
Revolution or emphasized its aberrant peculiarity, the recent scholarship on the topic has often
sought to integrate it within larger narratives of liberal democracy, Atlantic revolution, or
emergent modernity, and thus to stress similarity rather than otherness. Although this has been a
salutary development, this paper, focused on Haiti’s manner of declaring independence, departs
from this trend toward inclusivity, and emphasizes instead the revolution’s distinctiveness.
The Haitian declaration is unusual in a number of respects: 1) it concluded rather than
initiated the revolutionary process; 2) it did not establish a republic, and said nothing about
rights; 3) it called for the elimination of the the former colonizers, and 4) there were in fact, not
one, but two declarations of independence.
Proclaimed January 1, 1804 in the port city of Gonaïves, a month after the last French
troops had left, the text now known as Haiti’s declaration of independence marked the end of
fifteen years of revolution. In its social and political complexity, the Haitian Revolution
resembled the simultaneous revolution in France more than the mainland independent
movements. As the white, free colored, and enslaved populations in Saint Domingue each
pursued their own separate struggles, the revolution’s achievements were correspondingly more
wide-ranging and included not just decolonization but the establishment of racial equality and
the outright abolition of slavery. It was the most transformative of the Atlantic revolutions, both
because of these multiple achievements and because of the high price paid for them. By the time

independence was declared, the former French colony had lost more than one-third of its
population and at least three-quarters of its export capacity.

The declaration is a three-part document.
The longest and most important section, “Le
Général en Chef au Peuple d’Hayti,” which is known as the “proclamation,” functions as a
It has one signatory, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the senior general, a former slave. The
act of independence itself records, in the name of the “Armée Indigène,” an oath to renounce
France taken by 37 senior officers. The third section, signed by 17 of these officers, names
Dessalines head of state. Before an enthusiastic audience on the main square of Gonaïves,
Dessalines began the independence-day ceremony with a speech in Haitian Creole that recounted
“the cruelty of the French toward the native people.”
As Dessalines was illiterate and did not
speak French, his secretary Louis Boisrond Tonnerre then read out the proclamation, followed by
the act of independence, which were both written by Boisrond.

Of the 37 signatories, more than two-thirds were of mixed racial descent, probably all of
whom were freeborn. One was a white creole, and apparently 11 were black, of whom 6 or 7
seem to have been born into slavery. None was African, although in 1804 about half the adult
population of Haiti would have been African-born and barely 1 in 20 of mixed racial descent.

David Geggus, “The Haitian Revolution in Atlantic Perspective,” forthcoming in The Atlantic World c.1450-
c.1820, ed. Nicholas Canny, Philip Morgan, Oxford University Press.
Only one copy of the original printed version survives; it was recently found in the British National Archives,
Kew, by Julia Gaffney, a student at Duke University, and is accessible at
The original printed version makes a non sequitur by placing the prologue, known as the proclamation, after the act
of independence. The account of the declaration ceremony in Thomas Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince,
1989 [1848]), 3:144-152, shows that the act was signed before the ceremony began but that it was read out after
the proclamation.
Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, 3:146. What else Dessalines said is unknown other than that he concluded, “Let us
swear to fight to our last breath for our country’s independence.”
Louis-Félix Boisrond Tonnerre (1776-1806) was born into a family of landowners of mixed racial descent on
Saint-Domingue’s south coast. He was educated in France and lived there about ten years. His uncle was a
colonial deputy in the French legislature: John Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-
Domingue (New York, 2006), 289, 308-310.

1) A Terminus Ad Quem
Declarations that marked the end rather than the beginning of a revolutionary struggle
were unusual prior to the mid-twentieth century,
and in Haiti’s case this timing points to an
important aspect of its revolution. Unlike the other colonial American struggles, in which
independence quickly became the central issue, this was not so in Saint Domingue. For slaves,
whites, and free people of color, the question of secession was entirely subordinated to those of
racial equality and slave emancipation.
For easily blockaded Caribbean islands dependent on trade and with small populations,
independence was a much less viable proposition than it was for the mainland colonies. Most of
Saint Domingue’s white revolutionaries sought political autonomy, not independence; and
Revolutionary France, was willing to grant a good deal of what they wanted (unlike the case of
Fernando VII and the Spanish colonies). When the revolution in France became in 1791-93 a
threat to white supremacy and slavery, the white colonists who favored secession sought a
British protectorate, not independence.

The aims of the slaves who rebelled in 1791 are more controversial,
but once the French
Republic ended slavery in 1793/94, there was a huge incentive for the emancipated in a hostile
world to remain colonial subjects. By the late 1790s, many commentators suspected that the
colony’s black governor, Toussaint Louverture, was aiming for independence, and this view is
supported by most Haitian historians. It is more likely, however, that Toussaint wanted a de
facto, not de jure, independence, as Cyril James and Yves Benot concluded; he was feeling his

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), 111.
David Geggus, Slavery, War, and Revolution: The British Occupation of Saint Domingue, 1793-1798 (Oxford,
1982), ch. 3.
Cf. Yves Benot, “The Insurgents of 1791, their Leaders, and the Concept of Independence,” in The World of the
Haitian Revolution, ed. D. Geggus, N. Fiering, (Bloomington, 2009), 99-110; David Geggus, “The Caribbean in
the Age of Revolution,” in The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840, ed. David Armitage, Sanjay
Subramanyam (New York, 2010), 95-97.

way toward a sort of associated statehood.
The free men of color, too, were probably more
interested in the substance of independence than its trappings, whatever their sense of
It is true they lived in autonomous fiefs and launched a coup against the
white governor in 1796, but increasingly they came to need the French as a counterweight to the
power of the ex-slaves.
It was only Napoleon Bonaparte’s decision in 1802 to overturn both racial equality and
slave emancipation that forced former slaves and free men of color into alliance in a joint
struggle for independence to preserve the gains of the revolution. The Haitian Revolution,
therefore, produced the Americas’ second independent state but decolonization was far from
being its primary goal.

David Geggus, “The Biographers of Toussaint Louverture,” forthcoming in Stories of Saint-Domingue, Stories of
Haiti: Representing the Haitian Revolution, 1789-2009, ed. Jeremy Popkin; C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins:
Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, Vintage, 1963); Yves Benot, La démence
coloniale sous Napoléon (Paris: La Découverte, 1992).
John Garrigus, “Colour, Class, and Identity on the Eve of the Haitian Revolution: Saint Domingue’s Free
Coloured Elite as Colons Américains,” Slavery & Abolition 17 (1996): 20-43.

2) Political Content
Truly remarkable is the frequency with which historians of all persuasions have written
of the founding in 1804 of the “Haitian republic.” The new state that Dessalines proclaimed was
called l’État d’Haïti and there was nothing republican about it. Arrogating all power to himself,
Dessalines took the title “governor-general for life,” which he replaced nine months later with
“emperor.” The proclamation of independence actually ends with a threat to the populace never
“to reject or grumble at” whatever laws he will choose to make. Freedom from slavery is
asserted throughout the document, but the word “rights” appears nowhere.
This raises an important point that tends to get obscured in recent studies of the Haitian
Revolution that link it with “democratic ideals,” “citizenship,” and “republican rights.” What
characterizes the black revolution from the slave uprising in 1791 through Toussaint
Louverture’s constitution of 1801 to those of Henry Christophe, who in 1811 created an absolute
monarchy, is an unabashed authoritarianism.
Freedom was construed in the profound but
narrow sense of freedom from slavery; it had nothing to do with liberalism. Although the Latin
American revolutions created a monarch or two, and the French Revolution similarly ended in
military dictatorship, this autocratic tradition tends to set the Haitian Revolution apart from the
other Atlantic revolutions.
Of course, it was not the whole revolution. The revolution’s earliest years saw the
development of a radical democracy, representative and direct, among Saint Domingue’s white
settlers. But because of their hostility to racial equality, it was suppressed in the fall of 1792 by
commissars sent from France. It would be the free men of color, till then excluded from political
participation, who would develop a liberal republican politics in Saint Domingue. They,

Geggus, “The Caribbean in the Age of Revolution,” 97-98.

including many of the signatories of the declaration of independence, would go on to found the
first Haitian republic, but only after they had assassinated the emperor Dessalines in 1806.
The proclamation was addressed to the Haitian people but its intended audience also
included “the Foreign Powers,” as the act of independence states. It assures Haiti’s neighbors
that the new state will not try to export its revolution. Like Toussaint Louverture before him,
Dessalines opted for a revolution “in one country,” because he had to assuage his British
neighbors’ fears of rebellion, as Britain’s navy controlled the sea-lanes.
In three conciliatory
paragraphs that contrast with the strident tone of the rest of the document, and which avoid
mentioning slavery, Dessalines calls on his countrymen not to “disturb the peace of our
neighboring islands.” Remarkably, those islands are said to have “no need for vengeance against
the authority that protects them,” as their inhabitants had not suffered as the Haitians had.
statement poses some problems for those who interpret the Haitian Revolution as in some sense
In writing the declaration, Boisrond Tonnerre eschewed a language of rights and law for
an heroic rhetoric. Calling on Haitians to live independent or die, the document justifies
secession as necessary to maintain freedom from slavery and from the inhumane and duplicitous
conduct of the French. Referencing the geographical distance between France and Haiti, as well
as the cruel character of the French, their skin color, and their vulnerability to tropical disease, it
concludes “they are not our brothers and never will be.”

David Geggus, “The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean,” in
Blacks, Coloureds and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Latin America, ed. Nancy Naro (London, 2003),
I use the terms “Haitians” for convenience; the text uses the term “indigènes d’Hayti.”

3) Revenge
Having noted the different ways in which “the French name still darkens our
landscape”—laws, customs, towns, and the physical presence of French people—Boisrond then
states that if any French remain in Haiti after independence they will continue to be a source of
division and troubles. In a lengthy section that takes up about one and a half of the
proclamation’s five pages, he elaborates this indictment of the former colonizers, who are
described successively as barbarians, vultures, executioners, murderers, and “tigers still dripping
with [the] blood [of your wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, children, and babies at the breast].”
Extraordinary violence had characterized the Haitian Revolution from its early stages, but
it attained an almost apocalyptic climax during the final year, when the French army adopted a
quasi-genocidal strategy. In January 1804, this trauma was fresh in everyone’s minds. After
condemning the French for their past cruelty, their future subversion, and their otherness,
Boisrond made three further points: Haiti’s dead ought to be avenged; a “terrible but just” act of
retribution would send a message to France and the outside world that the Haitians would not
surrender the freedom they had won; and the fruits of their labor should not go to foreigners.
The target of this call for vengeance was the more than 3,000 French people who,
encouraged by Dessalines, had chosen to remain behind after the departure of the French troops.
Beginning in early February, a week after the declaration was published in Port-au-Prince, most
were systematically massacred, men first, women and children afterwards, in two waves that
proceeded from the south of the country to the north.

The language of Boisrond’s proclamation thus was not mere rhetoric; distilling the raw
hatred of an epic conflict, it prepared the ground for the bloodbath that formed the revolution’s

Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, 3:159-179. Fear of a massacre had already been building, and whites were prevented
from emigrating, before the declaration, but it must have greatly increased their panic. The massacres lasted
until late April.

epilogue. On hearing the declaration’s Francophobe sentiments at a reenactment of the
independence day ceremony in Gonaïves on its 150
anniversary, the French ambassador’s wife
supposedly fainted into her husband’s arms.
Dessalines, it is said, gave the job of writing the
proclamation to Boisrond Tonnerre because he had declared, "To draw up the act of
independence we need the skin of a whiteman for parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood
for ink, and a bayonet for a pen."

Although such quasi-genocidal tensions were echoed a decade later in Nueva Granada
and Bolívar’s declaration that he would purge America of Spanish “monsters,” the ethno-
national character
of the Haitian Revolution and the dehumanizing violence that accompanied
it constitute another aspect of its distinctiveness.
The decision to replace the European name Saint-Domingue with an Amerindian name
similarly underlines the revolution’s unusually radical break with the colonial past. Exactly how
the name Haïti was chosen remains unknown. It appears without further explanation in the
declaration of independence, though the document’s injunction to “imitate those peoples
who...preferred to be exterminated rather than” lose their freedom is clearly meant to invoke the
fate of the Taínos.

The somewhat unorthodox French prose of Boisrond Tonnerre is also often interpreted as
a gesture of autonomy, an expression of the writer’s disdain for the colonizer’s language.
Whether this is true or not, it is a singular irony that Boisrond felt compelled, nevertheless, to
compose the declaration in that language when it was understood neither by the head of state, nor

Leslie Manigat, Éventail d’histoire vivante d’Haïti: Des préludes à la Révolution de Saint-Domingue jusqu’à nos
jours (1789-1999) (Port-au-Prince, 2001), 420.
Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, 3:145.
Leslie Manigat, Évolution et révolutions (Port-au-Prince, 2007), 87-88.
David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington, 2002), 207-220.

by the great majority of his fellow citizens, and he himself had a better command of Créole, the
indigenous language of the new state.
4) The Other Declaration
It is well known that Dessalines entrusted Boisrond with writing the declaration of
January 1 after rejecting an earlier draft that had been drawn up by another of his secretaries
which he found uninspiring. The text has been lost but it was apparently based on the U.S.
declaration of independence.
Much less well known is the fact that Dessalines had already
issued an earlier declaration of independence a month before on November 29, 1803. Haiti’s
first historian, Thomas Madiou, briefly described the document but dismissed it as apocryphal.

Leslie Manigat, however, has recently made a convincing case that the document, which
appeared in several foreign newspapers, must have been genuine.

Issued in the town of Fort-Liberté and signed by only three generals, this first
declaration proclaims the independence of “Saint-Domingue.” The decision to rename the island
was thus not taken until the following month, although a vogue for Indian symbolism in the
Armée Indigène had appeared a year earlier.
The declaration begins, “In the name of the
blacks and men of color.” Drawing attention in this manner to the two rival factions that had
recently fought each other was no doubt meant as an expression of solidarity. It contrasts
sharply, however, with Boisrond’s declaration, which avoided such terms in favor of the unitary
indigènes, and with Dessalines’s 1805 constitution, which explicitly banned their use.

Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti, 3:144. A portion, apparently preserved by Haitian freemasons appears in Gaétan
Mentor, Les fils noirs de la veuve: Histoire de la franc-maçonnerie en Haïti (Port-au-Prince, 2003), 168-169.
Madiou, Histoire d'Haïti, 3:125 n1. Haiti’s greatest historian, Beaubrun Ardouin, does not even mention it in his
Études sur l’histoire d’Haïti, 11 vols. (Paris, 1853-60).
Leslie Manigat, “Une brève analyse-commentaire critique d'un document historique,” Revue de la Société
haïtienne d'histoire et de géographie 221 (2005): 44-56.
Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies, 214.

The most striking difference between the two declarations is the attitude they express
toward the white colonists. The November text is in fact mainly directed to them. It apologizes
that some “innocent inhabitants” were killed during the revolution by “vengeful laborers and
soldiers,” and it extends a fraternal hand to those willing to renounce their old prejudices and be
part of the new society. The contrast could hardly be greater, and it is not easy to explain.
Perhaps we should see in the first declaration a continuation of Toussaint Louverture’s
multiracialism and desire to profit from the business skills of white landowners. Perhaps the
document was specifically shaped by Henri Christophe, one of its three signatories, whom whites
considered among the most approachable of the generals.
Conversely, as Madiou states, and
Manigat agrees, Dessalines was perhaps already meditating the massacres to come and his
assurances to the whites were never sincere.

For most Atlantic world insurgents, slavery was primarily a metaphor, but in Saint-
Domingue it became the central issue in the revolution. The Haitian Revolution was not just a
revolt against colonial rulers, still less a conflict among people of a shared culture and identity,
but a war against slaveowners who had claimed most of the colonized as property. This basic
fact imparted an extra degree of bitterness to the fifteen-year struggle and shaped its priorities.
This distinctiveness is reflected in Haiti’s declaration of independence that was unusual in its
timing and political content, its treatment of the former colonizers, and in the fact it was not a
single document.

However, unlike some senior officers, he did not oppose the 1804 massacres, and Augustin Clerveaux, the other
signatory along with Dessalines, would play a prominent role in them.
This interpretation is further documented in Ardouin, Études sur l’histoire d’Haïti, 5:99-100, 6:7, 12.