Haiti’s Blueprints of Black Sovereignty

In this series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut, scholars reveal what 220 years of Haitian independence means for how we tell the story of abolition and the development of human rights around the world.
How was a self-proclaimed Black nation to define its role in an Atlantic world deeply entwined with enslaved Black labor?

Months into Haiti’s new sovereignty, an exceptional document was released by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary general and then-ruler of the entire island. This April 1804 proclamation, addressed to Haitians, subtly sought to vindicate the state’s actions on the global stage. To unravel the profound significance of two centuries and two decades of Black sovereignty, one must delve into the philosophical depths of early Haitian proclamations and laws. Early Haitian print culture actively narrated the violent origin of Haiti to its Atlantic world opponents (and even became a titillating subject for contemporary writers like the German philosopher Hegel and the English poet Wordsworth). These documents, I argue, reveal not only the birth of a political culture in Haiti, one deliberately woven with Pan-African threads, but also a luminescent blueprint beckoning those Africans in the throes of becoming Haitian.

The question arises: how were Haiti’s citizens—predominantly African-born, formerly subjected to brutal enslavement, and now participants in the struggle for independence—expected to steer Haiti’s “vessel of independence”?1 Moreover, how was this self-proclaimed Black nation to define its role in an Atlantic world deeply entwined with enslaved Black labor?

Despite winning the war of independence, Haiti in 1804 was far from freedom. The era’s most radical revolution could not transition into the ordinary course of building governmental structures and a civil society. Meanwhile, white Western observers couldn’t even conceptualize the fight for Black liberty by racialized revolutionaries. Aligning with this distorted mindset that could not even conceive of Black people as human, a rogue French general defied Napoléon’s November 1803 capitulation to Dessalines, and established an internationally supported occupation that endured for five years. Such were the circumstances in which Haiti’s process of state formation unfolded, in a manner thus wholly distinct from other American and African decolonization contexts. In Haiti’s political imaginary, Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) was part of the new nation, and its reclamation would require more warfare.

Consequently, Dessalines’s new government implemented an execution policy to eliminate collaborators from Napoléon’s genocidal war. Europeans, US Americans, and some Haitians were horrified. And so, like the United States’s Declaration of Independence—after all, the United States was Haiti’s only postcolonial predecessor—Haiti’s April 1804 proclamation addressed its grievances and proposed remedies against their imperial enslavers to the wider world.

Foreigners would do well to stand aside from the new nation, the proclamation warned, for “the irritated Genie of Hayti, arising from the bosom of the sea,” had the power to control natural forces like “disease, plague, famine, conflagration, poison.”2 Discussions of natural law was not the exclusive right of white western writers. In this April 1804 proclamation, the Haitian state speaks to the cosmic universe that is legible to their African-born. Aligned with divine justice, this “Irritated Genie” was part of an existing, Africa-based spiritual universe. What I contemplate here is what the majority of the nation—people born with African epistemologies—might understand from hearing what I call the “Irritated Genie” speech.3 “Genie” is a French translation of djinn from Islamic cultures. Undoubtedly, the Muslims who heard or read this text recognized its profound significance. Although the term genie might not resonate with all, Haitian citizens, kidnapped from Africa, knew that spirits were responsible for manipulating the ocean. Indeed, we can find evidence of such belief within traditions from the very regions in Africa where many new Haitians had been abducted.

For example, those born of the Fon ethnic group in what is now Benin knew of a supernatural entity that emerged from the ocean to consume offerings. In fact, Dessalines was possibly alluding to the powers of Lasiren (the mermaid) or Agwe/Agoue, the name of a Fon sea spirit that lives on a supernatural island under the sea called Zile.4 For Vodou practitioners, Zile originates from a Yoruba cosmological term about Ilè-Ifè, the site of a celestial assembly in Nigeria. (Zile is, therefore, a false friend to the French “mon ìle,” transforming into “zile’m” in Haitian Creole, which means “my island.” Multiple meanings are present when Haitians use this word that is embedded with African ideas about divine realms.) And, indeed, many Africans undergoing instruction into Haitian nationality were abducted from the region that is now Nigeria. A limited 90-year examination of the departure points for African-born Haitians indicates that the majority, approximately 300,000, originated from West Central Africa.5 The second-largest group, around 160,000, came from the Bight of Benin, with a smaller contingent (30,000) hailing from the Bight of Biafra, the very region where the concept of Zile floated in the memory of those enslaved.

By delving into the African ethnic lineages that form the religious superstructure of Haitian Vodou, the unmistakable presence of Pan-African spiritual and political roots becomes clear.6 How did precolonial Nigerians and Beninois residing in revolutionary Haiti perceive this message? When considering the 220 years of Haitian sovereignty, it’s important to recognize that Haitians smoothly incorporated African ways of thinking into a document shaped by contemporary political discourse and military conflict.

In the initial phase of American postcolonialism, Haiti stands out due to the dual nature of its independence. Like the American Revolution, Haiti’s independence necessitated the loss of geopolitical territory from a European power; in this case, the global menace that was France in the early 1800s. But unlike the United States, Haiti’s revolution liquidated the “assets” contained within racialized bodies, mistakenly characterized as freedom.7 The French lobby advocating for the planters, who asserted ownership of Haitian citizens as property, consistently posed a permanent threat to the Haitian state. This persistent threat rendered the demilitarization of the country after independence virtually impossible. For the Haitian people, then, political sovereignty was inherently intertwined with the fundamental right to self-ownership, a concept distinct from the individual liberty celebrated elsewhere in the Americas.

To preserve that progress, then, a mere half year into Haiti’s existence, the fledgling state advocated for Haitians to, paradoxically, emulate the “politics of Europeans”: like their “natural enemies,” Dessalines’s proclamation urged, Haitians must embrace cruelty and mercilessness. The directive was clear: Haitians were to stand firmly against the French. Any skepticism regarding the legitimacy of the 1804 executions or the revolution itself was met with disdain, suggesting that those harboring such doubts possessed “gross organs” unsuitable for “the air of liberty.” Instead, Haiti’s actions—indeed, Haiti’s very existence—was justified: by the crimes committed against them and against their comrades in arms on other French-held islands, and because they fulfilled the “decrees of the Eternal.”

“I command uncommon souls, nurtured in adversity,” Dessalines boasts, as the speech continues, “whose audacity is irritated by obstacles and grows through dangers.”8 He speaks to the Haitians about their inherent fearlessness, emphasizing that it not only exists within them, but, intriguingly, it amplifies in magnitude in response to external threats. This suggests that, rather than diminishing in the face of challenges, their courage and boldness intensify, serving as a powerful force that grows in the presence of adversity. Over time, the value of resilience in the face of adversity evolved into a fundamental pillar that united the Haitian national identity.

This embodied Dessalines’s master plan for Black sovereignty—a blueprint designed not only for his contemporaries but also as a guiding framework for future generations of Haitians. It encapsulated his vision for an independent Haiti, charting the course for a nation defined by its autonomy, resilience, and the unwavering spirit of its people. Dessalines intended this to be a lasting foundation for the ongoing pursuit of freedom, self-determination, and the preservation of Haitian identity in the face of external challenges.

Dessalines underscores the idea that, for the Haitians, external threats act as a catalyst for an even greater manifestation of their innate fearlessness, turning challenges into opportunities to showcase their resilience and strength. It was on the basis of this people power that he could confidently wait for the French with a “firm and steady eye.”

And the new state needed to be this vigilant, Dessalines warned, because France’s two centuries of barbarism was about extracting as much sugar, coffee, indigo, and mahogany from their gnarled bodies. French greed necessitated the mutilation, injustice, and violence experienced by Haitians. Referring to white Frenchmen as “insatiable leeches” that became fat off their sweat was a clear indictment of the modern global capitalism that siphoned off wealth from the Caribbean and crammed it into European coffers. The Irritated Genie proclamation reminds the Haitian audience that retaining that trade and their formerly enslaved bodies led to “our destruction without any distinction of sex or age,” alluding to France’s total war campaign during the final two years of the 12-year struggle for Haitian independence.9

Moreover, resisting the French—the speech continued—made Haitians part of a broader struggle for Caribbean liberation. The proclamation recalls the tragedy of Louis Delgrès and Magloire Pélage, two racialized men who worked their way up the ranks of the French army, and became proxy leaders for France in Guadeloupe during the years of legal emancipation, 1794–1802.10 Pélage’s promotion to lieutenant reversed the exclusion of Black men from the upper echelons of France’s military. Meanwhile, in colonial Haiti, Pélage’s counterpart, Louverture, headed France’s largest colonial regiment, making these men pivotal Black figures in Napoléon’s global army.

The value of resilience in the face of adversity evolved into a fundamental pillar that united the Haitian national identity.

In the Haitian state’s view, Pélage “basely betrayed his country.” His willingness to collaborate, especially when it became evident that Napoléon intended to reinstate slavery in the colony of Guadeloupe, rendered him guilty of treason. Embedded in this historical accounting of their peers in Guadeloupe is an ominous reminder for Haitians hearing the Irritated Genie speech. For his part, Delgrès was considered a worthy warrior, because he chose to be “blown in the air with the fort he defended,” instead of accepting the chains offered to him.11 In other words, he embodied the Guadeloupean version of “Liberty or Death,” the central theme of nascent Haitian nationalism.


Heroines of the Haitian Revolution

By Laurent Dubois

Hearing of their comrades re-enslaved in nearby Guadeloupe, Haitians listening to Dessalines’s speech must surely have drawn connections between their own recent founders of freedom and reflected on their own fortune in comparison. Fundamentally, listeners are being informed that the key distinction between what transpired there versus Haiti was the Guadeloupean mistake of trusting the French contingents that arrived in 1801–1802. The Haitians were informed that both Delgrès and Pélage were eliminated to reinstate slavery. Thus, in the speech, the state argued that, in Haiti, executing the French was to prevent the resurgence of slavery.

The binary representation of Pélage and Delgrès in the speech mirrors the often-exaggerated tensions between Toussaint Louverture’s perceived pragmatism and Dessalines’s unwavering commitment to the idea that life loses its meaning without liberty. Certainly, Dessalines dutifully served Louverture for almost a decade until the latter’s deportation in 1802. During this time, Dessalines assimilated numerous ideas from his commander into his own beliefs and strategies. However, in his concluding remarks, Dessalines said that “unlike the one who preceded me, the former General Toussaint Louverture,” he remained faithful to the solemn oath that no “colonist or European” would ever set foot on Haitian territory as master or owner.12 Louverture’s willingness to cooperate with former plantation owners remains a contentious, but debatable point for Black sovereigns, spanning the nineteenth century to the present. As we contemplate Haiti’s blueprint for Black sovereignty, the nuances of their political philosophies become increasingly significant, because it cast a shadow that stretched into decolonization approaches made by statesmen across the African diaspora after World War II.

Exploring the intricacies of what I’ve termed the Irritated Genie speech yields deeper insights into the overlooked blueprints of Black sovereignty. The state, through idealized narratives, crafted images of an emerging national character. The first generation of Haitians grasped the stark reality that without liberation from France and foreign influence, their fate might be more severe than the cumulative impact of previously experienced horrors. This shared experience became a crucial foundation, shaping a distinctive political culture under the leadership of American-born (creole) figures. Such Haitian anticolonial nationalism, moreover, aimed to conceal significant differences in ethnicity, region, and class.

Contemplating these historical intricacies reveals two sobering conclusions. First, profound sacrifices and challenges were woven directly into the fabric of Haiti’s formative years. Second, right from the outset, Haiti’s founders, both within the corridors of the state and the African-majority public, unequivocally pledged allegiance to Black sovereignty. This steadfast commitment stands as a key factor in Haiti’s endurance over the past 220 years, and should function as a guiding blueprint for the next 220. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Marlene L. Daut
on the 220th anniversary of Haitian independence.

  1. “Vessel of independence” was said by Haiti’s second postcolonial leader, Henry Christophe.
  2. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Gouverner Général, “Liberté ou la mort: proclamation aux habitans d’Haïti,” April 28, 1804, CO137/113, f. 138. All translations are the author’s and from this source. For an open-access English translation, see Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 447–452.
  3. This is especially interesting because Haitians most likely didn’t read it, but heard it. In the early years of the Haitian Revolution, language parity became crucial for military efficiency. Acknowledging the challenges of communicating in French with a predominantly African-born military, a practice emerged where official proclamations were read publicly. This made alphabetical literacy unnecessary in discussions about Black liberty; Jacob H. Caruthers. The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution (The Kemetic Institute, 1985).
  4. Leslie G. Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (UNC Press, 1992), pp. 154–159.
  5. Chris Davis, “Before They Were Haitian: Examining Evidence for Kongolese Influence on the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of Haitian Studies vol. 22, no. 2 (2016), pp. 4–36.
  6. Kryah Malika Daniels, “An Assembly of Twenty-One Spirit Nations: The Pan-African Pantheon of Haitian Vodou’s African Lwa,” Africa and its Historical and Contemporary Diasporas, edited by T. Adeleke and A. Sonderegger (Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2023), pp. 67–104.
  7. In 1803, France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States to finance its genocidal war against Haiti, resulting in the loss of the entire island of Ayiti/colonial Hispaniola that encompassed both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. With France, Spain traded Santo Domingo for the Basque Country in Europe.
  8. “Ai-je donc oublié que je commande à des âmes peu communes, nourries dans l’adversité, dont l’audace s’irrite des obstacles, s’accroît par les dangers?” For English translation, see Rainsford, pp. 451.
  9. “Depuis des siècles, sous un joug de fer, jouets des passions des hommes, de leur injustice et des caprices du sort ; victimes mutilées de la cupidité des blancs français, après avoir engraissé de nos sueurs ces sangsues insatiables, avec une patience, une résignation sans exemple, nous aurions encoure vu cette horde sacrilège attenter à notre destruction, sans distinction de sexe ni d’âge…”
  10. Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 148, 236.
  11. “Delgrès emporte dans les airs avec les débris de son fort, plutôt que d’accepter des fers.” For English, see Rainsford, p. 449.
  12. “Généraux, officiers, soldats, peu semblable à celui qui m’a précédé, a l’ex-général Toussaint Louverture, j’ai été fidèle à la promesse que je vous ai faite en prenant les armes contre la tyrannie, et tant qu’un reste de souffle m’animera, je le tiendrai ce serment.” Prohibitions against alien land ownership persisted in Haitian law until the implementation of a forcefully imposed US-sponsored constitution in June 1918. See Hans Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915 -1934 (Rutgers University Press, 1995 (1971)), p. 99.
Featured image: Hector Hyppolite, National Flag (1948) courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981. ACCESSION NUMBER: 86.2580