“We Have Dared to Be Free”

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.
Haiti truly manifested the principles of liberty, but international resistance and racism have worked for 220 years to undermine its sovereignty.

On January 1, 1804, the generals of the Armée Indigène, or Indigenous Army, declared independence from France and created Haiti, the first abolitionist state in the Americas. They swore an oath to “renounce France forever, to die rather than live under its dominion, and to fight for independence until their last breath.” The French had lost the war against their former colony, but they refused to concede defeat or recognize the new nation and the Haitian independence leaders knew that the fight would continue.

About a month before the Declaration of Independence, the French had evacuated the western side of the island. Still, a contingent of French troops relocated east to the city of Santo Domingo,  and continued to advocate for French colonialism. From this new base, General Jean-Louis Ferrand promised Haiti’s former plantation owners that they would soon be able to return to their land, once the French had reconquered the colony. “You should anticipate that France, after having reestablished tranquility in this island, will put you in possession of your plantations,” Ferrand announced on March 17, 1804. “You will live under a paternalistic government, in a country where the provisions are in abundance, and where trade and confidence make new progress each day.”1

Tranquility, from Ferrand’s perspective, depended on slavery. There was, of course, no peace during slavery. The violent institution was a war between enslaved people and their enslavers.2 Moreover, the paternalistic government that Ferrand envisioned was explicitly genocidal. “It is necessary in Saint Domingue,” Ferrand wrote to the French minister of the navy on July 17, 1804, “to annihilate every last black person who pollutes this territory so precious to France.”3

The whole point of independence was self-rule. Dessalines and his generals understood that this required unbroken territorial sovereignty; otherwise, the Haitian people’s safety and security were at risk.

This is what the new Haitian state was up against. Former colonizers and foreigners (white people) only saw Haiti (or Saint Domingue, as they continued to call if for another two decades) as a place from which they could extract wealth by denying the rights and humanity of Black people. For governor-general-for-life Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his generals, this meant that absolute territorial sovereignty for Haiti was necessary.

When Dessalines declared Haitian independence on January 1, 1804, he did so “to ensure forever a stable Government for the Indigenous people of Hayti.”4 Stability hinged on a clean break from France and the exclusion of French people from the country. “We have dared to be free,” Dessalines told his people. “Let us dare to be so by ourselves and for ourselves.” Foreigners and colonizers would always be “the enemies of your independence.”

How could they trust a country and a people who had so violently enslaved them for more than a century? The French had repeatedly proved that they couldn’t be relied upon to act as good-faith residents in a newly liberated Haiti. “We must seize from the inhuman government that has for a long time kept us in the most humiliating torpor,” Dessalines told his citizens, “all hope of re-enslaving us; we must then live independent or die.”

The whole point of independence was self-rule. Dessalines and his generals understood that this required unbroken territorial sovereignty; otherwise, the Haitian people’s safety and security were at risk. What right did the colonizers have to stay once the territory became independent? “If they find asylum among us,” Dessalines explained, “they will again be the instigators of our troubles and our divisions.” He knew that from experience, having just fought in a brutal war for independence after a brief alliance with Napoleon’s expeditionary army. There were exceptions to the Haitian state’s French-exclusion rule, of course, and they allowed some French people to naturalize as Haitian citizens. These people, however, when they swore allegiance to the Haitian state, had to promise that they would never challenge the “legitimate power” in the country.5

As Dessalines anticipated, the French did cause trouble for the new nation. Their challenges to Haitian independence began immediately. The remnants of the beleaguered French army that had relocated to the city of Santo Domingo waged war on the new state. French warships blockaded Haitian ports and attacked and captured Haitian and foreign ships in Haitian waters. The troops in Santo Domingo—General Ferrand’s—menaced the Haitian state. They claimed that “Saint Domingue” was still a French colony and refused to recognize Haitian independence. They also threatened other nations that were inclined to form a trade, diplomatic, or military alliance with Haiti.6

The contingent in Santo Domingo was small and France never sent enough troops to fully reconquer the territory, but France’s insistence that Haiti was still a colony carried unusual diplomatic weight on the international stage and Haiti was excluded from the customary practices of the laws of nations.7 Even while they established trade relationships with Haiti, other nations refused to extend diplomatic recognition and instead waited for the former colonizer to take the lead. Everywhere else in the Americas, foreign nations jumped at the chance to secure favorable trade and diplomatic relationships by signing treaties before the former colonizers had conceded defeat.

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Haiti’s New Political Worlds

By Crystal Eddins

Haiti was the true manifestation of the principles of liberty, freedom, and racial equality, and foreign governments responded with racism to better protect their own investments.8 This international resistance to Haitian independence eventually forced the Haitian state to compromise. In 1825, the French finally conceded that they could never regain dominion over their former colony and instead issued a unilateral ordinance (backed by warships) that forced Haiti to pay an enormous price.

The French acknowledged Haitian independence, but, to save face, King Charles X mandated the Haitian state pay for diplomatic recognition.9 These massive indemnity payments, as well as the reduced trade tariff that France secured from Haiti, ensured that Haiti remained on permanently unequal footing on the international stage.10 Haiti’s continued exclusion from the international community was justified by 19th-century pseudoscientific racism and “civilization” discourse, despite the fact that the Haitian state had systematically established the necessary requirements for membership in the European “family of nations.” International racism continued to shape Haiti’s post-1804 experiences even after diplomatic recognition came. Unequal recognition has given foreign (white) nations license to intervene in, invade, and occupy Haiti for more than 200 years. The most egregious of these challenges to Haiti’s sovereignty was the US occupation (1915–34), during which the US rewrote the Haitian constitution and removed the foundational clause that prevented foreign land ownership.11

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

  1. [Jean-Louis] Ferrand, “Aux Habitans Blancs de l’île de Saint-Domingue, réfugiés dans les colonies voisines,” March 17, 1804, Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen, Generalguvernementet, Breve fra fremmede autoriteter, 1774D-1807G. “vous serez en état d’attendre que la France, après avoir rétabli la tranquillité dans cette Isle, vous remette en possession de vos propriétés. Vous vivrez sous un Gouvernement paternal, dans un pays où les vivres sont en abondance, et où le commerce et la confiance font tous les jours de nouveaux progrès.”
  2. For more on the “war of Atlantic slavery,” see Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press, 2020), especially chapter 1, “War’s Empire.”
  3. Ferrand to Minister of the Navy, 28 messidor an XII [July 17, 1804], Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte, AF/IV/1213. “et de la nécessité d’anéantir, dans St. Domingue, jusqu’au dernier des noirs, qui souillent cette terre si précieuse pour la France.”
  4. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, et al., “Liberté ou la Mort,” January 1, 1804, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, CO 137/111/1. For a digital preview and a digital download of this document, visit: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C12756259. Another version of the printed Declaration of Independence is available at the National Archives of the United Kingdom, MFQ 1/184. All quotations from the Declaration of Independence are from this version. All translations are my own.
  5. Jean-Jacques Dessalines to everyone who reads it, [early 1804, probably May or June], the National Archives of the United Kingdom, ADM 1/254.
  6. Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), especially chapter 1.
  7. Julia Gaffield, “The Racialization of International Law after the Haitian Revolution: The Holy See and National Sovereignty,” American Historical Review 125, no. 3 (2020): 847–48.
  8. On the principles of Haitian independence, what Marlene Daut calls “the 1804 Principle,” see Daut, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2023), XVIII.
  9. Marlene Daut, “When France Extorted Haiti—The Greatest Heist in History,” The Conversation, June 30, 2020.
  10. Mary Lewis, “A Commercial (Neo)Colony? The Role of the Merchant Lobby in France’s Recognition of Haitian Independence,” Age of Revolutions, June 20, 2022; Gaffield, “The Racialization of International Law,” 868.
  11. Mary A. Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 32; On the original ban on foreign landownership, see: Jean-Jacques Dessalines to the Inhabitants of Haiti, April 28, 1804, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, CO 137/111, and “Constitution Impériale d’Haïti,” May 20, 1805, Henry Christophe, Clervaux, Vernet, Gabart, Pétion, et al., American Philosophical Society, Pam. V. 26, no. 13.
Featured image: The opening of the Haitian Declaration of Independence, January 1, 1804, from the British National Archives.