Dessalines’s America: A Decolonial Critique

Image: Jean-Jacques Dessalines, “Liberté ou la Mort,” [Haitian Declaration of Independence], 1 January 1804, MFQ 1/184, The National Archives of the United Kingdom. Source: Julia Gaffield PhD

After declaring independence from the French on January 1, 1804, Governor General for life Jean-Jacques Dessalines defended the new nation of Haiti in an Atlantic world determined to refuse its claims to antislavery and anticolonial sovereignty. Speaking to the Haitian people – and addressing anxious onlookers in the Atlantic world – on April 28, 1804, Dessalines proclaimed “Yes, I have saved my country; I have avenged America.” The object of his vengeance was clear: the remaining colonists on the island, whom he had ordered killed in the early months of 1804. Yet the beneficiary of his vengeance, the “America” for whom Dessalines exacted a “terrible but just” retribution, was multivalent and complex. Dessalines’s “America” was a transhistorical concept that bridged past, present, and future to encompass the violent colonization and resistance of Indigenous and Black people. By exploring the richness of Dessalines’s foundational anticolonial utterance here, we gain a better understanding of Haiti and its place in studies of America’s long nineteenth century. Ultimately, Dessalines’s “America” helps scholars decolonize the idea of “America” and an overly US-centric concept of American Studies. 

What is America?  

The “America” that Dessalines avenged is not the same “America” envisioned by Amerigo Vespucci at the turn of the sixteenth century, nor is it the “America” promoted by an early and westward-expanding United States of America. Dessalines’s “America” is also distinct from subsequent Caribbean attempts to define and repurpose the term as the US transformed into an imperial republic in the nineteenth century. Haitian writer Louis Joseph Janvier preferred to leave “America” to the U.S. (“Amérique aux Etats-Unis”) and assert “Haiti for the Haitians.” Cuban writer José Martí took a different tack to contest U.S. imperialism through the formulation of a pan-Latin cultural solidarity of the Americas in “Nuestra América.” Later Martinican writers, building on Martí, conceived of archipelagic Caribbean (antillais) identity as “the other America.” For Aimé Césaire, it was located at the interstice of “one and the other America” while for Édouard Glissant, “the other America” was a subaqueous continuity shared between the Americas.   

To get closer to the meaning of Dessalines’s “America,” we must look to the use of the term in eighteenth-century French discourse and its particular colonial valence. The noun “l’Amérique” and its adjectival “américain” (and sometimes “amériquain”) denoted all things related to colonial society in the “New World.” In the case of eighteenth-century colonial Saint-Domingue, for example, the adjective “américain” distinguished between colonists of European origin and “colons américains” born in Saint-Domingue.[1] The “America” that Dessalines claimed to render justice on behalf of was both a refusal of this colonial term and a rescripting of it (as in a rewriting, but also a reply) as an act of resistance.

In my book, Haiti’s Paper War: Post-Independence Writing, Civil War, and the Making of the Republic, 1804–1954, I trace the myriad examples of this Dessalinean rhetorical strategy, in which early writers rescripted colonial terms, challenging  their legitimacy and putative universality. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, Dessalines announced that Haitians would reject the European example and instead followed the path of their Indigenous predecessors, their brothers in chains who chose to fight rather than lose their freedom. As historian, Émile Nau later reflected, “To free a country this way meant avenging all who had been oppressed, it meant avenging themselves and at the same time avenging the unfortunate Indians.” Recalling the island’s Indigenous predecessors alongside enslaved Africans’ anticolonial struggles was central to the imagery and rhetorical formulations that established—and invented—independent Haiti.

Dessalines’s “America” is at once a physical site and a transhistorical abstract conception. It activated the long history of colonial expansion, Christianization, occupation and displacement on the island going back to the Columbian conquest and aligns it with the dehumanizing injustice of the plantation system based in slavery that he and his Armée Indigène fought to abolish. By proffering a rescripted colonial term as a signifier of anticolonial, antislavery independence, Dessalines delegitimized French colonial discourse and its presumed coherence and authority. Dessalines’s “America” is a critique of the idea of America as it was defined from a Eurocentric perspective. As such, it is a decolonial concept.

The Uses of Haiti and Haiti Itself 

Dessalines’s “America” is America and must be a central component of American Studies. Dessalines’s concept, and Haiti’s subsequent long postcolonial existence, unsettles the dominant idea of “America” as Anglophone and synonymous with the United States. It is not the “other” America, but another America–another conception of what America is and what American means. What is more, Dessalines’s American critique took place in real-time, as the US’s totalizing centrism was itself taking shape in the nineteenth century. Dessalines’s America holds up a mirror to the now-dominant concept of America as it formed  and reveals its foundational fictions. In short, Dessalines’s America, and thus Haiti, must be understood as part of the American long nineteenth century, not least of all for the productive unsettling that they occasion.

There are the uses of Haiti and there is Haiti itself. Too often, Americanist scholars engage only the former, which has the effect of obscuring the latter. Put otherwise, and following Marlene Daut’s powerful calls to center Haiti and Haitians: Americanist work must take Haiti as more than an idea but a “real physical place” full of people, their desires, and their histories. Haiti—Haitian Studies, Haitian history and literature, Haitian thinkers, as well as Haitian scholars and their scholarship—must be a part of the unsettling of what is “America” and “American.” Indeed, the most radical thinking in the early Americas is often found outside the United States.

[1] In eighteenth-century colonial Saint-Domingue, the adjective “américain” operated in similar fashion to the term “créole,” which was used to designate the island-born status of people of either of white European or African descent. This colonial signification of the term “créole” is an important distinction to the later nineteenth and especially twentieth century uses which privileged the concept of mixing (racial, cultural, and linguistic). Nevertheless, as John D. Garrigus’s work has shown, the adjective “américain” was increasingly adopted by elite free people of color in the colony leading up to the Haitian Revolution. 

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