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. 

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