The Story of The Haitian Commander, Dessalines, Who Defeated The French Army in 1803 And Declared Independence

Haiti is one of the few independent Negro/Afro nations in the world. It was first encountered by the Europeans when Christopher Columbus landed on the Islands of the West Indies, and claimed it as Hispaniola for Spain, in 1492.

In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick was signed between the Spanish and the French. The treaty divided the island into French-controlled St. Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo.

For over the next 100 years, the colony of St. Domingue (known as the Pearl of the Antilles) was France’s most important overseas territory. The colony supplied France with sugar, rum, coffee, and cotton. At the peak of slavery, near the end of the 18th century, around 500,000 people mainly from western African were enslaved by the French on St Domingue.

In 1791, a slave rebellion was launched by the Jamaican-born Boukman, which lead to a protracted 13-year war of liberation against St. Domingue’s colonists. The war was later joined by Napoleon’s army which was also assisted by Spanish and British forces.

The Battle of Vertières was the last major battle of the Second War for Haitian Independence, and the final part of the Haitian Revolution under Jean Jacques Dessalines.

The war was fought on 18 November 1803 and the Haitian forces were made up mainly of former slaved who had been legally liberated. On the other side was Napoleon’s French expeditionary forces, who were openly committed to re-enslave the formerly enslaved people and regain control of the island.

The location of the battle, Vertières, is situated just south of Cap-Haïtien (known then as Cap-Français), in the Départment du Nord, Haiti.

By the end of October 1803, the Liberated slave Haitian army fighting the French troops had already taken over most of the territory of St. Domingue. The only territory controlled by the French forces were Môle St. Nicolas, held by Noailles, and Cap-Français, where, with 5,000 troops, Rochambeau was at bay.

In 1802, the leader of the revolution, Toussaint Louverture was captured by Napoleon’s troops. From the ship that would lead him to his prison cell, and eventually his death, Louverture said: “In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of black liberty in St. Domingue. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.”

After Toussaint Louverture’s death, another of his comrades, Jean Jacques Dessalines, continued the fight for liberty by leading the resistance to the French. Jean Jacques Dessalines defeated the French army on many occasions before the battle of Vertières.

During the night of 17–18 of November 1803, the Haitian army positioned their few guns to blast Fort Bréda.

 As the French trumpets sounded the alarm, Clervaux, a Haitian rebel, fired the first shot. Capois, one of the Haitian commanders mounted on a great horse, led his small brigade forward amidst storms of bullets from the forts on his left.

French fire killed a number of Haitian soldiers in their columns, but the soldiers closed their ranks and marched past their dead, singing bravely.

Capois’ horse was shot. It faltered and fell, and tossed Capois off his saddle. Capois picked himself up, drew his sword; flashed it over his head and ran onwards shouting: “Forward! Forward!” (En avant! En avant!).

Mesmerized and dumbfounded by his valiant courage, the French soldiers temporarily ceased their fire and all applauded Capois.

Rochambeau, the French General, was watching from the barricade of Vertières. As Capois charged forth, the French rolled out their drums for a sudden cease-fire. Suddenly, the battle stopped.

One of the French staff officers mounted his horse and rode toward the courageous Capois-la-Mort (Capois-the-Death).

With a loud voice, the French staff shouted: “General Rochambeau sends compliments to the general who has just covered himself with such glory!” Then he saluted the Haitian warriors, returned to his position, and the battle resumed.

General Dessalines sent his reserves under Gabart, who was the youngest of the generals, while Jean-Philippe Daut, Rochambeau’s guard of grenadiers, formed their lines for a final charge.

But Gabart, Capois, and Clervaux, the last fighting with a French musket in their hand and with one epaulette shot away and tried to repel the desperate counterattack of the Haitians.

A sudden downpour with thunder and lightning soaked the battlefield.  And under cover of the storm, General Rochambeau pulled back the remaining of his men from Vertières, knowing he was defeated and that Saint-Domingue was lost.

By the next morning, general Rochambeau sent Duveyrier to negotiate with General Jean Jacques Dessalines. And at the end of that day, the terms of the French surrender were settled. Rochambeau was given ten days to embark the remainder of his army and leave Saint-Domingue.

The wounded French soldiers were left behind under lock and key until they could be repatriated to France, but they were drowned a few days later.

After two months, General Jean Jacques Dessalines’ proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Haiti on 1 January 1804.

November 18 has always been widely celebrated since then as a Day of Victory in Haiti.

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Liberty Writers Africa

Liberty Writers Africa

Our mission is to raise the collective consciousness of Africans all over the world. And also giving an account of our uniqueness, we hope to reintroduce Africa to the rest of the world. At the core of our vision, is to liberate the African mind - to make Africans discover their voice through literature.

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