Death In Paradise

By Christopher Zoukis   Image courtesy

Death in paradise. 

In a nondescript cemetery, small yet serene, there’s a grave.  It was dug by a black woman named Defilee.  Plunging her shovel into the moist earth, she would scoop the dirt out.  But some always got by the blade of the shovel, so then she knelt, scraping and pushing the marbled dirt with her bare hands.  She began to sweat, some of it trickling into her eyes, stinging them.  She’d stop to wipe it away, using her wrist because of the dirt on her hands.  Still, dirt got in her eyes.  A vicious cycle:  dig, scrape, sweat, sting, wipe, dirt in eyes – repeat. 

When the hole was deep enough and wide enough and it had to be longer and wider than most to accommodate its intended inhabitant, she rolled the mutilated body into it.  Then covered it with the rich, black soil piled in a mound beside the hole.

No one says so, but I suspect she performed certain arcane religious rites before burying the body.  Vodou rites; perhaps she nailed a poppet and an old black leather shoe to a nearby tree, the little person (poppet) to act as a herald to the otherworld, the shoe to denote liberty and freedom since usually slaves went barefoot.  

Defilee then erected a simple marker and left.  Not a cross or a headstone, more likely she placed a group of white and gray stones in an oracular formation.

This is the real grave of Jean Jacques Dessalines. 

Pont-Rouge is the location.  If you look hard, and know who to talk to, you might be able to find the cemetery.  It doesn’t have a name, so you have to stipulate whose grave you are seeking.

The authorities, in a splendid example of bawdy hypocrisy, erected a monument over an empty tomb near the northern entrance of Port-au-Prince, the capital city.  Inscribed on the white stone of the monument are these words:  “At the first cannon shot, giving the alarm, cities disappear and the nation stands up.”

The name on the monument is Jean Jacques Dessalines.  He was assassinated by the very men who ordered the erection of the monument.  Their names were Alexandre Petion and General Etienne Gerin.  And maybe, Henri Christophe.  All three gentlemen were discontented members of Dessalines’ governmental administration.  Discontented is a polite way of saying they were jealous because they wanted all the power, wealth and glamour for themselves.  And Dessalines got it first.  So they resolved, using another nice-nellyism, to alter the situation, permanently, and in their favor.

And it’s interesting to note that a statue of Henri Christophe stands majestically in Port-au-Prince, proclaiming him a founding father of Haiti.  He was, rather, a fool and an assassin.  His intentions were good, perhaps, but he lacked vision and imagination.  Of course, ironically, the statue is not Christophe.  It’s the statue of some South American ruler, no one knows for sure precisely who, that the Haitian government got a good deal on.  So they put it up and put a fancy brass placard on it.

Petion, Gerin, Christophe, they are all gone, yet their influence lingers.

There is about Haiti a factitious quality.

But there was nothing factitious about Dessalines, who was Toussaint Louverture’s principal lieutenant in the slave revolt of Saint Domingue. 

Dessalines hated whites of any nationality.  Most of all he hated whites from France.  A tall, hugely muscular man, Dessalines possessed the visage of a bullfrog, the voice of a hissing serpent.  A black radiation hung about him.  He exuded a dread sensation. 

A military genius, Dessalines’ motto was kill, burn, destroy.  Attrition was the way to win a war.  In fact, if he had had access to nuclear weapons, I believe Dessalines would have been dropping them all over the countryside.  And loving it.

He massacred whites whenever he had the opportunity, taking no prisoners.  Men, women and children; they would be hacked, shot, stabbed – without mercy, devoid of qualm.  The lifeless bodies would be stacked into a little mountain as a warning to other whites. 

At Crete-a-Pierrot, a small fort on a small hill, Dessalines and his 1300 men held off and imposed severe casualties on the French soldiers under Captain General Leclerc, who had been sent to put these uppity slaves in their place.  What Dessalines did was this:  He ordered his men to dig a system of ditches around the base of the hill.  And the hill was cleared of all vegetation, so it looked like a dirt island protruding from a green ocean.  Then he put his men as bait out in front of the ditches.  His troops, danced and jeered, playing the part of undisciplined soldiers, thus fulfilling the expectations of the French.  The French attacked in formation.  As the French approached a signal was given, and Dessalines’ troops dropped into the ditches.  Cannons fired, the heavy metal shot whirring over the troops hunkered down in the ditches, wiping out the French soldiers.

Imagine the scene:  the blazing heat beating down from a tropical sun set in a cerulean blue sky; the sweltering humidity, as if the earth itself was breathing; the rumble of death as cannon balls exploded, showering a metallic rain of death.  The advancing ranks flutter and sag as men mushroom, their organs and limbs spraying out in a halo of bright red blood.  A rising tide of color.  The ghastly sweet and sour smell of new death hung in the air, mixing obscenely with the pitiful moans of men gasping for one more breath.   

In the end, the French got their artillery upon the crest of a nearby hill.  At this point, Dessalines’ position became untenable.  So under cover of night, he abandoned the fort, leaving a small band of men behind to make it look as if the fort was still defended.  They lit bonfires, which branded the naked hill, silhouetting and augmenting the shadows of those that remained.  While with the bulk of his men, Dessalines melted into the stygian hulk of the Cahos mountains. 

Shortly thereafter, though, Dessalines defected to the French. 

Now why would a man who despised whites and the French do such a thing?  Opinions vary, but mine is this:  Dessalines, although a military monster, was simple and unsophisticated.  In a word, he was an opportunist.  He lusted for that which he saw everyday:  beautiful clothes, status, wealth, ornate carriages drawn by matching fours, sultry women, a vast plantation with a grand white mansion.    The French pandered to his worldly desires, and Dessaline accepted. 

Jealousy of Toussaint’s power, wealth and sophistication made Dessalines even more eager to betray Toussaint and take what he felt he deserved.  And the French lied to him, too, just as they did to Toussaint.  They declared all blacks would be freed, and slavery would be abolished.

When it became clear the French intended not only to continue slavery, but intensify it, and because Toussaint had been taken prisoner by French deceit four months earlier, Dessalines switched sides again.

Like a black demon from the depths of hell Dessalines waged a ferocious guerilla war against the white Frenchmen.

Dessalines, like a tiger, attacked, then withdrew, then attacked again.  The French, under Rochambeau, made a last stand at Fort Vertieres.  Dessalines and Petion, with their army of blacks and mulattos, attacked.  The next day, Rochambeau surrendered.  Rochambeau had no other option.  Only 1200 of his soldiers were capable of fighting.  The rest were either dead or dying from Yellow Fever.  Two weeks later, the French colonial army boarded its black ships of the line and left.

All the history books say:  “this officially ended the only successful slave rebellion in world history.”  This is true.  But Yellow Fever rather than force of arms proved the decisive factor. 


New Year’s day, 1804.  The huge black dread, Dessalines, declares Saint Domingue’s independence.  He chooses a new name for the new nation.  Henceforth it shall be known as Haiti, an Arawak word.  And he, Dessalines, declares himself Governor-General-for-life. 

Nine months later, in a rich, still hissing voice, under exquisite lilting control, he proclaimed himself not just Emperor of Haiti, but Emperor-for-life with the privilege of naming his successor.

Dessalines fought so hard, slaughtered so many to get rid of the whites, their system of slavery, their abuse of power, and then when they were gone, he emulated them.  As Emperor he commanded the massacre of all the remaining French on Haiti, saying that they were barbaric, so they must be butchered.  The French whites – men, women and children – were lined up. Some were hacked to death, others were shot at point blank range, and still others stabbed or clubbed.  A kind of mania came over the butchers, for they screamed like banshees as they went about their grisly business.

It was the beginning of the end. 

A new kind of slavery came to Haiti.  Dessalines, correctly, recognized the necessity of sustaining the sugar industry and the coffee and cotton plantations.  In an effort to do so, he then implemented a program called (another nice-nellyism) caporalisme agraire, agrarian militarism.  Under this scheme all blacks had two choices:  either join the military to protect the nation, or work in the fields.

Compared to the bizarre multiplicity of the new kind of slavery, the old slavery appears quite simple, almost drab.

A new kind of racism.  To govern, even an Emperor must have administrators.  Dessalines appointed educated, light-skinned Haitians.  Then, Dessalines declared Haiti an all-black nation, forbidding whites from ever owning property or purchasing land.  And to this day, Haitians enforce this edict.

The sense of imminence is unmistakable.  Dessalines was free, as was Haiti, but he was still a slave to a way of thinking.  He was a great general, a true military genius, who fathomed that the only way to kill the enemy was to kill them.  But only Toussaint had the vision and the clarity of thought to govern a prosperous Haiti.

Even with education, technology, and an efficient infra-structure, no nation can survive corruption and all it portends.  Arrogant self-interest and power lust, the quest for wealth filters down until the whole complex, everyone, is on the take, trying to get their fair share that which they feel is coming to them.

Toussaint knew this.  Dessalines was blind to it, and participated in it.