Is Brooklyn street co-named after Haitian hero — or mass murderer?
Jean-Jacques Dessalines Leaves a Mixed Legacy
The New York City Council voted on Wednesday to approve a controversial proposal to co-name a Brooklyn street after a man who led Haiti’s historic slave rebellion — but who also brutally massacred thousands of innocents.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines became emperor of Haiti after the successful fight for independence against the French Army in 1804.
After the victory, however, Dessalines ordered his soldiers to slaughter nearly every remaining French man, woman and child on the island.
The co-naming, proposed by Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-Flatbush), covers a 2-mile section of Rogers Avenue from Farragut Road to Eastern Parkway, within the “Little Haiti” Business and Cultural District in Flatbush. Brooklyn is home to the largest percentage of foreign-born Haitian residents in New York state, with more than 40 percent of the foreign-born population residing in Flatbush.
The legislation reads, “Jean-Jacques Dessalines is one of the founding fathers of Haiti, having taken charge of the Haitian Revolution and leading them to victory in defeating the French Napoleon Army in 1804 … The Haitian Revolution became the first slave revolt in modern history to result in an independent nation.”
According to a release put out by Williams, Dessalines remains a “very popular symbol of Haitian nationalism.”
“Jean-Jacques Dessalines was a revolutionary who fought for his people and overthrew an oppressive regime who brutally enslaved and persecuted the Haitian people,” Williams said.
Williams credited Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte, the first Haitian-American woman elected into office in New York City, for fiercely advocating for the co-naming. The measure also received the support of other Councilmembers including Speaker Cory Johnson and Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo.
Bichotte called Dessalines “one of the greatest heroes of the modern world.”
“Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ remarkable leadership impacted countries around the world in gaining their independence,” she said in a statement.
Hero or Monster?
But others call some of Dessalines’ actions monstrous.
The Massacre of 1804 resulted in the death of 3,000 to 5,000 men, women, and children, according to Philippe Girard, author of “The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence 1801-1804.”
Under the orders of Dessalines, who feared the French regaining the upper hand and reinstating slavery, Haitian soldiers moved from house to house, first killing men and, in a second wave, entire families.
The massacre polarized the Southern U.S. public on the question of the abolition of slavery, according to Kevin Julius in “The Abolitionist Decade, 1829-1838: A Year-by-Year History of Early Events in the Antislavery Movement.”
Slave-owners feared a similar genocide might happen to them if American slaves were freed.
In light of the recent removal of Confederate busts in the Bronx and the controversial statue of J. Marion Sims from its position in Central Park, some are questioning whether a man responsible for so much misery should be honored in modern-day Brooklyn.
Historians point out that the French treated their Haitian slaves barbarically, implying, perhaps, that two wrongs make a right.
Seth Barron, in City Journal, notes, “This barbarism came as a coda to a vicious revolutionary war, one attended by savage acts against a slave population fighting for its liberty. So it is perhaps not for us to condemn the early Haitian leaders.”
Barron asks, however, “But do we need to celebrate them?”
Responding to the criticism, Williams said on Thursday, “Dessalines is a leader who liberated his people from a brutal regime and enslavement. The French then attempted to force the Haitian people to repay them for the loss of what they considered human property — essentially, seeking to re-enslave his people and he rebelled. Those who are now trying to create controversy are conflating fighting against oppression with imposing it.”
Lindsay Twa, professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD, said that Dessalines proved to be such a despot that his own soldiers “ambushed their leader and rendered his body to pieces.”
Twa writes, “Legends state that the madwoman Defilee, possibly Dessalines’s spurned lover and a sutler to his troops, gathered, buried and guarded the emperor’s remains in a final act of restorative devotion.”
Twa adds that within the Haitian folk religion of Voodoo, Dessalines has become a saint known as Ogou Desalin, “a powerful guardian and fierce conqueror.”
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