This letter, dated 31 July 1793, is from Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the famous general and one of the leaders of the Saint-Domingue (Haitian) Revolution of 1791–1804. He was instrumental in the founding of independent Haiti and was its first ruler.
As a formerly enslaved man, Dessalines was unable to read and write and would have commanded a secretary to write this letter on his behalf. He only learned to sign his name late in life, as the delicate yet insecure signature at the foot of the letter demonstrates. At 40, he was relatively old when he joined the Haitian Revolution, ‘his body scarred with strokes from the whip, but a born soldier…’
C L R James recounts the remarkable events of the Haitian Revolution in his classic history The Black Jacobins (1938). In his play of the same title, written in 1967, he turns key historical figures of the Revolution, including Toussaint L'Ouverture and Dessalines, into dramatic characters while emphasising the role of the thousands of enslaved people who rose up and fought for freedom.
This letter was written during a period of violent insurgencies which culminated with the abolition of slavery in the north of Saint-Domingue on 29 August 1793. It bears the place name ‘St Marc’ at the top, which was in the west of the colony. Dessalines reportedly ‘governed the Department of the West with a rod of iron’. In the body of the letter Dessalines is ordering the release of a captain who had been imprisoned for overstaying his leave.
Dessalines was a brilliant soldier and talented military leader. Where Toussaint failed to share his political motives with his generals, Dessalines spoke clearly to his army, calling on them ‘to rise together’ against the colonial forces. He had no time for Toussaint’s diplomatic approach towards the white colonial representatives whom he believed wanted to keep the slave regime.
After Toussaint’s capture by the French in June 1802 Dessalines became the leader of the Haitian Revolution. James asserts that Dessalines plotted to get Toussaint out of the way because he was pro-French and Dessalines wanted to rid the country of the French and progress towards independence.
Having finally defeated the French in late 1803, Dessalines published a declaration of independence on 1 January 1804, abolishing the colony of Saint-Domingue and creating the world’s first black republic. He renamed the new state ‘Hayti’, the name used by the island’s indigenous Arawak people before colonisation. Dessalines crowned himself Emperor Jacques I of Haiti in October 1804.
 C L R James, The Black Jacobins (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 105.
 Carolyn E Fick, The Making of Haiti (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990), pp. 157–61.
 James, The Black Jacobins, p. 208.
 James, The Black Jacobins, pp. 232–34.
 James, The Black Jacobins, p. 270.
St Marc, le 13 Thermidor, an 1er [31 July 1793]
Dessalines, Général de Division,
au capitaine Bailliot, Commandant de la gendarmerie.
Vous voudrez bien, Citoyen Capitaine, faire mettre en liberté le nommé Jean Gilles, Capitaine à la 7e Brigade coloniale, 3e bataillion [sic], qui se trouve reclamé aujourd’hui, par un capitaine Dumence Forgu[e?] venu pour son élargisement [sic].
Il avoit été mis en prison comme sortant d’un congé dont le terme étoit expiré.
Je vous salue,
St Marc, 13 Thermidor, Year 1 [31 July 1793]
Dessalines, General of Division
To Captain Bailliot, Commanding Officer of the Gendarmerie.
You are requested, Citizen Captain, to order the release of Jean Gilles, Captain of the 7th Colonial Brigade, 3rd Battalion, who is being claimed today by Captain Dumence Forgu [e?] who came for his release.
He [Gilles] had been put in prison as he had overstayed his leave, whose term had expired.
- Article by:
- Yvonne Brewster
- Power and conflict, 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity
The Black Jacobins, by Trinidadian historian C L R James, tells the story of the Haitian Revolution. Director Yvonne Brewster recalls how her groundbreaking production of the play in 1986 contributed to the development of black British theatre.