“‘Almost Postcolonial’: Understanding Jean Jacques Dessalines’ Postcolonial Practices in the new State of Haiti”

“‘Almost Postcolonial’: Understanding Jean Jacques Dessalines’ Postcolonial Practices in the new State of Haiti”

(*** This post is an excerpt from a book chapter I am writing on Dr. Madeleine Sylvain Bouchereau’s brilliant critique of the colonial system and human practices and relations in postcolonial Haiti. In this chapter, I am also interacting with Mocombe’s important book, “Identity and Ideology in Haiti: The Children of Sans Souci, Dessalines/Toussaint, and Petion” [Routledge, 2018]).

“‘Almost Postcolonial’: Understanding Jean Jacques Dessalines’ Postcolonial Practices in the new State of Haiti”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s first postcolonial leader and the Father of the Haitian nation, and the First Emperor in the American continent, was determined to establish a truly postcolonial state in the new nation of Haiti. In fact, he laid the elementary foundations and principles that are grounded on the logic of decoloniality and an anticipated postcolonial life and experience in Haiti; yet the structures and systems of a truly postcolonial state never took roots in Haiti because the colonial remnants and practices were never fully eradicated in the new evolving First Black Republic in the Western world. Correspondingly, decolonial stuctures and practices were never never fully integrated in the country’s political institutions and public policies, as well as in Haiti’s civil and political societies :

  1. Military force and National Safety: Emperor Jean Jacques Dessalines instituted a new army, composed of former valiant warriors of the Haitian Revolution, to protect the new nation against potential new conquests by the country’s old and new enemies.
  2. Structures and Systems: he established the bases for new economic and judicial institutions in the new country that were independent on the slave economic model of the former colonial Saint-Domingue. Yet the postcolonial economic system of Haiti was associated with the agricultural model of Western capitalist economy.
  3. Social order and New regulations: the new postcolonial administration established rigorous regulations to administer the social life and order in the country by beginning with the affirmation of individual rights of property and ownership, as well as equitable public policies regulating trade and commerce, and the civil state and the justice system, the assurance of the rights for “natural” children, the army, and the Haitian culture; yet in various ways, these laws were dependent upon the antecedent colonial judicial system of the Metropole (i.e. France), which have also shaped Haiti’s legislating branch. These new regulations would also influence the meaning and workings of the “new” postcolonial Haitian family; while the state encouraged the traditional marriage, it attempted to decline the old concubinage practice in the country—an ancestral tradition that is still practiced in the contemporary Haitian society, particularly in the country’s countryside—because it somewhat contributed to the economic instability of the traditional family and internal conflict between the spouses and natural and biological children.
  4. Religion and Politics: while the Emperor enacted a new law to protect and keep the colonial French priests in the country, he passed very strict laws regulating the practice of religion in the country and disciplinary actions against the “new clergy” that could potentially serve as agents of France in the new country (It was until the 1960s, President Francois Duvalier would indigenize the Haitian clergy of the Catholic church.) For example, the 1805 imperial Constitution granted rights and authority to the Emperor to nominate and dismiss the clergy. In this case, the state restricted certain aspects of religious freedom and religious expression. Yet the Catholic Church, led by an overwhelmingly colonial French priests, was not respected in the country and thus unable to ensure the moral formation of the Haitian people. That would change, nonetheless, when the Haitian government, under the leadership of President Guillaume Fabre Nicolas Geffrard (806 –1878), in 1860, officially signed the Concordat with the Saint-Siege to assure the establishment of Catholicism as the state religion in Haiti. Interestingly, in the major urban cities and countryside, the Haitian people continued to practice their most dominant ancestral faith, the Vodou religion, tainted with the traditions, rituals, and practices of Roman Catholicism, under the direction of Haitian “houngans” (“priests”). This syncretic tradition would define the Haitian experience in religion for many years to come. It would also influence every religious tradition and faith organization in the country, including the three major religions in Haiti: Vodou, Christianity, and Islam. Also, this syncretic-metissage lifestyle would also shape the Haitian mind and impact Haiti’s intellectual traditions and literary productions.
  5. Colonial Plantations and the Agricultural Sector: the Haitian state, under the leadership of Emperor Dessalines, confiscated colonial plantations, and most of the land became the property of the new state through the adoption of the leasing method, and Emperor Dessalines issued very strict regulations to compel the former slaves to return to cultivating the land. The state policed over both former colonial plantations and the country’s privately-land ownership—which will lead to the immature and anticipated death of the Emperor. The Emperor, driven by an ethics of postcolonial practice and a postcolonial worldview of activism and reparations, distributed land and former privately-owned property to the vulnerable peasants and the marginalized former slave population who were the main engine of (the blossoming of) European economy and Saint-Domingue’s capitalist strength.
  6. The right to a Career and the right to Work: according to the imperial Constitution of 1805, every Haitian citizen should have a trade or craft; those who did not have a trade were forced to work the land. While the new Constitution affirmed the dignity of work and promotes that the Haitian citizen must have a career, it established the rapport between work and national progress, an important postcolonial push that would contribute to the country’s economic strength of this emerging postcolonial nation. This interesting relationship between the state, labor, and the individual suggests that Haitian citizens, although independent, are never autonomous and should never live for their own sake, but for the common good and human flourishing in society. Their individual success is also the success of the new nation-state, the first Black Republic in the Western World.

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