In 1806, on this day the Haitian rebel leader Dessalines survived an assassination attempt. The nation of Haiti had undergone a brutal past. Its natives had been wiped out by plagues brought by the Spanish, and its primary colonists had been pirates, specifically on the nearby island of Tortuga.
Dessalines Survives Assassination Attempt In 1664, the French West India Company formally claimed the western side of Hispaniola and established a lasting colony. Plantations grew up and prospered from the blood and sweat of African slaves.
When the French Revolution broke out, revolution spread to Haiti as well. Freed black men claimed rights as citizens, and war spread as planters, supported by the British, tried to keep power from the mulattoes. While the slaves gained their freedom amidst the battles, war with France arose as Napoleon moved to reconquer Haiti and rule eastern Hispaniola directly. Much of Napoleon's expedition was destroyed by disease, and the vicomte de Rochambeau fought brutal tactics of tit-for-tat atrocities with the rebel leader Dessalines until the final Battle of Vertiéres in 1803 led to French surrender.
Dessalines continued to maintain power after the war from republican ideals and even proclaimed himself Emperor Jacques I of Haiti on October 6, 1804. He went about a pogrom of massacre on the whites of the island early in his rule. Planters and the white upper class fled or faced brutal execution, leaving behind the class of gens de couleur, wealthy, darker skinned freed men, as the higher class of the island. While many called for republican reform, Dessalines held his power and imposed a system of tyranny, practical slavery, to keep the sugar and coffee plantations running to pay for the new government.
Conspiracies began to rise up against Dessalines. He had served the country well, but now he had grown consumed by his power. Henri Christophe, a military subordinate to Dessalines, began a revolt in the north with his own autocracy while gens de couleur leader Alexandre Pétion worked to champion democracy in the south. On October 17, 1806, Dessalines began the march out of Port-au-Prince where he had been containing the ideals of Pétion to put down by force the rebellion of Christophe. An ambush sprung around him, but Dessalines managed to dodge assassins' bullets, rally his men, and route the assailants.
The march to the north crushed Pétion's rebellion. While he exacted victory, Dessalines pondered how it could be that his beloved Haitians would rise up against him in an attempt of assassination. He was a hard man of sharp discipline, but that had been what allowed the defeat of Rochambeau in the fight for independence. He demanded a great deal from his people, but government was expensive, and an economy crippled without forced workers would reduce the island to poverty and anarchy.
Dessalines returned to Port-au-Prince with a parade in his honor. He met with Pétion (whom he would later execute as a member of conspiracy) and took a good deal of republican advice. Launching into a new propaganda campaign, Dessalines related to the people how hard work was necessary and vowed to ensure that payment returned to the people. The elected bureaucracy expanded to meet needs of food, clean water, housing, and health, and taxes could be paid in cash or by "voluntary" work on the state plantations. Meanwhile, Dessalines worked to fix the fear and anger of the people upon differing targets, which had worked well against the French and later all whites. He turned against the Spanish Empire, then against the "terror" of the Dominicans to the east. Later invasion would unify the island once again in 1822.
The emperor died in 1827 and was succeeded by Jean Pierre Boyer, Emperor Jean I, who would rule until his overthrow in 1843. While many hoped for a return to the liberal ideals of the revolution, the rule of the state had become ingrained over generations. Strong government held the island, working to keep Santo Domingo united under Haiti and forcing internal improvements through construction projects and public factories. For centuries to come, the island of Hispaniola would be viewed at times as a model of stability and productivity for Latin America while at other times a tropical Orwellian police state.