For Women's History Month, we feature leading figures such as Sesil Fatima, Sanite Belair and Défilée, who played prominent roles in the shaping of the first free black Republic.
The prominent role of African and Native women in the shaping of global history continues to be silenced and marginalized by those who market the master narrative — whether they are Eurocentric scholars, public intellectuals, feminists or womanists. The marketing of the master narrative dictates that the global contributions of African and Native women are either insignificant or chimerical. As the linchpin of Haiti’s economy, politics, and culture, African and Native women played a preeminent role in the founding and shaping of Haiti.
Anacaona (the Golden Flower) is considered the primordial founder of Haiti. As Haiti’s first heroine, Anacaona was the supreme Caciques (chief/leader) who ruled (over the island which is now known as) Haiti and Dominican Republic by the time Columbus and his “wrecking” crew arrived. Anacaona and her husband Caonabo had intense battles with the Spaniards that ultimately led the Spaniards, under Nicola De Ovando, to capture her under the pretense of peace. They later executed her by hanging, at the age of 29. In Caribbean History: From Pre-colonial Origins to the Present, Dr. Tony Martin states “They tricked the female cacique Anacaona and eighty of her chiefs into a large building when they came to welcome the Spaniards. The Spaniards burnt them to death and killed as many of the Arawaks still outside the building as they could. They spared Anacaona the flames and hanged her instead as a special favor.”
Given the constant terror and habitual violence, along with the system of encomienda and repatimientos as imposed by the Spaniards, the native population quickly became victims of a vicious genocidal process. According to Dr. Eric Williams, in his book, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, since the arrival of Columbus, the native population in Haiti and Dominican Republic declined from about 300,000 in 1492 to less than 500 by 1548. Nonetheless, the fierce resistance, brilliant leadership, and military genius of our ancestral heroine, Anacaona, was followed by other courageous and distinguished women of color in Haiti.
Cécile Fatiman (Sesil Fatima)
One of the female warriors who incorporated the ancestral spirit and courage of Anacaona, was Cécile Fatiman (Sesil Fatima). Sesil Fatima was a Haitian manbo, Vodou priestess. Fatima, along with Boukman Dutty, led and organized the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman — which charged the enslaved Africans to continue the Haitian Revolution, as ignited by Neg Yosef (Francois Makandal) during the 1750′s. Historians claimed that Fatima was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a white Corsican man. Nonetheless, during the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman, Fatima became possessed by the goddess Erzulie – the lwa of love, beauty, jewelry, dancing, luxury, and flowers. A week after the ceremony, about 1,800 plantations were destroyed, along with the death of roughly 1,000 whites. Fatima married General Louis Michel Pierrot, who fought under General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, at the Battle of Vertieres. General Pierrot later became a Prince under King Henri I (Christophe) of Haiti, and the 7th President of Haiti. With the spirit of Erzulie guiding her, Sesil Fatima lived until the age of 112 at Le Cap.
Suzanne Belair (Sanite Belair)
Suzanne Belair (Sanite Belair), one of the great heroines of the Haitian Revolution was born an affranchi in L’Artibonite, Haiti during 1781. Unprecedented at that time, Sanite Belair was a revolutionary and sergeant in General Toussaint Louverture’s army. Belair organized and led the majority of revolutionary battles against the French enslavers in her hometown of L’Artibonite. Like Anacaona, Belair was captured by General Charles Leclerc of France. General Leclerc’s firing squad executed her second husband, General Charles Belair, while Sanite Belair was decapitated because of her gender. On October 5, 1802, her bravery was showcased at her execution as she boldly refused to wear a blindfold for her beheading. An authentic fighter for freedom, sovereignty, and equality, Blair demanded to be executed by a firing squad like her husband and other male soldiers. Prior to her execution, Sanite Belair’s last words were “Viv libète anba esklavaj!” (Long live liberty, down with slavery!) Words that seem rarely spoken today, by both men and women of color.
Catherine Flon, a Haitian nurse and military strategist, heard those words spoken by Sanite Belair, and ran with it. As the goddaughter of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, she is best known in Haiti as the heroine who sewed the first Haitian Flag in Archaie, which became a national symbol of Haitian freedom and sovereignty. In 1803, Dessalines rejected the French flag and created the first Haitian flag by excluding the white portion of the French flag. By May 18, 1803, Flon completed the designed for the Haitian flag. Every May 18, Haitians throughout the world celebrate Haitian Flag Day. By 2000, the likeness of Catherine Flon was displayed on the 10 Gourdes.
Other prominent women in the founding and shaping of Haiti include Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére (Marie-Jeanne), Victoria Montou (Toya), Marie Claire Félicité Guillaume Bonheur (Claire Heureuse), and Défilée-La-Folle (Marie Sainte Dédée Bazile). Marie-Jeanne was a soldier in the Haitian army who fought in the Battle of Crete-a-Pierrot in 1802. Leading by example, Marie-Jeanne often inspired her male counterparts to battle with her intelligence and intrepidity. Due to her uncanny military temerity along with her beauty, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines had a strong veneration and attraction to Marie-Jeanne. Some historians claim that Dessalines and Marie-Jeanne were involved in a relationship.
Toya was Dessalines’ aunt and a brilliant soldier in his army, who gave directives to male soldiers while leading them to battle during the Haitian Revolution. Toya was an enslaved African who labored on the plantation with her prominent nephew prior to the Haitian Revolution. At her death, Emperor Dessalines mandated a state funeral with the procession of eight sergeants along with his empress, Marie Claire Félicité Guillaume Bonheur.
Marie Claire Félicité Guillaume Bonheur (Claire Heureuse)
Born free to a poor family in 1758 at Leogane, Haiti, Marie Claire Félicité Guillaume Bonheur (Claire Heureuse) was the Empress of Haiti and wife of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines. She is noted for saving many whites from Dessalines’ retribution. She is also noted for her work during Dessalines’ siege of Jacmel in 1800 where she managed to assist and feed wounded soldiers, women, and children. Impressed by her intelligence, beauty, and organizational skills. Dessalines married Claire Heureuse on October 21, 1801. By October 8, 1804, at the Church of Champ-de-Mars, she became Empress of Haiti. Two years later, with the assassination of Emperor Dessalines in 1806 along with the confiscation of all of his wealth and worldly possessions, she lived an impoverished life until her death on August 8, 1858 in Gonaives. A woman of great courage and pride (she refused the offer of King Henry I of Haiti to reside with his family and a pension from Emperor Faustin I of Haiti), Marie Claire Félicité Guillaume Bonheur lived to be 100 years old.
In his lectures, the late Dr. Edward Scobie, author of the Global African Presence, often praised Défilée-La-Folle (Marie Sainte Dédée Bazile) as one of the most significant figures of the Haitian Revolution. Défilée was born an enslaved Haitian who lost several of her sons during the Haitian Revolution. She was a strong supporter of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his policies. After the unfortunate assassination of Dessalines, Défilée, on her own accord, collected Dessalines’ body and buried him at Cimetière Intérieur in Port-au-Prince.
Special Note from the author: It is my hope that this important component of Haitian history does not remain buried. As the next generation of scholars, intellectuals, and revolutionaries, we are obligated to unearth the global contributions of African and Native women, not only in Haiti, but throughout the world.
Dr. Patrick Delices is a Haitian scholar who taught the History of Haiti, Caribbean Politics, African-American Politics, and African-Caribbean International Relations at Hunter College; and served as a research fellow at Columbia University for the late, Pulitzer Prize-writing historian, Manning Marable. Patrick Delices is currently working on a book regarding the global impact of the Haitian Revolution.