Of all the public areas in all of the Caribbean honoring the region’s heroes and founding fathers, Le Champs de Mars in downtown Port-au-Prince truly stands out. Here, super-wide boulevards intersect among a series of squares, parks, and broad spaces, each bearing statues of Haiti’s legendary statesmen. Stroll among them and it quickly becomes evident which of these heroes seems to be held in the highest esteem.
Set stoically atop a handsome steed, the statue of Jean-Jacques Desalines bears every bit the exalted “Father Of A Nation” status you’d expect in any similarly-styled larger-than-life depiction of George Washington.
Desalines, though, was nowhere near as revered as The American Cincinnatus.
After leading the final and decisive push toward independence, Desalines appointed himself Governor-General-For-Life of Haiti. Such a gig might appear to lack any chance for upward mobility, but it wasn’t too much longer before his generals promoted him Emperor of Haiti, also a lifetime position, of course.
His time on the throne didn’t go as well as his military career, however.
Desalines ruled with an iron fist, decreeing that everyone either work as laborers in the country’s coffee and sugar plantations, or as soldiers in the military. His brutal enforcement of these decrees made many of his newly-freed countrymen feel like they were still enslaved.
The inevitable coup came just two years into his reign. Various stories abound over how exactly he went down, but needless to say his life and rule came to a rather quick and grisly end.
For more than a generation, Desalines remained reviled, anger over his despotic rule outweighing any positive public sentiment over the key role he played in securing Haiti’s independence.
It wasn’t until the centennial celebration of Haiti’s independence in 1904 that the Desalines name was fully brought back into the good graces of the Haitian people. A new national anthem, La Dessalinienne, debuted, while the first of what would become two statues at Champs de Mars was also commissioned. The second iteration, the one that stands today, was unveiled in 1953.
To this day, Desalines also remains the only person to have a national holiday named in his honor in Haiti. The holiday falls not on his birthday, though. In Haiti, they remember the controversial leader on the day he was killed and removed from power, ensuring, in a way, that the full scope of his legacy is never forgotten… no matter how grand his statue.
Editor’s note: I got to tour around Champs de Mars on my last visit to Haiti in early-December 2017 while staying at the Marriott Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s newest and nicest hotel sits just a few blocks from the area, though walking to Champs de Mars from the Marriott isn’t advisable. What little sidewalk space exists between the two is jammed with locals selling all manner of goods along the road. There’s really just no room to walk until you get to Champs de Mars. Take a taxi then enjoy the sights, history, and local art for sale all throughout the various squares and parks.