The Haitian Revolution, which erupted from slave revolts in August 1791 and ended with the Declaration of Independence in January 1804, culminated in the violent eradication of the French Antillean colony Saint Domingue, the abolition of slavery in the territory, and the founding of Ayiti, the first free black republic in the world: as historical event, it is arguably one of the most important moments in American hemispheric history, if not in the modern world. Revolutionary heroes—Boukman Dutty, Biassou, Jean-François, Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and Alexandre Pétion—and their nemeses, or French military antagonists—Napoléon Bonaparte, General Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc, and General Donatien Rochambeau—have dominated the historiography of the era. Culturally, the heroic gestures of the revolution also inspired European and American artists and writers throughout the nineteenth century, as a small but important wealth of literature reflecting on the Haitian revolutionary heroes attests.
Revolutionary heroines, however, have remained obscured within literary, historiographical, and even hagiographical narratives from this era, despite the fact that the impact of the Haitian Revolution was felt, as historian David Geggus writes, “from the Mississippi Valley to the streets of Rio.” One exception among a few others, though her origins still remain obscure, may be Dédée Bazile, more popularly known as Défilée-la-folle, or Défilée the Madwoman. To Arlette Gautier’s lament in Les Soeurs de solitude that women who fought in the Haitian Revolution “have remained nameless except for Sanite Belair, Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière for Saint-Domingue and the mulatto Solitude in Guadeloupe,” Joan Dayan ripostes in Haiti, History, and the Gods that both Madiou’s Histoire d’Haïti and Ardouin’s Etudes sur l’histoire d’Haïti “mention women during the revolution”: “Not only the fierce Sanite Belair, who refused to be blindfolded during her execution, and Marie-Jeanne Lamartinière, who led the indigenes in the extraordinary Battle of Crête-à-Pierrot, and Défilée, but also Claire Heureuse (her real name was Marie Claire Félicité Guillaume Bonheur), the wife of Dessalines, who saved many of the French he had ordered massacred.” For Dayan, women’s presences, like their absences, are rich with suggestive possibilities: when and where women are evoked in the revolutionary historiographies, the historians often do so to reify their bodies, minds, and creative contributions within patriarchal notions of history, nation, and historical embodiment. As Dayan suggests, “We need to consider how these women are mentioned, [and] how their appearances work within the historical narrative. Their stories are something of an interlude in the business of making history. Bracketed off from the descriptions of significant loss or triumph, the blanches [white women] raped and butchered or the noires [black women] ardent and fearless became symbols for la bonté, la férocité, or la faiblesse (goodness, ferocity, or weakness).” More pointedly, Dayan asks, “What happened to actual black women during Haiti’s repeated revolutions, as they were mythologized by men, metaphorized out of life into legend?”