By Louise Gay
Marie-Claire Bonheur was born in 1758 in Saint-Domingue, then a French colony in the Caribbean. She was raised by her aunt, governess of a neighbouring religious order.
For more than a century, the French had settled in the region and successfully developed there the culture of sugar cane: by the late 1780s, around 3/4 of the world production came from the island.
But behind this economic logic, the human reality was atrocious: in the colony, about 30 000 white settlers ruled over 500 000 black slaves.
While Marie-Claire was married to Pierre Lunic (d. 1795), a wheelwright, she certainly witnessed the conflicts that arose in the island after the beginning of the Revolution of 1789.
In 1791, a slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture, a freedman, triggered the start of long military operations involving whites, blacks and mixed-race, republicans and royalists, as well as England and Spain – then neighbouring colonial powers.
This was the start of what would be later known as the Haitian Revolution. It was during the siege of Jacmel in the spring of 1800 that Marie-Claire, by helping the wounded, met Jean-Jacques Dessalines, lieutenant of Louverture.
They married in April 1800, about a year before the island’s autonomy was proclaimed – although officially Saint-Domingue was to remain French. After defeating a Napoleonic expeditionary force in 1802-1803, Dessalines took over the island after Toussaint’s death.
On the 1st of January 1804, he proclaimed Saint-Domingue an independent state, renamed Haiti – the first black state born from of a former European colony. In September, Jean-Jacques and Marie-Claire became the first emperor and empress of Haiti.
During the successive massacres of the remaining white settlers, Marie-Claire is described by the Haitian historian of the 19th century Thomas Madiou as being opposed to the brutal policies of her husband.
She would have provided for the needs of the prisoners and saved some people by hiding them and organising their escape.
After Dessalines’ deposition and murder in 1806, Marie-Claire continued to help French families and remained on the island until her death much later in 1858.
David Nicholls, “Race, couleur et indépendance en Haïti (1804-1825),” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (1954-) 25.2 (1978): 177-212
Jean-Pierre Le Glaunec, L’armée indigène. La défaite de Napoléon en Haïti (Montreal: Lux Éditeur, 2014)
Thomas Madiou, Histoire d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: J. Courtois, 1847).