Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines – The heroic actions of the first Empress of Haiti




Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines

Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines was the first Empress of Haiti. She was the wife of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines of Haiti. She was also the first recorded nurse in Haitian history.[1] Empress Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines was known for her charitable acts.[2] During Haiti’s turbulent times, she managed to save countless lives. It is no wonder why her story continues to inspire many Haitians today.

In 1758, Empress Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines was born in Léogâne. She was born into a free black family.[3] Her father was Guillaume Bonheur. Her mother was Marie-Elizabeth Saint Lobelot. She studied under her maternal aunt, Elise Lobelot, who was a governess and housekeeper under the religious order of Saint Domingue.[4] She eventually married Pierre Lunic, a French cartwright who worked for the religious order of Saint-Jean de Dieu in Port au Prince.[5] In 1795, Marie-Claire was widowed at the age of thirty-seven.[6]

During the siege of Jacmel in 1800, Marie-Claire worked tirelessly for the wounded and the starving.[7] She managed to convince Jean-Jacques Dessalines, her longtime lover and a member of the besieging parties, to open some of the roads of Jacmel in order to receive aid.[8] She then gathered women and children and led a procession carrying medicine, food, and clothes back into the city.[9] Then, she arranged for food to be cooked on the streets.[10]

On 2 April 1800, Marie-Claire married Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Jean-Jacques Dessalines was described as a carefree man who loved dancing.[11] Marie-Claire was described to be “merciful, natural, elegant, and cordial.” [12] Marie-Claire’s first act in her marriage was to legitimise the children she had with Jean-Jacques Dessalines before their marriage.[13] They were Marie-Françoise, Celestine, Jeanne, Serine, Albert, Jacques, and Louis.[14] She also adopted Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s four illegitimate children.[15] The couple settled in Marchand, which was Haiti’s first black capital.[16] She shielded the children from violence by eliminating weapons in their home.[17]

Through the months of January to April of 1804, Marie-Claire worked tirelessly to rescue prisoners and save many of them from battle wounds.[18] In the meantime, her husband killed five thousand white people in order to get the French and the Germans off the island.[19] On 1 January 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines ordered Marie-Claire to cook a freedom soup to honour the liberation of the former slaves.[20] In 1804, Haiti was made into a monarchy known as the First Empire of Haiti.[21] Jean-Jacques Dessalines became Emperor, and Marie-Claire was Empress.[22] On 8 October 1804, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Empress Marie-Claire were crowned at the Church of Champ de Mars.[23] On 12 August 1805, Empress Marie-Claire acquired a feast day that coincided with St. Clare of Assisi.[24] Marie-Claire would be the Empress of Haiti for two years.

On 17 October 1806, Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines was assassinated. Empress Marie-Claire was given the title of Princess Dowager. However, all her lands were confiscated, leaving her penniless.[25] Marie-Claire struggled to raise her five surviving children, who were between the ages of seven and seventeen, by herself.[26] During the mass murder of 1809, Princess Marie-Claire hid a French botanist named Michel Etienne Descourtilz under her bed.[27] Princess Marie-Claire also saved the orphaned sisters, Hortense and Augustine Saint-Javier, who were the last white people living on the island.[28] Princess Marie-Claire provided passports for the girls.[29] On 20 August 1809, Princess Marie-Claire sent the girls on a ship from Cap Francais to New York, where their relatives awaited them.[30]

Princess Marie-Claire settled in Saint-Marc, a seaside town on Western Haiti.[31] She constantly struggled with poverty.[32] In 1849, Emperor Faustin I of Haiti offered to increase Princess Marie-Claire’s pension as a sign of respect that she was once an empress.[33] However, Princess Marie-Claire refused Emperor Faustin I’s money.[34] Therefore, Princess Marie-Claire continued to live in poverty until her death.[35] On 8 August 1858, while living with her granddaughter, Princess Marie-Claire died at the Ville de l’Indepence in Gonaïves.

Empress Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines has been known for her acts of benevolence.[36] In honour of her legacy, Dr Bayyniah Bello established the Foundation Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[37] The foundation provided both educational and social support to the victims of the earthquake.[38] There are also many public schools that are named in her honour.[39] Because of her charitable acts, Empress Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines will continue to be a role model and cultural symbol for many people in Haiti.

Sources:

Hall, M. R., Vilsaint, F. (2021). Historical Dictionary of Haiti. NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Louis, F. (December 15, 2015 ). “1. Marie Claire Heureuse Bonheur, infirmière (1758-1858) [1. Marie Claire Happy Happiness, nurse (1758-1858)]”. scienceetbiencommun.pressbooks.pub. Retrieved on 6 February 2023 from https://scienceetbiencommun.pressbooks.pub/haitiennes/chapter/marie-claire-heureuse-bonheur-infirmiere-1758-1858/.

Snodgrass, M. E. (2019). Caribbean Women and Their Art: An Encyclopedia. NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


[1] Louis, 15 December 2015 “1. Marie Claire Heureuse Bonheur, infirmière (1758-1858) [1. Marie Claire Happy Happiness, nurse (1758-1858)]”

[2] Snodgrass, 2019

[3] Snodgrass, 2019

[4] Snodgrass, 2019

[5] Snodgrass, 2019

[6] Snodgrass, 2019

[7] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[8] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021; Snodgrass, 2019

[9] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[10] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[11] Snodgrass, 2019

[12] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021, p. 53

[13] Snodgrass, 2019

[14] Snodgrass, 2019

[15] Snodgrass, 2019

[16] Snodgrass, 2019

[17] Snodgrass, 2019

[18] Snodgrass, 2019

[19] Snodgrass, 2019

[20] Snodgrass, 2019

[21] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[22] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[23] Snodgrass, 2019; Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[24] Snodgrass, 2019

[25] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021; Snodgrass, 2019

[26] Snodgrass, 2019

[27] Snodgrass, 2019

[28] Snodgrass, 2019

[29] Snodgrass, 2019

[30] Snodgrass, 2019

[31] Snodgrass, 2019

[32] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[33] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[34] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[35] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[36] Louis, 15 December 2015 “1. Marie Claire Heureuse Bonheur, infirmière (1758-1858) [1. Marie Claire Happy Happiness, nurse (1758-1858)]”

[37] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[38] Hall and Vilsaint, 2021

[39] Louis, 15 December 2015 “1. Marie Claire Heureuse Bonheur, infirmière (1758-1858) [1. Marie Claire Happy Happiness, nurse (1758-1858)]”






About Lauralee Jacks 174 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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