This song is important because it is part of the oral record of how the Haitian people contributed to making human rights universal. A key figure in that transformation of the world was Dessalines. The song is about one element of Dessalines' contribution to the Revolution.
Stating that Dessalines came from the north is not a statement regarding his place of birth. Rather it is a statement about where he first arose as a leader. Based on newly found plantation records, it is now known that Dessalines worked on the Cormier plantation in the north for at least several years before the onset of the Revolution. During the Revolutionary War, he was most active around Marchand Dessalines and Gonaives.
Considering that more than three quarters of the population of Haiti at the time of the Revolution had been born in Africa, there is a high probability that Dessalines was born in Afrik Ginen. On the other hand, most of the earlier rulers of the Haitian Revolution were Creoles. Under the colonial system, Creoles were preferentially placed in leadership positions on the plantations. Many Creole leaders used their privileged positions to organize the Revolution. Once after the Revolution began, Africans with military experience organized their own groups and became a major force in moving the Revolution forward. There were many ethnic army divisions like Ibo, Nago, and Kongo divisions which often collaborated but also acted independently.
Dessalines rose to prominence in Toussaint Louverture's army. Whether, like Toussaint, he was a Creole is unknown. No birth certificates were kept of the enslaved population. If indeed Dessalines were African, perhaps he was promoted in Toussaint Louverture's army to give that army credibility among the large African population. Meantime, we really do not know where he was born, but that has not prevented many legends from being told about the day and the site of his birth. At present, like the song says, we know that Dessalines' influence in Haitian affairs did spread across the country, from north to south. In this sense, it is true Desalin sòti lan nò, meaning Dessalines came from the north.
Despite adversity, Dessalines survived to help give birth to the Haitian nation, the first modern nation to proclaim the universal rights of men and women, and to broaden the definition of democracy to include all men and women within a society. This free nation was a confederation of ethnic groups mostly from Africa with about 5% from Europe.
Haiti’s birth required weapons to fight the well equipped armies of the French, English, and Spanish who wanted to profit from free labor. This song thanks Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines for distributing some of the weapons that helped to ensure victory in the Revolution. The song does not call Dessalines by name. It says General, but the General is Dessalines. His identity is revealed in this related song:
Dessalines sòti lan nò Dessalines came from the north Li pote wanga nibo And brought us weapons Wanga bon pou touye-rache Weapons are good for eradicating and uprooting Wanga bon pou touye-rache Weapons are good for eradicating and uprooting
The Jeneral Sòti lan Nò song thanks Dessalines in his capacity as an army leader. He is referred to as General and not as Papa or Emperor, which are other popular ways of referring to him. In the song, the people thank Dessalines for bringing weapons to them. Indeed, after momentarily joining Leclerc's forces in 1802, Dessalines was placed in charge of disarming the population. Leclerc grew suspicious of him, fearing that Dessalines was using his position of prominence within the French army to distribute rather than to collect weapons.
The song supports Leclerc's worst fear and says that Dessalines brought wanga nibo. Wanga is a Kongo word for empowering object or amulet. In this song, the empowering object allows for the elimination of Jean Pierre who is presumably a threat to Dessalines and/or to the Revolution. Nibo is an Ibo word meaning here. Nibo has different meanings depending on which West African language its use is adapted. In the Gedevi-Dahomey language, nibo appears to be derived from Ni Bo. Ni means to launch and bo means amulet or wanga. In short, Nibo is a Gedevi Dahomean translation of the Kongo word wanga. This may explain why Gede as the Guardian Spirit who has power over life and death is also called Gede Nibo. In Nago, Nibo means large and grand. Restricting our use of the word to its Nago meaning, wanga nibo could mean great weapons and Gede Nibo would mean Grand Gede.
Some people say wanga nivo instead of wanga nibo. Nivo is a Creole pronunciation for new, and so however it is said, the overall meaning of the song does not change. Wanga nivo would mean a new type of weapon. Commonly, Vodou songs restrict themselves to non-Creole words from one African nation. This common practice would favor the Ibo definition of the word Nibo in the song and with that, wanga nibo would mean that the weapons were brought here. Also favoring an Ibo interpretation of the word is that when the song is played, drummers accompany it with the Haitian Ibo beat reminding us that the song is as much a tribute to the Ibo peole, as it is a tribute to Dessalines.
It is not clear to us who Jean Pierre is. Jean Pierre may have been a rival of Dessalines. He may have been a person who represented a threat to Haitian liberation. Since the song is about Dessalines, a high-ranking official, we expect that Jean Pierre is most likely a competitor of similar rank. This Jean Pierre may well have been General Jean Pierre Boyer, an ally of Petion and Rigaud, southern leaders against whom Dessalines and Toussaint fought a brutal war called Lagè Kouto. Fortunately for Jean Pierre, he appears not to have crossed path with Dessaline's wanga nibo.
The people who composed the song and who received these weapons may have been of Ibo ethnicity. The song urges people to bear witness to the weapons that Dessalines brought by saying Ayaman sa , konsa ayaman.Aya is the Ibo word for eye and ayaman means look at. It is not certain whether Dessalines himself was of Ibo ethnicity. Some sources believe that he may have been of Kongo origin. Other Haitian songs link him to the people of Dahomey and to the Nago-Oyo kingdom. Dessalines himself, appears not to have publicized his or his parents' nation of origin. This may have been a strategic decision to avoid alienating the various powerful African army divisions. Whatever may have been his nanchon of origin, General Dessalines was embraced and widely respected by those who joined the confederation to create Haiti.
This song is just one of the many ways that the Haitian people pay tribute to Dessalines who fought alongside our great-grandparents to ensure that we would inherit a better world - a world where everyone can enjoy their human rights.