The Haitian Revolution was one of the most important events in the history of Black people in the Americas: For the first time, slaves rebelled against their slaveowners and were granted independence — an amazing feat that would inspire years of other slave rebellions in other countries.
What most non-Haitians don't know, though — and what history often forgets — is that Haitian women fought alongside men throughout every stage of the revolution, one of the fiercest being Sanité Bélair. A notorious sergeant in Toussaint L'Ouverture's army, Bélair was a valiant fighter until her death at just 21 years old.
Suzanne "Sanité" Bélair was born in Verrettes on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue in 1781, ten years before the revolution began. She was born an affranchi, or a mixed-race free person of color. In French-colonized Haiti, affranchis had distinct social and legal advantages over Black slaves: they could go to school and own both land and slaves.
When the Haitian Revolution began, many affranchis were in favor of maintaining slavery; they cared only about increasing their own political power and gaining the right to vote. For Bélair, though, overthrowing France and freeing all people of color and Black people in Haiti was a priority from the very beginning. She's sometimes thought to be the woman who sacrificed the first pig in 1791 — a Vodou ritual meant to secure spiritual help in overcoming French rule — to initiate the beginning of the war.
In 1796, shortly after the start of the fight for freedom, Sanité married Charles Bélair, who rose to the rank of lieutenant in L'Ouverture's army. Sanité eventually became a sergeant herself, making a name for herself as a fierce, level-headed soldier. She was energetic during battle and showed her enemies no mercy. Though many of Bélair's fellow female soldiers' names have been lost to history, historians do know that lower-ranked female soldiers helped execute revolts, establish underground camps, and poison slaveowners. Vodou priestesses also served a key spiritual role in aiding the revolution.
Bélair was eventually captured by rival troops while fighting French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque's army in 1802. Her husband Charles turned himself in to avoid being separated from her — the ultimate act of loyalty.
The two were brought to Cap-Haïtien, a port city, where they were sentenced to death. Their captors wanted to execute them in two different ways because of their different genders: Sanité was to die by decapitation, while Charles would receive the firing squad. Charles went first; as Sanité watched, he calmly told her to die bravely.
When it was Sanité's turn to die, she insisted on being shot like her husband rather than decapitated. She wanted nothing less than a soldier's death.
Sanité then did something that would become her most famous act of bravery: She refused to be blindfolded during her execution. Her last words? "Viv libète, anba esklavaj," meaning "Long live liberty, down with slavery!”
In 2004, Sanité was featured on a special edition of Haiti's 10 gourd banknote, becoming the second woman ever to appear on the country's currency. Though she lived no more than two decades, Sanité remains one of the few female soldiers who is known by name as a hero of the Haitian Revolution.