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. For Bélair, overthrowing France and freeing all people of color and Black people in Haiti was a priority from the very beginning.
In 1796, shortly after the start of the revolution, 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 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.