As they prepare for this Sunday’s season five finale, fans of the HBO show Game of Thrones have certainly noticed that slavery is alive and well in the Seven Kingdoms. Daenerys Targaryen’s beneficent yet imperial, just yet violent military campaign against the age-old institution of slavery invites viewers to recognize the critical conundrum that any leader wishing to take the moral highroad might face as they lead a people out of slavery. What may be less clear is just how much this extremely sympathetic character’s struggles mirror those of real-world anti-slavery leaders in the Americas. The connection between fact and fiction rings especially true in the case of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806), the revolutionary who declared Haiti’s independence from French rule, the man who boldly swore “eternal hatred of France,” and the leader who determined that only complete separation from “the masters” would ensure freedom for his new subjects.
But first, Daenerys’s predicament: the descendant of overthrown rulers who is forced by an overbearing and power-hungry brother into a political marriage to the leader of a very, very foreign culture, she comes to rule in her own right after her husband dies. And her goal is to rid the world of slavery. Daenerys travels the Seven Kingdoms of the fantastical, medievalizing world she inhabits (created by novelist George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series). With the aid of the dragons she hatched from the eggs given to her as an engagement gift by her late husband, she goes about abolishing slavery in each of the cities she conquers. This wins her the loyalty of the multitude and allows her to amass a truly impressive and dedicated army. Wide shots of her forces show an infantry that seems infinite in number.
It is when she decides to settle down for a while, in order to learn to be a ruler and not only a conqueror, that Daenerys’s real problems begin, and that her situation begins to look like that of the earliest ruler of Haiti after its revolution. Shortly after she conquers the city of Meereen, located all too aptly in a region called Slaver’s Bay, she hears that her prior conquest, the city of Yunkai, is experiencing a resurgence of slavery in her absence. It is a most sensible decision for her to stay and rule her latest and greatest conquest.
In Meereen, she faces a question likely as old as slavery: what does one do with one’s enemies once they are conquered? In the case of colonization, Machiavelli tells us, it is easy to pacify most of the conquered people (who have not suffered losses directly) and to oppress those who have suffered directly, those whose lands and homes one has had to take in order to support one’s colonizing forces: “those who are injured, remaining poor and scattered, can never do any harm….” In the case of conquering a land formerly ruled by a single sovereign, “nothing else is to be feared except the family of the prince, and if this is extinguished, there is no longer any one to be feared.” In short, one must read one’s situation in order decide whether to oppress or kill those who were formerly in power in the lands that one has conquered. And if the latter, one must be sure to kill them all. This is the decision that Daenerys Targaryen faces in Meereen: but she is an extraordinarily ethical ruler, and she chooses neither to oppress the former masters nor to kill them. Instead, she tries to set up a society in which former masters and slaves live and work side by side as equals.
Game of Thrones forces its viewers to deal with the magnitude of the question of the relationship between past injustices, their perpetrators, and a society’s future well-being when in Season 5, episode 9 [aired June 7, 2015] the former masters attempt to assassinate Daenerys during a long-awaited tournament. The masked masters viciously attack from every side, and Daenerys is saved only by the unyielding bravery of her retinue. When it seems all hope is lost, Daenerys closes her eyes and lifts her head toward the heavens. The regular viewer knows that she is summoning Drogon, the only one of her dragon children who roams free. With a roar and an aura of flame, he triumphantly enters the arena and spews fire against the attackers who surround his mother. He battles fiercely, but there are too many masters. The spears they hurl at him find their mark and begin to take their toll. Daenerys approaches her dragon child—carefully, he is not the predictable ugly-cute dragon baby he once was—and, using all her strength, she starts to remove the spears one by one. She surveys the scene and realizes Drogon will never leave her in danger, and he will die fighting if he stays. Cautiously, fearfully, but without another choice, she climbs up onto his back. She whispers in his ear, “Fly.” She hangs on as he charges through the mêlée, gains speed, and obtains lift. Daenerys and her dragon spiral up and out of the arena while everyone below, friend and foe, looks on in awe. The show suggests, at least at this point, that she should have killed all the masters while she had the chance. They were not to be trusted; the moral peaceful society of Daenerys’s imagination will not come to fruition from kind leadership. Violence seems necessary.
Now to real-life Dessalines. The Haitian Revolution began in 1791, when the enslaved of the French colony of Saint-Domingue rose up and demanded their freedom. After two years of bloody struggle, administrators in the colony abolished slavery. Paris soon followed suit and the institution was eliminated in all French colonies in 1794. France still often prides itself on being the first colonial power to abolish slavery. But, just as Daenerys’s fictional story grips millions of modern viewers each week with its cliffhangers and messily intertwined storylines, Dessalines’s true story also refuses to conclude neatly.
At the end of the 18th century, Napoleon came to power and decided to reestablish slavery. After all, Saint-Domingue had been the most profitable colony in the world. The whole of the land sold in the Louisiana Purchase was not as valuable to him as were his island territories. The largest French military expedition ever sent over such a long distance, led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law, set out to reclaim this money-making colony. The newly crowned emperor hoped that the masters would rise again.
And they did—in more ways than one. France reestablished slavery in its colony of Guadeloupe in 1802. Haitians saw an example of what their future might be if the masters were not defeated. The Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803), who negotiated with the French, was captured and died in a cell in the Jura Mountains of France, a secret prisoner of the state. In his absence, Dessalines, a former slave, rose to power in what would soon be Haiti. What would Dessalines do in the face of slavery’s return? The masters had proven themselves unworthy of trust.
After defeating the French at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803, Haitians declared their independence from their former colonizers and masters. At this point, slavery had been abolished for nearly a decade, but had reared its ugly head again. Those who had believed in France’s promise of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” had had their hopes dashed. Dessalines had been witness to the hollowness of the masters’ promises over and over again. His solution was to create an independent nation in the hopes that putting a national barrier between Haiti and France might ensure that the masters never returned to power.
Dessalines invited the masters to “tremble” as they neared their former colony. If “the memory of those cruelties they perpetrated” was not enough to make them tremble, then the threat of death would do (Declaration of Independence). As head of state, Dessalines ordered the massacre of the remaining planters and their families in the very first years of Haiti’s independence. To go along with our comparison, think of it this way: Unlike Daenerys, he murdered the masters. And this has colored the way that Haiti is viewed, even today. As historian Laurent Dubois writes, “There were always those who painted Louverture, and indeed all black leaders in Haiti, as little more than dangerous savages. Yet Dessalines incited a kind of representational fury in many that went beyond what was directed at Louverture. The vision of Dessalines as a violent leader, one bent on revenge and carnage, emerged in the 1790s, solidified in the 1800s, and in many ways is still with us—both in Haiti and outside it.”
The similarities between Daenerys’s and Dessalines’s positions are many. What makes us wish on Sunday nights that fictional Daenerys had indeed murdered the masters? We want retribution for past injustice. We fear that Daenerys might be too moral to lead effectively. We are ready, even eager, to recognize that ending slavery is no easy task, and that violence might be helpful, even necessary. Now, let’s think about real-life Haiti. What might make us recoil at the actions of real-life Dessalines? Sure, Daenerys is more beautiful; her world is enjoyably imaginary; and she’s blond and fair to boot. There is, however, a lesson in Daenerys’s story that can change our modern outlook on Haiti, and, more broadly, on slavery’s reality and its continued impact. There are lessons in the comparison between Daenerys and Dessalines that put into perspective contradictory reactions to their methods: it goes beyond her beauty and fictiveness, and it goes beyond his blackness and reality.
Slavery troubles our sense of morality, and it cuts across our sense of time. In a world heavily dependent on slave labor, as was that of Dessalines, an anti-slavery leader was not considered a person of high moral standing, as we moderns now see Daenerys. The world was shocked, horrified even, to learn of an independent nation dedicated to the abolition of slavery—one led by the formerly enslaved! The magnitude of this sea-change has contributed to the interpretation of the Haitian Revolution, along with the French Revolution, as a harbinger of modernity: the world really would never be the same. Indeed, slavery has been called ‘medieval’ by more than one black thinker on slavery and race in the Americas. At the same time, we know that slavery, in forms ranging from global sex-trafficking to the racial inequalities rampant in the American justice system, has not ceased to be in our supposed modernity.
When the question of what to do with the former masters pervades a historical event that is widely considered to usher in modernity and displace pre-modernity and it also pervades a very modern, very popular filmic text that fantasizes about the Middle Ages, perhaps we should ask ourselves if the divide between the Middle Ages and modernity is really all that stable or even all that relevant. When slavery troubles our sense of morality, as it does with both Daenerys and Dessalines, it also troubles our sense of time. Nevertheless, when we watch Game of Thrones from our modern perches, it is all too easy to consider medieval Daenerys moral and progressive, a woman ahead of her time, modern like us.
Dessalines’s efforts were not widely considered moral. And what’s more, they didn’t really stop the masters from their oppressive ways. The French sent envoys to negotiate retaking the former colony and they maintained financial control in the form of an indemnity agreed upon in 1825. From 1838 to 1947, former slaves and their descendants paid former masters and their descendants billions upon billions of dollars. The money has never been returned. Haitians paid in blood and capital for their fragile freedom.
If there’s a message in this comparison for us moderns, for us Game of Thrones fans, for those of us fortunate enough to be entertained by a story of slavery’s refusal to die, it is that this transition, either real or fictive, has never been an easy one. Daenerys is at a loss. The moral highroad leads her into a chaotic mêlée that she barely escapes with her life. Dessalines, on the other hand, took revenge and didn’t escape with his life. He could not, however, kill all his enemies, as Machiavelli advises—maybe he should have never tried. Or, maybe it was the only choice. As we cheer on Daenerys, might we find new sympathy for Dessalines? for Haiti? We hope so, especially since Dessalines had no dragon.
 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. L. Ricci (London: Grant Richards, 1903), 8.
 Machiavelli, 15.
 William and Mary Quarterly, July 2012, 543.