Another edition of Haiti History 101…Lesson 25
One of the most admired heroes of Haiti, it was said that Christophe, a former waiter at a cafe in Cap Haitian, was actually not born in Grenada (some have even said St. Kitts), and came to Haiti as a teenager. The summary of a pamphlet that was done in 1816 (below) stated that he was born in St. Kitts, and his father was from Grenada, so naturally we’ll go with that version! Christophe was not only part of the fight for Haitian independence, but was among the volunteer soldiers who fought at the Battle of Savannah for U.S. Independence in 1779 under Admiral D’Estaing.
After the death of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti became divided into two sectors, the north (including La Tortue, La Gonâve) being ruled by Christophe, who declared himself president in 1807 with mostly black subjects, and the rest of Haiti ruled by Sabès Alexandre Pétion, with mostly mulattoes as subjects.
Henri Christophe declared himself King Henri I in April of 1811, and gave several of his associates nobility titles. The kingdom, according to Williams Wells Brown in his book The Black Man His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, consisted of 2 princes, 7 dukes, 22 counts, 35 barons, and 19 chevaliers. Le Cap, previously known as Cap Français, was renamed Cap Henri. Wells Brown described the pomp and circumstance of the crowning of King Henri the First by Corneil Breuil, the Archbishop of Milot with one simple sentence: “His coronation was the most magnificent displayed outside of Europe.”
Louis Pompé-Valentin de Vastey became Baron de Vastey. Vastey had the honor of being King Henri’s official historian, and when Haiti was being slandered and ridiculed overseas (especially by France, which at this point was still hoping to recapture Haiti, and was threatening a naval invasion, assisted with other European powers!), Vastey wrote several eloquent books that effectively counteracted the vicious bashing.
Henri was in major awe of the British, and though it was said that he could only write his name, he began a kingdom-wide campaign to educate his subjects, and hired teachers from England. He hired educators and other experts from Europe to come to Haiti. Dr. Duncan Steward, Christophe’s personal doctor was from Scotland, and remained with Christophe loyally.
Christophe’s biggest achievement turned out to be a splendorous castle that he built, complete with a fort in Cap Haitian (in case the darling French made their threats to take back Haiti as it was frequently discussed in the court of Louis XIVIL) that came to be known as La Citadèlle Laferrière.
In August of 1820, King Henri suffered a heart attack at mass (he was reportedly an atheist, actually, but that day he decided to pay a church visit). He suffered from paralysis to the point where he couldn’t even climb his own war-horse.
There was a great deal of discontentment in King Henri’s kingdom and outrage over what some perceived as his tyrannical ways, to the point where when he paid his nobles and soldiers (4 pieces of gold each)to fight an uprising in St Marc, they joined with the enemy camp mid-way and begun a march towards Milot to overthrow him. News got to King Henri Christophe, and after saying a last goodbye to his wife Queen Marie-Louise Coidavid, his three sons and two daughters (Françoise-Améthyste and Anne-Athénaë), he locked himself in his royal chambers and shot himself.
In a book written by historian John Relly Beard in 1853 about the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the leaders of Haiti following Toussaint, Beard asserts that upon Christophe’s death, there was some brief speculation that Paul Romain, one of the nobles of the king’s court, would take over the crown, or that Jacques-Victor Henri one of his Christophe’s sons would (as Henri had declared while he was still alive).
But Jean-Pierre Boyer was already marching and rallying forces with him to Au Cap. He rallied the two divided sides of Haiti together and united them.
According to Beard, Christophe’s wife the Queen Marie-Louise Coidavid (probably fearing that his lifeless body would be mistreated by his enemies; some her fears came true, as the palace was looted) gave instructions for the body to be taken to a forest, but according to that same account, days later the body was found half-devoured by animals. Beard’s account is the first I’ve read with this gruesome account, unless I read this somewhere else and forgotten, but being that it was written about 33 or so years after Christophe’s death, it should be given credence. In any case, King Henri Christophe’s remains were laid to rest inside his beloved Citadelle.
Although, Christophe had had one of Boyer’s brothers executed, he took care of Christophe’s widow, and did not commit any vindictive act towards her, as he told one visiting British visitor to Haiti, because he had promised Wilberforce, their mutual friend (if he even had the intention to do her harm at all). According to a 1963 issue of the Black/Negro Digest, King Henri had actually shipped 6 million dollars in gold to the Bank of England in his wife’s name. She and her daughters would later travel to England, and then to Italy, where the Queen and her daughters spent the rest of their lives.
A bullet to the heart. Thus ended the life of King Henri Christophe. Today, his Citadel Laferrière, is still regarded as one of the wonders of the
Ancient World Modern World (thanks reader GroJo), and has retained its importance as a historical artifact, and is the pride of many Haitians. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1982 by the United Nations.
King Henri was the inspiration for the play and movie Emperor Jones by playwright Eugene O’Neil (which was one of the very first acclaimed black movies of the 1930s), and has been the subject of so many books including Black Majesty by John Vandercook written in 1928, and the Cuban novelist Alejandro Carpentier’s The Kingdoms of the World.
Photo: Schomberg Research Center