Christophe, Henri (1767–1820)

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Christophe, Henri (1767–1820)

Henri Christophe (b. 6 October 1767; d. 8 October 1820), president of the State of Haiti (1806–1811) and king (1811–1820). In the inky darkness of a mountain night, an exhausted entourage of royalty and servants led by Queen Marie-Louise reached the outer gates of the fortress of Citadelle la Ferrière. Once inside the compound, two royal aides hurriedly looked for shovels and a place to dispose of their cargo, an unshrouded body in a hammock. Finally, unable to inter the cadaver in suitable fashion, they simply dumped their cargo into a pile of quick lime and left. Later Haiti would entomb the remains on this site with the occupant's own prepared epitaph: "I shall be reborn from my ashes."

Always the showman, Henri Christophe left Haitians with the fear that he just might return. He had cleverly built a personal mythology to buttress his tyrannical rule of the northern State of Haiti. Historian James Leyburn called Christophe Haiti's best nineteenth-century ruler, which he was. And Simon Bolívar might have been thinking of Christophe when he stated in his Jamaica Letter (1815) that Latin America needed strong, paternalistic rulers who would govern for life and who would educate and guide their people to assume democratic responsibilities.

Born a slave on Grenada, Christophe became the property of a ship captain and then the chattel of Saint-Domingue sugar planter Master Badechi, who soon put him to work at Couronne, a hostelry in Le Cap François. In 1778 Christophe served as a slave orderly for the French at Savannah, Georgia, where he suffered injury. In 1790 in northern Saint-Domingue he rode with a dragoon unit that suppressed the rebellion of Vincent Ogé (1755?–1791). It is probable that by this time Christophe had become a free black. He cherished his British origins, always gave the English spelling, "Henry," and chose George III for hero worship.

When Toussaint L'ouverture joined the French in 1794, Christophe's military career had been languishing, as he had attained only the rank of captain of the infantry at the garrison of Le Cap François. But Toussaint recognized in the young officer the qualities of good leadership. Christophe served his commander well in the La Petite-Anse district, where he and Colonel Vincent introduced the fermage (system of forced labor and government management) to maintain the plantation system. Under this profit-sharing plan, laborers had to surrender a great deal of personal freedom and submit to corporal punishment. Toussaint was impressed and used the scheme widely across Saint-Domingue. In 1799 Christophe, by then a colonel, commanded the garrison at Le Cap François and would later join Toussaint in crushing the Moyse Rebellion (October 1801).

When the expedition of General Charles Leclerc reached Haiti from France, Christophe at first fought well by torching Le Cap François and moving to the interior. But then came an unexpected event, Christophe's surrender to the French on 26 April 1802, and his agreement to command a French unit under General Jean Hardy. Ralph Korngold has argued that Christophe betrayed Toussaint, but his belief is not shared by biographer Hubert Cole. Christophe himself defended his action by saying that he was tired of living like a savage. In October 1802, he deserted the French and joined the rising tide of black rebels opposed to the restoration of slavery.

In February 1807, Christophe was angered when the mulatto-dominated assembly at Port-au-Prince handed him a weakened presidency. There followed a civil conflict in which Christophe ruled the State of Haiti in the north and Alexandre Pétion and a mulatto clique governed the Republic of Haiti in the south.

From the beginning of his rule, Christophe pursued an effective social policy. He hired English teachers to establish a system of national schools. He demanded that his subjects have church marriages. On this issue he often wandered about the countryside looking for wayward lovers. If they suffered his apprehension, their fate was an altar and a priest. He even tried to impose desirable personal habits upon his people. The Royal Dahomets, his special African police force, inspected Haitians for neatness and honesty. They tested this second quality by dropping a wallet and other valuables in a public place, hiding, and then arresting any culprit who found the items without making a police report. Public awe of Christophe grew as his subjects often sighted him attended by an aide with a telescope. Popular rumor maintained that Christophe saw all and punished all.

Economically, Christophe followed Toussaint's maintenance of the plantation system without slavery. But Christophe did break up some of the large estates late in his rule and sold the parcels to small farmers, a point Hubert Cole believes other historians may have missed. To further his economic plans, Christophe became King Henry I on 28 March 1811. Surrounding his crown was a new Haitian nobility. To them he gave generous land grants and pompous titles. To him they gave loyalty and maintained prosperous plantations.

On 8 October 1820 a dying Christophe committed suicide at his plush palace, Sans Souci. Faithful followers carried his body to Citadelle La Ferrière, the great monument to black work skills, which Christophe had constructed during his rule. Their monument was fittingly his last resting place.

See alsoHaiti .


W. W. Harvey, Sketches of Haiti (1827).

C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938).

James Leyburn, The Haitian People (1941).

Ralph Korngold, Citizen Toussaint (1944).

Hubert Cole, Christophe: King of Haiti (1967).

Thomas O. Ott, The Haitian Revolution, 1789–1804 (1973).

David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti (1979).

Additional Bibliography

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

Fick, Carolyn. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

Geggus, David Patrick, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Geggus, David Patrick, ed. Haitian Revolutionary Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

                                        Thomas O. Ott

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Christophe, Henri (1767–1820)

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