Christophe, Henri 1767–1820
Henri Christophe 1767–1820
Former king of Haiti
From above, Haiti appears as an emerald isle floating on a sea of aquamarine. The history of the land envisioned by this dazzling description, however, has been one filled with political strife. In the eighteenth century, the island of Saint Domingue (Santo Domingo) was the most economically important French colony, producing more sugar than all the other French colonies combined. The slaves that were forced to work in the sugarcane fields lived a more miserable existence than can be imagined. One person who heeded the call to break the bonds of slavery was a man named Henri Christophe.
Christophe was born on October 6, 1767, on the island of Grenada. It is unclear whether or not he was born into slavery, and not much is known of his youth up until the time he was ten years old. Legend has it that when Christophe was ten, his father sent him to sea as a cabin boy. This short adventure transported him to the island of Santo Domingo, where he became employed at a hotel in Le Cap.
In 1779 Christophe joined with Admiral d’Estaing’s fleet as a part of a black volunteer regiment recruited to aid the cause of U.S. independence. D’Estaing’s unsuccessful attack on Savannah, Georgia, provided Christophe with his first taste of military experience and, reportedly, a wounded leg. After his tour of duty in the United States, Christophe returned to Santo Domingo. Continuing to work his way up at the hotel, within ten years he was made manager. It was during this period that Christophe married Marie-Louise Coidavid.
In 1788 the French National Assembly gave universal franchise to all taxpayers over the age of 25. Mulattos demanded seats and votes in the provincial assembly of Santo Domingo, but the white colonists refused, interpreting the declaration to mean “all white taxpayers.” In 1790 a mulatto named Vincent Ogé raised a regiment of between 300 and 400 men to forcefully claim the rights given by the national assembly. The mulattos won the first struggle, largely because white leaders did not believe the mulattos were serious in their demands; and the whites certainly did not expect a fight.
After the surprise loss of the first skirmish, white leaders raised volunteer troops to put down the rebellion. Christophe is believed to have served as an artillery man and a dragoon in this volunteer force that quelled the rebels. Ogé was hunted down and tortured to death in a public execution.
Born October 6, 1767, in Grenada; committed suicide, October 18, 1820; married Marie-Louise Coidavid, 1793; children: Three sons and two daughters.
Worked variously as a hotel cook, headwaiter, and manager, Le Cap, Santo Domingo. Joined fight for U.S. independence, 1779; fought in military campaign led by Toussaint L’Overture, 1797; appointed commandant of Le Cap, 1799; declared independence of State of Haiti, 1804; elected president of northern territories of Haiti, 1807; declared Haiti a kingdom and crowned King Henri I, 1811; opened military campaign against Alexandre Pétion, ruler of the south, 1812; instituted Royal Chamber of Public Instruction, 1818.
soon allied with Spain, there was threat to Santo Domingo from another quarter: the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica and, even closer, the Spanish colony on the eastern part of the island. During the fight against the Spanish, Christophe became a captain under Toussaint L’Overture. A slave who learned to read and write, L’Overture had risen to leadership because of his education. He recognized Christophe’s talent and quickly promoted him to the rank of major.
During the peacetime that followed the banishment of the British, Christophe was employed in L’Overture’s regime at various jobs. He helped restore plantations to production at far greater levels than before and rebuild the towns that were most important for commerce and protection of the island. Christophe’s most significant task, however, was the training of black troops for future service.
Christophe was L’Overture’s second in command and was in charge of the garrison at Le Cap when General Charles-Victor-Emmanuel LeClerc arrived with his forces from France in 1802. Christophe refused LeClerc permission to land on the island without L’Overture’s consent. Believing that LeClerc was sent by the French government to subdue the black population into their previous condition of servitude, Christophe and L’Overture refused LeClerc authorization to land. LeClerc nevertheless executed a landing a few miles up the coast from Le Cap. Christophe, knowing the French troops outnumbered and were better trained than his own, set fire to Le Cap and retreated from the town with 2,000 white hostages.
LeClerc began a propaganda campaign among the black insurgent troops, promising freedom to all who joined the French cause. The effort was effective, and soon Christophe and other black leaders were left with scant troops to put up a fight. Christophe worked out a deal with LeClerc that allowed black men freedom and for officers, including Christophe and L’Overture, to retain their titles and ranks. After a time, LeClerc accepted the terms, only to arrest L’Overture at the first opportunity. L’Overture was sent to prison in France, where he died in 1803.
Christophe’s answer to LeClerc’s breach of the agreement was to raise new troops to again fight the French. Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded L’Overture as commander in chief, continued the battle for freedom and eventually vanquished the French. Christophe was the senior general in Dessalines’s army—second in command to Dessalines himself—a position Christophe retained in the new government established once the French were removed. But Christophe wanted to be the leader of the government, and he was the natural choice to succeed Dessalines.
After Dessalines’s death, mulatto leaders, including Alexandre Pétion, decreed a constitution for the “Republic” of Haiti. Government authority was given to 24 senate members; Christophe was appointed president for a four-year term. But Christophe was unhappy with this government and attempted a coup d’etat that failed. He seceded from the Republic, and on January 27, 1807, formed a “State” of Haiti, which included the area north of the Montrouis River. Christophe set himself up as dictator of the new state. The former French colony was now divided into a largely black northern territory, ruled by Christophe, and a largely mulatto southern territory under the control of Pétion.
Christophe had a powerful rival in Pétion, who had military skill equal to that of Christophe. In addition, Pétion had received an education, which gave him superiority over uneducated black generals. Both men were in pursuit of a common goal: to solidify control of all of Haiti with himself as ruler of the realm.
Pétion was able to raise a large force against Christophe. The battle between the two armies was brutal and bitterly fought and culminated in Pétion’s making a retreat to his capital of Port-au-Prince. Christophe’s troops were not strong enough to take control of the city and totally destroy Pétion’s power. After a siege was attempted, Christophe returned to Le Cap to solidify his control over the region and institute a stable government. He started by forming a constitution that made every person in the State of Haiti free, abolished slavery forever, and established a council of state with a chief magistrate serving as the head of the government and the military.
While Christophe was establishing his government, Pétion was busy rebuilding and preparing his troops for another attack. There were numerous battles over a period of several years. Sometimes Christophe emerged victorious, other times it was Pétion. The hostilities between Christophe and Pétion finally came to an end after a siege by Christophe on St. Nicholas, a large, important town under Pétion’s control. Though Christophe’s forces won the siege and ended thus ended the fight with Pétion, it was apparent that neither side would emerge totally victorious. Although no treaty or other agreement was made, each camp retained possession of the territories currently under its control, and each leader returned to his seat of government to work on the economy.
With the long period of battles with Pétion over, Christophe had time to consider his government and how to further his authority. He wanted Haiti to be counted among the great nations of the world—for his black nation to be on equal terms with white nations. His solution was to make himself king, thereby taking on all the power and prestige associated with such a title. He suggested the idea to councilmen and advisors, who, after much deliberation, agreed a Haitian royalty and nobility should be established. The decree, issued on March 25, 1811, established not only royalty and nobility, but a monarchy government to be selected by the king from the nobles. Henri I’s coronation took place on June 2, 1811, with all the pomp and pageantry of any European coronation.
Christophe believed in hard work for the people. By introducing a program of paid labor, he soon had his country exporting annually 15 million pounds of sugar, 20 million pounds of coffee, 5 million pounds of cacao, and 4 million pounds of cotton. He also established a stable currency: the valuable gourd. Declaring all growing gourds in the state government property, he had them gathered and then sold to the peasants for produce, which was in turn sold to the British for gold.
Christophe based an education system for his subjects on the British Lancastrian system, which was popular at the time. Christophe’s own education was laborious—he only learned to write his name after becoming an adult, and much of what he knew was mastered by having books read to him. Believing illiteracy to be a weakness, the king wanted better for his subjects. He established six schools throughout the state for traditional education and a trade school to aid citizens in their quest for employment.
Military defenses and royal residences were constructed under Christophe’s direction. The most magnificent of the palaces was in Sans-Souci. Modeled after a Renaissance villa, the structure featured ostentation intended to augment Christophe’s prestige as king. But Henri I’s priciest construction was of his defensive work, La Citadel. The fortress, a reminder of the king’s obsessive fear of French invasion, was constructed atop a mountain to be part of a system of fortification designed to protect the entire population against attack. La Citadel, which stands as a monument to Christophe’s reign, was never used for defense against an invader.
Even with all these seemingly positive accomplishments, Christophe became increasingly intolerable as time passed and soon failed as a leader. In the first years of his reign, he fashioned a temperate and diplomatic government, but his actions became more and more tyrannical. In addition, he had an increasing distrust of his officers and advisors.
Christophe was also faced with the ever-present hostility of the mulattos, who resented their equal status with black citizens and the leadership of a black man. Whether the mulattos were actively planning a revolt or just waiting for an opportune moment is unknown, but such was the state of animosity when Christophe suffered a stroke at a ball held by the queen in August of 1820.
It seemed at first that the king would be unable to recover from such a serious stroke, but after about a month, he was well enough to receive reports on the state of national affairs. He was apprised of a mutiny of troops at St. Marc’s on the western coast that resulted in the death of two officers. Christophe ordered the mutiny leaders to be immediately executed and other mutiny participants to be imprisoned. The troops and officers felt the punishment was unfair without the benefit of an investigation.
Incited to a frenzy, the troops made for the palace at Sans-Souci to assassinate Henri I. The king found out the plan and instructed his guards to hold off the insurgents at all costs. But when the troops arrived, Christophe’s men deserted him for the rebels. Fearing capture and a torturous death, the king ordered his few remaining loyals to leave for safety, then took his own life with a pistol.
Henri Christophe’s lasting contribution to Haiti was the establishment of independence from foreign control, to which the country would never again succumb. His government and economic programs—designed to advance the Haitian cause—were immediately discarded for a less rigorous regimen. Though Christophe succeeded in uniting the territories of Haiti, the country would remain into the late twentieth century a land of political upheaval.
Cole, Hubert, Christophe: King of Haiti, Viking Press, 1967.
Easton, William Edgar, Christophe: A Tragedy in Prose, Press Grafton, 1911.
Harvey, W. W., Sketches of Hayti, Frank Cass and Company, 1827.
Moran, Charles, Black Triumverate, Exposition Press, Inc., 1957.
Newcomb, Covelle, Black Fire, Longmans, Green and Company, 1940.
Vandercook, John W., Black Majesty, Harper & Brothers, 1928.
October 6, 1767
October 8, 1820
Henri Christophe was born in 1767 in Grenada, in the Lesser Antilles. As a boy he worked as a sailor and accompanied a French naval officer to Savannah, Georgia, where he fought against the British in the American Revolution (1765–1783). He then found work as a chef at the Hotel de la Couronne in Le Cap, Haiti. Scholars disagree as to whether Christophe was born a free black or bought his way out of slavery through his employment as a chef. Regardless, in 1794, when he joined in the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), he was not bound by slavery.
During the Haitian Revolution, Christophe served as one of General Toussaint L'Ouverture's chief officers. Under Christophe's leadership, troops in the North of Haiti expanded the revolution from an internal conflict to a full-scale assault on imperialism, fighting off the invasion of French general Charles-Victor-Emmanuel Leclerc in 1802. Christophe refused to allow Leclerc to dock in Le Cap until he received permission from L'Ouverture. Leclerc charged Christophe with rebellion and landed his forces anyway. In the meantime, Le Cap was evacuated and burned to the ground leaving Leclerc at a strategic disadvantage. However, the French were able to win a number of important engagements, and only months after having been the first to directly resist the French army, Christophe and his troops deserted. Christophe most likely deserted at this time because it appeared the French would not be defeated. Under the French, Christophe and his soldiers were used to suppress the Haitians who continued to resist the French. With time it became clear that the revolutionary forces were unlikely to be broken, and Christophe and his soldiers returned to fight on the Haitian side.
Independence was finally achieved on January 1, 1804, and Jean Jacques Dessalines became Haiti's first ruler. When Dessalines was assassinated in 1806, Christophe was elected to succeed him. Christophe refused to serve as president, however, because he believed the Haitian Constitution placed too many restrictions on the office. Instead, he attempted to seize Port-au-Prince and take unbridled control of Haiti. Mulatto General Alexandre Pétion and his forces stopped Christophe and forced him to retreat to the North. Christophe established a mostly black kingdom, while Pétion maintained control of the largely mulatto population in southern Haiti. The people of northern and southern Haiti engaged in a civil war, fed by regionalism and racism, before coming to an armed truce around 1809.
Christophe declared himself King Henri I in 1811 and set up a court that included hereditary barons and counts. He maintained a fear, however, that Haiti would again be invaded, and he saw to the construction of the Citadelle la Ferriere to defend Haiti. This massive fortress sits on top of a mountain near Cap Haïtian (formerly known as Le Cap) and was built over a period of thirteen years with walls up to twelve feet thick. It is claimed that as many as twenty thousand Haitians died in its construction, though this estimate remains unverified. The Citadelle served as a barracks capable of housing as many as ten thousand soldiers. According to his contemporaries, Christophe sometimes marched soldiers off the edge of the fortress to their deaths in order to display his authority.
Christophe's reign encompassed a number of important changes. He initially attempted to confront the warravaged Haitian economy through the maintenance of the plantation system complete with corvé, or compulsory labor. This, of course, proved far too similar to the slave system that had been successfully toppled, and it therefore met with widespread resistance. As autocratic as Christophe attempted to be, he could not ignore the demands of his subjects and was forced to embrace small landholding among the people. Christophe implemented an education system modeled primarily on the British school system, and he invited European teachers to settle in Northern Haiti. He also supported the abolition movement and courted Spain and England in the hopes of securing allies against possible French invasion.
Christophe expected the complete submission of the Haitian peasantry and became increasingly concerned at their growing disaffection for him. When unrest turned into rebellion, Christophe took his own life. He is said to have killed himself with a silver bullet, but, like many aspects of Christophe's life, this claim remains unconfirmed. His death allowed Jean-Pierre Boyer to reunite Haiti. Despite his authoritarian rule, Christophe played an important role in the independence of Haiti and remains a major figure of early Haitian history.
Fergusson, James. A Traveller's History of the Caribbean. New York: Interlink Books, 1999.
Fick, Carolyn. The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1990.
Nicholls, David. From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University, 1996.
Vandercook, John. Black Majesty: The Life of Christophe, King of Haiti. New York: Harper, 1928.
sean bloch (2005)
Henri Christophe (1767-1820) was a Haitian patriot and king. Though he is mostly remembered for the Citadelle, the fortress he built, equally impressive was his organizational genius, which created a prosperous and solvent Haiti.
Born a slave, Henri Christophe originally came from the British island of St. Christopher (St. Kitts), from which he took his name. He bought his freedom in Saint Domingue and later added the English name of Henry (French, Henri) as a token of his admiration of England.
Christophe gained an early reputation as an independence fighter under Toussaint L'Ouverture in the 1791 antislavery rebellion. When French troops invaded Haiti in 1802 to reassert France's right to the former colony, Christophe was commanding Haitian troops in Cap-Français (modern Cap-Haitien). After Toussaint's capture by the French, Christophe served as a general under Haiti's military ruler, Jean Jacques Dessalines.
Following Dessalines's assassination in 1806, Christophe took over as president. However, the southern and western parts of Haiti had chafed under the authoritarian regime of Dessalines. To prevent a repetition of such a regime, a new constitution was promulgated which would have curtailed the power of the executive. Christophe refused to accept the office with such restrictions and gained control of the northern part of the country.
A Prosperous Kingdom
Recognizing the need for outside help in developing the country, Christophe did not have the customary xenophobic hatred of whites and thus welcomed them, especially the English, to his part of the country. During the 13 years of his rule, agriculture and commerce prospered in the north, and the treasury was full. Though he inherited the feudal economic and social structure from Toussaint and Dessalines, Christophe contributed a superb administration. He also promulgated a body of laws which he called the Code Henri.
In 1811 Christophe changed Northern Haiti from a republic to a kingdom and had himself crowned King Henri I. He then catered to the vanity of his associates by granting them nobility, thereby assuring their personal loyalty and identifying their interests with his own. Enforcement of costly court etiquette made the "nobility" exert every effort to make their plantations pay. In the words of James G. Leyburn, "Vanity was to serve an economic and a political purpose."
Generally, the masses accepted this feudalistic arrangement. In spite of the discipline, lack of mobility, and hard work, the farmers stayed reasonably content because they were permitted to keep one-fourth of their crops and to grow staples for personal consumption on private plots. Standards were set for personal appearance and for honesty. To achieve the latter, valuables were "planted," and those failing to turn them in were punished. Christophe's corps of enforcers was the Dahomets, an elite group of soldiers also trained in administration. They enforced the King's law, impartially and efficiently, toward worker and nobleman alike.
Ultimately, Christophe became an egocentric tyrant, discipline became repressive, and in spite of border patrols the lure of the easy life in Southern Haiti drew many northerners. Although uneducated himself, Christophe supported the arts, created a school system (though it served mostly the nobility), and built magnificent edifices. Among them were Sans Souci, his residential palace, and the Citadelle la Ferrière, a massive and impregnable fortress dominating the northern plains from a 3,000-foot peak. Never finished despite an enormous number of workmen (20,000 of them are supposed to have died in its construction), the citadel nevertheless symbolized the defiance by a newly independent black republic still fearful of French reconquest.
Christophe's death was indicative of the man. After suffering a massive stroke while attending Mass, he was carried to Sans Souci. His army revolted, his friends and retainers deserted him, and on Oct. 8, 1820, he committed suicide, according to legend shooting himself with a silver bullet.
The definitive work on Christophe is John W. Vandercook, Black Majesty: The Life of Christophe, King of Haiti (1928). An excellent source of information on Haiti is James G. Leyburn, The Haitian People (1941; rev. ed. 1966). Other useful works include C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (1938; 2d ed. 1963); Selden Rodman, Haiti: The Black Republic (1954; rev. ed. 1961); and Charles Moran, Black Triumvirate (1957). □
Henri Christophe (äNrē´ krēstôf´), 1767–1820, Haitian revolutionary leader. A freed black slave, he aided Toussaint L'Ouverture in the liberation of Haiti and was army chief under Dessalines. When the latter declared himself emperor, Christophe took part (1806) in a successful plot against his life and was elected president of the republic. Christophe, a pure-blooded black, then waged a savage and inconclusive struggle with Alexandre Pétion, the champion of mulatto supremacy, who retained control of S Haiti. In 1811, entrenching himself in N Haiti, Christophe declared himself king as Henri I and entered upon an energetic but tyrannical reign. He created an autocracy patterned after the absolute monarchies of Europe. Compulsory labor enriched his fiefdom. Christophe surrounded himself with lavish, and sometimes ludicrous, magnificence; the pomp and splendor of his reign are still shown by the ruins of the citadel of La Ferrière, a formidable fortress on top of a mountain, surrounded by precipitous cliffs, and of the fabulous palace of Sans Souci, at Cap Haïtien, his capital. In 1820, when he was suffering from partial paralysis, revolts broke out. In despair, Christophe committed suicide.
See his correspondence with T. Clarkson, ed. by E. L. Griggs and C. H. Prator (1952, repr. 1968); biography by H. Cole (1967); C. Moran, Black Triumvirate: A Study of L'Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe (1957).