Henri Christophe

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.


Further Reading on Henri Christophe

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).