Kingdom of the Next World:
The Suicide of Henry Christophe
By Marlene L. Daut
“But what surprised Ti Noël most was
the discovery that this marvelous world,
the like of which the governors of the Cap
had never known, was a world of Negroes.”
-Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World
The Queen was praying over the inert body of her husband, Henry Christophe, who had become King of Haiti in March 1811. Her teenage children—Prince Victor-Henry and Princesses Anne-Athénaire and Françoise-Améthyste—knelt by her side, softly weeping. Only moments earlier, the king’s men had told Queen Marie-Louise what she already feared: Christophe, betrayed by his own military and nearly all his closest confidants, had shot himself in the heart. Night had fallen, and the palace was alarmingly quiet. The king’s deathbed was cloaked in the kind of incongruous, placid calm that rarely accompanies the sudden discovery of a suicide. Christophe’s blood had stained the white sheets; his eyes were fixed open in a wide, sad stare.
The serenity of the scene was only interrupted when the king’s doctor and several of his oldest advisors entered the bedroom. The palace’s gates would at any moment be breached. The royal family needed to hide Christophe’s body if they hoped to save it from the terrible fate that had befallen the Emperor Dessalines, whose corpse was torn to pieces when it was dragged through the streets of Port-au-Prince after he was assassinated nearly fourteen years earlier to the day. The king’s personal guards, the Royal Dahomets, were summoned to assist the queen and her children, as they attempted to carry the body up to Christophe’s famous fortress, the Citadel Henry, located atop Pic Laferrière in northern Haiti.
The long gravel road to the fortress, around five miles from Sans-Souci Palace, winds up the mountain at a barely passable, dangerous thirty-five degree angle. Once the defunct king’s cortège reached the top of the Citadel, Christophe’s guards helped Marie-Louise and her children dig a shallow grave in an interior courtyard, where they buried the king’s remains before pouring lime over him. Barely a dozen people attended the makeshift internment that marked the unceremonious end of the self-proclaimed “first monarch crowned in the New World.”
Tempted to blame the legendary tyranny that led the St. Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott to refer to the Haitian king as a “squalid fascist” who “chained [his] own people,” so many writers have searched in vain for a lesson in Christophe’s death. In his novel, The Kingdom of This World, Cuban author Alejo Carpentier gives recourse to the legends of 19th-century British travelers to explain how quickly all the king’s men had turned against him: “The bulls’ blood that those thick walls [of the Citadel] had drunk was an infallible charm against the arms of the white men. But this blood had never been directed against Negroes, whose shouts, coming closer now, were invoking Powers to which they made blood sacrifice.” And just before he kills himself in Dan Hammerman’s 1945 Henri Christophe, produced for the American Negro Theatre in New York City, the overwrought Haitian monarch reflects, “I don’t know, maybe it’s because a man has no right being a king in the first place.” Yet kings and queens still exist, and history has shown that presidents are no more immune to the charge of base tyranny than monarchs, as Christophe’s successor, President Jean-Pierre Boyer, would learn during the coup d’état that unseated and then sent him into exile in 1843.
The prolific Haitian historian, Hénock Trouillot, assigned a much simpler reason for King Henry’s illegibility in global political thought: “At bottom, Christophe’s greatest mistake,” he said, “and that of his partisans, was to have disappeared too early from the scene, which is to say before the future historians of Pétion and Boyer’s Republic, who were his most pitiless adversaries.” In suicide, Christophe could effectively control his destiny, but he could not control his legacy. William Wilberforce, friend and frequent correspondent of the king, acknowledged as much when he remarked, “Poor Christophe! I cannot help grieving at the idea of his character’s being left to the dogs and vultures to be devoured...”
The king of Haiti’s tragic death is one of the most dramatized episodes in Haitian history—the scene appears in not one but three of Walcott’s plays as well as in Aimé Césaire’s famous La Tragédie du roi Christophe, and in plays by J.H. Amherst and Seldon Rodman. But the tendency of historians and artists alike to portray Christophe’s downfall as inevitable has obscured the intricate personal and political events that led to his dramatic demise, making his death one of the least understood moments in the history of the Americas.
A veteran of the Haitian Revolution, Christophe was promoted by Emperor Jacques I to general-in-chief of the army of the Empire of Haiti in 1805. After Dessalines’s assassination on October 17, 1806, Christophe was elected president of the newly founded Republic of Haiti. Unhappy with the limited role of the presidency, however, Christophe fled to the north to establish his own state, declaring himself, “President and Generalissimo of the forces of the Earth and Sea of the State of Hayti.”
Fellow Haitian revolutionary General Alexandre Pétion became president of the opposing Republic in March 1807. Afterwards, it became commonplace to describe Haiti as a country split in two, ruled by Christophe in the north and Pétion in the south. In reality, the political divisions were far more complicated and would have everything to do with the king’s eventual downfall.
On the northern half of Haiti’s southwestern peninsula lies a mountainous region called Grand’Anse. Until February 1820, when Pétion’s successor President Jean-Pierre Boyer conquered it, Grand’Anse was controlled by a formerly enslaved man named Jean-Baptiste Duperrier, known as Goman. Partial to General André Rigaud during the Haitian Revolution— the rival of the late General Toussaint Louverture—Goman pronounced Grand’Anse independent from the other Haitian states at the beginning of the great schism. Even when Rigaud declared himself the leader of a fourth political entity on the southern side of the peninsula in 1810, Goman refused to surrender either his authority or the approximately 700 square miles over which he claimed sovereign power.
Despite refusing official incorporation into any of Haiti’s separate states—Rigaud died in 1811 and the section he ruled was shortly thereafter absorbed into the Republic of Haiti—Goman did accept gifts from Christophe, then a king, including an opulent throne and a gold cross of the order of St. Henry. Goman’s seeming deference to the king of Haiti led to natural conflict with the neighboring Republic. Pétion had previously tried and failed to overthrow Goman, and after Pétion unexpectedly died in March 1818, Boyer decided to try again. In 1819, the Republican Army began an ardent campaign to find and capture Goman, referred to as the God of the forests, who was hiding in the treacherous Mamelles mountains. The siege only ended when Goman, surrounded on all sides by Boyer’s troops, leapt to his death from the heights of a mountaintop into the gulf below.
When Boyer greeted the victorious soldiers in coastal Jérémie on February 18, 1820, he intimated that this was but the first victory in his plan to reunite all of Haiti: “There remains more yet for you to do!” he said. “Forever listen for my voice and be ready, at the first signal, to march with me to consolidate stability and national glory.”
To hear the king’s contemporaries tell it, Providence would soon provide an opening. On August 15, 1820, the same day that a fire raged across the capital of the Republic in Port-au-Prince, King Henry collapsed after suffering a major stroke in Limonade. The royal family and other dignitaries were attending mass there to celebrate the queen’s royal birthday and the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. After his collapse, the king’s doctor, the Scotsman Duncan Stewart, was able to revive Christophe, but the king remained partially paralyzed on one side.
When the king returned to Sans-Souci in early September, Dr. Stewart observed that he had become increasingly paranoid and mistrustful. Christophe, who also envisioned reunification after Pétion’s death, claimed to have learned through spies that Boyer was plotting to attack the city of Saint-Marc—the boundary between the Kingdom and the Republic.
On September 14th, the still-recovering king received two high-ranking officers from the 8th demi-brigade of Saint-Marc, General Jean-Claude and Colonel Paulin, each of whom accused the other of colluding with the Republic. Fond of the saying, “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” Christophe was known for punishing people on mere suspicion. Without hearing Paulin’s full testimony, Christophe sided with Jean-Claude and sent Paulin to prison. The regiment in Saint-Marc was partial to Paulin, however, and retaliated by murdering Jean-Claude. The border troops then delivered Jean-Claude’s head to President Boyer as they voluntarily surrendered and offered to join the Republican Army.
When Christophe learned of the October 1st defection of the entire 8th demi-brigade, he dispatched troops from the neighboring bourg of Montrouis to oppose them. But instead of defending the kingdom, they joined the Republican army, reportedly cheering in the streets, Vive la République! Vive le Président! By October 6th, the insurrection had spread north all the way to Cap-Henry, where the Royal Prince’s British teacher heard villagers shouting, Down with the Tyrant!
On the morning of October 8th, Christophe sent one last military brigade to try to crush the rebellion, but when he learned that those troops had also defected and joined the Republican Army, he told Dr. Stewart with resignation, “For my part, I know what I must do.” The fatal shot by which Christophe removed himself from power rang out from his bedroom at around 7:30 that night.
When the royal family returned to the palace after having buried the king, they found their home had been invaded. Angry inhabitants from Cap and Milot were plundering the royal residence, stealing its expensive furniture, imported jewels, and looking for its hidden treasures. Soldiers shot at the ceiling of the Salle des Chefs, ruining the mural believed to have been painted by the British artist Richard Evans. Far from trying to prevent this pillage, the king’s soldiers, most of whom were in open insurrection, took part in it.
The next day, Marie-Louise and her daughters were arrested in Cap along with Prince Victor and Christophe’s older son from a previous relationship, Prince Eugène. The nobles who had remained loyal to the king, including Baron de Vastey and Generals Joachim and Daut, were also jailed. Though Boyer had ordered the Republican Army to avoid bloodshed while securing the city of Cap, the directive came too late.
General Richard, the former Duke of Marmelade and the head of the conspiracy of the nobles, ordered the prisoners’ deaths at around 10 PM on October 18th. Prince Victor pled for his life, reminding his father’s former friends that his “only crime was to be the son of their enemy.” Richard responded by explaining that though the prince was just sixteen years old, as the heir to his father’s throne, “the tranquility of the state demanded his life.” Unable to shake the memory of those terrifying moments when her sons were taken from her, Marie-Louise decided to go to England with her daughters one year after the executions.
Although Marie-Louise had been by Christophe’s side since the earliest days of the Haitian Revolution, and she eventually outlived her entire family, dying long after all of them in 1851, hardly any of the kingdom’s many chroniclers bothered to consult her tale. Much later, while living in exile in Italy—as one of the only “black faces,” in her words—she at last told her story to a British acquaintance who had been a frequent visitor at the palace. She lamented having suffered through the deaths of her husband and all but one of her children, including that of her eldest son François Ferdinand, who died in Paris in 1805. Neither seeking recognition, glory, pity, or wealth, she sighed, “I have lost a husband, an empire, and [nearly] all my children… sorrow has quite weaned me from the vanities of this life; at my age and in my situation, I can only look forward to the next world, as a place of rest and peace.”
It was the Harlem Renaissance-era playwright May Miller who best approached the silences of perspective in the well-worn story of the king’s death with her 1935 one-act drama, “Christophe’s Daughters.” In the final scene of the play—which labors to produce Christophe as a father and son, husband and friend, revolutionary and monarch—Améthyste, Athénaire, and Queen Marie-Louise remain tasked with carrying in “half-choked sobs” the burden of the king’s body and legacy.
Marlene L. Daut, PhD, is Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia and specializes in anglophone and francophone Caribbean, US African American, and French colonial literary and historical studies. Her books include Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789–1865 (Liverpool University Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of the volume, Haitian Revolutionary Fictions: An Anthology (UVA Press 2021).