Henry Christophe

Christophe overseeing the construction of the Citadelle (engraving by Ramos Blanco at Place des Héros de l'indépendance in Port-au-Prince, erected 1954)
Christophe overseeing the construction of the Citadelle (engraving at Place des Héros de l’indépendance in Port-au-Prince)

I’m currently carrying out research into the life of Henry Christophe, the Haitian revolutionary leader who later crowned himself king of Haiti. His is an utterly fascinating life – a man who started life as a waiter in an inn, helped lead his country to freedom in a slave revolution which he then divided in civil war. His kingdom was a contradiction – he saw himself as the one to bring enlightenment values to Haiti through mass education, but supported the state by forcing his people back to work on the hated plantations or building the Citadelle la Ferrière, his greatest monument (and nowadays the jewel of Haiti’s nascent tourist industry). His rule ended in insurrection against his tyranny, and the king alone in his palace putting a bullet through his own heart.

It’s Christophe’s early life – those years as a waiter – that are currently fascinating me. He was deliberately opaque about his early life, and as yet the paper trail is quite thin. But thanks to the excellent Marronage in Saint-Domingue archive I’ve just turned up the following advert from a 1789 issue of the Saint-Domingue newspaper Affiches Amèricaines:

Affiches américaines

A Monsieur Badêche is mentioned in several accounts of Christophe’s life (as early as 1825, by the Haitian writer Hérard Dumesle), as the owner of the Hôtel La Couronne in Cap Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien) where Christophe allegedly worked. Dumesle also writes that Christophe had worked as a mason. The age also matches Christophe’s ‘official’ 1767 date of birth. Could this advert be at all related?

Other elements don’t match, most importantly the description of him as mulâtre, and his height – some firsthand accounts put him at closer to five foot ten. But it’s an intriguing find nonetheless.

I’m looking into this more, and discussing it further with academics specialising in the period. In recent years there has been a lot of new scholarship that’s shed light on the early lives of the revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, but there has been relatively little focus on Henry Christophe. It’s exciting that there’s still plenty of space out there for new leads and discoveries!

 

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