Henri Christophe: The First Monarch of the New World

Table of Contents

Portrait of Henri Christophe

Portrait of Henri Christophe (1817)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who was Henri Christophe?

Henri Christophe (1767-1820) served as a key military officer in the Haitian Revolution and the sole monarch of the Kingdom of Haiti. Christophe, although born into slavery, purchased his own freedom. Nevertheless, he continued to strongly identify with the struggles of the slaves. His strong military acumen enabled him to quickly rise the ranks and become a general in the rebel army.

In this article, the Zero Theft Movement will cover Henri Christophe and his role in Haiti’s bloody history. He represented one of many leaders in history who could not stray away from forced labor, despite his origins. The profitability of exploitation potentially appeals to the rich and powerful in the U.S. today, perhaps leading to a rigged economy. 

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Henri Christophe’s Early Life

Born into slavery in the British colony of Grenada, Henri Christophe was soon shipped off to the French colony Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) from Saint Kitts. His parents, uprooted from West Africa, labored on sugar plantations. Henri was so stubborn and irascible that he found himself on a French ship before reaching the age of 10.

Christophe jumped from one trade to the next, working first as a cabin boy and later as a mason, bartender, and billiard maker. In 1779, Christophe showed an early interest in the military when he joined the French expedition to Savannah, Georgia during the American Civil War. Profoundly ironic, France’s slaves (most people of color in Saint-Domingue) helped their colonizers free one of Britain’s biggest slave holdings in the U.S. His early experience with warfare and the abuse he received from French officers prepared him for the revolution that would happen on Haitian soil. 

Christophe’s industriousness enabled him to amass enough money to purchase his freedom. He joined the growing class of free people of color. While others in this class tried to shed their ancestry and held the enslaved in contempt, Christophe had a revolution in his roots.

The Haitian Revolution Erupts

The uprising of the Third Estate against the Ancien Regime in France greatly inspired the enslaved people of color. They had a new sense of hope that the embattered and mistreated could work together to topple systemic inequalities. Eventually, Toussaint Louverture mobilized thousands of slaves on August 22, 1791, setting off the Haitian Revolution. 

The slave rebels swiftly seized much of the Northern region of the colony, and by 1792, the rebels possessed a third of the colony. Henri Christophe, despite being a free man, had decided to join the Haitian revolutionary military. He and Jean-Jacques Dessalines (known as ‘the Tiger’)  rose the ranks to become two of Louverture’s most important generals. 

With eyes set on the ‘pearl of Antilles,’ the British and Spanish empires joined the fray in the mid-1790s. Louverture deftly played all sides, initially fighting off the French with the support of its Atlantic rivals. One resort, that’s all France’s forces had left: granting freedom to the slaves of Saint-Domingue. The abolition of slavery in France’s colonies became official in 1794, and Louverture drives away the British and Spanish forces.

The Haitian hero expanded his rule over the rest of the decade while trying to keep France at bay and Saint-Domingue autonomous. In 1801, he decided to release the Constitution of Saint-Domingue, which declared (among many other things) the colony would serve as an independent ally of France. Napoleon Bonaparte, having assumed the throne of France, responded by sending his brother-in-law, Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, and 30,000 soldiers to once again enslave the people of color in Saint-Domingue.

The Expedition of General Leclerc in San Domingo By Eugene Lelièpvre

The Expedition of General Leclerc in San Domingo

By Eugene Lelièpvre

Source: Pritzker Military Museum & Library

By the time of the French invasion, Christophe had taken over command of Le Cap, a port town on the North Coast of the colony. He and his troops served as the front line of defense against the invaders, but overwhelmed, they had to retreat inland. After three months of guerilla warfare in the mountains, Christophe accepted a deal that would allow him to keep his rank if he and his 12,000 men fought for the French army. His decision swung the conflict in France’s favor, and Leclerc struck the same deal with other Haitian commanders, including Louverture. Leclerc would renege on his deal with Louverture, sending the rebel leader to die of an untreated illness in a France prison.

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Dessalines’s Short Reign

The generals knew that if Leclerc completed his mission, freed slaves would once more find themselves in shackles. Dessalines took charge in Louverture’s absence, waging a gruesome war against the French forces. He successfully defeated the enemy who was severely debilitated by an epidemic of fatal yellow fever

In 1801, Dessalines declared Saint-Domingue a free nation under the name of Haiti. Dessalines’s military acumen, however, did not exactly translate to his few years in power. He ruled with an iron fist and found the colony had trouble supporting itself without forced labor.  Louverture and other Haitian leaders realized the same during their respective reigns. By 1806, Dessalines had lost the favor of the people, leading to his brutal public assassination

With the colony down its leader, two generals emerged to take control: Henri Christophe and his rival Alexandre Pétion.

A Split Nation

Pétion and Christophe wanted all of Haiti. No other could have even a piece. 

Pétion assembled a large force to match Christophe’s army. Countless brutal battles ensued, culminating in a conflict at the city of Port-au-Prince. Christophe’s forces did not have the firepower to penetrate Pétion’s stronghold, eventually retreating to Le Cap to regroup.

On 17 February 1807, Christophe was elected President of the State of Haiti. Alexandre Pétion was elected president in the South. Christophe instituted a stable government and created a constitution declaring every person in the State of Haiti free. Pétion, from his domain in the south and west, prepared to resume his offensive. 

The rivals clashed multiple times in the following years. Neither man seemed able to gain a significant advantage over the other, until Christophe’s successful siege on St. Nicholas. While he seized one of Pétion’s major hubs, the rivals understood that further conflicts might never end. Each went back to their own kingdoms in peace, without signing a formal treaty or agreement. On 26 March 1811, Henri Christophe named himself the king of the newly established Kingdom of Haiti.

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King Henry I

Henri Christophe instituted a number of significant structures in his new kingdom. For instance, he introduced a monetary system based on gourds, which would serve as a precursor to Haiti’s current currency. Heavily influenced by French society, he also established a system of nobility, declared Catholicism the official religion of the state, and developed schools and hospitals.

Haitian livre coin with portrait of Henri Christophe

Haitian livre coin with the portrait of Henri Christophe

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much like Dessalines and Louverture, Christophe found no way around corvée, or forced labor. His kingdom generated revenues primarily from sugar plantations. Unsurprisingly, the former slaves felt they had ultimately returned to a role they had fought to shed. The resentment towards Christophe grew, and he turned eccentric and brutal in his later years. 

Afraid of a coup and sickly, he took his own life with a silver bullet in 1820. Ten days later, his nine-year-old son was assassinated

Eliminate the Rigged Economy with the Zero Theft Movement

Unfortunately, we see how former slaves, when powerful, can enslave others for profit. Henri Christophe could not evade the influence of the system that had once oppressed him. The greed of those in control can leave the majority without the rights and privileges enjoyed by the few. 

While the Haitian Revolution took place over 200 years ago, we can still glean many lessons from the uprising. That it’s up to the oppressed to fight back in order to get what they deserve, and that we cannot perpetuate broken and rigged systems even when the people unduly profiting are ‘one of our own.’ 

We at the Zero Theft Movement have created an independent voting platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to calculate the most accurate estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the United States. 

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The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

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Beyond the Plunge Protection Team…

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