The royal couple of Haiti rode into their coronation to thunderous applause. After receiving his ornate crown and scepter, Henry Christophe ascended his throne, towering 20 meters in the air. But little did the cheering onlookers know that the first king of Haiti would also be its last.
Enslaved at birth on the island of Grenada, Christophe spent his childhood being moved between multiple Caribbean islands. Just 12 years old in 1779, he accompanied his master to aid the American revolutionaries in the Battle of Savannah. This prolonged siege would be Christophe’s first encounter with violent revolution.
There are few surviving written records about Christophe’s life immediately after the war. Over the next decade, we know he worked as a mason and a waiter at a hotel in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known. In 1791, when the colony’s slaves rose up in rebellion, Christophe got another opportunity to fight for freedom. Led by Toussaint Louverture, the rebels fought against plantation owners, as well as British and Spanish forces seeking control of the island. Christophe quickly rose through the ranks, proving himself the equal of more experienced generals.
By 1793, Louverture had successfully liberated all of Saint-Domingue’s enslaved people, and by 1801 he’d established the island as a semi-autonomous colony. But during this time, Napoleon Bonaparte had assumed power in France, and made it his mission to restore slavery and French authority throughout the empire. French attempts to reinstate slavery met fierce resistance, with General Christophe even burning the capital city to prevent military occupation. Finally, the rebellion and an outbreak of yellow fever forced French soldiers to withdraw— but the fight was not without casualties. Louverture was captured, and left to die in a French prison; a fate that Christophe’s nine-year-old son would share only a few years later.
Following the revolution, Christophe and generals Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Alexandre Pétion rose to prominent positions in the new government. In 1804, Dessalines was proclaimed the emperor of independent Haiti. But his desire to hold exclusive power alienated his supporters. Eventually, Dessalines’ rule incited a political conspiracy that ended in his assassination in 1806. The subsequent power struggle led to a Civil War, which split the country in two. By 1807, Christophe was governing as president of the north in Cap-Haïtien, and Pétion was ruling the south from Port-au-Prince.
Pétion tried to stay true to the revolution’s democratic roots by modeling his republic after the United States. He even supported anti-colonial revolutionaries in other nations. These policies endeared him to his people, but they slowed trade and economic growth.
Christophe, conversely, had more aggressive plans for an independent Haiti. He redistributed land to the people, while retaining state control of agriculture. He also established trade with many foreign nations, including Great Britain and the United States, and pledged non-interference with their foreign policies. He even built a massive Citadel in case the French tried to invade again. To accomplish all of this, Christophe instituted mandatory labor, and to strengthen his authority, he crowned himself king in 1811. During his reign, he lived in an elegant palace called Sans Souci along with his wife and their three remaining children.
Christophe’s kingdom oversaw rapid development of trade, industry, culture, and education. He imported renowned European artists to Haiti’s cultural scene, as well as European teachers, in order to establish public education. But while the king was initially popular among his subjects, his labor mandates were an uncomfortable reminder of the slavery Haitians fought to destroy. Over time, his increasingly authoritarian policies lost support, and his opponents to the south gained strength. In October 1820, his reign finally reached its tragic conclusion. Months after a debilitating stroke left him unable to govern, key members of his military defected to southern forces. Betrayed and despondent, the king committed suicide.
Today, the traces of Christophe’s complicated history can still be found in the crumbling remains of his palaces, and in Haiti’s legacy as the first nation to permanently abolish slavery.