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The Black Pharaoh

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General Henri Christophe of Haiti

Henri Christophe was a man in a hurry. Born a slave in 1767, he grew up in the French colony of Sainte-Domingue (Haiti) where he worked hard to secure his freedom in a world where man’s inhumanity to man was the rule. The French were among history’s harshest taskmasters, importing African slaves to be worked to death, usually within three years, in the sugar cane fields.  By 1789, Sainte-Domingue was the most lucrative colony in the world. With half a million black slaves, 32,000 whites and 25,000 people of mixed blood, it was also a time bomb of racial outrage. The inevitable slave uprising came in 1791, and Henri, at age 24, quickly joined the rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. A courageous soldier with superb leadership skills, Henri’s rise through the ranks was meteoric, and when the French were routed and Haitian independence declared in 1803, he was a much-decorated general.  Three years later, civil war split the fledgling nation into a southern mulatto republic and a northern black state headed by President and Generalissimo of the Army, Henri Christophe. In 1811, because of his hatred for everything French, he anglicized his name, crowned himself King Henry I and, along with his wife Queen Marie-Louise, created a glittering English-style court filled with appropriately liveried princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, counts and royal ministers.  He then launched a nation-wide construction program, building a lavish palace called Sans Souci, a string of chateaux, new towns, plantations, harbors, and, most significantly, a monstrous mountaintop fortress, the Citadel, which would become the 8th Wonder of the World.

Even in ruin, Henry's Sans Souci Palace remains majestic.

Even in ruin, Henry’s Sans Souci palace remains majestic.

Fearing the French would return to reclaim Haiti, Henry selected a remote site with a commanding view of the open sea and set 20,000 laborers to work on the colossal project. While some of the stone was quarried on-site, all other building materials along with provisions for the huge work force and 365 cannons had to be hauled with great difficulty from the plain three thousand feet below. A honeycomb of ramparts, moats and rooms, including a treasury and elegant quarters for the royal family, sprawled over 100,000 square feet. False entryways and sheer, oddly angled walls thirteen-stories high were designed to deflect cannonballs. It was by far the most massive structure the Caribbean had yet seen.

The Citadel today endures an invasion only by tourists.

The Citadel today is invaded only by tourists.

As the structure rose higher into the clouds, King Henry’s personality began to change. The Citadel became an obsession so powerful that he pushed his men to the limits of physical endurance and often spent his nights alone, personally laying stones so that work never stopped. Thousands needlessly died in the desperate rush to complete the structure. Convinced there were plots to sabotage his brainchild, Henry devised perverse means to test his troops’ loyalty. Legend says that some men plunged hundreds of feet to their deaths after being assembled atop the walls and given the command, “Forward, march!” What began as a symbol of Haitian pride became a morgue as Henry morphed into a paranoid tyrant compared by a growing list of enemies to the cruel, vanquished French. The inevitable mutiny came in 1820 when Henry was incapacitated by a stroke at Sans Souci. Deserted by his troops while armed rebels bore down on the undefended palace, Henry put a bullet in his brain. Knowing he would be torn to pieces by the mob, the royal family carried the king’s body to the Citadel and threw it into a vat of quicklime where it remains to this day, awaiting an invasion that will never come. In a bizarre twist of fate, King Henry’s unfinished monument to megalomania became one of history’s most grandiose tombs. No doubt the pharaohs would be pleased.

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Reviled as a monster and revered as a champion of the oppressed, Henri Christophe has not been forgotten in Haiti.

King Henry I of Haiti is the subject of Out of Time, the final installment in my time travel trilogy.

2 Comments

  1. Yves Fey
    Apr 18, 2016

    Fascinating. That ‘s an incredibly striking view.
    Sounds like part of this history was used in the movie Burn? Loved that film and it’s apparently impossible to get a decent print of it.

  2. Richard Sutton
    Apr 18, 2016

    What a leap for poor Maddie! From St. Petersburg to Haiti! I can;t wait to read it as Christophe is one of the New World figures I’m very intrigued by.

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