Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Christophe, King of Hayti

December, 1826.—In a MS. journal of Mr. Courtenay's, I find some curious particulars respecting the family and government of that extraordinary man, Christophe. He says* Henry Christophe was born a slave in the Island of St. Eustatia, the property of a Mr, Vittor. At a very early period he manifested a disposition impatient of control, accompanied with strong natural abilities, which, however, were not improved by cultivation.

When he was about seventeen years old, a Frenchman of St. Domingo having, in a casual visit to Mr. Vittor, discovered the talents of Christophe, and purchased him from a master who was very glad to get rid of such a troublesome lad, Henri was removed to Cape Francois and apprenticed to a baker, with whom he remained till the French Revolution emancipated the slaves.

Soon after he became general of a brigade in the Colonial service. In the attempt made by the French to re-establish slavery, he distinguished himself as a patriot, fighting under the banner of Toussaint and Dessalines; and upon the death of the latter (1811) became King of Hayti; and there he now (1818) reigns, probably the most despotic monarch on earth.

At first he manifested a most sanguinary disposition; he has been often known to stab or shoot with his own hands persons in high situations about him, for imaginary offences. Since his authority has been more firmly established, he has relaxed in his severity, and has given his subjects a good code of laws.

Mr. Courtenay describes their arrival at Cape Henri, the capital of the Island of Saint Domingo and of the Haytian Empire, and speaks of the extreme civility with which Sir Home Popham (whom he accompanied) was received. A palace, a guard of honour, a stable of horses appropriated to his use, a splendid table, &c. &c.

Cape Henri, when in possession of France, was considered the richest and most splendid city in the New World. The streets are formed by ranges of palaces, all of which, without exception, were burnt or destroyed during the fervour of revolution. The square, in the centre of which is an enormous iron crown, was the scene of many horrible massacres by both parties during the struggle for independence. The French made a practice of nailing the epaulettes to the shoulders of the black officers who were taken prisoners. In this state, so cruelly incapacitated for further service, they were sent back to deter others from following their example.

The private soldiers were despatched m various ways; the most common was to sew them up, six or eight together, in sacks, and throw them into the sea, or to boil them over slow fires. After so many inhumanities, their present antipathy to the French cannot be wondered at; although at the conclusion of the Revolution the Haytians had it in their power to revenge themselves most amply, they acted with considerable moderation, and permitted the remains of the French colony to embark on board a British squadron.

Not a circumstance, let it be ever so trifling, escapes the knowledge of the King; his spies are everywhere, and are only known to himself; his memory is so good, that it is said he is acquainted with every person in his army, by character as well as by name and person. In the space of ten years this extraordinary man has corrected all the abuses be found existing, and has so completely organised his government that it might stand the test of comparison with any of those in Europe.

Christophe has been very anxious to establish morality in his dominions ; and for that reason, has taken the most severe measures to enforce matrimony. In fact, he obliges every person to marry whom he discovers to be in a single state. All the young girls fly at his approach; for whenever he meets one, he begins a string of interrogatories. If he finds her unmarried, he generally informs her he will send a husband next day. He probably sends a black from his regiment of Guards : the lady being as probably, in all but name, a white person. It is in vain to expostulate, even to plead a prior engagement, unless the marriage can be performed before the King's appointed time.

The punishment for adultery is death to both parties; but I understand there is not any instance known in which this law has been enforced to the letter. On a recent occasion, the Countess Rossiere was sentenced to ride in a state of perfect nudity on the back of a donkey through the streets of San Souci at noonday, and her paramour suffered a punishment still more severe.**

All persons have the right of appeal to the King from the courts of law, whenever they conceive themselves aggrieved. In a recent case of this nature, three judges, who were strongly suspected of corruption, were sent to the citadel of Sans Souci to work as common labourers.

Christophe is absolute in all things; and although he has given his subjects a code of laws, he does not hesitate to break them himself, whenever it suits his convenience or his caprice to do so. He is the sole proprietor of land, the produce of which is sold for the benefit of the state; no other person can be a freeholder; but tracts of land, at a nominal rent, are granted by lease as a reward for services. Cattle and sheep are also a royal monopoly, and the revenue more than trebles the expenditure of the country. The treasure collected in Sans Souci is said to amount to more than forty millions of dollars.

With respect to Christophe's private character, I was assured he is a most excellent husband and father, and has spared no pains in giving his children a finished education. The princesses have had the advantage of English governesses, and the prince has been brought up by the Baron de Vastey, a clever gentlemanly white man, educated in France.***

I became acquainted with him and liked him much, though many of his countrymen assured me he was a perfect savage in disposition. The Queen is a well-disposed and very good woman, quite free from the affectation and presumption which generally accompany a rise so very extraordinary as hers. She was once, like her husband, a slave; she accompanied him during the whole progress of the revolution, with her children on her back, often without any other food but wild fruit, exposed to every change of weather, and often half-clothed.

At ten o'clock Sir Home Popham and all our part repaired to the palace by appointment: we were received with every demonstration of respect; a guard of honour in state uniforms, each man more than six feet high. .... We were conducted through a hall, between two lines of officers, into a large and splendidly furnished room paved with marble and cooled by artificial means. In a few minutes the King and Prince Royal made their appearance; the ease and elegance of the King's deportment not a little surprised me. His dress was a plain green coat, with the Order of St. Henri (his own), white satin pantaloons, and crimson morocco boots.

He took his hat off on entering the room, and desired us to sit down. His wool is perfectly grey, his countenance intelligent, and his whole person well proportioned ; his manners are pleasing and rather prepossessing. He congratulated the Admiral on his arrival, regretted his distance from Cape Henri had prevented his arriving to welcome us sooner, &c. &c. He paid many compliments to Sir Home Popham, saying he was no stranger to his reputation, and conversing upon the code of signals invented by Sir Home and used by the British navy. He concluded with a pressing invitation to his Palace of Sans Souci, which I much regret the Admiral could not accept, being obliged to return to Jamaica. ....

The Prince Royal, only fifteen years old, is the fattest fellow I ever beheld, and I should not imagine him half as clever as his father. His dress was as splendid as gold, silver, and jewels could make it; in his hat he wore a large plume of feathers and a diamond star. In about half an hour we retired and left the Admiral tete-a-tete with the King. Their conference lasted about an hour. .... When they came back into the room where we were, the King began to quiz the Archbishop, and mentioned the stories constantly invented by the French about him; amongst others that of his having, in a fit of rage, thrown the Prince out of a corridor at Sans Souci. The Archbishop laughingly observed that they gave him credit for more strength than he could boast, in supposing him capable of even lifting from the ground such a fat fellow.

The King the same evening left Cape Henri, the heat of which disagrees with him: when he travels he goes at full gallop, and will keep it up the whole day to the great inconvenience of his attendants.

Not two years after this account was written, the singular and glorious career of Christophe closed in misfortune.**** The widow and daughters came over to England, having previously resided some time in America in the vain hope that a second revolution would place the eldest daughter on the throne of the father.

I heard of them passing the winter of 1822-23 at Hastings, and the following spring I saw the daughters frequently. They attended the lectures of Prati, which I also attended. From a Madam e ————, whom I often met, I heard a great deal about them; they were living very quietly in a small house at Islington, I think, but still preserving their chambellan, and some little semblance of royalty. The eldest daughter was described as a woman of superior talents, who had taken great pains in cultivating her mind. She was said to have been the confidante and counselor of her father during his latter years. She spoke French easily but not well, she had a good figure, and, as far as I could judge from under a close black bonnet, an intelligent eye. The other sister was a heavy, stuffy, short, fat person. They were in deep mourning, and very plainly dressed.

At one time I heard that Madame——was thinking of writing a memoir of the life of Christophe, from the information she derived from his daughter. One day I asked her about it; she told me that she had quite given up the plan from finding their ideas so different; that many actions which the Haytian considered as glorious, she felt so disgraceful to the memory of Christophe, that she should have thought herself acting unfairly by his daughter in making them public on her authority ; more especially as she could not consistently with her own character mention them without reprobation.

I proposed that the daughter should write the history herself, and only submit it to some person who would correct the language. My proposal seemed to take ; but very soon after that time the Haytians, only then beginning to give up hopes of restoration, left England.

In the summer of 1824 I heard of them travelling in Germany: at this period the King of Bavaria purchased a part of a set of the ex-Queen's jewels (rubies I believe) for a wedding present to his daughter, who married the Prince Royal of Prussia. In 1826 I saw one of these Haytian Princesses walking in the street at Pisa. My laquais de place called her a Principessa della Morea, spoke of them as living very retired, but knew nothing of the mother, who, I conclude, is dead.

Editor’s Notes
* Mr. Courtenay must be considered as speaking throughout.
** He underwent the fate of Abelard,
*** He was a mulatto, and one of the most remarkable of the race. He is the author of some creditable works; amongst others, of an Essay on the Revolutions &c. of Hayti, published
in 1819.
**** His troops mutinied, his deposition was proclaimed, and he shot himself with a pistol. One proximate cause of his fall was his incapacity, from palsy, to make the requisite exertions for the preservation of his authority. His sons were killed by the troops, his wife and daughters were saved by British protection. The wife was allowed to carry off her jewels, and a moderate income was secured to her. See The Present State of Hayti, by James Franklin; 1828 : and Brief Notices of Hayti, &c., by John Candler, 1842. Christophe's authority only extended over half of the Island of St. Domingo; and his subjects are computed at not more than 200,000. His principal revenue was derived from plantations cultivated by slaves or forced labour.


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