By Luther G. Billings.
One of the most remarkable men during the days of travail and suffering of poor, bloodstained Hayti was Henri Christophe.
He was born a slave in the island of Grenada, in 1769, was sold to a dealer in Cape Haytien at an early age and was for some time a waiter in a café. As he matured, he became remarkable no less for his size and herculean strength than for his savage and indomitable spirit.
There is nothing on record as to when he became a soldier, but he must have served with the black deliverer Toussaint L'Ouverture, as he was a general and governor of the Cape in 1801, and had then been welded into the "man of blood and iron" he was ever afterwards.
During his youth, the terrible cruelty practiced on the slaves by their French masters had caused them to unfurl the black flag of servile insurrection, and a war was begun that spared neither age nor sex.
On the one hand, the planters pursued runaways with bloodhounds imported from Cuba, which devoured them alive, or lashed them to death; and the French troops under Rochambeau and Leclerc, tiring of slaying by bullets, loaded hulks with prisoners and towed them out of the harbors to sink them with their living freight. On the other hand, the slaves, even under such comparatively humane leaders as Toussaint, took no prisoners, but after he was kidnapped, under peculiarly revolting circumstances, and was succeeded by the "butcher" Dessalines, the country was inundated with blood.
The blacks, half savage and wholly brutal, tortured all who fell into their hands. Neither age nor sex was respected.
Some were burned alive, others were lashed between two planks and were slowly sawn asunder, to the horrible accompaniment of the tortured one's frenzied shrieks, or, if females, done to death by even more revolting means. At last Dessalines, maddened at the wholesale massacre by the French of all their prisoners at Port au Prince, ordered all the whites in his lines to be slain. So well was the order obeyed that at St. Marc alone no less than 800 perished.
Unhappy Hayti! once called "le paradis des Francais," it was now one vast charnel house. It is a matter of record that in a frantic effort to retain their richest colony 50,000 soldiers and sailors were sent out from France in the years 1802 and 1803, and they tell with considerable minuteness how no less than 35,000 of them perished by war or sickness in nine months, 23,000 civilians of various ranks being slain at the same time.
During these inhuman scenes Christophe's ability, as well as his native savagery, won him a conspicuous place, so that when the “butcher " Dessalines was killed by a faction of his own troops Christophe succeeded him as president of the republic; and, what was of more consequence, secured the immense treasure Dessalines had "looted" from the French, estimated at $30,000,000.
As the government was a military despotism, pure and simple, it was not long before the country was split up into three portions, Petion ruling the south, at Port au Prince, as a president, while Christophe made himself king of the, north, at Cape Haytien which had been the very centre of French ostentation and power, and where today, despite the ravages of earthquakes and the no less destructive hands of the blacks, one is astonished at the extent and magnificence of the ruins. At the same time he created a large nobility, many of the titles smacking strongly of opera bouffe, the "Prince de Lemonade," "Duke de Marmalade," etc. though in reality they were the names of important provinces.
During nearly all of Christophe's reign there was the peace of the lion and the lamb between the blacks and the French. There were simply none of the latter left to fight; but the natives did their best to keep up the excitement by bloody feuds among themselves. Then, as now, the blacks were arrayed against the “men of color," as the mixed breeds were called, but the iron hand of the king pressed with such merciless severity on all alike that the disturbances were soon suppressed and the northern part of the island attained a growth and prosperity never reached under any other ruler.
With the possession of almost incalculable wealth came ambition to figure as one of the great monarchs of the world, and this ambition is said to have been fostered by an unfortunate Frenchwoman who had fallen into his hands soon after Dessalines's death. Her great beauty made him an easy conquest, and he spared her life by giving her a worse fate. She was a woman of ability, and soon acquired unbounded control over his rude and superstitious nature.
Directly inland from the Cape lies the extensive and fertile plain of Millot, embraced in the protecting arms of the mountains towering above it. Under the French taste great wealth had made of it one of the fairest spots on earth. Here, prompted by his unhappy mistress, he determined to build a palace to rival Versailles in beauty and extent. He first turned the vale into an exquisite park, destroying all the houses that had once sheltered so many proud and ostentatious planters. Then, securing the services of some of the first architects of Europe by his lavish remuneration, he laid the foundations of the most elaborate and costly buildings ever erected in the New World.
Having at his command all the peasantry, backed by a numerous army, the walls rose like magic, and in an incredibly short space of time "Sans Souci," as he called his palace, invited him to forget his cares and be happy with a pomp and barbaric magnificence hardly ever equalled.
The architecture, while imposing, was not in good taste, and the lofty and spacious rooms, with floors and side panels of polished mahogany, or beautifully inlaid with the most expensive Florentine mosaics, were spoiled by the superabundance of ornamentation. The throne room, rivaling in its proportions the state apartments at Versailles, was a mass of gilt and gold, fairly dazzling to the eye. On the apartments of the queen and the princesses money was lavished without stint, and their baths, which can still be seen, are marvels of the purest white marble.
Though a confirmed believer in voodooism, he constructed a circular chapel, where very infrequent services were held, and ornamented it with the utmost richness. Even the coach houses and stables were magnificent. The state coaches, gilded and emblazoned with the royal arms, were simply wonderful. One of them is said to have cost 700 pounds sterling in London. But alas for the ambitions of the would-be great! Before his palace, where he was to be "without care," had reared its graceful walls high into the clear and bracing mountain air, numerous revolutions assailed him, and taught the insecurity of the head that would wear the Haytien crown. He determined to build a fortress that would be impregnable, and so afford him a safe refuge in time of trouble.
Overhanging the vale of Millot and the palace of Sans Souci rises a mountain peak 2000 feet above the buildings, its lofty head almost inaccessible on account of the precipices which formed its sides; and here, on a height which the eagle could alone hope to scale, he determined to build his fort.
He summoned the most famous military engineers in Europe to his aid, and though the boldest of them shrank at first from the herculean task, the tyrant would have no refusal, and for years both army and peasantry labored at the work. Incalculable numbers of the miserable wretches perished before the frowning walls rose to completion.
The fortress is simply enormous; the first battery is 300 feet long, mounting thirty-five bronze forty-two pounders. Back of each gun is a room forty feet square. There are three tiers of guns before the parade ground, which covers many acres in extent and was built upon the top. The Queen's battery rises three more tiers above the parade. It is three quarters of an hour's quick walking from the sally port to the parade. The fort was armed with 365 guns of all varieties of the best Spanish and American manufacture, no French being permitted, and most of them were beautifully ornamented. The carriages were of mahogany, carved and polished. So great were the natural difficulties to be overcome, that after the approaches had been made as perfect as possible it took an entire regiment of 1000 men days to transport a single gun to its position. The walls were many feet thick, and could bid defiance to any artillery then in use.
An incident illustrating the methods Christophe employed is given in his treatment of a battalion toiling up the ascent with one of the smaller guns. He was watching them from the palace, and conceived the impression they were not doing their best. Mounting his horse, he rode among them with oaths and execrations. Still the gun did not move fast enough, so he told them if they did not have it at the summit as soon as he could reach it on his horse, he would punish them. The task was simply impossible, and when, long after the appointed time, the exhausted soldiers staggered into the courtyard, it was to be met with a storm of bullets that soon disposed of them all.
Christophe provisioned the fortress for three years, and his enormous treasure, said to be over $25,000,000, was transported to the fort, and buried in a secret place which had been prepared for it with much care. Having secured it, he caused all who knew its hiding place to be killed; then, moving his choicest regiments into his mountain Gibraltar, he formally took possession and invited all- the engineers and those to whose genius he --was indebted for the success of his plans to a final inspection.
Assembling them on a parapet of the "Queen's battery," overlooking an enormous abyss, at a given signal his guards threw themselves on the victims and tumbled them over. Their bodies rebounding from crag to crag were reduced to shapeless, bloody masses, and Christophe was reasonably sure they could not betray the weakness of the work to any besiegers.
For years he reigned supreme over the northern portion of the island. He established an elaborate code of laws, which is still the admiration of the student. Education was fostered, and, indeed, prosperity was general until the memorable year 1820.
Towards autumn of that year he had a stroke of apoplexy as he was leaving the chapel at Sans Souci, and he never fully recovered. During his illness a mutiny broke out among the troops garrisoning the Cape. Unable to take the field himself, as was his custom, he dispatched a body of his most trustworthy troops under the Prince de Limbe against them, only to have them fraternize with the rebels. Foaming with rage, he assembled his body-guard in the courtyard of the palace, had his charger caparisoned, and attempted to mount and lead the remnant of his troops to victory. Such was the personal fear he had instilled into the hearts of his people that would undoubtedly have been successful with the usual accompaniments of blood and savagery. But it was not to be; he fell in the attempt, and as he was carried into the palace he heard his guard marching off to join his foes. He recognized the beginning of the end, and begging the queen and attendants to withdraw for a moment, a pistol shot from his own bloodstained hand ended alike his crimes and ambitions. The rebels feared him dead too much to interfere with the funeral, and he was interred in the parade ground of the fort, where his tomb is still to be seen.
Of course it was reported at once that he still commanded his ghostly battalions, and such was the fear the thought inspired, that not only were the palace and fortress left intact to be slowly disintegrated by the elements, but to this day no explorations have been made for the buried treasure, and it is almost impossible to get natives to visit the ruins.
In the year 1842 Hayti was visited by a most destructive earthquake, which almost destroyed Sans Souci and laid Laferrier, the fortress, in ruins, but so massive and enduring was the latter work that enough remains to attest the stupendous character of the masonry.
It is much to be regretted that no historian has recorded the thrilling events of those terrible days. Even the legends are singularly incomplete, for surely never have there been more elements of romance crowded into a brief space than during the destruction of the proudest, most extravagant and licentious planters the world has ever known and the transfer of a highly cultivated and productive island back to savagery, in which it practically remains to this day.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. June 1892.