Black Crown, Henry Christophe, the Haitian Revolution and the Caribbean’s Forgotten Kingdom: Book Review

By Bob Newland

Maya Angelou,  renowned US poet and civil rights activist,  is quoted as saying ‘The more you know of your history the more liberated you are’.  This book by Paul Clammer goes a long way to fill the enormous gap in material available to those who wish to learn more of the history of Haiti, the first country to overthrow slavery.

Based around the biography of Henry Christophe it provides a mass of detail of the achievements and setbacks of the Haitian revolution and the subsequent battle for independence.

This adventure begins with the American War of Independence where Christophe, Toussaint Louverture and many other former African Caribbean slaves joined the colonists in their fight against Britain.  This act is commemorated in Savannah, Georgia, where a statue shows five French soldiers confronting the British.  The soldiers are black and the young drummer boy is Henry Christophe. 

Returning to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) Louverture, inspired by the French Revolution, led a series of slave revolts eventually succeeding in overthrowing French rule in 1801.  Christophe was one of his top lieutenants.

Louverture died in captivity in France following a failed attempt to negotiate independence.   This ‘shameful act was commemorated shortly afterwards in a sonnet by William Wordsworth’.  His successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines finally declared independence in 1804.  

The constitution of the new republic states in Article 2: ‘Slavery is forever abolished’. (something declared by the constitution of the French Republic but not carried out in its colonies). However, plantation workers were still required to remain and work on their plantations.  It was not an easy path forward with divisions between north and south, revolts by maroons (escaped slaves who set up their own statelets from time to time) and power struggles amongst the leaders of the revolt.

All this took place against a background of attempts by former plantation owners to regain control and re-establish slavery.  The whole story is a reflection on colonial history of the world.  As Britain, France and Spain fought in Europe they battled for dominance in the Caribbean. Over time all their armies were driven out of Haiti but there continued many attempts to re-invade.

Dessalines was assassinated in 1807 whereupon Christophe was elected President.  Sadly not long after the country split in two.  Christophe, ruling in the north declared himself King and set up a hereditary Kingdom claiming sovereignty over the whole of Haiti including the ‘Republic’ in the south.

According to Clammer, although Christophe was seen by many as a ruthless dictator, this may be too simplistic a view.  He succeeded in defending the Haitian revolution against many internal intrigues and changed strategic alliances many times to protect Haiti’s independence against potential and real invasion attempts by France, Spain and Britain.

Christophe was also responsible for establishing a substantial educational system for his people and introduced a system of labour and small land ownership which successfully replaced the horrors of the former slave plantations.  This regime was inspired by Dessalines’ idea of freedom through national self-sufficiency.  It regulated working hours, banned corporal punishment and provided for 25% of the income from the plantations being retained  by the plantation workers. This Agricultural Code was praised at the time by Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, as a creation of ‘the most moral association of men in existence; nothing that white men have been able to arrange is equal to it’.

Christophe’s suicide in 1820, during an army coup supported by a popular revolt, brought an end to the short lived Kingdom of Haiti and the reign of its only king.  The country was subsequently reunited as an independent republic.

The book is hard reading as it retells events in great detail, sometimes almost on a day to day basis, and at £25 may be beyond the means of some potential readers.  It is, however, an excellent record of many different aspects of Haiti’s little known history not just that of its ill-fated monarchy. 

As well as being an important contribution to the histography of Haiti it provides evidence of the appalling intrigues and crimes of European imperialist states in their efforts to maintain their looting of the Caribbean and exploitation of the Afro-Caribbean slaves and their descendants.  

Black Crown, Henry Christophe, the Haitian Revolution and the Caribbean’s Forgotten Kingdom by Paul Clammer.  Hurst Publishers £25

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