Christophe was born on the island of Grenada, a British colonial acquisition. His parents were slaves brought to Grenada with thousands of other West Africans to work in the sugar industry. These slaves in the sugar industry were known for their fierce and determined nature to resist the institution of slavery. The revolutionary nature of Henri Christophe has its roots deeply embedded in his African ancestry. Christophe’s obstinate, argumentative, and obdurate nature led his father to sell his services to a French ship’s captain as a cabin boy, before had reached the age of ten.
The ship’s captain sold Henri to a French sugar planter in the French province on the island of Saint Dominique called Haiti, which was a Carob Indian name meaning “the land of the mountains.” The brutality of the French planters led to much discontent among the slaves in Haiti. These acts of brutality were witnessed by Christophe and set the stage for his role in the Haitian revolution. He participated in the American Revolutionary War in the French contingent. As a sergeant, he was among the 545 Haitian free Negroes known as the Fontages Legion. Fighting to make men in another country free from oppression created a thirst for freedom within Christophe.
In June 1794, the Spaniards and the English who wanted to share the wealth created by the sugar industry threatened Haiti. The Spaniards constituted the greatest threat and a battle for control of Haiti ensued. The three principal figures in the Haitian revolution were Toussaint L’Overture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Christophe. Toussaint joined the French forces against the Spaniards, became a general of the slaves, and marched to several villages, liberating his brothers who immediately joined his forces. After distinguishing himself in battle, Christophe was made a sergeant by Toussaint and later made a general by Dessalines.
The French forces were defeated and Haiti was declared an independent republic on November 27, 1803. The Republic of Haiti was divided into two states, and Christophe was elected president of the Northern State in February of 1807, and Alexandre Petion was elected president of the Southern Republic of Haiti in March. The division between the republics was to last for a decade. President Christophe set out to improve all aspects of life in the Northern Province. One of his major concerns and preoccupations was the defense of his country from internal and external aggression. He had a huge fortress built on a mountain peak overlooking the Le Cap harbor, 3,000 feet above the sea. The citadel was named “la Ferriere,” which means the blacksmith’s pouch.
The huge stronghold, which still exists today, was built in the shape of a ship, covering 16 acres, with some of the walls soaring 140 feet high. The education of the Haitians was Henri Christophe’s second priority. He solicited teachers from the United States and Britain to build schools. This ultimately raised the former slaves to a literacy level unequaled in the Western Hemisphere. To continue the improvement of Haitian life, Christophe decided to improve a black kingdom in the Western Hemisphere. At a council of state on March 28, 1811, he declared Haiti a kingdom, with himself as King Henri I. Christophe offered the ruler of the south, Alexandre Petion, the opportunity to be absorbed. Petion refused and the relationship between the two men and their respective countries remained strained until Petion’s death in 1818. In August 1820, Christophe suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.
When the news spread of his infirmities, the seeds of rebellion began to grow. On October 2, 1820, the military garrison at St. Marc led a mutiny that sparked a revolt. The mutiny coincided with a conspiracy of Christophe’s own generals. Some of his trusted aides took him to the Citadel to await the inevitable confrontation with the rebels. Christophe ordered his attendants to bathe him, dress him in his formal military uniform, place him in his favorite chair in his den, and leave him alone.
Shortly after the attendants left his side, Christophe committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart with a silver bullet on October 8, 1820.