Henri Christophe

Henri Christophe


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




Pauline. . . was chatting gaily as she led the way back to her private apartments and, when some of

the colonists’ wives pushed their way in an begged her to take them out to a ship with her, she retorted sharply:

“You are afraid to die. But I am Bonaparte’s sister  . . .

Christophe                                                                                                                                                                Pétion



Hubert Cole. Christophe: King of Haiti. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)

Edourad Gissant. Caribbean Doscourse (2004)  /  Barbara Harlow. Resistance Literature (1987)

Josaphat B. Kubayanda. The Poet’s Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire (1990)


Paul Laraque and Jack Hirschman.  Open Gate An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry (2001)

David P. Geggus, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World.  University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

*   *   *   *   *

Christophe,  Pétion & Dessalines Counter

Bonaparte ‘s Invasion of St. Domingo

Political Divisions Among Anti-French Forces


Christophe & Petit-Noël

Clervaux, Pétion and the local “brigand” leader, Petit-Noël, now had a combined force of between five and six thousand men, made up of Clerveaux’s men of the 10th, 13th and part of the 6th demi-brigade, Petit-Noël’s irregulars, and a sprinkling of field hands who had been encouraged by the new defection to join in. With terrifying screams they threw themselves at the hastily-organised defences of Le Haut-du-Cap and, since the defenders lacked artillery, soon drove them back by force of numbers on to a plantation half a mile away, leaving the main road to Le Cap open. 

But now lack of discipline caused further delays. Scattering over the countryside to fire the neighbouring fortifications and plantations, they took another two days to regroup for their attack and to drag their cannon into position on the slopes above the town.

On the morning of October 16 the square in front of Government House was filled with terror-stricken women and children, demanding to be put aboard the ships in the harbour, while every man who could carry a sword or fire a musket was allotted a post on the town fortifications or on guard at the hospitals and stores. Leclerc, as he mounted his horse to lead his troops out on the Haut-du-Cap road, paused to say to Norvins: “I entrust you with my wife and child; I am leaving you these four sergeants and this cannon. If I am beaten you will receive the order to embark my wife, my son, and all who are with them.”

Pauline, whose many frailties did not include faintheartedness, was chatting gaily as she led the way back to her private apartments and, when some of the colonists’ wives pushed their way in an begged her to take them out to a ship with her, she retorted sharply: “You are afraid to die. But I am Bonaparte’s sister and I am afraid of nothing!” . . .

Christophe had made no move. he increasingly distrusted Bonaparte, but his lingering respect for the Republic–as well as his compelling sense of discipline and loyalty–prompted him to support Leclerc. There was, too, the uncertainty of his reception if he went over to the rebels, who, with the exception of Clervaux and Pétion, were his bitter enemies. He remained thus hesitant and uncommitted until the night before the rebels launched their attack on Le Cap.

Then news reached him at his headquarters on the Saint-Michel plantation, on the road that ran southeast from le Cap to La Petiste-Anse, of the latest and most cold-blooded of the French atrocities. The Black troops shut up in the ships in the harbour at Le cap — between one thousand and twelve hundred soldiers with, it was said, civilian men, women, and children — had, on Leclerc’s orders, been bayoneted and their bodies thrown into the sea.

Christophe summoned Colonel Boyé, the senior French officer of his staff. “I am sending you back to your general,” he said, speaking quietly at first but his voice quickly rising. “Tell him that I scorn the millions of francs and the honours that he has offered me to abandon the cause of my brothers. As for you, colonel, if it were not for my respect for the law of nations, you would never see Le cap again.” As Christophe shouted the last words, Boyé saw the general’s bodyguard raise their sabres. He stood motionless, unflinchingly waiting to be cut down. Christophe, always quick to admire courage, ordered him to be given a battalion as escort through the rebel territory as far as the outposts of Le Cap. At the same time he paraded the remainder of his men — the 1st, 2nd and 5th colonial demi-brigades — and marched them off to join the rebels, who had just suffered their defeat at Fort Jeantot.

They were camped in confusion inside and around the little town of Le Haut-du-Cap. Leaving his troops on the outskirts, Christophe rode on with some of his bodyguard, seeking Clervaux or Pétion, but the news of his arrival brought Petit-Noël instead, accompanied by a large body of his own men and noisily denouncing Christophe as a traitor and a murderer. Christophe drew a pistol from his saddle holster and cocked it. Petit-Noël, his eyes blazing, leaped from his horse and ran at him, sabre in hand, shouting: “There are no Frenchmen to help him now — we two will fight it out!”

Fortunately for Christophe, Clervaux and  Pétion hurried on to the scene at this moment and managed to separate the two men, while their soldiers of the 13th demi-brigade put themselves between Petit-Noël’s followers and those of Christophe’s troops who had been alerted by the bodyguard and were advancing at the double with bayonets fixed. The din of shouting and mutual threats continued for several minutes, until Pétion at last managed to make himself heard. Pointing toward Le Cap, he asked Petit-Noël and Christophe if they intended to continue quarreling among themselves, to the benefit of nobody but the whites? 

The noise subsided for a moment, but then broke out again, Petit-Noël repeating that Christophe was a traitor and Christophe replying that he would not ally himself or his men with bandits who were fighting only for loot and not for the principles of liberty and equality. Seeing that Christophe’s troops were now all in position and outnumbered his own men, Petit-Noël drew off, threatening to settle the quarrel later. He parted company with the main body, led by Clervaux and Pétion, and joined forces with the lesser bandit chieftains — Cagnet, Labruni, and Grand-Boucan.

Although dissension among the rebels gave Leclerc time to consolidate his forces, concentrating the remainder of his men at St. Marc and Port-au-prince in the West Province, and at Môle St. Nicolas and Le cap in the North, his position was now as bad as that of the British four years before. On November 2 he died of yellow fever. His final words were a criticism of the French government and its treatment of him, but it is likely that he at last realised how much his defeat was due to his own weak arrogance and ineffective double-dealing. Pauline, who accompanied his body back to France, wept bitterly and cut off all her hair to lay beside him in the cedar coffin. “She knows, of course,” commented Bonaparte, “that cropping will make it grow twice as luxuriantly.”

Dessalines Joined the Rebellion

The West Province, once held in complete subjection by Dessalines and Rochanbeau, was now overrun by the rebels. Dessalines, after his last conference with Pétion at le Haut-du-Cap, rode through Plaisance, les Gonaïves and across to La Petites-Rivière, conferring with rebels and with still loyal local commanders and concerting the general rising which was now imminent. On 17 October news came of the defection of Pétion’s troops at Le Haut-du-Cap.

Horsemen careered from one plantation to another, giving the pre-arranged signal of three pistol shots. the field hands dropped their tools and ran for their hidden weapons — the captured stocks that Dessalines had unaccountably “lost” during recent months. Dessalines himself swooped on the fortress at Crête-à-Pierrot, stripped it of arms and ammunition which he sent to be used in the siege of Saint-Marc, and then went northwards to link with Clervaux, Christophe and Pétion.

Christophe & Sans Souci

These three were short of ammunition, food, money and even soldiers, for their troops had begun to dessert and go home or join the better-organised brigands. Pétion approached Sans-Souci, the colonel who had desserted some months before and was believed to have accumulated a store of six thousand pounds of gunpowder at his camp at La Grande-Rivière, and asked for some to be lent to him. Sans-Souci, who dreamed of becoming the leader of the whole insurrection, curtly refused, saying that he had risked his life to get it and had been the first to take up arms against the French.

Pétion finally succeeded in borrowing a thousand pounds of powder from Toussaint-Brave, who had remained at Fort-Liberté with his Black troops after the French evacuation. With these new supplies Christophe fought his way through the crossroads at Le Limbé, which a party of French troops had reoccupied, and up into the mountains, followed by Clervaux and Pétion, whose aim was to make for their native West Province or perhaps even the South since the mulattos were stronger there.

As they climbed higher up the steep mountain roads, seeking a place where they could regroup and organise their resources, they found their way blocked by Sans-Souci at the head of 5,000 well-armed men. he had pondered over his recent conversation with Pétion and had decided that it was time for him to demand recognition as commander-in-chief of all the rebel forces. He asked for a parley with Pétion at which he put this proposal to him, revealing at the same time that he intended to separate Christophe from his troops and kill him, because he still supported the French in his heart.

Pétion placated him by acknowledging him as his superior officer and by accepting from him confirmation in the rank of brigadier. he then implored him not to excite quarrels or settle personal vendettas at a moment when mulattos and Blacks had at last joined forces against the whites. To this Sans-Souci replied: “So you oppose my putting Christophe to death, general — well, you will repent it later.”

Christophe had remained apart, but he could well guess the sort of proposals that Sans Souci would put to Pétion and saw from their faces the direction that the conversation was taking. Followed by his guides he rode up to Sans-Souci and demanded to be recognised as his military superior, swinging his sabre and shouting that he would slice off Sans-Souci’s head if he did not instantly promise obedience. the fury and authority in his voice were so compelling that Sans-Souci reined his horse back and stutteringly acknowledged him as “Mon general.” 

The incident fizzled out in threatening looks and muttered complaints. Pétion, having received Sans-Souci’s word that he would not offer any further hindrance to Christophe, continued south to the Artibonite with the 13th demi-brigade, Sans-Souci returned to La Grande-Rivière. Clervaux remained with Christophe, and together they settled their men into camps in the mountains of Vallière and la Mina, where Dessalines found them and was recognised by them as commander-in-chief.

Bestial Cruelty of Rochambeau

Despite Leclerc’s repeated requests, Bonaparte had not sent him a suitable deputy. The command therefore devolved on the senior lieutenant-general, Rochambeau, a man whom Leclerc had described as “a brave soldier and good fighter, but without an ounce of tact or political sense, nor moral strength and easily led.” At Port-au-Prince, as military governor of the West Province, he had distinguished himself by converting his headquarters into a harem and by devising a new way of disposing of mulattos and Negroes: he had them taken out in barges, battened under hatches, and suffocated with burning sulphur.


He arrived at Le Cap on November 17 to find it under attack by Dessalines, who sent two strong columns under Christophe and Clervaux against the Cliquet plantation and Le Haut-du-Cap while two others attacked on the east and west flanks against La Petite-Anse and Fort Picolet. Christophe, capturing Cliquet and Leclerc’s old headquarters on the Destaing plantation, was finally stopped at the Gorge de la Providence by the batteries of two blockhouses which his troops failed to storm. 

The rebels withdrew into the depths of the plain and on November 19 Rochambeau and the citizens of Le Cap were enheartened by the arrival of reinforcements from Europe. Rochambeau promptly sent some of them to recapture Port-de-Paix and Fort Liberté, successful, vigorous actions which looked well in his dispatches but, by spreading his forces as thinly as they were before, condemned him to continue on the defensive.

He celebrated his success by dealing with Maurepas. This Black general, commanding the district of Port-de-Paix, remained loyal when Clervaux and Christophe went over to the rebels; but Leclerc brought him to Le Cap for security’s sake. Rochambeau had him taken out with his family to the warship Duguay-Trouin for execution. He was tied to the mast and his cocked hat perched derisively on his head. His wife and children were forced to watch while the ship’s carpenter nailed his epaulet’s to his shoulders. When he had been tortured enough, he and his family and their companions were bayoneted and thrown into the sea. 

With Rochambeau’s assumption of supreme command, bestial cruelty had become an open instrument of French policy.

Murder of Sans-Souci & the Need for Unity

After the abortive attack on Le Cap, Dessalines decided to return to the West, to clear that province on the French. before he left, Christophe conferred with him on the problem of Sans-Souci and the other brigands who refused to accept Dessalines as commander-in-chief, each nursing his own ambitions. Christophe was convinced that the Blacks would never prevail until they matched the French in discipline and unity and he now promised Dessalines that he would bring Sans-Souci to heel. He did it in a way which proved that, though he lacked Dessalines’ savage and often unmotivated ferocity, he could equal him in ruthless perfidy.

He sent a placatory message to Sans-Souci, setting out his conviction that the success of the Black cause depended on unity and asking if Sans-Souci would agree to meet him and give him the benefit of his advice on how best to achieve this. Sans-Souci, supposing this to be a veiled offer to meet his demands, readily accepted Christophe’s suggestion of a rendezvous at the deserted Grandpré plantation and, uncharacteristically allowing his enthusiasm to get the better of his caution, took only his principal lieutenants and a small escort with him.

There was silence as they rode up the tree-lined avenue to the great house; the orchard and kitchen garden were as overgrown as the fields and not a soul stirred in the long rows of slave-barracks at the rear. They dismounted and clattered into the soiled, empty, echoing rooms, splintered and blackened by countless raids and lootings. They did not have to wait long. Suddenly the neglected garden was full of Christophe’s troops and they realised that they had walked into a trap. Only one man, Major Charles Pierre, was granted his life by Christophe; the remainder were bayoneted to death.

Dessalines, the Haitian Flag &  the Death of Petit-Noël

With a semblance of unity thus uncompromisingly imposed, Christophe and Clervaux went down to L’Arcahaye for a conference of the generals of all three provinces. It lasted for four days, with Dessalines presiding at each session. On the final day, they all rose to acclaim Dessalines as generalissimo and to swear to die rather than live under French rule. As always during the past decade, they fought under the same flag as their white opponents, and it was still a tricolour that draped the table at which Dessalines sat. 

When he rose to his feet to acknowledge the cheers of his generals, he snatched the flag from the table and ripped it into three places. The white piece from the middle he crumpled and threw to the ground; the blue and red pieces he waved above his head. Later that day, his wife’s goddaughter, Catherine Flon, sewed the two sections together, the blue above the red, and the flag of Haiti was born.

Although there was now a national flag, true unity was still far away. on his return to the North, Christophe marched with 2,000 men against the Frenchman, Lacroix, who had recaptured Laxavon, Ouanaminthe and Forth-Liberté. He was badly beaten and himself wounded during a French cavalry charge in which he lost three hundred men. In his retreat to Grandpré he was not only pursued by the French but also harried on the flanks by the men who had formerly served under Sans Souci. It seemed as if his treacherous murder of Sans-Souci had turned the whole province against him.

In the mountains of Vallière, his orders were disregarded. At Le Dondon his old opponents, Petit -Noël, refused to recognize his authority or that of Dessalines. As the fires of resentment swept along the mountain crests, Christophe found that even his regular troops were beginning to desert him. He fell back on Clervaux’s headquarters at La Marmelade, but Petit -Noël drove him and Clervaux out and over the mountains down to Les Gonaïves.

Returning triumphantly to le Dondon, Petit -Noël found Paul L’Ouverture, Toussaint’s brother, waiting to plead with him for unity. With the memory of the days when they had put down all risings against  the French still flaming in his mind, Petit -Noël angrily refused to consider reconciliation with Christophe or with Dessalines, whom he sneeringly referred to as “the commander-in-chief of the Artibonite planters.” His indignation became so violent that L’Ouverture decided to make for safety at Les Gonaïves with Christophe and Clervaux. He had underestimated Petit -Noël’s rage: he was not many miles on the road from Le Dondon when some of Petit -Noël’s men overtook him and cut off his head.

Nobody was now capable of negotiating peace between the warring chief and factions, but there was still one man capable of imposing it. Dessalines marched northwards at the head of a strong force. he attacked Le Dondon with three columns simultaneously and drove Petit -Noël out of the town, then chased him into the mountains, captured him and put him to death. The speed and severity with which he struck brought the lesser leaders flocking to offer their submission. But they could not conceal their hatred of Christophe and, to avoid further trouble, Dessalines moved him permanently to Les Gonaïves, while Clervaux was transferred to the Artibonite.

Source: Hubert Cole. Christophe: King of Haiti. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

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The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World 

Reviewed by Mimi Sheller

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update 6 May 2010




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