Haiti: Her History and Her Detractors/Part I: Chapter XI

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Henri Christophe, Chief of the Provisional Government—Saint-Alexandra Pétion—Convocation of a Constituent Assembly—Constitution of 1806—Christophe marches against Port-au-Prince—He is elected President of Haiti (December 28, 1806)—Civil war—The Senate dismisses Christophe, who at Cap[1] is elected President of the State of Haiti (February 17, 1807)—The Senate at Port-au-Prince elects Pétion President of Haiti for four years (March 9, 1807)—Christophe assumes the title of King of Haiti (March, 1811)—French intrigues against the independence of Haiti—Pétion and Simon Bolivar—Pétion re-elected President March 9, 1811, and March 9, 1815—Elected President for life on October 9, 1816; died on the 29th of March, 1818.

The cries of "Liberty forever!" "Down with tyranny!" were heard on all sides as Dessalines fell dead. In the Western and Southern provinces, where the insurrection had inflamed the people's minds, the Emperor's death provoked a strong reaction against the political regime he had established. The discipline of the army felt the effect of this reaction; soldiers deserted their regiments. And the citizens seemed to think that there was no longer any restraint to their will. There was but little show of authority and it looked as though license had replaced Dessalines's absolutism. This state of affairs was far from being satisfying to Christophe, who had become Chief of the Provisional Government. In reality he had the same ideas as Dessalines concerning the prerogatives of a ruler. Moreover, the insurrection had not had time to enter the Northern province, which was under his command; thus he was able to maintain the severe discipline which he had established there. Like his former chief, Christophe thought that for the time being absolute power was the only system possible in Haiti. Therefore, he intended to pursue the same plan of action which Dessalines had instituted. In consequence he was distrustful of the new ideas current in the Western and Southern provinces, where they were discussing the advisability of restricting the powers of the ruler of the country and of taking precautions against a possible restoration of tyranny. Fixing his suspicions upon the originators of this movement he cautiously remained with his army at Cap.

Alexandre Pétion was undoubtedly the leading spirit among the generals who were planning to limit the authority of the ruler of Haiti. Great was the contrast between the two men whom coming events were going to set at enmity one against the other.

Pétion's[2] father was a white Frenchman by the name of Sabès; he owed to the accident of his birth the advantage of a cultivated mind. Of a sickly constitution he was phlegmatic and easy-tempered; his tastes were simple and he was known for his kindness and his benevolence.

Christophe,[3] born and raised in slavery, was very little inclined to pity. Of a tall and muscular build, with bright and intelligent eyes as his most striking feature, he seemed the very embodiment of force. One of his defects was the love of ostentation; when he was a French general his home at Cap-Français was celebrated for its luxurious richness, and his mode of entertainment was pompous. He was of a sanguine and passionate nature, chafing easily under the slightest restraint.

Pétion was often actuated by his heart, whilst Christophe rarely allowed himself to be thus ruled. The former trusted the people, in the welfare of whom he was deeply interested; he contemplated granting them wise liberties and thought that it would be possible to instil into them a liking for work by making them the owners of the land they had watered with their blood. Christophe had very little faith in the improvement of the people through the enjoyment of liberty; he was convinced that an iron hand would more easily and more quickly compel the people to work. Two men of such vastly different natures could not possibly have the same political ideas. It was no wonder then that whilst Pétion was thinking of establishing a republican form of government, Christophe, if he were not inclined to the maintenance of the monarchy, wished at least to create a strong and forcible executive power. On account of this difference of opinion the two Generals were already at odds when on November 3, 1806, Christophe, in his capacity of Chief of the Provisional Government, summoned the citizens in order to elect a Constituent Assembly which was to meet at Port-au-Prince on the 30th of the same month. In the province of the North and in the Artibonite, which were under Christophe's direct influence, there were more parishes than in the West and in the South. The Chief of the Provisional Government was therefore sure of having in the Assembly a majority willing to support him. In consequence, he caused a draft of a constitution suitable to his ideas to be prepared.

To counteract Christophe's plans Pétion authorized the election of Deputies in many small towns in the Western and Southern departments, which had hitherto never been represented. He himself became a member of the Constituent Assembly, the majority of which he had now secured; and in his turn he prepared the draft of a constitution.

By increasing the number of the members of the Assembly, Pétion had unquestionably disregarded the authority of the Chief of the Provisional Government. The latter was not disposed to suffer any such infringement of his prerogatives and when, on the 18th of December, 1806, the Assembly met in the church at Port-au-Prince, the breach between the two Generals was complete. The Deputies from the Northern and Artibonite provinces at once protested against the presence of those whom they considered as unlawfully elected. But no notice was taken of their protest. A committee, of which Pétion was appointed the chairman, was commissioned to draw up and to submit to the Assembly the draft of the Constitution.

In a proclamation of December 24 Christophe openly declared many of the most important members of the Assembly to be rebels; he then prepared to march against Port-au-Prince. Yet on the 27th of December Pétion submitted the report of the committee to the Assembly and that same day the Constitution was adopted. Immediately the Deputies from the Northern and Artibonite provinces despatched to Christophe a written protest against the "so-called Constitution, the consequence of intrigue and malevolence, and against all that may follow until the dissolution of the Assembly."

The Constitution of 1806 established a republican form of government; as an evidence of the distrust then existing against Christophe, exaggerated precautions were taken against the Chief of the Executive Power, whose authority was greatly curtailed. All the powers were centred in one body, the Senate, which had the entire possession of all executive, legislative, and military functions. The Senate alone had the right to appoint the civil and military functionaries, to determine their duties and the place of their residence; it had the direction of the foreign affairs and was, in consequence, authorized to draw up all treaties; it had the initiative in the matter of laws and legislative measures; it assumed also the privileges of a Supreme Court. The President of the Republic, elected for four years, was simply invested with the care of proclaiming the acts adopted by the Senate and of taking the necessary steps for their execution; and although he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Army he was not allowed to confer any title or rank.

Believing that in this manner it had put an effectual stop to any tendency toward despotism, the Constituent Assembly, on the 28th of December, 1806, elected Christophe President of Haiti; the same day the twenty-four members of the Senate were also elected.

Nevertheless, Christophe, who had not received any notification of his election, continued on his march against Port-au-Prince at the head of a formidable army.

The Senate met on the 31st of December, and regarded Christophe's soldiers, who were then at l'Arcahaie, as enemies.

However, according to the new Constitution, the President-elect was granted fifteen days in which to take the oath of the office. Before the expiration of this time he could not, in the absence of any overt action on his part, be considered as having declined the office or being in rebellion against the Constitution, a copy of which they had not even thought of sending him. Yet when Christophe's soldiers reached Sibert on the 15th of January, 1807, they encountered the army of the Western and Southern provinces under the command of Pétion. A fierce battle ensued. Pétion was utterly defeated and would have been killed but for the devotedness of one of his aides-de-camp, Coutilien Coustard, who, noticing the danger in which his chief stood, seized the hat adorned with gold lace usually worn by Pétion and placed it on his own head. He was thus mistaken for his General and killed.

Following up his success Christophe besieged Port-au-Prince. But after various ineffectual attacks on this town he returned to the Northern province. An Assembly which assumed the title of "Assembly of the mandatories of the people" met at Cap, and on the 17th of February, 1807, adopted a Constitution which, contrary to the one voted at Port-au-Prince on the 27th of December, 1806, gave full power to the Chief of the Executive Power.

The Government of Haiti, called now the State of Haiti, consisted of a President, Generalissimo of the land and sea forces, and of a Council of State of nine members appointed by the President. The President, who was elected for life, had the right of choosing his successor. According to this Constitution Henri Christophe was on the 17th of February elected President and Generalissimo of the land and sea forces of the State of Haiti. But on the 27th of January, 1807, the Senate at Port-au-Prince had declared Christophe to be an outlaw and deprived him of all his civil and military powers. On the 9th of March Alexandre Pétion, then a Senator, was elected President of the Republic of Haiti for four years. The country was then beneath the sway of two rulers with two separate governments: the State of Haiti consisting of the Northern and Artibonite departments, and the Republic of Haiti composed of the Western and Southern departments. The forces and resources of each were about equal.

Christophe made desperate efforts to subdue Pétion. In 1812 he failed in a last attempt to take possession of Port-au-Prince and returning to Cap he left his opponent alone. They both preserved their respective positions and by ceasing their attacks each one was able to look after the interests of the portion of the territory under his command.

Christophe had himself proclaimed King of Haiti in March, 1811, and assumed the name of Henri I. Contrary to the principles of Dessalines, whose desire was for the equality of all classes, he created a nobility and established a strict etiquette at his Court. As supreme ruler, free from the opposition of a deliberative assembly, he governed according to his will and fancy, keeping each one in his place by force of severe discipline. Personal safety and peace were the results of the order which existed throughout the land; thus agriculture and trade flourished and prospered. Christophe endeavored to maintain friendly relations with both Great Britain and the United States, and did his utmost to propagate public instruction. The portion of the country under his command was therefore prosperous, although there existed a feeling of discontent among the people.

Pétion, who was of a kind nature and easy tempered, was hampered besides by the Constitution to the adoption of which he had largely contributed; he was thus unable to proceed in his administration with the same vigor displayed by his competitor. In more or less open opposition with the Senate, which finally adjourned sine die, he had to contend with many plots. Goman, in the vicinity of Jérémie, further harassed him by keeping up a guerilla warfare. And in 1810 General André Rigaud,[4] who had returned from France, became Commander-in-Chief of the Southern Department, establishing an administration independent of the President's control. Pétion's authority was thus restricted to the Western Department. This secession occurred without any bloodshed, and ended peacefully after Rigaud's death, when the Southern Department acknowledged once more the authority of the President of the Republic (1812).

Owing to the unfavorable influences of these disturbances, agriculture suffered much neglect. However, Pétion's kindness to the peasants won over all their sympathies; and he gained their entire confidence and devotion when, through liberal grants and frequent sales of land, he transformed those who had been until then but simple tillers of the soil into landowners. By establishing this system of small estates Pétion bound up the interests of the people to that of the Republic, thereby gaining their support for the maintenance of the national independence. To public instruction he gave likewise his earnest attention; among other schools

Town of Milot, Where Christophe Built "Sans-Souci"

he founded was the "Lycée" at Port-au-Prince, which still bears his name. Imbued with a sense of the necessity of having the independence acknowledged by the great Powers he strove to display abroad the country's flag. Ships flying the Haitian colors were despatched to England and the United States, where they were made welcome; foreign commercial intercourse was thus secured. Great Britain even forgot that she had forbidden her colonies in the West Indies to have any dealings with Haiti. Being at war with the United States she was scarcely able to supply Jamaica with provisions; the island would therefore have suffered from famine were it not for the help gladly given by Haiti.

Under the administrations of both Christophe and Pétion prosperity reappeared. But anxiety caused by France's attitude soon paralyzed their efforts. Louis XVIII had succeeded Napoleon I; and the new monarch thought that it would be easy to reconquer Haiti. With this object, at the end of June, 1814, he despatched to Haiti three agents: Dauxion Lavaysse, Dravermann, and Franco de Medina. At that time France did not possess an inch of territory in her former colony; for the inhabitants of the Spanish portion had taken up arms and in 1809 once again bowed to the authority of Spain. However, among the papers of Franco de Medina, whom Christophe had caused to be arrested and tried under the charge of being a spy, were discovered the secret instructions given by the French Government, which revealed the intention of the Bourbons, not only to send an army to recover Haiti, but also to reestablish slavery in the island. The feeling provoked by these instructions was intense. Christophe and Pétion’s one thought was to have all in readiness for the national defense. Arms, ammunition, and all the necessary provisions were accumulated in the mountains, in the places most difficult of access, where Haitian strategy would be able to wear out the European troops. The expenses were considerable; but the people stoically endured every discomfort and displayed the greatest enthusiasm to defend, with their lives if need be, the liberty of the soil, of which they meant to remain the sole masters.

Napoleon's escape from Elba occurred just in time to thwart the plans of Louis XVIII. Yet upon the return of the Bourbons to power they once again took up the idea of retaking Haiti. In July, 1816, Lieutenant-General Viscount of Fontanges, the Councillor of State Esmangart, and Captain du Petit Thouars of the French Navy were appointed the King's Commissioners at Saint-Domingue. But they failed in their purpose, and the resistance offered them by both Christophe and Pétion left to them no other course of action but to return to France; consequently they sailed from Port-au-Prince on the 12th of November, 1816.[5] On the same day Pétion issued a proclamation to the people which read as follows: "Our rights are sacred; they have their source in nature which created all men equal. We will defend our rights against all those who will dare to think of subduing us. Our aggressors will find on this island ashes mingled with blood, bullets and an avengeful climate. Authority rests on your will; and your will is to be free and independent. You will be so or we will give to the world the awful spectacle of burying ourselves under the ruins of our country rather than submit again to servitude, even in its mildest form. … "

Christophe also issued a proclamation on the 20th of November, in the following terms: "We will negotiate with the French Government on equal footing, from Power to Power, from Sovereign to Sovereign. No negotiation will be entered upon with that country unless the independence of the kingdom of Haiti, political as well as commercial, be previously recognized. … Neither the French flag nor any Frenchman will be allowed to enter any port of the kingdom until the French Government positively recognizes the independence of Haiti. … "

The firm and explicit attitude of the two rulers put an end to France's last illusions. The only thing to subdue Haiti would be the use of greater force than it would be possible for her to cope with. Once more the Haitians prepared themselves for the attack which seemed to be imminent.

Notwithstanding the anxiety caused by such a contingency, Haiti did not forget what she considered her duty toward those who were fighting to free themselves from European domination. She gave a hearty welcome to Simon Bolivar, Commodore Aury, and the many Venezuelan families whom the successes of the Spaniards had compelled to leave their country. At the end of December, 1815, Bolivar arrived at Cayes, in which port were anchored, on January 6, 1816, ten men-of-war commanded by Commodore Aury, who had been forced to evacuate Carthagena. The embarrassed circumstances in which the Republic found itself did not prevent Pétion from extending all the help he could to the sailors and the Venezuelan families, who, owing to their hasty flight, were in the greatest state of indigence. He was most kind to Bolivar, requesting only in return for the unselfish assistance given to the latter's cause, that slavery be abolished. Bolivar[6] promised to proclaim "general freedom in Venezuela province and all other provinces which he should succeed in winning over to the cause of independence." He received from the President of Haiti 4,000 rifles, powder, cartridges, all kinds of provisions, even a printing-press. Pétion did not content himself with furnishing these articles; he was peace-maker between Bolivar and his two companions, General Bermudes and Commodore Aury, who had quarrelled, thus dispelling for the time being the misunderstanding which was about to set them at variance. Haitians were authorized to join in the expedition. In the following letter written on the 8th of February, Bolivar expressed his intense gratitude to Pétion:[7]

"Mr. President: I am overwhelmed with your favors. In everything you are magnanimous and kind. We have almost completed our preparations and in a fortnight we may perhaps be ready to start; I am only awaiting your last favors. Through Mr. Inginac, your worthy Secretary, I take the liberty to make a new request. In my proclamation to the inhabitants of Venezuela and in the decrees I have to issue concerning the freedom of the slaves, I do not know if I am allowed to express the feelings of my heart toward Your Excellency and to leave to posterity an everlasting token of your philanthropy. I do not know, I say, if I must declare that you are the author of our liberty. I beg Your Excellency to let me know his will on the matter. … "

Pétion refused to be designated as the author of the independence of Venezuela and made the following answer to Bolivar:


"February 18, 1816, the 13th year of the Independence.

"General: Your kind letter of the 8th instant reached me yesterday. You know my regard for the cause you are defending and for yourself; you must then be convinced how great is my desire to see freedom granted to all those who are still under the yoke of slavery; but out of deference for a power which has not yet openly declared itself an enemy of the Republic, I am compelled to ask you not to mention my name in any of your documents; and for this purpose I reckon on the sentiments which characterize you. …"[8]

After leaving Cayes[9] on the 10th of April, 1816, Bolivar landed at Carupano on May 31. Defeated on the 10th of July by the Spanish General Morales, he fled again to Haiti. Pétion once more gave him his sympathy and assistance, furnishing him with large supplies of arms, ammunition, etc. On the 26th of December, 1816, Bolivar left Haiti and this time succeeded in ridding his country of Spanish domination. He expressed his gratitude once more in the following letter which he wrote before embarking, to General Marion, Commandant of the arrondissement of Cayes:

"Port-au-Prince, December 4, 1816.

"General: On the point of starting with a view to return to my country and strengthen its independence, I feel that it would be ungrateful of me were I to miss this opportunity of thanking you for all your kindness to my countrymen. If men are bound by the favors they have received, be sure, General, that my countrymen and myself will forever love the Haitian people and the worthy rulers who make them happy. …"[10]

Pétion was successively reelected President on the 9th of March, 1811, and on the 9th of March, 1815.

On the 2d of June, 1816, the Constitution of 1806 was modified. The authority was divided between the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary Powers. A Supreme Court (Tribunal de Cassation) was created; and henceforth the Legislative body was to consist of a Senate and a House of Commons. The President of Haiti, elected for life by the Senate, had the right to appoint all the civil and military functionaries and also to direct the exterior relations.

In pursuance of this Constitution, Pétion was elected President for life on the 9th of October, 1816. But he did not long survive this last election. On the 22d of March he had an attack of fever, to which he succumbed on the 29th of March, 1818, in spite of all the efforts that were made to restore him to health.

  1. Formerly Cap-Français. Was known whilst Christophe was King as Cap-Henri; and now is called Cap-Haitien.
  2. Pétion was born in Port-au-Prince on the 2d of April, 1770. A free man by birth, he studied mathematics, and became one of the best artillerymen of his time; he was also a competent silversmith.
  3. Christophe was born in the island of San-Christopher in 1769. According to Listant Pradine (Lois et Actes, 1807, p. 199) he was born at Grenada on the 6th of October, 1767. Christophe was still a slave when the events which led to the abolition of slavery took place in Saint-Domingue.
  4. André Rigaud was born at Cayes on the 17th of January, 1761; his father was a Frenchman and his mother a negress named Rose Bossey. He was one of the colored militiamen who fought at Savannah for the independence of the United States. He died at Cayes on the 17th of September, 1811.
  5. On their arrival in France they tried to make believe that their failure was caused by the intrigues of Great Britain and the United States. In their report they charge the two countries with slandering France and making her odious to an ignorant people and with maintaining Pétion's distrust by continually telling him that France's only design was to place him and his whole race once more under the yoke of slavery. (B. Ardouin, Vol. VIII, p. 257.)
  6. Bolivar endeavored to be true to his word. He freed his own slaves numbering about 1,500 and, on the 6th of July, 1816, granted general freedom. But such a measure met with the strongest opposition. In 1821 a gradual freedom was proclaimed; it was only in 1854 that the last slaves were freed owing to the influence of General Monagas, the President of the Republic of Venezuela.
  7. Expédition de Bolivar par le Sénateur Marion ainé, p. 42 (December, 1849).
  8. Expédition de Bolivar par le Sénateur Marion ainé", p. 43 (December, 1849).
  9. The capital of the Southern Department.
  10. And a few years later Bolivar refrained from inviting Haiti to the Congress of Panama!