King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

A divided Haiti

Dessalines’ rule did not bring stability to Haiti.Two of his closest advisers, Henri Christophe (1767-1820) and Alexandre Pétion (1770-1818), both sought to overthrow him and in 1806 he was assassinated. After his death Christophe and Pétion proceeded to carve up the country between them, Christophe ruling in the north and Pétion in the south.

Pages 6 and 7 of pamphlet giving details of the royal household and nobility, in FrenchAlmanach royal d’Hayti, pour l’année 1814, onzième de l’indépendance, et la troisième du règne de Sa Majesté. Au Cap-Henry: chez P Roux, [1814] [FCO Historical Collection]Christophe, a former slave, instituted a semi-feudal regime of compulsory plantation corvée labour, backed by military force, which stopped just short of slavery. By these means he was able to maintain sugar production on the large estates and generate enough export trade to ensure a measure of prosperity.

He also embarked on a grandiose construction programme, building six châteaux and eight palaces, as well as the impressive citadel of Laferrière, to guard the country from French attack. In 1811 Christophe proclaimed himself king, taking the title Henri I. He established a Haitian peerage, with princes, dukes, counts, barons and knights (chevaliers), and a college of arms to regulate the award of coats of arms to the nobility.

On display is an extremely rare publication, the Almanach royal d’Hayti, giving details of the royal household and nobility. It was presented to James Stephen (1758-1832), the lawyer and slavery abolitionist, by a member of the Haitian government and, along with other books from Stephen’s library, eventually came to the Colonial Office library via his third son, also called James (1789-1859), who was permanent under-secretary for the colonies.

Meanwhile, in southern Haiti, Christophe’s rival, Pétion, ruled over a very different regime. Pétion was of mixed race, the son of a black woman and a wealthy Frenchman, and had been educated at some expense in France. Under his liberal government the large estates were broken up and the land subdivided into tens of thousands of smallholdings, which the former slaves could own as peasant farmers.

This policy was immensely popular but proved disastrous for the economy, as sugar production all but ceased. Pétion’sdemocratic ideals too faded in time and he proclaimed himself president for life in 1816. After his death from yellow fever he was succeeded by Jean-Pierre Boyer (1776?-1850), another autocratic ruler, who lost no time in reuniting the two halves of Haiti after Christophe’s death in 1820.

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