Haiti: Occassional Musings 21, A brief encounter with King Henry!
A week ago, 17 of traveled to Okap [Cap Haitian] for a few days vacation. Apart from reunion with family, the center piece of our visit would be a trip to the Citadelle and Sans Souci, palaces built by Henri Christophe, [King Henry] one of the three revolutionary heroes of Haiti. I’d seen photos and paintings of the palaces but as these can often be deceptive, I didn’t have great expectations. By 11am we were still not ready to leave and there were concerns that the climb would be too much under the midday sun. Because no one could agree on what to do, the final decision on whether to go or not was placed with me.
My response was I had just traveled some 10,000 miles from Port Harcourt, Nigeria for the sole purpose of visiting the Citadel so not going was not an option – rain, sun, hail and unbelievably steep road!. Not quite true but that’s how I felt at the time and used this as my argument for going. The first part of the journey was by truck, up and up the steep winding cobbled road and still the palace was in the distance. We arrived at the car park where we were harassed by tens of souvenir hustlers and young men trying to get us to rent one of the small skinny horses all of whom we ignored and began the long climb. The initial half mile or so was so steep I honestly wasn’t sure I could make it and being surrounded by horse hustlers trying to get me to hire one didn’t help. My legs moved in slow motion as if tied to chains and cannonballs. One of our group tried to sit on one of the horses but promptly jumped off as the horse skipped precariously near the edge of the path. Eventually the hustlers gave up and we were left in peace and sweat to make the climb in our own time.
The kids raced ahead whilst I and the rest of the old adults made the climb in just over 30 minutes. As we got closer and closer we began to feel the grandeur of this magnificent palace, now a world heritage site, built on a foundation of rocks atop the highest point from which even the hills of Cap Haitian are over looked.
King Henry was born in Grenada in 1767. According to a Haitian historian friend, at the age of 12, Christophe joined a ship’s crew and set sail for Saint-Domingue. He worked as a waiter before joining the French army in Saint Domingue. At the time the Americans were still fighting the British and had called upon the French for support. In a twist of irony, Henry Christophe, soon to be Black revolutionary hero, was one of 500 Haitian soldiers – the Corps de Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, who fought alongside the Americans against the British at the Battle of Savannah in 1779. I doubt many in the US today are aware of the role of Haitians in securing their own freedoms. Another lesser known fact is that after Haiti’s independence in 1804, many Black Americans began emigrating to the island.
On his return, he left the French army and eventually joined with the revolutionary leaders, Janjak Desalin [Jean Jacques Dessalines] and Tousssaint L’Overture in the hills of Cap Haitian in the war to free Haiti from France and slavery which would lead to the country being the first Black independent nation in 1804