Henri Christophe’s palace of dreams in Sans Souci

Two hundred years ago, Haiti’s self-proclaimed king Henri Christophe completed his grand palace of Sans Souci. It was a sumptuous symbol of power

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

The small community of Milot is pretty much what any visitor to northern Haiti might expect to find: a few streets of wood and corrugated iron dwellings, the cheerful hustle and bustle of a busy farming community, a backdrop of mountains which, unlike many in the country, still appear lushly forested. The town (population about 5,500) seems unremarkable — until you walk to its southern end. There, where the potholed streets peter out, stands a massive white basilica, topped by what looks like a Russian Orthodox onion dome. To its right, an elaborate double set of iron gates bar access to what lies beyond on a slight incline: a vision like something from a Werner Herzog film, the imposing ruins of a baroque palace set in a tropical valley.

It takes a moment to appreciate the splendour — and sheer incongruity — of the site. For here indeed is a palace, built by the Caribbean’s only self-proclaimed king, and completed two hundred years ago in the last months of 1813.

Strangely, the palace owes its existence to the Haitian Revolution, a fourteen-year conflict that ended the French colony of Saint-Domingue and created the independent black state of Haiti. In the course of the revolution, black leaders rose to prominence, and one of them was Henri Christophe, a former slave who, it is thought, was born in Grenada in 1767. We know little about his early years, but it seems he was freed from slavery and worked as a waiter and manager in a hotel in the sophisticated French colonial town of Cap-Français. When the first uprising broke out in 1791, he threw in his lot with the revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, and until 1802 served with distinction, eventually being promoted to the rank of general. He also fought under Toussaint’s successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and when he in turn was assassinated, Christophe found himself close to power.

But it was only partial power, as Haiti was divided between the north, controlled by Christophe, and the south, ruled by the lighter-skinned general Alexandre Pétion. Moreover, the French still harboured ambitions to retake their colony and re-impose slavery, so Christophe’s rule was from the start marked by a siege mentality. At first he declared himself president, but in April 1811 he had himself crowned as King Henry (the anglicised spelling perhaps a nod to his Grenadian origins), “Destroyer of Tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian Nation, Creator of her Moral, Political, and Martial institutions, First Crowned Monarch of the New World, Defender of the Faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry”.

Given this sense of self-aggrandisement, it is perhaps not surprising that Christopher wanted a palace. Work had begun in 1810, overseen by French and German architects, on the site of a former plantation and close to the cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, finished six years earlier. Christophe’s chief propagandist, the Baron de Vastey (one of the forty barons and many counts, knights, and dukes in the royal court) boasted that the palace and church were “erected by descendants of Africans, [and] show that we have not lost the architectural taste and genius of our ancestors who covered Ethiopia, Egypt, Carthage, and old Spain with their superb monuments.”

Be that is it may, the palace’s style was distinctly European. Its four floors, according to Edward E. Crain’s Historic Architecture in the Caribbean Islands, covered fourteen thousand square feet. There were reception halls, luxurious suites, and even a private theatre. No expense was spared with the fittings — marble, mahogany, and mosaics, mostly imported from Europe. A state-of-the-art cooling system brought cold water from springs through underground channels, while outside different levels of landscaped gardens and an elaborate network of water features and fountains reinforced the atmosphere of luxury. Possibly in recognition of the architectural influences in play, the palace was named Sans Souci (“carefree”), like the summer palace of the Prussian King Frederick the Great, built at Potsdam in the 1740s.

While Christophe forced the recently freed slaves of his northern realm back to work on the plantations (and hence traded profitably with Britain in sugar), his selected coterie of nobles enjoyed themselves at Sans Souci, where there were banquets, balls, and concerts. The palace also accommodated a school and hospital, where European teachers and doctors ministered to the needs of the royal elite. Christophe had his own royal emblem designed, a pair of lions, and appointed his son and heir Jacques-Victor Prince Royal of Haiti. Ex-slaves who had remained loyal to him were rewarded with titles, such as the Duc de Marmelade or the Comte de Jérémie.

Sans Souci was built to impress — both Christophe’s subjects and foreign visitors. A few miles further into the mountainous interior, and out of range of French naval cannon, stood the vast fortified hulk of the Citadelle Laferrière, an impregnable fortress built to withstand insurrection or invasion. Both palace and fortress were symbols of royal power, and Christophe’s determination to keep Haiti independent at all costs.

Yet the turbulent and divisive nature of Haiti itself meant that Christophe’s kingdom was vulnerable. Pressure from Pétion’s southern republic combined with resentment in the north against the king’s autocratic style and system of forced labour, and a peasant and army uprising broke out. As insurgents approached Sans Souci on 10 October, 1820, an ailing and prematurely aged Christophe retired to one of the palace’s suites and shot himself — reportedly with a silver bullet. He was quickly and discreetly buried by loyalists in the Citadelle. Ten days later his son was murdered by a mob in Sans Souci.

Thereafter the palace, looted and vandalised, fell into disrepair, and was badly damaged in the catastrophic earthquake of 1842. It stood abandoned and largely neglected until 1982, when Sans Souci and the Citadelle were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Now visitors pay to enter the grounds of the palace and to hire a mule and guide for the long, steep ascent to the Citadelle.

Christophe’s rise and fall has an epic quality, and Sans Souci plays an important part in the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s vivid “magical realist” novel The Kingdom of this World. Even now, surrounded by green mountains and overlooked by the gaunt, ruined form of Sans Souci, it is possible to imagine that seven-year period when former slaves and revolutionaries gathered in their aristocratic finery on the palace lawn to pay their respects to King Henry.