Born to serve

James Ferguson looks at the surprising paths to power taken by some of the region’s leaders, with a special look at Haiti's Henri Christophe

Illustration by James Hackett

Caribbean political leaders have tended to be just as predictable in their backgrounds as politicians anywhere else. There have been a huge number of lawyers, of course, a sprinkling of academics and teachers, and in the more radical 1930s quite a few trade unionists. Even revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Maurice Bishop attended law school, while Che Guevara was a doctor. The respectable middle-class professions have usually provided the training for a political career.

So when it comes to having a history of colourfully unconventional leaders, Haiti wins hands down. In recent times Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a priest before receiving his political vocation, and his ally and successor, René Préval, ran a bakery. Some have been landowners or businessmen, but most other Haitian presidents have been former soldiers, preferring to stage coups to the bother of winning elections. And some, at the beginning of the 19th century, were ex-slaves.

Toussaint Louverture had been a coachman, Jean-Jacques Dessalines a cane-cutter. But the first King of Haiti (and the first black king in the western hemisphere) was an ex-waiter. Born on October 6, 1767—240 years ago—Henri Christophe served at tables in a hotel in what is now Cap-Haïtien (some versions of his biography also suggest that he did the cooking) before going on to rule like a medieval monarch.

Christophe’s life is less a rags-to-riches story than an incredible tale of ambition and madness. Much of it is tantalisingly imprecise, embellished by historians and dramatised by writers, but some facts seem certain enough. He was born, we know, in Grenada, possibly to “free-coloured” parents, but also possibly to slaves. He left the island as a youth and went to sea, apparently sold to a ship’s captain, and was then resold in the then French colony of St Domingue, where he ended up in the hotel.

The episode that is least clearly documented concerns his reported involvement in the American Revolution, where according to some sources he joined the Chasseurs Volontaires de St Domingue, a French-led regiment of 750 black troops who fought against the British for the cause of American independence. A statue in Savannah, Georgia, commemorates his role as a 12-year-old drummer boy in the famous siege of 1779. By the next year he was in Cap-Haïtien, presumably by now freed from slavery.

When the 1791 slave insurrection against French rule broke out, he seems to have bided his time before joining the forces led by Toussaint Louverture. His military skills and personality seem to have served him well and he was made a sergeant and then a general by Dessalines. He and many others like him achieved the apparently impossible task of defeating Napoleon’s mighty army as well as the military forces sent by Britain and Spain.

The creation of independent Haiti in 1804—a country “born in ruins”—was immediately followed by savage infighting. Dessalines was murdered, and the country then split into two: the southern republic led by the light-skinned Alexandre Pétion, and the northern part ruled by his enemy Christophe. After four years as president Christophe had himself crowned King Henri I.

The monarchy that the ex-waiter created was one of incredible extravagance and pomp. In a land still ravaged by decades of civil war he had palaces and castles built along European lines, with ballrooms and ceremonial antechambers. Fearful that the French might return, he also ordered the construction of the Citadelle Laferrière, a huge stone bastion in the mountains above Cap-Haïtien that cost the lives of hundreds of workers as they dragged masonry up steep slopes. One European visitor reported that Henri ordered troops to march over the edge of the parapet—and into the abyss below—as a demonstration of loyalty.

In his attempt to build a tropical kingdom complete with an aristocracy Henri created princes, dukes, barons and knights. He invited scholars and artists from Europe to advise on the country’s cultural development and forced the former slaves back to work on the plantations in a feudal system. This, together, with conflict with the republican south, was to be his undoing. As resentment grew among his own military forces, Christophe suffered a stroke in August 1820. Within weeks a mutiny broke out, and Christophe retired to his impregnable citadel, surrounded by loyal courtiers.

There, legend has it, he decided to end his own life rather than face humiliation, and he shot himself with a silver bullet—the only way, he believed, that he could be killed. His body was buried somewhere in the vast fortress, which still stands menacingly in the mountains of northern Haiti.

Many coups, revolu-tions and presidents later, Haiti’s history seemed set to take a new course in September 1957. Fifty years ago, elections were in prospect, and the favourite was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken country doctor, named François Duvalier. After many years of political chaos, almost all the main forces in the country were determined that Duvalier should win. The generals, always the real authority, thought that they would comfortably bully a weak puppet civilian president, while the Americans, the second most powerful force, were keen on his anti-communist rhetoric. And the great majority of poor Haitians liked what they knew of a man nicknamed “Papa Doc”, as he was sympathetic towards peasant culture and—importantly—was rumoured to practise vodou or voodoo, the popular religion of the masses. As a doctor, the first to seek office in Haiti, Duvalier seemed to offer an image of compassion.

To  avoid any inconvenience, the Haitian army duly rigged the election in Duvalier’s favour, and on September 22, 1957 Papa Doc, strangely, received more votes than there were registered electors. His opponents cried foul, but to no avail. The military’s candidate was ready to play the role of puppet—or so they thought.

But here was one of the great misjudgements of Caribbean history. For Papa Doc rapidly and spectacularly transformed himself from innocuous rural doctor into one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators. Within a couple of years all of his backers would have reason to regret their actions, and many would have suffered at his hands.

Moving swiftly to stamp down on a series of terrorist bombings (caused, he said, by his defeated opponents, but just as likely ordered by himself), Duvalier crushed his civilian opposition, hounding rival politicians into exile and killing others. As he rightly suspected that the army had its own ambitions, he fired many of the top brass and created his own loyalist paramilitary force, the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale—better known as the tontons macoutes. With a licence to murder and extort, these thugs made sure that nobody could threaten Papa Doc’s hold on power. He also took the precaution of confiscating the army’s weaponry and storing it in the presidential palace.

By 1961 Duvalier was secure enough to rip up the constitution (never worth much in Haiti) and declare himself president-for-life. He would remain in power for a further ten years, taunting US administrations by demanding aid and threatening them with communism if they refused. Some 30,000 Haitians are thought to have perished during his regime, which ended only when diabetes and heart disease took their toll. He was succeeded by his equally unpleasant son, Jean-Claude, nicknamed “Baby Doc” or, more unkindly, “Basket Head”, who held on until February 1986.

The 50th anniversary of Duvalier’s election “victory” is unlikely to be celebrated either in Port-au-Prince or Washington, but perhaps somewhere in France (where apparently he lives in modest circumstances, his wife having run off with his fortune and his lawyer) Baby Doc will raise a glass to the date that started the almost 30-year Duvalier dictatorship.