“Her story, like so many Black women’s stories of struggle and survival, has for so long been consigned to the margins of history, yet it is so very worthy of commemoration,” researcher Dr. Nicole Willson said of Marie-Louise Christophe, the first and only Queen of Haiti, who lived in Britain in the early part of the 19th Century.
Willson, who is a researcher from the University of Central Lancashire, made these comments following an announcement this week that Marie-Louise, the first and only Caribbean royal to have lived in Britain, was going to be honored with a plaque at 49 Weymouth Street, London, where she lived between 1821 and 1824.
Not much had been known about Marie-Louise’s life in Britain until 2019 when Willson unearthed a copy of Marie-Louise’s will in the UK National Archives. With the will, Willson was able to trace the Haitian queen’s movements in Britain and know more about her story, according to a report by The Voice newspaper. Willson then liaised with the Haitian Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain to seek support from the Nubian Jak Community Trust to erect a blue plaque at Marie-Louise’s former residence in Britain.
The plaque of Marie-Louise was unveiled on Monday in Marylebone, with authorities hoping that it will be one of many more plaques to redraw the balance and really highlight the role BAME communities have played throughout the history of the city and the history of the nation.
Who was Marie-Louise?
She was consort to Henri Christophe, a former slave of Bambara ethnicity in West Africa who became a military leader in the Haitian Revolution that ended both slavery and French colonial rule on the Caribbean island. He later became president and king of the then young nation. He was said to have deep knowledge of military issues, considering he accompanied the French to fight at the Siege of Savannah at what is now the State of Georgia.
History says that he was brought to French colonial Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue most likely from the Kitts. The French naval officer who bought him later sold him to Coidovic, who was Marie-Louise’s father. And that was how Henri and Marie-Louise met and later fell in love.
Marie-Louise was born into a free Black family in Cap Francois on May 8, 1778. Her father, Coidovic, ran an inn called Hotel de la Couronne. Marie-Louise and her family lived in a house outside the inn. She went to school to learn music and painting and grew up a devout Catholic. She also read a lot of history books and learned more about the history of the island where she was.
When Henri joined her family after he was sold to her father, she became his close friend, reading to him books about history and encouraging him to buy his freedom. Henri worked numerous jobs including being a mason, bartender, sailor and billiard maker. While in his twenties, he managed to purchase his freedom and joined the increasing number of free Blacks. By 1791, the slaves at Saint Domingue had rebelled against their harsh conditions under the French and adopted the name “Haiti” for the new nation.
Henri joined them in the fight and by 1802, he had become the brigadier general of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great military leader who led the revolt. Henri went ahead to fight alongside Toussaint L’Ouverture in the north against the French. They also fought against British and Spanish troops who, according to accounts, wanted to quash the uprising on the various slave plantations.
During this period, Henri married Marie-Louise, who had her first child — a son — in 1794 but lost him. She then gave birth to two daughters, Françoise-Améthyste and Athénaïs, and another son named Victor Henri. In June 1802, Toussaint L’Ouverture was captured by agents of Napoleon Bonaparte and was deported from the island to France. Meanwhile, the revolution still went on, and after 13 years of military battle between the slaves and the French colony, the slaves eventually gained their independence in 1804, making the nation the first independent Black republic in the West.
Jean Jacques Dessalines, a freed slave who declared Haiti independent, subsequently became the emperor but was assassinated in 1806 when war broke out between his generals. A short civil war between Henri and the Haitian general Alexandre Pétion divided the new country, Haiti, with Henri taking charge over the North, and Alexander Pétion leading the South. Henri was subsequently elected president and served from 1807 to 1811. On March 26, 1811, he proclaimed Haiti a republic nation and made himself King, securing the title of Henri I. Marie-Louise became queen, with their son, Victor Henri, becoming Crown Prince. They built their palace in Milot and named it Sans Souci and were elated to be on the throne.
Marie-Louise was referred to in the royal almanacs as the ‘auguste reine des haytiens’, (August Queen of Haiti). She had her own court and formed the ‘Amazones,’ “a ceremonial legion of all-women soldiers in honour of the innumerable women who fought and died in the struggle for freedom and independence,” according to The Voice Newspaper. Marie-Louise was sure of having a dynasty in Haiti that will make her son, Victor Henri, the next King of Haiti. She never imagined that nine years after she was crowned, she would be compelled to spend the rest of her life in exile.
It is documented that during her husband’s reign, he improved the nation’s infrastructure and was noted for the construction of Sans Souci Palace and the famous fortress near Cap-Haïtien called Citadelle Laferrière (one of the greatest construction wonders of the era). He also built six notable châteaux and eight palaces in the region. Christophe was, however, criticized for some of his harsh labor policies and later became unpopular. In August 1820, he suffered a paralytic stroke, and when people got knowledge of his condition, revolts broke out.
Fearing a coup and not being able to calm the situation, he committed suicide, and his kingdom became part of the Haitian republic in 1821.
Historians say that after his death, Marie-Louise was nominated as regent with her son Victor Henri as King of Haiti. But before she could start acting as regent for her son, a mob entered their palace and assassinated Victor Henri. Marie-Louise and her two surviving daughters were able to escape to England in 1821, where they were sheltered by the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson before moving to Blackheath.
Marie-Louise and her daughters also stayed in Hastings before finally settling in at 49 Weymouth Street, Marylebone. In 1824, Marie-Louise left England and lived in Pisa, Italy. There, she attended chapel services, helped build chapels, and took care of the poor. She lost her two daughters in the 1830s and even wrote to Haiti for permission to return to her home but was ignored.
Marie-Louise remained in Pisa where she died in 1851 and was buried in the Monastery of the Capuchins cemetery.