Rare document sheds light on historical black queen

UCLan’s Dr Nicole Willson has unearthed a translation of the original will of the first Queen of Haiti

A researcher from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has unearthed a very rare document which sheds light on the life of the first Queen of Haiti.

Dr Nicole Willson, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Research Fellow at UCLan’s Institute for Black Atlantic Research, has discovered a translation of the original will of Marie-Louise Christophe, who died in Pisa in 1851, in the UK National Archives.

Together with Paul Clammer, writer and author of the Bradt Guide to Haiti, and Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford Grégory Pierrot, Dr Willson has transcribed the five-page document.

She said: “It’s a very rare and unusual document which reveals many interesting facts about Marie-Louise’s life in exile, her journey, her myriad encounters, her extended Haitian family and the legacy that she left.”

Marie-Louise was wife and consort to Henry Christophe, who was born enslaved in the colonial Caribbean, and was thought to have served among the Chasseurs Volontaires (an all-black legion of volunteer soldiers) in the Siege of Savannah during the American War of Independence, before becoming one of the most prominent leaders in the Haitian Revolution.

After a short-term as President of the post-independence State of Haiti (1807-1811), he served as King from 1811-1820. As Queen, Marie-Louise was revered as a model wife and mother in the new Kingdom of Haiti.

So celebrated was the new Queen that her birthday was named a feast day, and Haitian Studies Scholar Marlene Daut has revealed that one of her birthday celebrations lasted for 12 days.

I’m excited about the possibilities that this document offers and hope that I’ll be able to trace many more like it.

Christophe oversaw the construction of the grand palace of Sans Souci and the colossal mountaintop fortress Citadelle Laferrière, one of the largest fortresses in the Americas and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Following a coup by rebel forces, he took his own life on 8 October 1820 and his sons and sole surviving heirs were executed. Marie-Louise and her two daughters, Amethisse and Anne Athénaïre, were spared from the same fate and, after several months, escaped to England, where they were sheltered by the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson before moving to Blackheath and then to Marylebone. In 1824, Marie-Louise left England and, after several years touring Europe, she settled in Pisa, where she died in 1851, outliving both of her daughters.

Dr Nicole Willson, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Research Fellow at UCLan’s Institute for Black Atlantic Research

Dr Nicole Willson

Dr Willson said: “While the limited scholarship on the life of Marie-Louise has assumed that she led a sorrowful existence after the death of her husband and sons and died in extreme poverty, this document provides proof that she lived a more than comfortable life in Europe. However, it also testifies to the fact that she never willingly abandoned her homeland and continued to think of Haiti as her home 30 years after she had been forced to flee.”

The document has also helped Dr Willson, who is currently working on a three-year research project on women in the Haitian Revolution, to pinpoint the location of one of her residences in London.

She added: “I’m excited about the possibilities that this document offers and hope that I’ll be able to trace many more like it. At the very least, it provides an important springboard for further study into the often-occluded lives of women of colour in the age of slavery, and helps us re-centre the stories of women in historical narratives of the Haitian Revolution.”

Rachel Atkinson | 27 September 2019