Friday, July 20, 2012
Consort Profile: Empress Marie-Claire of Haiti
In 1800 Marie-Claire met the man she would one day marry at the grueling siege of Jacmel. Her heart went out to the poor, starving and suffering people of the city and she arranged a meeting with one of the besieging commanders, Jacques Dessalines, to persuade him to open a few roads so that she could bring some relief to the people. Dessalines agreed to this and Marie-Claire led a group of humanitarian volunteers (mostly women and children) into the embattled city carrying food, clothing and medical supplies. Wasting no time on formalities she helped prepare the food right on the streets to immediately feed the wounded and starving masses. The people were grateful and Marie-Claire was an instant celebrity, an angel of mercy who would never be forgotten. Dessalines would also not forget her and on October 21, 1801 the two were married. One cannot help but wonder how much choice she felt she had in the matter as no two people could be more dissimilar. She was elegant, friendly, warm, forgiving, patient and the very picture of compassion. Her husband was flamboyant, bombastic, capable of quite extreme cruelty and a habitual philanderer. However, Marie-Claire never made a scene and even legitimized and cared for as her own the numerous children her husband sired by other women.
On October 8, 1804 (after the massacres were finished) Jacques Dessalines was crowned Emperor Jacques I of Haiti and Marie-Claire was crowned Empress alongside him at the Church of Champ-de-Mars. It was hoped that this would be the start of a new and glorious era for an independent Haiti but for Marie-Claire, her time as Empress would be all too fleeting. The Emperor tried to keep the plantations in operation without slavery (they were the only source of wealth on the island) but the harsh measures he had to employ to do this left many feeling like little had really changed and their remained bitter divisions in the upper echelons of the new government. Soon a conspiracy was underway and after only two years on the throne Emperor Jacques I was assassinated in a coup in 1806. Empress Marie-Claire, re-titled Dowager Princess, who had only ever tried to do good for those around her, was cast aside and almost forgotten, living in poverty with precious little of the kindness she had shown being returned.
All these years later, in a way that was certainly not possible in their own lifetimes, Emperor Jacques I and Empress Marie-Claire have become something of an idealized couple. As the first emperor, Jacques I is today again revered in Haiti as a national hero and one of their founding fathers with few remembering his less pleasant actions. Empress Marie-Claire is remembered, rightly so, for all of her admirable qualities. They are often presented in popular art as a happy and ideal couple. This, of course, was far from the truth of the matter but by all accounts Empress Marie-Claire deserves all the praise and admiration she receives for her kindness, compassion and blind mercy to all those in need, toward anyone who suffered for any reason.