Friday, July 20, 2012

Consort Profile: Empress Marie-Claire of Haiti

The first Empress consort of an independent Haiti was born Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicite sometime in 1758 to Bonheur Guillaume and Marie-Elisabeth Sainte-Lobelot, two poor but free Haitians in Leogane. Her aunt, Elise Lobelot, the governess of a religious order, was entrusted with her education as a child and undoubtedly deserves a great deal of credit for forming the kind-hearted and often heroically compassionate woman that her niece grew into. Marie-Claire had a fairly ordinary, humble childhood for her time and place and when she was still young was married to the master-cartwright to the Brothers of Saint-Jean de Dieu Pierre Lunic. Not much is known of her marriage or her first husband but he died in 1795 leaving Marie-Claire a widow. This was a crucial and traumatic time for Haiti when the slaves were rising in revolt against their French masters. The traditional story is that it all began in the summer of 1791 when a Voodoo priest at “Alligator Woods” called on his countrymen to rebel and attack the plantations. Many were soon burning and the rebellion spread quickly across the island. The fighting was fierce, between both the French struggling to maintain power and among the Haitians over who would supplant them as the authority in 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.

In early 1804 Jacques Dessalines (who, unlike his wife, had been a slave), in a drastic move he felt absolutely necessary, ordered the extermination of the entire White population of Haiti, with the exception of a few non-French minority communities. The original order was for the execution of all White males above a certain age but later this was extended to include women and children as well though some women were spared if they married a Black husband. Dessalines was of the opinion that this had to be done to secure the country, make France think twice about attempting to restore White rule and because he viewed it as just punishment for all the slaves had suffered in Haitian history. However, Marie-Claire was adamantly opposed to this policy and make no secret of the fact. She had already proven that her mercy was colorblind as she worked to alleviate the suffering of prisoners and wounded men whether they were Black, White or mixed-race. From her earliest days she had been, effectively, a nurse and a teacher and she had been raised to have compassion for anyone in pain, regardless of race, be they young, old, male or female. When the massacres began she went down on her knees to beg her husband to desist, which rather infuriated him. Nonetheless, although he would not relent, she did what she could herself to save lives, even hiding one hapless Frenchman under her own bed until he could be smuggled out of the country.

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.

Yet, through it all, she maintained her principles and values. King Henri I of Haiti, one of the leaders in the coup against her husband, had offered to let her stay in his household but she refused. It was not until 1843 that she was granted a modest pension by the government but not as a former imperial consort but simply because all of the extensive properties of Jacques I had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing. However, she had an opportunity for better fortunes following the election of the President-turned-Emperor Faustin I. He was an avid fan of Emperor Jacques I, admiring him as a strong and zealous national leader and Faustin wanted to do honor to his memory. That included honoring his wife and he offered the former empress a much larger pension that would have improved her life greatly. However, Marie-Claire did not have many fond memories of her late husband by that time and felt that to accept such a reward simply because of her relationship to him would have been an endorsement of some sort of his actions which she still very much opposed. In an act of great sacrifice she refused the money and instead lived out the rest of her life with her granddaughter in very poor conditions until her death on August 8, 1858 at the age of 99 or 100.

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.


  1. I was never before aware that Haiti was ever a Monarchy. I'm going to have to research that. Yet another thing to love about this site.

  2. Would you please post something on Prince Henry-Sixtus and the Bourbon=Busset family?

  3. Oooh, the Haitian monarchy! Awesome post!

  4. Does anyone know if there are any living pretenders to any of Haiti's three royal houses? Not surprisingly, for a country that has had so much revolution, turmoil, and general instability over the past two centuries, there really doesn't seem to have been any genealogical histories kept.

    Henri's son and heir was killed 10 days after him, and one of Jacques' grandsons served as president in the early 20th century, but I've never seen any other information on their descendants or possible lines of succession.

  5. It is a little known fact that initially the Haitian "revolutionaries" sided with the Spanish against the French revolutionary government. Many believed they were championing the cause of the King against the revolutionaries (who the slaves correctly identified as having more in common with the planters). Some of the first leaders of the rebellion, such as Georges Biassou, remained in the service of Charles IV, and relocated to Florida, which was then still under Spanish control. Biassou was placed in command of the colored militia in St. Augustine, where he lived out the rest of his life. Many historians have been eager to paint the slave rebels as somehow being motivated by Enlightenment notions and French revolutionary principles, but men like Biassou and even Louverture were the product of traditional hierarchical and patriarchal societies, and this is reflected quite clearly in the governments they favored and created. Louverture, who is held up as a revolutionary freedom fighter by some historians, was an absolutist who reinstated forced labor.


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