Sans-Souci: The Ruined Palace of King Henry I of Haiti
Often called the Palace of Versailles of the Caribbean, the Palace of Sans-Souci, in Haiti, was constructed during the early 19th Century as the royal residence of King Henry I. He was a self-imposed monarch who was a former slave and fought in the American Revolutionary War. The palace was the site of opulent feasts and dances and considered the most important of the nine buildings built for the king. There was once a masterfully planned system of waterworks that many believe was modeled after the palace of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, Germany.
The Sans-Souci palace is located in the town of Milot, Haiti, a few miles from the renowned Citadelle Laferriere fortress, also built by him. It was the royal residence of King Henry I of Haiti, also known as Henri Christophe, who resided there with his wife, Queen Marie Louise, and their two daughters.
Ruins of the Palace of Sans-Souci, Milot, Haiti (Wikimedia Commons)
Architecture of the Palace of Sans-Souci
Situated at the base of a spectacular mountain range, the palace is a magnificent testament to another era. It was built in 1810 and completed in 1813 at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of laborers lives. With the reputation of having been one of the most magnificent structures of the West Indies, San-Souci was once a palace of feasting and dancing and grandiose gardens that were enjoyed by many foreign guests.
Recognized largely for its immense gardens, the palace grounds are reminiscent of the stepped gardens of Potsdam and Vienna and the canals and basins throughout the complex were inspired by the Grand Canal of the Palace of Versailles. Sans-Souci also housed artificial springs with fountains, bronzed lions, opulent furniture, decor and art from all over the world. The palace had a grand façade, sweeping baroque staircases and classical terraces. Italian statues were also imported for Henri’s wife, with at least 15 of them scattered about the property. The walls on the outside have been burnished by weather and time, revealing a multitude of colors on the rocky surfaces, which has left this aging building with a watercolor impression.
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Drawing of Sans-Souci Palace (1826), Carl Ritter (Wikimedia Commons)
The Infamous Henri Christophe
Henri Christophe (1767 - 1820) was one of the most prominent figures of the Haitian slave revolution of 1791-1804. Before the construction of Sans-Souci, the town of Milot was a French plantation that he was in charge of during the Haitian revolution. He was a brutal kleptocrat and autocrat, infamous for his cruelty and historically a polarizing individual. A former slave that became a key figure in the Haitian revolution, he rose to General under Jean-Jacques Dessallines, the principal leader of the revolution. After years of struggle, black slaves finally rebelled against the colonists to successfully proclaim the independent Republic of Haiti when the small nation gained its independence from France. The end of French rule meant that the colony of Saint Domingue was renamed Haiti after its original Taino Indian name and was newly independent. However, after the revolution Haiti split into two.
On January 1, 1804, after the long Revolutionary War against France, Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti free and independent. On September 22 of that same year, Dessalines proclaimed himself emperor for life and had every intention of ruling over the newly created nation until the end of his days. Henri Christophe however, found his title appealing, and along with other disaffected administration members, conspired to have Dessalines assassinated. After he was killed, Christophe created a separate government in Plaine-du-Nord (the north) and was elected President of the State of Haiti. One of his co-conspirators Alexandre Pétion would be elected president in the South. In 1811, Christophe declared himself king of the northern part of the country when the Haitian Republic became divided in two. He would proclaim himself Henry I, King of Haiti and go on to create a short lived kingdom which he ruled until his death in 1820.
King Henry I of Haiti, (Wikimedia Commons)
On October 8, 1820, depressed from politics, King Henry I committed suicide after being crippled by a debilitating stroke. Legend has it, he shot himself with a silver bullet on the grounds of the palace and was subsequently buried in the Citadel. His widow, Queen Marie-Louise, emigrated to Europe and died in faraway Pisa, Italy. His son and only heir, Jacques-Victor Henry, would succeed King Henry in assuming the throne. However, his untimely death came just 10 days after his father’s. He was bayoneted to death by revolutionaries on October 18, 1820. With his death, the age of Haitian nobility was over.
The Ruined Palace of Sans-Souci
Today, the Sans-Souci palace is in ruins. Fences now surround this national landmark, yet visitors are still permitted to walk around the ruins. A considerable part of the palace was destroyed during the Haitian earthquake of 1842. At that time Haiti was reunited but Henri Christophe was long gone, and there was no desire for the palace to be rebuilt. The ruined shell of the palace is rarely visited today due to political instability in the area. However, the Sans-Souci Palace is in the process of being restored thanks to its uncontested artistry which makes it a valuable part of Haitian history. Past events of the area are even recreated in the varied and vibrant town of Milot surrounding this scenic structure.
Statue and ruins of the Palace of Sans-Souci, Haiti (Steve Bennett / Flickr)
At one time, Sans-Souci Palace was a symbol of prestige and it remains an example of Haitian-built pride and engineering. It demonstrates the architectural style and splendor that made it one of the most admired structures of the West Indies. It is an expression of Haiti’s diverse architectural accomplishments as well as a monument to Haiti’s struggle for liberty. While no longer the center of extravagant feasts and dances, thanks to its historical significance, it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982.
Featured Image: Ruins of the Palace of Sans-Souci, Milot, Haiti (Wikimedia Commons)
By Bryan Hill
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