Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

A Queen in Diaspora: The Sorrowful Exile of Queen Marie-Louise Christophe (1778, Ouanaminth, Haiti-March 11, 1851, Pisa, Italy)1

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

A Queen in Diaspora: The Sorrowful Exile of Queen Marie-Louise Christophe (1778, Ouanaminth, Haiti-March 11, 1851, Pisa, Italy)1

Article excerpt

On March 11, 1851, having made her last confession and received Extreme Unction and Viaticum, la principessa nera della Russia passed from this life. There was a requiem Mass followed by interment at a side altar of the Capuchin chapel of San Donnino, beside her daughters, Améthyste [d. 1831] and Athénaïre [d. 1839] Christophe. The royal family of the kingdom of Haiti entered invisibility an Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea distant from Haiti: dust of Africa and Haiti, and of London, Clapham, Ipswich, Salzburg, Rome, and Pisa, committed back into the earth in Pisa. "Memento, homo, quia pulvis est, et in pulverem reverterisf the priest intoned over her coffin. Marie-Louise had heard those familiar Latin words every Ash Wednesday and at every funeral during her seventy-three years: "Remember, oh man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." Twelve days short of forty years after becoming the first and only Queen of Haiti, she rested as common clay.

She spent thirty years in exile. Officially sheltered in Port-au-Prince for the first months after the fall of the Kingdom and the death of King Henry, she and her daughters received protected passage to London in 1821. On the eve of departure she wrote a graciously diplomatic letter to President Boyer thanking him for the care extended to her and daughters.2 Only in 1839, when the former queen had been in exile eighteen years, was her sister, Louisa Coidavid Pierrot, wife of General (later President) Jean-Louis Pierrot of the Republic of Haiti, able to secure a passport for the return to Haiti. By then Marie-Louise was advanced in years and fragile in health. She was reluctant to leave Pisa, wishing to remain where her two daughters were buried. "How can I leave them?" she said. Marie-Louise Coidavid Christophe, daughter of Free Coloreds, wife of revolutionary hero and eventually hated and despised king, was in diaspora from her native land, a unique population, a glorious and historically radical revolution, a grandiose kingdom, and-it must be considered-a climate and complex culture with no parallel in Europe.

Her personal diaspora must have begun even before the death of her husband. Not only was he profligately and publicly unfaithful to her, but in the months leading up to the fall of the Kingdom had conducted what can only be called genocide. King Henry systematically ordered the death of all Free Coloreds and Mulâtres. He apparently excepted two of his mistresses from the pogrom. And his own wife. With the Archbishop from Brittany executed, the Free Coloreds under death orders, her husband growing ever more viciously paranoid, ever more losing control of both himself and the kingdom, Marie-Louise must have entered the first, most brutal of the stages of rupture. This is surely the case for many Haitians then and in the two centuries since: first the appalling estrangement at home; afterward the wrenching escape; and finally the poignant safety of diaspora. What Free Colored Queen Marie Louise and all others who fled may have endured we can only imagine, but in any event the separation required a degree of self-possession, discipline, and courage.

She and her daughters exemplify some of the conditions of diaspora along a continuum. Traveler, voyager, tourist, transhumant, nomad, expatriate, exile, enslaved or incarcerated captive-all have in common transits from one geography, one rhythm of life to another, and of being strangers. The personal ecosystem becomes extended, sometimes to the breaking point. The differences are many: some large, some subtle, some a delight, and some brutal or unthinkably horrible. All initiate life-changing consequences. Of those mobile diaspora types Queen Marie Louise and her daughters were exiles: those forever excluded, ostracized from home. In their exile they became also voyagers and tourists. Everywhere they went, they were strangers in yet another strange land.

"La principessa nera della Russia," Italian journalists wrote in Pisa newspapers. …

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