This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.
By Tabitha McIntosh and Grégory Pierrot
We are accustomed to approaching publications from the Haitian Revolution as transparent vessels for the words they contained. But those texts were also objects: material books whose very physical existence and circulation constituted a radical challenge to the racial order of the old and new worlds. This is the story of one such object—a re-bound edition of a play entitled Néhri, Chef des Haytiens. Printed in Haiti in 1819 and presumed lost for two hundred years, we have finally located it in a library at Chantilly, France where it sits miscataloged because of its binding.
In the decade during which General Henry Christophe reigned as king of Haiti (1811-1820), the northern state produced a steady stream of publications that circulated throughout the Atlantic world. Beyond their nature as rhetorical texts, the books were also constructed things whose very material existence was intended and understood as a mode of rhetoric. One British journal, reviewing the 1814 Almanach royal d’Hayti, described the domestic and international aims of the Kingdom before turning to the text at hand to make their case:
We could produce many proofs of the rapid progress which has been made in these objects. One of the most striking we have met with, is contained in a small book, of 130 octavo pages, printed at Cape Henry… The typography is highly respectable.
When it came to decoding Haitians, their “objects” explained their objects. In its consideration of the material features of the Almanach—the ‘respectable typography’ and dimensions—this journal presents Haitian texts as they were intended: things whose material features in and of themselves represented a rhetoric of respectability.
Until 1816, the official printer of King Henry’s speaking objects was Pierre Roux, a white Frenchman based in Cap-Henry who issued government documents for the colonial French, and later, the 1804 Declaration of Independence for the new nation of Haiti. From 1817, Henry began to shift manufacture of several key aspects of state production into the grounds of the palace of Sans-Souci, including an Imprimerie Royale run by a Haitian printer with a single name: Buon. Every printed text issued into Atlantic circulation was now a truly national production, and thus a production of true nationhood.
The Kingdom’s production and performance of theatrical texts—penned by Juste Chanlatte, Comte de Rosiers, and printed by Buon—served a more domestic revolutionary function. Only single copies remain of two of Chanlatte’s dramatic works, in stark contrast to the numbers of other Kingdom texts in Atlantic archives. If these material artefacts were not designed to speak while travelling, they brought the wider Atlantic home to Sans-Souci. L’Entrée du roi en sa capitale, en janvier 1818 (1818) and La partie de chasse du roi (1820) blended Haitian Creole and French, repurposed French operatic and theatrical modes, borrowing, revising, and expanding the works of popular French playwrights Grétry and Collé. In doing so they built the culture of the new kingdom on the ashes of the old order. Chanlatte’s plays were performed by the Théâtre Royal, a troupe made up of notables from Henry’s very court, “amateurs… playing for their Majesties’ pleasure and for the perfection of Art.” Acting parts evoking their personal lives, the court thus performed itself with Chanlatte’s scripts, then Buon bound the history of performance into a material object, a book that took its place in the palace’s library. By doing so, it added to the physical evidence that Haitians could equal or better their European peers.
Nowhere is this truer than in Chanlatte’s second play, Néhri, Chef des Haytiens (1819), which has been thought lost or unpublished for two hundred years. Néhri is described as a tragedy, a somewhat puzzling choice considering the material at hand: the play is more accurately described as a heroic drama, ending as it does with the triumph of its eponymous hero rather than his downfall. This is just the first of many disconcerting aspects of the drama: Néhri is, more than anything else, a play of rupture, as becomes very clear even as one reads its paratext. It takes place “in Hayti’s Capital, in the Grand Hall of NEHRI’s Palace, in 1802”—a chronological, geographic, and architectural impossibility. Néhri evokes Henry, but it does so by anachronistically showing the king in the earlier general: in the play’s version of the war of independence, the revolutionaries have but one leader whom they address as “Sire.” Chanlatte’s Néhri is an idealized version not just of the king, but of his country’s origin story, as well. The play evokes the Leclerc expedition’s February 1802 assault on Cap, but where Henry Christophe had evacuated the city and set it on fire, Néhri takes a stand and defeats the French. Néhri rearranges the past to offer a brazen, revisionist, national founding myth worthy of the kingdom of Haiti’s status as a global beacon of cultural and political blackness, and designed for local, as well as global, consumption.
The collapse of the kingdom fundamentally changed the terms of global consumption of Haitian texts. In the aftermath of Henry’s death, Sans-Souci and its library were pillaged, the holdings scattered around the island, and from there around the world. In this process, Néhri gained quasi-mythical status based on the apparent absence of printed copies.
However, comment in the 1821 Paris press shows that at least one physical copy arrived there after Henry’s October 1820 suicide. A correspondent for the Journal de Paris read this single copy and produced a scathing and deeply racialist review, which appeared in translation in presses in Europe, North America and Australia. At some point before 1836, the bibliophile Armand Cigongne took this copy of the play to the most illustrious binder in Restoration France, Joseph Thouvenin l’Aîné, and had it recovered in tooled leather with gold detail. Cigongne collected not just exemplary copies of important French works, but also “livres de curiosité”—material things whose singularity came not from their beauty but from the ‘curious’ circumstances of their creation and construction. Néhri and a handful of other Kingdom works were gathered on this basis. Cigongne filed Chanlatte’s play under ‘Belles Lettres: Théâtre français.’ Visually, haptically, and culturally then, Cigongne had overlain with Frenchness the defiantly anti-French ontology of Chanlatte’s object—the very material qualities that made it desirable to him in the first place.
Henri d’Orléans, son of the last king of France and a bibliophile of immense wealth and ambition, purchased Cigongne’s entire collection. He returned from English exile to France in 1871 and had the Grand Château at Chantilly, which had been destroyed in the Revolution, rebuilt to house his collection, bequeathing it to the nation upon his death in 1897.
At Chantilly, Néhri is stored as the object into which Cigongne transformed it: the visual and haptic material legacy of a bibliophile and a book binder. Its most essential quality—that it comes from Haiti—has been written over by the archiving system.
Written over, but not erased: Chanlatte’s classical references invite us to see Henry Christophe–fire-bringer of Le Cap—in his mythical, print incarnation as Néhri as a Haitian print Prometheus, cursed to spent two hundred years rebound on, and for, hostile shelves. Rebound, but not broken, the block of Sans-Souci text has lain silent in a Bourbon collection, speaking black revolution to itself. Once found, once opened, this book gives object lessons to the Atlantic—not just about the ways Haiti’s fire shone in 1819, but how it can still shine light on our understanding of the period today.
Tabitha McIntosh is a postgraduate student at Birkbeck College, University of London. She works on the circulation of racializing anecdotes and racialized objects in the Anglophone Atlantic. She is co-creator of the digital humanities project to bring lost objects of the Kingdom of Haiti back to virtual life, starting with the 1819 play Néhri. Follow her on Twitter @TabitaSurge.
Grégory Pierrot is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. He is the author of The Black Avenger in Atlantic Culture (UGA Press, 2019). He is review editor at H-Haiti, and co-creator of the Néhri digital humanities project. Follow him on Twitter @wwJJDdo.
Deborah Jenson, Doris Y. Kadish, eds. Poetry of Haitian Independence. Yale UP, 2015.
Baron de Vastey. The Colonial System Unveiled. Chris Bongie ed. Liverpool UP, 2016.
Marlene L. Daut. Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism. Palgrave, 2017.
 See Almanach Royal d’Hayti (1816), 123.