White Ghosts and Silver Bullets: Imaginary Objects and the Haitian Revolution

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

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

Ideas are essential to revolutions, but so are material things: they spark revolutionary movements, enact revolutions, and also transmit them. In the Haitian Revolution, the ‘things’ in question included the revolutionaries themselves. In French law, enslaved Africans were considered objects (meubles), and their revolt in the colony of Saint Domingue terrified the white Atlantic. This terror took phantasmagorical and fantastic forms as newspapers shared increasingly Gothic stories of imagined objects and events in Haiti. When Henry Christophe declared himself King of Haiti in 1811, the world found itself dealing with a man they considered an owned object, a chattel good come to life, who now commanded equal status with Atlantic leaders. After his death in 1820, Gothic stories of the Haitian uncanny drew from King Henry I, moulding increasingly obfuscated facts into his fictional shape. Uniquely persistent among such narratives is the tale of the silver bullet with which Henry is said to have killed himself.

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King Henry the First of Hayti, hero of the revolution and self-styled ‘first crowned monarch of the new world,’ killed himself on October 8, 1820 in the middle of a mass insurrection against his rule. The initial confused and contradictory accounts were carried into US ports by captains in the Haiti trade: Henry had either been beheaded by his troops, shot himself, or died three months before, his absence hidden by his scheming family. All three versions chased each other through the print markets of the Anglophone Atlantic, until an authoritative version of his death was established. Fittingly for a regime which had relied on trade as diplomacy, the final version was reported in a letter from a Lloyd’s Agent. After declaring, “Then all is finished with me,” Henry retired to his bedroom, and shot himself in the chest.[1]

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The Atlantic presses enjoyed a spate of eyewitness accounts of the collapse of Henry’s kingdom from foreign merchants and visiting American captains in Haiti’s ports. Henry, who just months before had been seen by “English officers” as a ruler who resembled no one so much as “the late king George III” had, it seemed, been a ‘sable monster!’ all along.[2] If some objected to the bewildering difference between pre- and post-mortem Henry—the former a paragon of virtue; the latter the greatest fiend to ever take human form—so be it. William Wilberforce may have complained that calling him a “tyrant… seems to be the fashion,” but very few people were listening. [3] Instead, they were attending “the truly magnificent West Indian Melo-Drama,” The Death of Christophe, King of Hayti.[4] Freed from evidence-based reality, white audiences and readers could now enjoy a bellowing, blackface King Henry whose threat to the racial hierarchy of the Atlantic was safely contained on stage.

Fannie-Ward-1894

Henry spent the next seventy years as column filler in the Atlantic presses, swelling to ever more monstrous form in parallel with the development of race ‘science,’ the lead-up to the US Civil War, and the UK’s imperial expansion in Africa. The man who had been seen as such a challenge to racial order that he was once understood as a Caribbean George III was now refashioned as a giant of violent, threatening blackness. In all of these mutating versions of himself, however, he killed himself with a lead bullet. Then in 1894, travel correspondent Fannie Brigham Ward changed everything.

Ward was one of several late nineteenth-century newspaper women who mapped the world beyond US cultural and geographic borders, blending profoundly racist ethnography with political commentary and reportage.[5] These journalists wrote from and into an ideology of American expansionism, and Ward especially was drawn to sites of revolution in Latin America and the Caribbean that offered the most opportunity for that expansion. Her first article on Haiti added a new conclusion to Henry’s biography: “Rising with difficulty, he bade good-by to his family, withdrew to his chamber and shot himself with a silver bullet.”[6]

By the time Frederick Albion Ober’s aptly titled The Storied West Indies was published in 1900, the silver bullet had become inseparable from American versions of Henry’s story. At first, no explanation for the use of silver was given, and when one was attempted it gestured vaguely at aristocratic pretensions: perhaps “lead was too plebeian for his brain.”[7] Twelve years later, however, Ober began to invoke a “tradition” no less imaginary than the bullet itself. He claimed, “It is certain that Christophe, the great Black King, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a silver bullet, and that tradition relates he was moved thereto by the spooks he saw, mainly of the white variety.”[8] Ober’s Caribbean Gothic confection of white ghosts and silver bullets was reinforced in subsequent accounts. As one 1913 article asserted, “greatly troubled by hauntings of white spooks… Cristophe [sic] one day fitted his pistol with a silver bullet,” because it was “the only ghost-proof missile of tradition.”[9]

If silver bullets are the only cure for killing ghosts, and Christophe was besieged by white ghosts, why didn’t he shoot them? If silver is the only cure for monstrosity, did he recognise his own monstrosity and decide to benefit the world by exorcising himself? The silver bullet was then, and is still, an ‘uncanny’ object in Haitian historiography: a thing both entirely familiar through repetition, yet unsettlingly alien in nature. As Ober’s constellation of narrative elements made clear, the silver bullet was a response to the demands of “white spooks” rather than the whimsy of one black king—a racialized revenge for race revolution.  In other words, it was a silver bullet for curing white disempowerment.

 

Henri Christophe of Haiti -
The Evening News, 31 Jan 1934, Wed,  pg 26.

The military silver bullet was used in 1915 when the United States Marines Corps began their nineteen-year long occupation of Haiti. Both before and after the invasion, the imperial ambitions of the United States relied on a self-referential canon of representations of ‘voodoo,’ cannibalism, and racial and cultural degeneration.  The precious metal projectile with which Henry killed himself was an object that took on imaginary form in the first stages of this imperial project and helped to propel it throughout the twentieth century and into the present.

The language of the silver bullet remains imbricated in twenty-first century discussions of Haiti and re-development. Aid agency Plan Canada calls the “education of young children…the closest thing to a “silver bullet” to heal what ails Haiti.” Time suggests that tourism may be “a silver bullet solution to Haiti’s perpetually underperforming economy,” and so does Slate.  Yet, many things, as it happens, are not the silver bullet that Haiti needs: popular protests are no silver bullet, The Cholera Vaccine Isn’t Haiti’s Silver Bullet, debt cancellation is not a silver bullet, mobile financial services were never going to be a silver bullet, there’s no silver bullet for Haiti’s energy needs, and peanut-based energy bars are not a silver bullet for childhood malnutrition. The United Nations, the very vector that brought the cholera epidemic to post-earthquake Haiti, notes that  there is no silver bullet for cholera.

Consistently, Haiti is perceived as a Caribbean monster of exceptional dysfunction that could be cured with a silver bullet if only one could be found.  Always, the silver bullet is an imagined object whose existence could both satisfy and justify international intervention—just as it did in 1915. If only Haiti could be shot with it successfully, both Henry and the Revolution might finally stop troubling Atlantic dreams.


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 a 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.

Title Image: J. Findlay, “Scene in The Death of Christophe, King of Hayti” in The Cornucopia, or Literary and dramatic mirror, containing critical notices of the drama and a variety of interesting subjects under the head of miscellanies (1821).

Further Readings:

James Weldon Johnson, ‘The Truth about Haiti: An NAACP Investigation’ The Crisis. Vol. 20, No. 5. (September, 1920).

Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Tabitha McIntosh & Grégory Pierrot (2017) Capturing the likeness of Henry I of Haiti (1805–1822), Atlantic Studies,14:2, 127-151.

Endnotes:

[1] ‘LONDON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 9, 1820.’ The Morning Chronicle, 9/12/1820, p2.

[2] For a full discussion of these divergent representations of Henry Christophe in the period, see Tabitha McIntosh & Grégory Pierrot (2017) Capturing the likeness of Henry I of Haiti (1805–1822), Atlantic Studies,14:2, 127-151.

[3] Letter to Archdeacon Wrangham, Christmas 1820. Cited in Cole, Hubert. Christophe, King of Haiti (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), 275.

[4] The Morning Post, 1/2/1821, p1

[5] Alice Fahs. Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011)

[6] Ward, Fannie Brigham. ‘Cape Haytien City.’ The Daily Inter Ocean. December 23, 1894. P.14

[7] ‘Wards of the United States. Notes on What Our Country is Doing for Santo Domingo, Nicaragua, and Haiti.’ The National Geographic Magazine. Vol 30, 1916. pp143-177. p165.

[8] Ober, Frederick Albion. Our West Indian Neighbors: The Islands of the Caribbean Sea (New York: James Pott & Co, 1912), 160.

[9] Cornish, Lincoln. ‘Negro Rule in Haiti.’ Pan American Magazine. (Vol 16. 1913): 142.

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