After Dessalines was assassinated, Christophe retreated to the Plaine-du-Nord and created a separate government. On 17 February 1807, he was elected President of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was elected president in the South. On 26 March 1811, Christophe created a kingdom in the North and was later proclaimed Henry I, King of Haïti. He also created a nobility and named his legitimate son Jacques-Victor Henry as prince and heir.
He is known for constructing Citadel Henry, now known as Citadelle Laferrière, the Sans-Souci Palace, and numerous other palaces. Under his policies of corvée, or forced labor, the Kingdom earned revenues from agricultural production, primarily sugar; but the people resented the system. He reached agreement with Great Britain to respect its Caribbean colonies in exchange for their warnings to his government of any French navy activity threatening Haiti. Unpopular, ill and fearing a coup, he committed suicide. His son and heir was assassinated 10 days later. The general Jean-Pierre Boyer came to power and reunited the two parts of Haiti.
Born Christopher Henry, probably in Grenada, the son of a slave mother and Christophe, a freeman, he was brought as a slave to the northern part of Saint-Domingue. In 1779 he may have served with the French forces as a drummer boy in the Chasseurs-Volontaires de Saint-Domingue, a regiment composed of gens de couleur (mixed-race residents of Saint-Domingue). They fought at the Siege of Savannah, a battle during the American Revolutionary War.
As an adult, Christophe worked as a mason, sailor, stable hand, waiter, and billiard maker; most of his pay went to his master. He worked in and managed a hotel restaurant in Cap-Français, the first capital of the French colony of Saint-Domingue and a major colonial city. There he became skilled at dealing with the grand blancs, as the wealthy white French planters were called. He was said to have gained his freedom from slavery as a young man, before the Slave Uprising of 1791. Sometime after he had settled in Haiti, he brought his sister Marie there; she married and had children. The political skills he learned as a hotelier also served him well when he later became an officer in the military and leader in the country.
Beginning with the slave uprising of 1791, Christophe distinguished himself as a soldier in the Haitian Revolution and quickly rose to be an officer. He fought for years with Toussaint Louverture in the North, helping to defeat the French colonists, the Spanish, British, and finally French national troops. By 1802 Louverture had promoted him to general.
The French deported Toussaint Louverture to France, and brought in more than 20,000 new troops under the Vicomte de Rochambeau in an effort to regain control of the colony and re-establish slavery. Jean Jacques Dessalines led the fight to defeat French forces. The French withdrew their 7,000 surviving troops in late 1803; most fatalities had occurred as a result of a yellow fever epidemic among its forces. As leader, Dessalines declared the independence of Saint-Domingue with its new name of Haïti in 1804.
In 1806, Henri Christophe learned of a plot to kill Dessalines; seeing an opportunity to seize power, he did not warn the self-proclaimed Emperor. Alexandre Pétion, a competing leader who was a "gens de couleur," was said to be behind it; and would the next day (18 October) admit it in a letter sent to the queen, Dessalines' widow.
In 1805 French troops were still posted on the eastern part of the island (mainly in Santo Domingo), where they were led by the French officer Marie-Louis Ferrand. He mobilized his troops and ordered them to seize all black children of both sexes below the age of 14 years to be sold as slaves. Learning of this action, Dessalines was outraged and decided to invade Santo Domingo, with his forces looting several towns, such as Azua and Moca, and finally laying siege to the city of Santo Domingo, the stronghold of the French.
The Haitian general Henri Christophe (referred to as Enrique Cristóbal in Spanish-language accounts), under Dessalines, attacked the towns of Moca and Santiago. The barrister Gaspar de Arredondo y Pichardo wrote, "40 [Dominican] children had their throats cut at the Moca's church, and the bodies found at the presbytery, which is the space that encircles the church's altar..." This event was one of several documented accounts of acts perpetrated against the Dominicans by General Christophe, under the orders of Dessalines; they were retreating from the Spanish-ruled side of the island after their failed invasion attempt of 1805.
On 6 April 1805, having gathered all his troops, General Christophe took all male prisoners to the local cemetery and proceeded to slit their throats, among them Presbyter Vásquez and 20 more priests. Later he set on fire the whole town along with its five churches. On his way out he took along, fashioned like a herd, 249 women, 430 girls and 318 boys, a steep figure considering the relatively low population of the town at that time. Alejandro Llenas wrote that Christophe took 997 from Santiago alone, and "Monte Plata, San Pedro and Cotuí were reduced to ashes, and their residents either had their throats slit or were taken captives by the thousands, like farm animals, tied up and getting beaten on their way to Haiti."
Before leaving Santo Domingo, Dessalines "gave the order to ... commanders posted in conquered communities, to round up all dwellers and subdue them to prison, in so, at first command, have them stomped by mules and other beasts upon arriving to the Haitian side."
Following a power struggle with Pétion and his supporters in the South, Christophe retreated with his followers to the Plaine-du-Nord of Haiti, the stronghold of former slaves, and created a separate government there. Christophe suspected he was also at risk of assassination in the South. In 1807 he declared himself "président et généralissime des forces de terre et de mer de l'État d'Haïti'" (English: President and Generalissimo of the armies of land and sea of the State of Haïti). Pétion became President of the "Republic of Haïti" in the south, where he was backed by General Jean-Pierre Boyer, a gens du couleur who controlled the southern armies.
In 1811 Henry declared the northern state of Haïti a kingdom and had himself crowned by Corneil Breuil, the archbishop of Milot. The 1 April 1811 edict gave his full title as
Henri, par la grâce de Dieu et la Loi constitutionelle de l'État Roi d'Haïti, Souverain des Îles de la Tortue, Gonâve, et autres îles adjacentes, Destructeur de la tyrannie, Régénérateur et bienfaiteur de la nation haïtienne, Créateur de ses institutiones morales, politiques et guerrières, Premier monarque couronné du Nouveau-Monde, Défenseur de la foi, Fondateur de l'ordre royal et militaire de Saint-Henri.
Henry, by the grace of God and constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonâve, and other adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.
He renamed Cap-Français as Cap-Henri (later renamed as Cap-Haïtien).
Christophe named his legitimate son Jacques-Victor Henry heir apparent, giving him the title of Prince Royal of Haïti. Even in documents written in French, the king's name was usually given his preferred English spelling. His second son was a colonel in his army.
Christophe built six châteaux, eight palaces and the massive Citadelle Laferrière, on a mountain near Milot. With the remains of the Sans-Souci Palace, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nine years later, at the end of his monarchy, Henry increased the number of designated nobility from the original 87 to 134.
The two parts of Haiti struggled to increase agricultural production to recover from the expensive and damaging wars. The United States had only recently ended its arms and goods embargo against Haiti, and began war with Great Britain in the War of 1812. Christophe had to choose whether to enforce a version of the slave plantation system to increase agricultural production, or to subdivide the land into parcels for peasants' subsistence farming. The latter was the policy of President Pétion in the South. King Henry chose to enforce corvée plantation work, a system of forced labor, in lieu of taxes, but also began his massive building projects. During his reign, Northern Haiti was despotic but the sugar cane economy generated revenue for government and officials.
He made an agreement with Britain that Haiti would not threaten its Caribbean colonies; in return the British Navy would warn Haiti of imminent attacks from French troops. In 1807 the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 to abolish the importation of African slaves into British territories. Because of increased bilateral trade with Britain, Christophe's government earned an enormous sum of British pounds for his treasury. By contrast, Petion's Southern Haiti became much poorer because the land-share system reduced agricultural productivity, and exports fell.
As king, Christophe created an elaborate Haitian peerage (nobility) of his own design, originally consisting of four Princes, eight Dukes, 22 Counts, 40 Barons, and 14 Knights ("chevaliers"). Christophe founded a College of Arms to provide armorial bearings for the newly ennobled.
Some Europeans mocked his creation, and there the term "Haitian nobility" became a synonym for any improvised aristocracy created by a new government.
Despite promoting education and establishing a legal system called the Code Henry, King Henry was an unpopular, autocratic monarch. His realm was constantly challenged by Petion's government of the South, in which gens de couleur held power. Toward the end of Christophe's reign, public sentiment opposed what many considered his feudal policies of forced labor, which he intended to use to develop the country. Ill and infirm at age fifty-three, King Henry committed suicide by shooting himself with a silver bullet rather than risk a coup and assassination. His son and heir was assassinated 10 days later. King Henry was buried within the Citadelle Laferriere.
His descendants continued to be among the powerful of Haiti. Pierre Nord Alexis, President of Haiti from 1902–1908, was Christophe's grandson.
Michèle Bennett, who married Jean-Claude Duvalier and served as First Lady of Haiti during his administration (1980 to 1986), was Christophe's great-great-great-great-granddaughter.