The Tragedy of King Christophe

by Aimé Césaire

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Tragedy of King Christophe is a cautionary tale about the tendency toward African dictatorship in the 1960s set in the nineteenth-century northern Haitian monarchy. In the play, the English abolitionist William Wilberforce advises King Cristophe on the organic nature of social development:

You don’t invent a tree, you plant it. You don’t extract the fruit, you let it grow. A nation isn’t a sudden creation, it’s a slow ripening, year after year, ring after ring.

This Burkean advice is rejected by King Christophe, whose response reveals the urgency of the character of the play (who is only loosely modeled on the nineteenth-century historical figure) to rapidly put behind him the legacy of slavery that he takes to be the central humiliation of his people:

If there’s one thing that riles me as much as slaveholders’ talk, it’s to hear our philanthropists proclaim, with the best of intentions of course, that all men are men and that there are neither whites nor blacks. That’s thinking in an armchair, not in the world . . . Does anyone believe that all men . . . have known capture, deportation, slavery, collective reduction to the level of animals, the monstrous insult, the total outrage that we have suffered, the all-denying spittle plastered on our bodies, spat into our faces. We alone, Madame, do you hear me, we blacks. From the bottom of the pit we cry out, from the bottom of the pit we cry out for air, light, the sun.

This ostensible hatred of slavery distinguishes the literary King Christophe from the historical King Christophe who readily employed slavery to build his monumental neoclassical public works and palaces that he believed would help put Haiti on a more equal footing with European nations. The play is an effort to modernize and update the historical Europhile King Christophe in order to reflect twentieth-century attitudes of African diaspora identity and intellectual decolonization. To achieve this, the author uses his artistic license to re-invent a King Cristophe who eventually sees the error of his ways at the end of a life spent seeking to modernize Haiti along European lines.

Africa, help me to go home, carry me like an aged child in your arms. Undress me and wash me. Strip me of all these garments, strip me as a man strips off dreams when the dawn comes.

Only at the conclusion of the tragedy does King Christophe return to his cultural roots and embrace his African diaspora identity as a kind of redemption. The tragedy of King Christophe is that he embraced his true cultural identity too late to make a difference for Haiti. In the end, King Christophe flees the trappings of European culture in order to immerse himself in the spiritual, magical, mythical realms of Haiti's Voodoo gods. Afrocentric themes are portrayed in a positive light through the use of poetic language:

Congo, I’ve often watched the impetuous hummingbird in the datura blossom and wondered how so frail a body can hold that hammering heart without bursting. Africa, rouse my blood with your big horn. Make it open like a giant bird.

King Christophe as an embodiment of Black Power is also given a fitting farewell in death by a member of his court who invokes the king's royal coat of arms:

O pollen-swarming birds fashion for him imperishable arms: on azure field red phoenix crowned with gold.

The literary transformation of King Christophe from a revolutionary hero and failed despot to a positive symbol of Black Power and African diaspora identity is a practical heuristic whereby materials from the actual historical record can be refurbished and given new practical orientation in a modern post-colonial context.

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