Haiti's Turbulent Birth Haunts Crumbling Fortress

By Douglas Farah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 20 1997; Page A20
The Washington Post

CITADELLE LAFERRIERE, Haiti -- High above Haiti's once-fertile northern plains, like a stone ship jutting through the clouds, stands one of the engineering marvels of the New World, now largely abandoned to nature and the few tourists who climb the winding cobblestone track to visit the crumbling stone fortress.

The Citadelle, built by King Henri Christophe at the beginning of the 19th century to defend against invaders, is the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. It is Haiti's most revered national symbol -- of brilliance in its building but of cruelty in the forced labor that cost up to 20,000 lives.

Historian Patrick Delatour, in charge of restoring the fortress atop a 3,000-foot mountain called Bonnet-a-l'Eveque, or the Bishop's Miter, said understanding the Citadelle is crucial to understanding Haiti's turbulent history as the only nation whose birth was the result of a successful slave rebellion.

"The Citadelle was built to protect the interior of the country in case the French tried to retake the former colony," Delatour said. "The political decision was made to burn the land on the coast and retreat to the mountains at the first sign of an invasion, and use the mountain passes as choke points. The main desire was to survive at whatever cost, and never, ever, return to slavery. The fort is a symbol of the will to fight for one's freedom."

Delatour said the massive effort on the Citadelle, along with two dozen other mountaintop forts, by a nation that was internationally isolated and recuperating from devastating wars, could only be explained by the determination of the former slaves "never to return to the plantation."

"It is also a symbol of what Haitians can achieve when we put our minds together," Delatour said, "what we can do when we unite instead of fight."

So impressive is the fortress, stretched across the mountain peak, with sheer cliffs on three sides and the only point of access subject to withering cannon fire, that the United Nations included the Citadelle in its list of cultural treasures, along with the Acropolis, the pyramids of Egypt and the temple of Borobudur in Indonesia. While some reconstruction has been done, cannons and cannon balls litter the structure and parts of it are off-limits because they are in danger of tumbling down.

"The Citadelle reflects the dreams our fathers had for the country," said former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "Their dreams of freedom and dignity.

Unfortunately, it was carried out with slavery, and hopefully today we can continue their project, but without the roots of slavery."

The Citadelle was never needed. The builder Christophe -- who had fought for the French army then aiding the Americans in the Revolutionary War -- led Haitian troops against not only the French but British and Spanish forces in a 12-year revolt that ended when Haiti proclaimed independence in 1804.

During the rebellion, Christophe burned the entire city of Cap-Haitien to the ground, beginning with his own house, when the French invaded the port in 1802 to squelch the slave uprising. The move left the French with only smoldering ruins and charred fields.

Cristophe seized power definitively in 1806 and crowned himself King Henri I in 1811.

Fearing a French invasion, he ordered up the fortress, with the architectural guidance of two Frenchmen. The original plans have never been found. The Citadelle sits on a mountain beyond the Sans Souci palace, the seat of government that Christophe had built in the town of Milot, 30 miles inland from Cap-Haitien.

The fortress's 365 cannons and 10,000 rounds, along with a massive stone cistern, were designed to allow the permanent garrison of several thousand men to resist almost indefinitely. It took up to three months for a single cannon to be moved from the coast to the fortress.

Built directly on the stone, with no separate foundation, the hewed rock is held by a mortar made of limestone, molasses and cow's blood.

The Citadelle, wrote one historian, "was the ultimate impregnable stronghold to which the king would retreat with his personal guard and continue to fight against the worst the white man could send against him."

But there were no invasions, only attempts to isolate Haiti economically, because the colonial powers feared the slave revolt there could inspire similar uprisings across the Caribbean and in the United States.

In 1805, French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand wrote to then secretary of state James Madison that "the existence of a Negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal acts, is a horrible spectacle for all white nations." In solidarity with Europe, the United States banned trade with Haiti from 1806 to 1810.

Historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith says in "The Breached Citadel" that France's inability to defeat the slave revolts in Haiti led directly to Napoleon's decision to sell French holdings in North America to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

Christophe and his fortress are an integral part of Haitian lore as well as its history. In a culture with widespread belief in the supernatural, the stories often contain elements that leave outsiders skeptical.

Napoleon Dupin, an oral historian and tour guide, regaled visitors last week with tales of Christophe's magical flights from the Sans Souci palace to the top of Citadelle. "Christophe was a great man with great magic," he said. "His spirit is still seen here at night, when he walks lonely, looking for his soldiers."

After his brother-in-law died in an explosion at the Citadelle, Christophe was said to be so angry that he pointed his biggest cannon skyward and challenged God to fight.

Historian Delatour said that according to the legend, Christophe fired the cannon toward heaven. But instead of the cannonball rising, the cannon sank into the ground. Now, when especially strong magic is needed, the story goes, the cannon rises from the ground inside the fortress.

While attending a Mass at the nearby town of Limonade in July 1820, Christophe suffered a stroke that left him virtually paralyzed. According to Dupin and local legend, Christophe was struck down in the church by the spirit of a priest he had imprisoned and killed.

Christophe never recuperated and, with his troops restless and in revolt, he used a special pistol with a silver bullet to shoot himself through the heart on Oct. 8, 1820. His body was taken to the Citadelle, and a large lump of limestone set in an interior courtyard is believed to be his grave. The Citadelle was abandoned shortly afterward.

Christophe's two predecessors and fellow heroes of independence, Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had been imprisoned and killed by their enemies -- with Christophe a co-conspirator in the latter's assassination.

His suicide "was the ultimate way to refuse to be enslaved again," Delatour said. "It was the ultimate act of control of his own destiny because he knew history was very ungrateful."

Subject: Crumbling Fortress : Madison Bell comments

It's nice to see Haitian history making the Washington Post... hence to a couple of quibbles. I don't think the Citadelle makes an impression of "a crumbling fortress." Parts of it may be off limits, sure, but they aren't obvious. Restoration has been very detailed and thorough and the impression the Citadelle (on me at least) is that of a surrealistically imposing Eighth Wonder of the World.

Now did Aristide REALLY say the Citadelle was built with slave labor, or was that the journalist's mistake. Yes, Christophe's labor gangs undoubtedly worked under a considerable amount of military duress (maybe a bit like those work gangs organized by the U.S. marines in the twenties) but slavery as such had been quite thoroughly abolished in Haiti a goodwhile before the Citadelle was begun..

Madison Smartt Bell


Art, Music, & Dance Book Reviews Film History Library Literature
Mailing List Miscellaneous Topics Notes on Books People to People Voodoo


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu