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Beginning in 1977, I started photographing a gigantic Haitian fortress, the Citadel Henry. It is better known as the Citadelle Laferriere. I was astounded by the history that brought it about and I was fascinated that Haiti, usually in chaos, could place a fortress, larger than any other in the Western Hemisphere, on a mountain peak. Its builder, Henri Christophe, also put Haiti on a path different than the one it has traveled since his death in 1820. Documenting his work was one of the important influences and challenges in my life. What I admire most about King Henri Christophe is that he rebuilt and advanced a hated, feared and war-ravaged country.
My trip to the Citadel would be the first time I ever left the United States. It would also be the first time I ever camped out, spent time on a mountain or used French (which I had just learned for this self-financed project). Yet, I was to spend four days in this fortress with one local man assigned to me. While flying to the nearest airport, I made the first photographs of the fort.
After a caravan of men and a mule carried my bags of equipment and food to the top of the Pic du Ferriere mountain, I dismissed all of the men but one, who stayed with me and arranged for his future wife to cook and wash clothes in the Citadel Henry.
I arrived at noon on my first day, and I began the four-day stay with many doubts followed by a two-hour nap. After ditching the sleepiness and lack of confidence, I began to explore, study and photograph the artillery batteries Marie-Louise, Royale, De la Reine, du Prince Royale, des Princesses and especially the huge Battery Coidavid, which is the prow that you see in these pictures.
The batteries held about 200 cannons which, combined with their power, range and position, would make the Citadel Henry nearly impossible to lay siege. These big guns were mostly captured from the Spanish, French and English armies that the Africans of slave-era Haiti fought to earn its independence. The 130-foot high prow, the Coidavid battery, is the Citadelâ€™s tallest wall and, with its three levels, held the most cannons. One early evening, I made a time exposure from the prowâ€™s top so that I could light each section of the Citadel with one flash unit. This is called painting with light. Before going to Haiti, I practiced on my parents’ house in rural North Carolina. In the photograph, a silhouetted pillar is the furthest point of the fortress.
The nights were enchanting with the sounds of breezes, bats and an occasional voodoo ceremony taking place down the mountain. Because there was little to do at night, my guide, Romain Aime, and I would usually turn in early just past dark. Bedding down on a rock floor in the battery Marie Louise, I used a straw mat, a sleeping bag, a bottle of Rhum Barbancourt and a cassette player/recorder to help me sleep. We did have to learn to store ourfood in another room at night to keep the fortâ€™s two rats from crawling over us.
The reward of an early turn-in was to rise to the spectacular dawn. The clouds dropped below our 2800 foot elevation and the sun rose above the clouds. When the morning air was warmed, the clouds would rise through and above the Citadel. In the afternoon, the reverse would happen. One such morning, Romain and I hiked to a neighboring mountain ridge where King Henry Christophe built a rear defensework for the Citadel â€“ next to his mountaintop palace of Ramiers (now completely ruined). Christophe built other palaces, most notably the Sans Souci - his main home at the foot of the Citadel’s mountain chain near the port capital of Cap Haitien. Ramiers’ main purpose was to guard the southern approach to the mountaintop fortress.
From Ramiers, Henry Christophe and his army commanders had a sweeping view of the southern areas in his kingdom. Three redouts - each with a ditch, a drawbridge and slitted ports for rifles - allowed Haitian riflemen protection from an attack to the south of the Citadel. The three surround the ruins of the Ramiers palace. It’s a good 45-minute hike from the Citadel and the flattened mountain ridge is covered with rocks, probably all quarried at the site. I’m sure that the Citadelle’s governor, Christophe’s brother-in-law, used the Ramiers palace more than Christophe.
In the photograph on the right you can see that people still live on the Citadel’s ridges. Horses graze and beans are been grown between Ramiers and its parent. Another redoubt is seen here as well as the southern batteries. Although the Battery Coidavid has the tallest walls, it slopes down the mountain below the other seven batteries. The mountain beyond is Morne Rouge which looms over the former capital and port of Cap Haitien.
The another impressive battery is the Marie-Louise, named after Christophe’s queen-consort. One must scale the mountain’s sheer western side to approach this Battery - and no one does. It’s top is notched with catch basins that funnel rainwater to the cisterns. There is a water chute, several hundred feet long, that irrigated the crops grown at the fortess. The slanted stucture below is one of two powder magazines.
In 1818, lightning ignited one of the magazines, killing many including the aforemention brother-in-law who is entombed inside. There is plenty of evidence that the Citadel was still being repaired when work was abandoned in 1820. Most cannons are unmounted and few cannon carriages exist. But once completed, it would have been impossible for a large army to lay siege on the towering fortress with its two hundred large caliber long-range guns. No enemy could have transported matching artillery. Night-raiding guerillas, working under the protective umbrells of the Citadel, would have crushed a French re-invasion.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sent me back to Haiti in 1989, for what was my last trip there. The Haitian government’s ISPAN program and UNESCO began a restoration program of historic sites in 1979, and the Citadel Henry was the showcase. Many local people; skilled in masonry, metalwork and advanced carpentry; worked under the direction of Haitian architects and engineers to solve the problems of the neglected Citadel. I finally found myself walking the prow at night, singing everything I knew, until someone, who knew just enough English, would yell across the fortress courtyard,
“Marvin, go to bed!”
- Construction began in 1804, immediately after Haitian independence was achieved. The early generals of Haiti built 40 forts in the mountains.
- Lighting struck one of the powder magazines in 1818, killing many soldiers and the fortress governor, King Henry’s brother-in-law, who is buried in the Citadelle.
-The Citadelle Henry was abandoned in 1820 after the overthrow and suicide of King Henry.
- Like the governor, Henry Christophe, too is buried in the Citadelle.
- Length: 450 feet - Largest fortress in the Carribean.
- Number of cannon ports: 200
- Highest wall: 130 feet - the prow of the Battery Coidavid.
- Depth of thickest walls: 16 feet
- Number of batteries: 8
- Other features: defensive ditch and drawbridge, two powder magazines, casernes or catch basins which feed into rainwater into casernes, drainage aqeduct used for irrigating crops, storage and dungeon rooms, governor’s palace, military courtyard and barracks.
Posted by: marvinbright