Triumph On The Mountaintop: Citadelle Laferrière, a Reflection in Photos

Photographs and Thoughts by Guest Blogger, Elijah Marshall

La Citadelle Laferrière or Citadelle Henri Christophe, or quite plainly, The Citadelle, is the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Built under the decree of the king of Northern Haiti, Henri Christophe, in 1820, it is situated 3000 feet above sea level atop the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque, about 17 miles south of the city of Cap-Haitien and approximately five miles up from the town of Milot. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, the Citadelle’s construction was completed after Haiti won its independence from France through a fourteen-year slave rebellion. Its construction was no easy feat for an under-resourced workforce of former slaves. Fortunately for King Henri, his men were flush with one of the most indispensable resources of all, ingenuity. Using blood and gelatin made from animal hooves to create mortar, and virtually any sediment that could be found, the Citadel was successfully constructed as a formidable deterrent and strategic wartime structure unlike any other in the New World.

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When I first saw pictures of La Citadelle Laferrière online, prior to my journey, I envisioned a structure with the function of a slave prison. It looked so practical by design with such a remote location, that I could not help but picture a dense, onyx cube structure tasked with keeping poor, oppressed souls within its confines. Further learning revealed a radically different narrative to me, one of triumph and ingenuity. As fascinating and awe-inspiring as it was to read of the ambitions of the Northern Haitian King, Henri Christophe, and the self-freed former slaves who built La Citadelle Laferrière with a religious fervor, it is something entirely different to step through the open spaces and wide corridors of the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere.

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Thousands of rounds of cannon ammunition that would have surely wrought sheer hellfire upon any would-be aggressors. Remarkably, not a single shot was fired from La Citadelle Laferrière. A true testament to the message both the fortress and the Haitian Revolution sent to the Western World.

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A mountaintop view unlike any other in Haiti. If so much as a palm tree was felled anywhere in Cap-Haitien, King Henri’s guards would surely know.

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This particularly imposing heavy wooden door adorned with iron studs was re-created by UNESCO. Observers will also notice a multitude of different brickwork styles utilized to complete the Citadelle, a true testament to the determination and ability of the former slaves who erected the fortress.

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An open courtyard-like space near the top hosts several light artillery armaments for display purposes. Upon viewing it, I noticed the diversity of the masonry that went into building this area and many like it throughout the fortress. The sediment ranges from grainy to brick-like to natural.

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This photo strikes me with its metaphorical significance. Here, a cannon, instrument of war and resistance, lies dilapidated atop a broken support beam. Both are worn down by well over a century of exposure, but before them lies a blinding light. It is the light of freedom from bondage, a presence that makes it clear that you no longer have to fight for your basic right to experience liberty despite how broken down your prior struggles may have left you. This is the ultimate sign that the fight for liberty and justice is always worth the struggle.

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Short stairway to one of La Citadelle Laferrière’s many spacious corridors. One thing that struck me about the La Citadelle was how easily it facilitated movement. I have visited castles and cathedrals with incredibly narrow and winding pathways, restricting movement to an ever cautious creep. This fortress built by former slaves, however, allowed an impressive fluidity of movement for myself and ostensibly for the thousands of soldiers who kept watch on all of Cap-Haitien .

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The very top of La Citadelle Laferrière is a true wonder. It sits among billowing, grey clouds of hot vapor and invokes visions of mountaintop world wonders like Macchu Picchu. The lush greenery of the ground beneath this magnificent summit resembles fresh Caribbean carpet grass on a rainy day. It’s a sight that must be seen with one’s own eyes.

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Three cannons stand guard atop the summit serving as the first would-be line of defense against any who would try to retake Haiti.

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A view of a small but intricate canal system buttressed by stone and mortar supports.

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A solid bronze cannon captured from a French vessel. Though imposing, it was never again to fire a single round after its capture.

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Four light artillery cannons displayed in what was likely, at the time, a rather strikingly decorated chamber. Haitian artisans have always prided themselves on their style and craftsmanship. I’m sure that standard was no different even for former slaves.

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Heavy cannons, like the one captured from the French, affixed to an adjustable instrument for the purpose of aiming. A heavily armed, strategically placed mountaintop fortress operated by the same force that ousted the French from Haiti? No wonder no one dared to attack La Citadelle Laferrière!

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