Wednesday, May 9, 2012

La Citadelle Laferrière

Okay, so let's talk about Haiti.  Haiti has some old colonial coastal fort remnants from the French, but it also has something extremely unusual in the Carribbean; namely, an authentically autochthonic fort!  This is NOT a fort built by Europeans, although it is perhaps not a Native American for either.  Most importantly, it is totally badass. Unlike most of the rest of the Carribbean, Haiti fought a successful war of independence, shrugged off the colonial yoke, and declared a free democratic republic around the same time that the United States did, and about 150 years before any of their neighbors (many of which even now owe fealty to European crowns).  In gaining their independence, Haiti provided an instructive object lesson concerning the capacity of large numbers of pissed-off slaves to kill Whitey and take over the country.  This made slaveowners everywhere else extremely nervous for some time after, and explains why the Haitian Revolution was so poorly publicized despite being such a fascinating subject.

Anyway, after winning the war, Haiti didn't do as good a job of maintaining a stable government, perhaps, as the United States.  There were many external enemies to a free black Carribean nation.  Additionally, having developed a talent for armed insurrection, Haitians were loathe to give it up as a pastime. Haiti has experienced no fewer than 32 intramural coups de main, most recently in 2004, since the first one in 1791 - the most recent one was in 2004.  So it has long behove Haitian rulers to consider their defensive strategy wisely. Voilà La Citadelle Laferrière!
La Citadelle was the product of Henri Cristophe, one of the brutal ex-slave founding fathers of the Haitian Revolution. Born a slave, he earned his freedom and (reputedly) fought in the American Revolution before joining up with Toussaint L'Ouverture and rising to the rank of general in the Haitian Revolution. After all* the whites were dead and Haiti was free, Henri Cristophe found himself unsuited to making progress in the tumultuous postwar political environment despite his high rank. He eventually declined to participate in the democratic experiment of the Republic of Haiti by retiring to the northern region of the country with his army to found the Kingdom of Haiti. There he had himself crowned King of Haiti and set about acting just like any king, forcing peasants to construct opulent palaces and indefatigable mountain fastnesses. The Republic and Kingdom coexisted for the next 10 years, both claiming sovereignty over the entire island but never seriously contesting it.

As H.M. Dei Gratia Rex Haitius, Henry established a peerage and insisted on the full honors of royalty. Although Europeans found his monarchist affectations buffoonish, they were willing to trade with him, unlike his anti-Royalist Southern Haitian neighbors (who got bupkis), and consequently the royal coffers swelled. He built several opulent palaces as well as La Citadelle. This mountaintip fastness was located conveniently near one of his more opulent palaces, and was built swiftly using, *ahem*, forced, one might even say, slave, *cough* labor from his subjects. Well, needs must, when the Devil drives.

Brutal, oppressive, and grandiose he may have been, but King Henry was no fool.  He was built La Citadelle as part of a canny national defense strategy. He had a French re-invasion firmly in mind, and he used his trade credit from selling sugarcane to France's enemies to load La Citadelle for bear. It was stoutly built, armed with over 300 cannons, and provisioned for a long siege; the tremendous stockpile of cannonballs Henry laid in is still cluttering up the joint. If the French had invaded, the national defense plan was to torch the countryside and turtle up in the fort until most of the invading force had died off from malaria, or yellow fever, or typhus, or some other damned thing - about six months, in other words. It seems that La Citadelle constituted an effective deterrent, because a French invasion never came; indeed, the greatest threat to the crown proved to be King Henry himself. As it goes, he shot himself with a silver bullet following a debilitating stroke. His only son and heir, King Henry II, was never crowned, as he was promptly assassinated by disgruntled cadre. The Kingdom quietly assimilated itself back into the Republic of Haiti, of which, in the fullness of time, King Henry's grandson was elected President in 1902.

Anyway, the fort is totally gorgeous and worth the visit if you can swing it. Right, now the tricky part comes, visiting the place. Apparently Northern Haiti is supposed to be relatively chill, compared to the rest of Haiti, but remember that's relative. I think the cholera epidemic has calmed down, but, you know, get your shots. If you're black, you're set to visit without too many problems; don't flash too much money or steal anybody's girl.  If you're a honky like me, we-ell... Haitian racial relations with whites have been strained ever since the Great Honky-Stab of 1791-1804 (*the only amelanic survivors of which belonged to 3 small groups: a contingent of Polish soldiers serving in the French Army who had been granted asylum in exchange for their surrender; a small cluster of extremely chill Germans living so far off in the sticks that no one remembered they were there in time to murder them before peace was declared; and a medical mission). Racial relations with Hispanics have been strained ever since some atrocious massacres of Dominican children and Catholic priests and nuns and burning of churches and monasteries occurred during a punitive raid into the DR by King Henri in 1805. One of those 'He started it!' things, I guess. Asians, Arabs, Australians, I have no're probably fine. Haitians tend to drop their aitches anyway, so attempt to accentuate the alliteration angle. Whoever you are, this is where you want to be when the zombie apocalypse occurs. On an impregnable fortress on top of a mountain in the middle of a tropical jungle on an island in the middle of the ocean.