The Citadelle Laferrière or, Citadelle Henri Christophe

Henri Christophe built his citadel in the first decade of the nineteenth century on the top of a mountain more than three thousand feet high, which dominates the fertile plains of Northern Haiti. He built it as a last stronghold against the French if they attempted to retake Haiti. The trip up took a little more than two hours and was over a narrow, precipitous, at times dangerous path. After I had ridden an hour and a half, I reached a sudden turn in the path and caught the first view of the great fortress. The sight was amazing, it was dumbfounding, I could scarcely believe my own eyes. There, from the pinnacle of the mountain, rose the massive walls of brick and stone to a height of more than one hundred feet. On three sides the walls are sheer with the sides of the mountain; the other side is approached by the path.

The first sight to attract my attention after I entered the citadel was fifty long, solid brass cannons, with which Christophe had commanded the path. How he ever got those cannon up there, nobody seemed to know. I was told that the Haitian government had had offers for them as metal, but that nobody seemed to know how to get them down. I explored the vast structure for several hours, its storerooms, its dungeons, its subterranean passages, its chapel. There was a fountain from which the water still bubbled up – a sort of physical mystery to me, as I saw no greater height from which it could come – and there was a dark opening into which one dropped a stone without ever hearing it strike bottom. In places the walls were from eight to twelve feet thick. Some idea of the size of the citadel may be gained from the statement that Christophe built it to quarter thirty thousand soldiers.

The more I saw of it, the more the wonder grew on me not only as to the execution but as to the mere conception of such a work. I should say that it is the most wonderful ruin in the Western Hemisphere, and, for the amount of human energy and labor sacrificed in its construction, can be compared to the pyramids of Egypt. As I stood on the highest point, where the sheer drop from the walls was more than two thousand feet, and looked out over the rich plains of Northern Haiti, I was impressed with the thought that, if ever a man had the right to feel himself a king, that man was Christophe when he walked around the parapets of his citadel.

James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way: the Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (New York: Viking Press, 1933)

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  1. Posted July 18, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

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