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Marchand-Dessalines, Page One

February 4, 2013

As I am inclined to do, I had researched the forts of Marchand-Dessalines in advance of my trip to that city.  But the task proved to be far from straightforward.  Haiti has been a nation of oral traditions rather than extensive written records.  To further confound the matter, it is my understanding that much of what was written down has been lost over the years, the recent earthquake adding significantly to that loss.

The Internet turned up little, only a few pictures and a smattering of information.  There was inconsistency as to the names of Marchand-Dessalines’ forts; there wasn’t even agreement on the number.  I found that very surprising on my arrival in the city, for as one climbs to even one of the lower forts, all six are clearly in view.  As to names, I have had to rely on what was the prevalent opinion, which my own research seems to indicate is historically correct.  I was able to pinpoint the location of each of the forts using Google satellite maps and plotting the latitude and longitude of each as I found the outline of the walls.  There was really no need; as I traveled the road into the city the forts stood like sentinels on the mountaintops above.

Despite having long planned to make the trip with a friend, I ended up traveling alone.  In view of the late hour of my departure I did not expect to have time to do much climbing.  The journey was pleasant.  The Artibonite Valley is a lush, vivid green plain stretching out from the river with smoky-blue mountains for a backdrop, all set under an azure sky.

As is true throughout the world, in the rural areas of Haiti poverty is more prevalent, although it is not so extreme as in the city slums.  Although they have little money, at least country people have some food.

Thinking about that brought to mind my mother’s stories about the Great Depression.  Her family lived on a farm, and there was always plenty to eat.  But for some of her sisters who had moved into the city, that was not the case; there no money meant no food.  More and more I see Haiti as being a century or more behind Canada.  Much of what I see here was part of the Canadian landscape at one time.  I’m sure that those of means who came from Europe were appalled at the conditions they found.  In fact there are still pockets of Canada that resemble Haiti in some ways.

I had traveled this same road before, just passing through Marchand-Dessalines on my way to other destinations, but I can’t remember actually having even noticed the forts.  My initial destination was Hospital Claire Heureuse, named for Dessalines’ wife.   It was an appropriate choice of name given that she had made a name for herself for her work for the wounded and starving during the revolution.   There I was redirected to what is known locally as the White House.  Set against the mountains, the three-storey structure was built years ago to house hospital staff who had come from other countries.  There I enjoyed the hospitality of Ian and Alice Van Norman, a truly lovely Canadian couple I had met at the Montreal airport as we waited for our flight to Haiti.

Ian and Alice have been in Haiti for 30 years, and were a driving force behind the establishment of Hospital Claire Heureuse in 1986. Since its opening, the Van Normans have been instrumental in the hospital’s operation and development.  I learned last week that the hospital administration has graciously agreed to allow some of the nursing students from our school do their practicum on site.

I arrived to the lively sounds of lunchtime banter.  Ian introduced me to his guests who were in Marchand-Dessalines to help with the building of an orphanage.   As I was devouring a delicious midday repast, Ian told me that some of them were planning to make the climb to the forts.  He asked if I would be interested in joining them.  I didn’t even have to think about it.

The climb was steep and difficult from the outset.  Since before leaving Pierre Payen I had given up on the idea of climbing, rather than hiking boots I was wearing sandals that provide absolutely no traction.   In places the rocks were polished slippery by the passage of many feet, and in others loose scree threatened to send me sliding down the mountain.  We had targeted Innocent, named for Innocent Dessalines, the Emperor’s first son; it served not only as a military installation under the son’s command, but also as his secondary home.  The third of the six forts set one above the other on the mountaintops immediately to the north and west of the city, it is more accessible than some of the others in terms of distance, but from what I could see Innocent was the most difficult to reach as the sides of the mountain atop which it is perched are particularly precipitous.  For the first part of the climb the afternoon sun beat on us mercilessly, but as we gained elevation a stiff breeze cooled and dried us.

I’m afraid I slowed the group down as due to my footwear I had to be extra careful about picking my way, and being the oldest of the group, I had to take things a bit slower.  I can still get there; it just takes me a little more time.  We made a lot of short rest stops, and before making the final leg of our ascent the group relaxed on a cannon that had been rolled down the mountain.  It had come to rest on a flat spot, and probably its prodigious weight prevented it being moved further.

Innocent itself was magnificent.  It is much larger than it appears from below, from where one can only see the front ramparts.  It is built in the form of an irregular polygon, its 1.5m thick walls, rising to a height of about 6m, standing at an average distance of about 10m from the fort’s center point.  Cannon embrasures and closely spaced loopholes pierce them on all sides.   An interior wall about 3m high with a number of arched doorways through it probably enclosed a roofed area.  Innocent has suffered a great deal of vandalism, and the north and west walls are no longer complete, but there still remains enough of the structure to get a clear picture of what it once was.

From the semi-circular terreplein at the foot of the entire southern wall, I had an amazing view of the city and the wide valley beyond.  This level wall-less area would have been where the cannons were mounted.  To the southeast I could clearly see the configuration of Décidé (Determined}. To the northwest the three forts above Innocent, Madame (Lady, so-called for Claire Heureuse), Doko (named for Dokomond, the mountain on which it sits) and Fin du Mond (End of the World) were clearly visible.  The sixth and lowest fort, Culbuté (tumble or somersault), also called La Source, was hidden from view by Dokomond, the mountain on which Doko sits.

Some historians credit Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary leader who declared himself Jacques I, first emperor of Haiti, with the design of the forts above the city.  He certainly ordered their construction:

“The general divisional commander of the departments shall order the general Brigade erect fortifications at the top the highest mountains of the interior, and the brigadiers will, from time to time, reports on the progress of their work “.

(signed): DESSALINES

They were erected to defend his imperial city against the return of Napoleon’s army which he and his revolutionary forces had recently defeated.  The seriousness of Haiti’s belief that the French would attack is born out in the extensiveness of the preparations to repel the anticipated invasion.  The engineer Zeno is credited with the construction of these fortifications in the first decade of the nineteenth century.  He was aided in the task by Lavelanet, an artillery officer.  Apparently all the forts at Marchand-Dessalines were completed over the period of one year.

After taking time to explore the fort and to drink in the panoramic view, the group decided to proceed to another of the forts.  I was pressed for time as I had arranged for a moto taxi to pick me up for my return trip, so I decided to make our way down the mountain, accompanied by a couple who had tired.  As we neared the bottom I was glad I had decided not to go on.  My legs were like rubber and even the descent became difficult.

After my agonizing climb up the stairs to their third-story apartment, I enjoyed a short visit with Ian and Alice before thanking them for their hospitality, promising to return soon to spend more time with them and to visit more of the forts.  Alice provided me with a bag of her homemade cookies for my trip as they saw me off.

I don’t believe in coincidences.  God uses many things to bring us to where we need to be.  It was my passion for exploring the history of Haiti and its forts that directed me toward Marchand-Dessalines, but I think He had something else in mind.  My meeting Ian and Alice in Montreal, and Dr. Felix arranging for some of our nurses to train at Hospital Claire Heureuse have fallen together a little too neatly.  And there is yet a further connection:  Ian and Alice spend much of there time in Canada at their Kelowna home.  I believe that this is just the opening page and I look forward with expectency to the promise of the rest of the story.

Innocent from the city.

Innocent from the city.

Innocent from part way up the mountain.

Innocent from part way up the mountain.

Looking up to south wall with semi-circular terreplein.

Looking up to south wall with semi-circular terreplein.

View of Innocent's west wall from final rest spot.  It's a lot further up than it looks.

View of Innocent’s west wall from final rest spot. It’s a lot further up than it looks.

The cannon made a comfortable seat.

The cannon made a comfortable seat.

Interior of Innocent

Interior of Innocent

East wall

East wall with closely spaced loopholes

Interior wall

Interior wall

IMG_3256

Through south wall embrasure over terreplein.

Looking east through embrasure.

Looking east through embrasure.

Northeast corner; only remains of north wall.

Northeast corner; only remains of north wall.

Décidé to the southeast

Décidé to the southeast

Madame,  Doko and Fin du Mond

Madame, Doko and Fin du Mond

Looking south over the city and the Artibonite Valley.

Looking south over the city and the Artibonite Valley.

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