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Môle Saint-Nicolas: The French Fortifications

March 20, 2013

The village of  Môle is located deep in Baie du Môle on the point projecting into it on the right.

Aerial view of Baie du Môle

Aerial view of Baie du Môle

I believe a little history is in order to provide some context to the fortifications.

Môle Saint-Nicolas, being at a very strategic location at a narrowing of the Windward Passage, and only 85 km from Cuba, naturally lent itself to a rich military history.  It was dubbed the Gibraltar of the Caribbean.  Ignored for the most part by its early occupiers, the Spanish, the western third of Hispaniola, the area that is now Haiti, was settled by the French, many of them pirates who fortified the nearby island of La Tortue.   Eventually the French presence led to Spain ceding what is now Haiti to France by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697.  As France’s colony, now called Saint-Domingue, became more prosperous, it was deemed necessary to protect it militarily, especially from the powerful British fleet that controlled the seas at the time.

In 1763, French engineers were sent to Môle Saint-Nicolas to design defenses.  Following failed attempts to settle the area with Acadians in 1764 and again in 1765, it was decided in 1767 to send not more settlers but soldiers to strengthen Môle.  The ambitious plan was never completed.  Four seaside batteries, strategically positioned to protect the bay and each other, as well as a powder magazine to support the fortifications, were eventually constructed by the soldiers and slaves transported from Senegal for the purpose.  By 1780, there were 162 heavy guns and 60 mortars in place.

The defenses proved futile.  When the British 50-gun HMS Europa sailed into Baie du Môle in 1793, the French governor, already in fear of an imminent attack by blacks and mulattoes, surrendered without a struggle, and the British colours were raised over Môle Saint-Nicolas.

The British immediately got down to the transformation of the network of forts built by the French into a real military base.  An army of 8,000 men was assigned to the defense of the whole.  However by 1796, the occupation of these territories proving to be much more difficult and costly than expected and many of the soldiers succumbing to yellow fever, the English began to evacuate, returning to their previous strategy, that  of the blockade of the seas.  In 1798, the British handed Môle over to Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution.

In 1806, only two years after declaring its independence, Haiti found itself divided by civil war, creating a new northern state under Henry Christophe and parts of the west and south under Alexandre Pétion.  The people of Port-de-Paix, near Môle, rose up against Christophe, and Pétion sent General Christopher Lamarre and his troops to support the rebellion.  The 800 men he deployed in 1807 enabled him to take the fortifications at Môle and organize a strong defense centered on Fort George, formerly La Batterie d’Orléans.  Christophe besieged the city with a better armed and equipped army of 2000, but Lamarre and his men were able to heroically maintain their position for three years.

Mole map

Le Batterie d’Orléans (Fort George)

Ruins of Fort George

Ruins of Fort George

As I described in my previous post, I came on Fort George without really looking for it.  Its imposing walls rise just a few meters from the water’s edge at the extreme tip of the point on which the village is situated, right at the mouth the Môle River Gorge, the lush valley that provides Môle with its existence.

Plan of Fort George Le Batterie d’Orléans, later Fort George

Plan of Fort George Le Batterie d’Orléans, later Fort George

As can be seen in the plan prepared in 1773, the layout was in the form of a polygon with four sides, conforming on three sides to the shape of the shoreline.  It was closed on the landward by a pair of walls between which is arranged access to the fortification.  On the terreplein where artillery was installed the parapet was pierced by cannon embrasures oriented so that fire from the position could intersect with that from Batterie de Vallière and from the Old Quarter, thus providing a deadly crossfire preventing any landing force in this part of the shore.  Its very narrow main structure enclosed guardhouses and artillery sheds.  Ramps allowed the raising of gun carriages on the ramparts.  During the British occupation the battery underwent several changes including the breaking through a two vaulted passages under the walls, connecting the fort to the shore.

Tunnel under fort

One of two passages under fort

Interior of tunnel

Interior of passage

The fort was the last stronghold of Lamarre’s troops during the siege of 1807-1810, facing the army of Henry Christophe.  The shoreline is littered with huge chunks of wall blown away during that siege, and cannons rust in the surf.  The fort was able to withstand the ongoing assault without more serious damage due to its construction.  The walls were built in sections of about 7 meters in length, with the buttresses between not connected, but spaced about a meter away.  They were tied together only by the floor of the terreplein where the artillery was installed.  Thus direct hits on one section would not pull down the others.

Cannon in surf

Cannon in surf

Wall construction

Wall construction

Eroded buttress

Eroded buttress

We easily entered upon the terreplein from the south, but the area behind was blocked off by a fence of cactus and thorns built by someone keeping goats within the fort.  A few cannons, their carriages long gone, still remain where they were installed, some almost totally buried.  The passages under the fort have been cleaned out, but the landward ends have been barricaded.  The landward side of Fort George is overgrown with cactus, making it almost inaccessible.

Entry onto terreplein

Entry onto terreplein

But ‘almost’ being the operative word,  I later made a second visit.  I followed the wall of the northeast bastion only to find my path blocked by a concrete block wall built tight to it.  I returned to the front of the fort and scrambled up the mountain of rubble, reaching the terreplein through an opening left by the collapse of part of the wall.   I then climbed over fences of thorn bush cuttings and fought my way through the weakest point in the cactus barrier at the rear of the fort, suffering quite a few scratches in the process.  Jumping down into the schoolyard behind it, I was able to see most of the landward wall.  Then, however, I found myself trapped in the yard behind the schoolyard’s high wall and locked gates.  I had to make my escape by climbing the fort wall to retrace my entry route.

Although time and vegetation have transformed the ruins of Fort George, some parts are still evident, the whole hinting at its former commanding presence.

Batterie de Vallière

Batterie de Vallière

Batterie de Vallière

On the morning of my second day in Môle Saint-Nicholas I set off with my guides for the French forts south of my hotel.  A short walk down the road brought us to Batterie de Vallière.  Its monumental stone entrance portal, its main identifying feature, makes the Batterie de Vallière a landmark of the city of Môle Saint-Nicolas.

Gate

Gate

Gate detail

Gate detail

Plan of La Batterie de Vallière

Plan of La Batterie de Vallière

The Batterie de Vallière directly defended against a possible landing by enemy troops on shore. The general plan forms a large polygon, nearly a long rectangle. The structure has a front land side measuring 196 meters long, the wall, closely pierced with loopholes for musketry, placed between two angle bastions for heavy artillery.  At each side of the gate in the interior is a 12 meter by 6 meter bastion.  Inside the landward wall a firing bench allowed soldiers to fire from a greater height.  Outside the 1.5 meter shore side wall is a continuous polygonal terreplein, 12 meters wide, its rectangular paving stones very accurately cut and tightly fitted.   The foundation walls of service buildings for the housing of the garrison remain within the interior of the battery.  The plan shows a small forward defense close to the shore, but I was unable to access it due to a well-fenced farming operation occupying the entire area from the battery to the shoreline.

Loopholes over firing platform

Loopholes over firing bench

Cannon embrasures in angle bastion

Cannon embrasures in angle bastion

Cannon embrasure over terreplein rampart

Cannon embrasure through terreplein rampart

Terreplein paving

Terreplein paving

Foundations of service buildings

Foundations of service buildings

Although Batterie Vallière was classified as “National Heritage Site” in 1995, little has been done to preserve it.  The structure is deteriorating without maintenance.  Someone had planted corn within the walls, and a concrete block house built some years ago by an American is an affront to the terreplein .  While I was at the fort a couple was hauling away loose stones.

American built house on terreplein

American built house on terreplein

 

Batterie de Grasse

Batterie de Grasse

Batterie de Grasse

Batterie du Grasse

Batterie du Grasse

My guides and I then hiked toward Batterie de Grasse, about 2km further along the south shore of Baie du Môle.  Along the way we stopped to chat with an elderly charcoal maker who sat reading his Bible, some fishermen at their tiny thatched huts, and two couples who with pry bars and sledgehammers were removing the limestone that overlays the soil in the area in preparation for improving the road.

Old charcoal maker with his Bible

Old charcoal maker with his Bible

Road workers

Road workers

Plan of Batterie de Grasse

Plan of Batterie de Grasse

Batterie de Grasse was built with a thick masonry parapet (wall) of polygonal shape, following the contour the coast. It is enclosed on the landward side by a polygonal  enclosing wall.   The terreplein placed behind the parapet had probably been built for mortars, which have now disappeared. The stonework suggests a highly skilled workforce, with cornerstones and pavers all cut with accuracy from a very hard white limestone and carefully fitted. The walls on the land side were backed by service buildings and housing and a large covered storage shed. In this part of fortification, and leveled to the tops of retaining walls, shards of broken bottles were set in lime mortar to make it difficult to access.  I was unable to ascertain the purpose of a number of rectangular foundations about 2 meters square built into the terreplein.  My best guess is that they were for ramps to raise the guns.

Battery from rear

Battery from rear

Foundation for gun ramp?

Foundation for gun ramp?

The Old Quarter

After a lunch of rice, beans and fish at a tiny restaurant build of woven palm fronds, we took the path along the coast leading to the Le Carénage (The Fairing), where ships were repaired  and refitted, on the peninsula east of the village.  The path passes through a large gate in ruins, inside which was the Old Quarter.  Its broad front with two bastions facing the sea overlooks the coastline a few meters away, providing an fair view of the fortifications of the village, the bay and Fort George.

South gate of Old Quarter

South gate of Old Quarter

Terreplein wall

Raised terreplein

Plan of Old Quarter

Plan of Old Quarter

The upper part of thick walls is pierced by 31 cannon embrasures, and the wide terreplein in the fortified enclosure could allow heavy artillery to be driven up on ramps arranged in a quadrant.  At the central axis of the fortification, a vaulted passage built of precisely cut stones links the shore to the enclosure.  An alley separates the battery itself from the garrison neighbourhood, behind which remain the foundations of a row of officers’ houses set in front of a central courtyard, around which was built housing reserved for soldiers.  The two entrances, located at the east and west ends of the Old Quarter were originally decorated portals, monumental “architectural gates”.  Today only the eroded bases of the pilasters remain.

Cannon on terreplein

Cannon on terreplein

Vaulted passage from inside fortification

Vaulted passage from inside fortification

Entry from shore side

Passage from shore side

Shore side of Old Quarter

Shore side of Old Quarter

Water tank at left on courtyard

Bastion with water tank at left

10 pounder, probably a ship's gun

10 pounder, probably a ship’s gun

Heavy gun, carriage long gone, but axles still in place

Heavy gun, carriage long gone, but axle bolts still in place

Foundation of officers' housing

Foundation of officers’ housing

North gate of Old Quarter

North gate of Old Quarter

The Old Quarter is still suffering the degradations of nature, animals and men.  Terrepleins are transformed into pens for goats, and houses have been built in the garrison neighborhood.  The erection of a recent concrete block boundary wall adjoining the bastion completely undermines the integrity of the historical monument.

La Poudrière du Môle

Plan of La Poudrière du Môle

Plan of La Poudrière du Môle

P from south

Approaching south side of La Poudrière from the Old Quarter

Further north stands La Poudrière, the powder magazine.  Its construction begun in 1765, it was situated on land sloping towards the sea, not far from the Carénage but far enough from the Old Quarter to avert potential disaster.  It is huge, designed to store enough powder to ensure self-sufficiency for the fortifications of Môle in case of a sustained siege.  This was the biggest powder magazine built in Haiti, its outside measuring approximately 26 meters in length and 13 meters in width.  The interior with its vaulted ceiling is cavernous.  The thick wall of the magazine has only a single entry placed on the shore side.

Northwest corner

Northwest corner

Land side of magazine

Land side of magazine

Magazine interior

Magazine interior

Fine stonework of entry

Fine stonework of entry

During the time the English occupied Môle they did not alter its primary structure. They added an additional wooden storey to house important officers, the structure  supported on huge planks, one end set on the enclosing wall and on the other set on the raised buttresses of the magazine. The generously proportioned openings cut into the  enclosing stone wall to provide ventilation and to create rooms on the ground floor also date to this period. These openings are particularly carefully executed, their design and the precision of the workmanship of their white limestone frames a testimony to the skill of the masons who built them.

Inside enclosing wall showing buttresses

Inside enclosing wall showing buttresses of magazine

Expertly crafted opening frame

Expertly crafted opening frame

Although today the ruins of this magazine itself still retain good stability, its walls built of hard limestone finely jointed and bound with lime mortar, signs of degradation are evident. Many stones are loose, probably due to the growing vegetation, its roots penetrating to the heart of the masonry.  Although the south and west sides of the enclosing wall are nearly intact, little remains of the north and east sides.

Powder from northeast

La Poudrière from northeast

Saint Jean told me that the vaulted powder magazine serves as an occasional place of worship for the upwards of one hundred adherents of a neo-synchratic cult, mixing elements of Vodou, Catholicism and Reformed Church.

We followed the beach to the site of the Carénage, the only remaining evidence I saw of it being a rusting gun carriage in the water.  I could see that the site was ideal for its purpose, an expansive shelf of sand lying just below the surface of the water.

Carenage

The shallows of the Carénage, where ships were refitted

Gun carriage

Gun carriage

One Comment leave one →
  1. virginie permalink
    June 3, 2013 1:45 pm

    Thanks a lot for this good job! I ve just send you an invitation on facebook. Id like to know if you ll ok to put some of your very good-looking photos on Mole Saint Nicolas, facebook page, because we haven’t good photos of the fortifications, . You can visite our photos’ pages to see if you are ok!

    Best,

    Virginie

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