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Môle Saint-Nicolas: The Haitian Fortifications

March 21, 2013

 La Batterie du Ralliement

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La Batterie du Ralliement

On my third day in Môle Saint-Nicolas my guides, Saint Jean and  his young friend, Mesiline, piloted me to the Haitian fortifications, setting off first for La Batterie du Ralliement [rallying point], probably built by the troops of Henry Christophe early in the siege of the Môle, 1807 to 1810.  Turning inland from the road going south, we made our way along a well-developed winding path, rising steeply to the lowest plateau at an elevation of just 33 meters.  From this vantage point the views of the city and the bay are magnificent.

Crossing the plateau we arrived at the fort.  A simple thick polygonal masonry parapet along the cliff, less than 2 meters at its highest point, encloses an expansive parade.  At the rear of the square is a modest 6 meter by 7 meter powder magazine with a 2.5 meter wide entry enclosure; the vaulted roof of the magazine has collapsed.  Behind the parapet, terrepleins are oriented to best advantage toward the intended targets.  The pavers of the terrepleins are cut only top and bottom rather than all sides as in the French-built forts.

Expansive parade

Expansive parade

Cannons on parade

Cannons on parade

Powder magazine

Powder magazine

It was obvious that Ralliement was a construction of necessity in time of war, built for a particular purpose.  It was within cannon range of Fort George, General Lamarre’s headquarters during the siege.   General statements made in 1799 after the English retired indicate they had occupied this strategic position by installing a lookout as they transformed Môle into a military base. After the siege the battery was abandoned, a low wall encompassing a large area in front of the parapet left unfinished, and parts of the embankment not fully filled.

Uncompleted expansion in front of parpet

Uncompleted expansion in front of parapet. View of village beyond.

La Batterie du Morne-à-Cabris

Saint Jean seemed uncertain I was up to the climb to La Batterie Morne-à-Cabris (roughly translated sadness to young goats), a 4 km hike that climbs to 180 meters above sea level.  But I was insistent and we set off, making our way through the streets of Môle Saint-Nicolas, through the gate of Jean-Rabel, up the road toward the Digicel tower, then along the road to Calvary, the site of a huge white-painted concrete cross that overlooks the village.   From there we climbed to the first plateau.

Cross at end of Calvary Road

Cross at end of Calvary Road

The fortification is on the seventh plateau, and although crossing of each cactus covered tableland was relatively easy, avoiding  cactus spines was another issue.  Many times each of us had to stop to gingerly extract those that had snagged our clothing or embedded in our flesh.  The ascent from one level to another was often very steep, at times more than 60° from the horizontal.  Fortunately, the sharply pitted limestone endemic to the area provided stable footholds, and Saint Jean carefully mapped out each one on the more precipitous climbs.  I moved very cautiously, as a misstep could mean a long fall onto jagged rocks, not a pleasant prospect under any circumstances, but far more worrisome when the nearest hospital is pretty rudimentary and miles away.

As we advanced, Mesiline kept disappearing for some time into the thickets of cactus and then startlingly reappearing in front of me, seemingly from nowhere.  Saint Jean pointed out a small spring, calling it “Jesus water”.  Higher up we came across small farms, some with goats penned in wattle enclosures.  On the fifth plateau we took time to rest a bit and quench our thirst, seeking shelter from the midday sun behind a large rock.

The last two ascents were the most difficult, but upon reaching the fort the breathtaking views were ample reward for my effort.  A panoramic vista of the entire bay area spread before me like a map, giving me an accurate picture of the peninsula.  I had hoped to be able to catch a glimpse of the silhouette of Punta Maisi, Cuba’s extreme eastern end, but the day was not quite clear enough for that.  I could, however, see the neighbouring village of Bombardopolis, 17 km to the southeast.

Final ascent to Morne-à-Cabris

Final ascent to Morne-à-Cabris

End of Carénage with Windward Passage over isthmus.

End of Carénage with Windward Passage over isthmus.

Morne-à-Cabris’ parapets, centered around a square projecting bastion, are 2 meters in height and more than 2.5 meters thick,  pierced by gun embrasures oriented to best advantage and backed by terrepleins.  The limestone pavers are irregular in shape, but provided a smooth flat surface on which to operate the guns, three of which rest on the floor of the parade, their carriages long gone.  The presence of a 12-inch cast iron bomb, weighing approximately 100 kg,  indicates that there had been mortars installed here.  Behind the fort is a tank, 5 meters square and 1.5 meters deep, probably used  to store water to mix mortar during construction.

Terreplein behind parapet

Terreplein behind parapet

12" Bomb

12″ Bomb

Water tank behind battery

Water tank behind battery

From this exceptional lookout I could survey the entire network of fortifications of the Môle, with the exception of La Poudrière du Môle, hidden behind the lower plateaus.  The reasoning behind Christophe’s choice of this strategic location in relation to that of Ralliement was clearly evident.  That battery was within easy cannon range of Fort George, and the addition of this one not only put Lamarre’s headquarters in a crossfire, but also covered the road to Jean-Rabel, some 22 km to the east.  This effectively barred any escape from his seaside refuge.

Looking down on Fort George from behind the parapets of Morne-à-Cabris, I could easily grasp that with the construction of this battery, General Lamarre’s fate was inexorably sealed.  On July 10, 1810, during a bombardment from Le Batterie du Ralliement, he voluntarily exposed himself to enemy fire and was killed by a bullet.  His body was buried on the spot and his heart sent to his commander, Alexandre Pétion.

View over village.  Fort George is at tip of point.

View over village. Fort George is at tip of point.

The descent was less tiring than the ascent, but far from easy.  Arriving back in Môle, weary and a bit sunburnt, I treated my guides to an ice-cold Coke at the local bar.

Nothing could have lifted the rich history of Môle Saint-Nicolas off the page like this trip did.  When standing at the spot where it all took place something special happens.  Being up close and personal provides context to the events of the past, allowing me to experience them on a sensual and emotional level that brings clarity, insight and deeper understanding to the research I have done.  After all, history is not just a list of facts.  People lived it.  “Being there” puts me in the picture, letting me vicariously live it with them.

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