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Forts Jacques & Alexandre, Sugar Cane Park

March 27, 2013

Having made a last minute decision to see some of the sights around Port-au-Prince, this morning I traveled through the rarified neighbourhoods of Petionville and Kenscoff, winding my way among their palatial homes as I climbed the mountain toward Fort Jacques and Fort Alexandre, built in close proximity to one another at an elevation of more than 1300 m.

Fort Jacques, named for Jean-Jacques Dessalines, is currently being developed into a tourist site.  Ample parking has been created, and a restaurant and washrooms have been built, both in keeping with the architecture of the fort.  Stone-paved pathways lead to the fort and around it.  The fort sustained serious damage during the earthquake, and is now being repaired to some extent.  Convict labor has been employed to do the bull work, including removing the fort’s twelve 2-tonne cannons to facilitate the repairs.

Upon arriving at the fort, I was greeted by Jean Pierre.  He explained to me that he was well informed about the fort, and would be pleased to act as my guide.  He told me that this was not his job, but he enjoyed guiding it his spare time as he is very proud of his country and wants others to know about it.  My experience in Môle Saint-Nicola taught me the value of a guide, and I agreed to have him and his young cousin accompany me.

Jean Pierre and his cousin (guide in training)

Jean Pierre and his cousin (guide in training)

The new restaurant and washrooms are near the entry to the park that is being created, right beside the ruins of the exterior powder magazine, in front of which all the fort’s cannons have been placed.  Among them is an English cannon, not really a surprise, as Dessalines came into possession of a considerable number of English armaments when the English withdrew after their 4-year occupation of parts of the west of Haiti.  The British surrendered the seaside forts at Môle Saint-Nicolas to him in 1798, just six years before the building of Fort Jacques.  Another of the cannons is stamped with a small fleur-de-lis, clearly identifying it as French.  Much of Haiti’s arsenal of heavy weapons was captured from the French when Dessalines defeated Napoleon’s General Leclerc during the Haitian Revolution.

Ruins of powder magazine in front of restaurant R, washrooms L

Ruins of powder magazine in front of restaurant on right, washrooms on right

Cannons removed from fort.

Cannons removed from fort.

Markings on English cannon

Markings on cannon identify it as English

The construction of this classic Haitian mountaintop fort was begun in 1804 and completely finished in two years.  Conforming to the irregular terrain on which it stands, the fort’s double wall, filled between and topped with a wide paved walkway, connects curtain walls and the four irregular corner bastions.  Most unfortunately, the northwest corner bastion, a massive circular rotunda that was the signature characteristic of the fort, was critically damaged during the earthquake.  The walkway served as a terreplein where the cannons were deployed.  The top of the outer wall is pierced by embrasures, if front of which most of the cannons were set on fixed wooden mountings, only a few being on mobile carriages.  Standing on the walkway, I had a panoramic view of Port-au-Prince, albeit somewhat obscure by the smoky haze that hangs over the city.   Indeed, the two forts were well positioned to keep watch over much of the area around the city they were built to defend.

Fort Jacques plan view

Fort Jacques plan view

Walkway on top of wall, earthquake damage clearly visible

Walkway on top of wall, earthquake damage clearly visible

SE bastion

SE bastion

Rotunda of northwest bastion

Entry door and rotunda of northwest bastion; note rubble to right

View over Port-a-Prince

View over Port-a-Prince

Closed by heavy wooden double doors, a vaulted passage leads through the wall and into the central courtyard.  In the center of the courtyard is a 5-meter deep tank that stored rainwater collected of the floors of the walkway.   Another tank was built outside the walls.  Off this courtyard, built under the walls, are four vaulted rooms that served as munitions storage, guardhouse and living quarters for the troops.

Vaulted entry passage through wall

Vaulted entry passage through wall

Central courtyard with water tank, stairs to walkway

Central courtyard with water tank, stairs to walkway

Jean Pierre pointed out a couple of the easily missed defensive features of the rooms.  Firstly, it is impossible to see into the blackness of these windowless rooms from the outside, but from inside anyone in the doorway is completely obvious.  Secondly, the arched doorways are only five feet high.  Should enemy troops have succeeded in gaining access to the courtyard, the defenders could retreat to the rooms to lie in wait, invisible.  Blinded, and having to duck as they entered, the attackers would be in a very vulnerable position.

Other notable features include a small bread oven built into the side of the stairway that leads up to the walkway and the small entry to a tunnel that ran from this fort to Fort Alexandre, just above it to the east.

Got any good bread recipes?

Got any good bread recipes?

Entrance to tunnel to Fort Alexandre

Entrance of tunnel to Fort Alexandre

Named for Alexandre Petion, Fort Alexandre is laid out in a perfect square with four corner bastions at its angles.  Like its sister fort, it has a filled double wall with a walkway on top serving as terreplein.  Like Fort Jacques, there are vaulted rooms off the central courtyard, but only was is still accessible.  Scant ruins at the center of the courtyard are all that is left of a small building designed to house the garrison.  Fort Alexandre has been badly neglected, its stonework crumbling and its small courtyard overgrown with raspberry bushes.  The fort and its environs are currently being used to pasture cattle.

Fort Alexandre

Fort Alexandre

Entry to only accessible room

Entry to only accessible room

Interior of vaulted room

Interior of vaulted room

Resident cow has access to interior of fort.  Watch where you step!

Resident cow has access to interior of fort. Watch where you step!

According to historian Gerard Jolibois, the construction of Fort Alexander was stopped Oct. 17, 1806, when news of Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ assassination at Pont-Rouge, at the north entrance of Port-au-Prince, reached the fort.  Subsequently, both Fort Alexandre and Fort Jacques were virtually abandoned.

After the forts I headed to Françoise Canez Auguste Foundation Historic Sugar Cane Park.  I had been alerted to this museum park by one of my readers.  It is located on the former French colonial sugar plantation of Chateaublond, which operated from 1771 to 1803.  This was also a former center of sugar production from 1895 to 1925, under the ownership of industrialist Tancrète Augustus.

Cane growing behind aqueduct arch

Cane growing behind aqueduct arch

The museum is very modern and certainly could stand with any of the facilities of its type  I have seen in Canada and the US.  But as in any museum, the displays, although interesting, are out of context, and without having visited the sugar mills of habitations Pivert and Guillon, I would not have been able to form a clear picture of how a mill operated.  With those visits behind me, however, the two mills on site, a hydraulic mill and a steam-powered mill, being far more complete and intact than those  I had seen in Saint-Marc, were able to fill in a few blanks in my understanding.  The refining equipment of the steam mill was entirely new to me, and here again, a little more information will be necessary to reach a good understanding of the process.  The park’s website boasted guided tours, but no guides were in evidence during my visit.

Hydraulic-powered mill with peacocks

Hydraulic-powered mill with peacocks

Steam-powered mill

Steam-powered mill

Refining apparatus

Refining apparatus

Boiling cauldrons

Boiling cauldrons

Animal-powered cane press

Animal-powered cane press

Retired cane hauler

Retired cane hauler

A Haitian Red River cart?

A Haitian Red River cart?

The on-site museum has a very nice little collection of precolumbian Taino artifacts and bits and pieces from the history of the plantation and of the history of sugar.  Something that caught my eye were items relating to the Amistad, the slave ship that was intercepted and escorted to New England after the illegal slaves it transported had escaped the hold and commandeered it.  What  amazed me about this display was the fact that last night I had watched Steven Speilberg’s excellent movie about the Amistad, the trial of the Africans aboard and its implications for the United States.

Taino dugout canoe

Taino dugout canoe

Precolumbian artwork

Precolumbian artwork

“White sugar tinged with the red blood of black slaves, the sweet flavor with a bitter taste for the oppressed …”                                                                                                                                                                                          Olivier Laplanche

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2013 5:14 pm

    I’d be curious to know what you differences you noticed in the area above Petion Ville and the area where you live. I live right off of Rte de Kenscoff, so you passed us on your way to Ft. Jacques. I’m sorry you didn’t have a tour guide at Canna Sucre. I’m sure it would have made a world of difference in your understanding.

    • March 27, 2013 6:13 pm

      Britney

      Certainly the area is wealthier than where I live. Some of the houses are amazing in both size and construction. I realize that the area is mixed, and certainly I saw poor people, but if you were to compile statistics on wealth, the area above Petionville would be far, far ahead of Pierre Payen. The people I met were very friendly, and there seemed to be far more who spoke some English as compared to my area, although those in my class are working very hard at changing that.

      Basically my village is a farming community through which National Route 1 runs, with small *jardin* scattered throughout. There are some very nice homes, although the few very large ones are on the beach and are occupied in large by non-residents, often foreigners. There are also a lot of tiny tin-roofed houses without windows, built of soil cement with porches framed with sticks and covered with ragged tarps, as well as many small block homes, most unfinished. Once I became familiar with the area, I found a strong Christian community as well as strong, but somewhat hidden, Vodou influences.

      My describing the area above Petionville would be analogous to telling someone how the expats in my area live. For the most part they live very affluently–large homes, servants, newer vehicles, lots of “toys”, money to visit the resorts fairly regularly, fly back to their country of origin to attend to medical concerns. They keep to themselves and do not really become part of the community outside of their mission work. But do all live that way? Certainly not. I myself live a very different lifestyle, not better or worse, just different. I live in the way I believe God wants me to live. I do not expect others to do as I do; God has individual plans for us all. I know missionaries who live with much less than I do.

      It was my first visit to your area, and there was not time to see or experience much of it. You are in a much better position to tell me about it. I am sure you love it as much as I love Pierre Payen.

      As for Canne a Sucre, I can always make a return visit. I should perhaps have phoned ahead. By the way, I made the mistake of ordering a Coke at the bar without asking how much it was. 22 Haitian dollars! I’m used to paying 3.

      Barry

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