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One More Coffee House Before I Go (To the Valley Below)

April 18, 2013

This past Tuesday morning I set off in search of a place called Kotad, intent upon finding the four coffee houses that are in the area, as well as Fort Drouet .  My information on exact locations was unclear and a bit inconsistent.  I knew I needed to take the CNE (National Center for Equipment) road, as it is known, from Cabaret, but my maps showed two roads running east from the town, quite close together, and I didn’t know which one was the CNE.  The road travels though a kind of hinterland of denuded mountains, but there are very few branch roads, so the possibility of getting lost was fairly remote.

This road, traversing the pass at Kotad and continuing on to La Chapelle on the other side of the mountains of the Matheux Chain, is certainly no superhighway, but neither is it the horrific road from Gonaives to Mole I negotiated a few weeks ago.  It was built only a few years ago, but a few seasons of runoff from the treeless mountains turning it into a virtual river have torn at its surface and gouged out deep channels in places.   This road opened up a region that was previously only accessible on foot or by donkey.  As a consequence, few ventured there, and the forts and the ruins of the plantations remained virtually unknown.  Fort Depeche, where I visited on my very first trip to Haiti, still sees very few visitors; even ardent explorers are intimidated by the steep mountain track that is the only access to the fort sitting with its head in the clouds at more than 1500 meters above sea level.

Immediately upon stepping off the tap tap in Cabaret, I was accosted by a moto chauffeur offering his services, and although I wasn’t too keen on him at first, I eventually negotiated a price I thought reasonable.  Jeanwil assured me he knew where Kotad was, and we set off.  But he insisted the road ran from Archahaie, some distance to the north, and when he turned west off the highway, I knew for certain he had no idea where it was.  Finally I made him stop and we had a bit of a discussion.  Again I explained where I wanted to go, listing off the coffee houses, but it wasn’t until I mentioned Drouet that a light came on.  I could see the frustration in his face as he realized he had gone several kilometers in the wrong direction and knew he wasn’t going to get paid anything extra for the detour.  I then offered him a deal:  if he got me to all the locations I was looking for, and would wait for me as I investigated them and took pictures, I would more than double what I had agreed to pay him.  He was happy with that.

We finally got on the right road and headed east toward the mountains.  As we made the ninety-minute trek, the rock-studded road climbed the ridges only to plunge again into the valleys and ravines.  Splashing our way through a little river that flows over the road, we began the long twisting climb to Kotad.  As we neared our destination the road narrowed at times, clinging precariously to the mountain on one side and dropping dizzyingly on the other, in places hundreds of meters.  But this height provided for some awesome viewpoints!  We thumped our way along as the rocks that made up the road surface grew larger and the water damage became more severe. The landscape shifted from the beige indigenous limestone and dull brown soil to the brick red soil of the mountaintops in which coffee thrives.  The red of the soil is set off by the rich green of the vegetation and stands in stark contrast to the chalky white outcroppings that frequently break through its surface.

Looking back on the road we traveled, part way up.

Looking back on the road we traveled, part way up.

Suddenly, as we rounded a corner, ruins appeared right beside the road—a coffee house!  There wasn’t a lot left of it.  I dug out the information sheets I had prepared for myself which included site plans and a listing of significant details not to miss, and was able to identify the habitation as Lasaline.  The glacis, an expansive gently sloping area held between retaining walls, where the coffee beans were spread out to dry in the sun after husking, was clearly evident. Picking our way through the newly sprouted beans that now cover the entire area, under the watchful eyes of the couple who obviously farmed the area, I discovered the structure at the back of the glacis was a large cistern used to collect the precious rainwater.  A cornerstone bore interlaced initials that I believe to be the mason’s mark, and the date August 31, 1791.  At the back of the tank, between what was left of the pair of stout buttresses that strengthened its walls against the weight of the 20,000 L of water it was capable of holding, there was a carved stone identifying the habitation as Lasaline.  The interior of the tank has strongly rounded corners and a smooth pinkish finish of what I knew from my research to be a mixture of lime and brick dust.  Nothing more remains of Lasaline.  The construction of the road destroyed part of the glacis, and perhaps more.

Glacis at Lasaline; cistern at right

Glacis at Lasaline; cistern at right

Interior of cistern

Interior of cistern


Cornerstone of cistern with date 31 August 1791

Identifying stone on cistern; note card suit symbols

Identifying stone on cistern; note card suit symbols

Traveling a bit further we easily found Dion, clearly visible from the road.  ISPAN, the Institute for the Protection of National Heritage, has erected signs there, and Sanier and Cenirs, the guardians they have employed at Dion, immediately came out to meet us, presenting their identity tags.  They were most helpful, and though I had carefully prepared notes, they were able to add a great deal.  I was gratified that these coffee houses are being protected.

Entering L'habitation Dion.

Entering L’habitation Dion.

Jeanwil proved very adept at orienting himself to the sites using my maps, and seemed very interested in every detail.  He could very quickly identify the structures and was eager to investigate them all.

Dion is huge, close to a hectare, far larger than I had envisioned it, and by far the most complete of the four coffee houses.  The habitation is built on two levels, taking full advantage of the gentle slope of the site.  Around the glacis on the upper level are the main house, from which the entire habitation could be seen, an oven, housing for domestic slaves, warehouses, the sorting room and a huge cistern.  Collector canals run along the edges of the glacis, directing rainwater into the cisterns.  Above this cistern stand the walls of a building in which putlog holes testify to its once having a wood floor.

Domestic buildings on upper level.

Domestic buildings on upper level.

Sorting room

Sorting room and warehouse

Slave housing

Domestic slave housing

Cell in slave housing

Cell in housing for domestic slaves

Water channels leading to cistern.

Water channels along edge of glacis leading to cistern.

Cistern building showing putlog holes.

Cistern building showing putlog holes.

At the other end of the glacis is a wide stone masonry staircase descending to the lower level.  It is built between two more pairs of cisterns, with a capacity of about 18,000 L apiece, each reinforced with buttresses and having an outlet onto a large courtyard below.  Around the far end of this courtyard yard are three long buildings of seven cells each, the slaves’ quarters.  The cells are identical, with a door facing the work yard and a small opening at the rear for ventilation.  The literature I had read indicated that unlike the slaves on the sugarcane plantations who were allowed to build their own homes, on the coffee plantations they were locked into these prison-like structures.

Staircase between cisterns

Staircase between cisterns from lower level courtyard.

Slave housing at Dion.

One of the 3 slave housing buildings at Dion.

Following a well-traveled path from Dion, we set off for Sabourin, accompanied by Cenirs.  My information was that it was a kilometer away as the crow flies, but it was much further following the path.  Twisting and turning among crags of deeply eroded grey rock, the brick-red ribbon wound through the green of the fields where people stopped their work to watch us pass, greeting us as we neared, and cows lay chewing their cuds in the late morning heat.

Habitation Sabourin, about the same size as Dion, is spread over four levels atop a hill to the north.  Significantly more in ruins, none of its buildings are anywhere near intact, and all that remains of some are foundations.  With the help of my site plan and the experience gained at the previous habitations, I was able to easily identify all the structures.  The main house sits at one corner of the glacis, across from a 36,000 L cistern.  Without the help of the guardian I would never have found the little vaulted chamber built into the back of it, used as a cold room.  It was completely hidden in a dense thicket.

Approaching Sabourin

Approaching Sabourin

Cold room beside cistern

Cold room beside cistern

On one side of the second level is a warehouse.  Built into the retaining walls of this level, as well as the third, are conduits to distribute water from the cistern.

On one side of the lowest level stood the ruins of a small watchtower overlooking the courtyard and the entire countryside around the habitation, but the husking mill indicated on my plan was gone.  I later found what I believe to be pieces of that structure some distance away from its original location.  It was a bit of a disappointment, as it was the only mill of its kind in the area.

The single row of seven cells of the slave housing was built some distance away from the rest of the habitation.  These cells had putlog holes indicating the presence at one time of wooden beams, but the configuration of these holes left me puzzled as to what the structure, well above the floor, once was.

We retraced our path back to Dion, admiring from over 1200 meters above sea level the view over La Chapelle in the distance.  Inquiring as to the location of the fourth coffee house reemphasized one of the problems I have had in finding what I am looking for in Haiti.  The guardian told me there was no fourth site, and Jeanwil concurred.  But I was holding in my hand a plan of that habitation accompanied by a list of its features.  Finally the guardian conceded the habitation did indeed exist and indicated the direction.  As soon as we set off it was evident that suddenly my chauffeur was very familiar with its location as well.

View from upper level of Latour

View from Sabourin

I believe part of the problem may be with names.  Earlier, as we were approaching Kotad, I mentioned to my driver that I had been to Drouet’s sister fort, Delpeche, two years ago.  He nodded and pointing north and south told me there were two Fort Drouets.  There is also confusion among as to who built some of Haiti’s forts.  In Mole Saint Nicholas my young guide insisted that many of the forts there were build by Christopher Columbus.  I have been told by some that the forts at Saint-Marc were built by the English.  Even “authoritative” sources are unclear at times.

But part of the problem lies with me.  We had stopped for a short break as we neared the top of the mountains at a tiny roadside stand where an old man was selling klerin, the Haitian “homebrew” rum.  I asked him about Dion, thinking that as it was apparently the most significant of the coffee houses, it would be more likely he would know about that one.  His brow furrowed in thought for a moment, then he shook his head.  I persisted, adding more and more details, but still got the same response.  It was only after I mentioned it was built by the French that a broad smile broke across his wizened, weather-beaten face.  “Dya!” he exclaimed.  “Dya!”  The problem was that my pronunciation of Dion (a fairly drawn out Dee-on) was quite different from his clipped Dya.

A short ride found us below the site of Latour. This habitation sits on a small plateau between two hills high above the road, and can be easily seen at some distance.  We climbed up past a little cemetery and through the ever-present bean fields to the ruins.  We were greeted by the guardians of that site, who accompanied us as we made our investigations.

Latour is the highest of the four coffee houses, built at an elevation of over 1350 meters.  It is also the largest, covering 1.4 hectares.  This habitation was built on two levels, one much lower than the other, and like the other coffee houses, loosely follows a codified plan—the main house, of which only the foundation walls remain, built between two warehouses on one side of the glacis, and across from it, a buttressed cistern that could hold 40,600 L of water for domestic use.  A cold room was built into the tank as at Sabourin, but intending to view it on my way out, I forgot about it.  The trials of aging.

Upper level

Upper level

A unique feature of this coffee house is a huge double cistern at the bottom of the glacis, taking advantage of the large height difference of the levels.  The slave housing consists of two buildings of eight cells each, built at some distance from the main house, diagonally across the habitation.

Interior of one of the huge cisterns.

Interior of one of the huge cisterns.

Ruins of "cellblock" for slaves.

Ruins of “cellblock” for slaves.

Intending to proceed to Fort Drouet, we returned to the motorcycle.  Janwil noticed the back tire was soft, and found air leaking around the valve.  A short conference decided we should look for someone to repair the tire while it was still drivable.  There hadn’t been much on the drive up, only the tiny town of Délices, and I doubted we would find help there.  But this is Haiti.  Stopping in the middle of nowhere, Janwil called out, and in a couple of minutes a man appeared from a house well-hidden high on the slope, carrying all that was needed to make the repair.  In a few minutes he had applied a patch using a crude homemade hot-patcher.  I was grateful when he sent his young daughter to bring a jug of ice water for us.  But when he remounted the tire, it was still leaking.  Totally unruffled, he removed the tire again, found two more holes and patched them.

As the afternoon shadows were lengthening, we decided to forgo Drouet, leaving it for another day.  There were other sites I had seen along the road that I will add to my return trip—an old stone church, and the town of Cazale, where Polish soldiers who deserted the French Expeditionary Army to join the rebels eventually settled.

Seeing the coffee houses in the mountains near Kotad provided me with a much clearer idea of how coffee, which in 1789, reached a record production of 77 million pounds to rival sugar as Haiti’s chief export, was produced.  Seeing the slave housing impacted me as I imagined the conditions under which the slaves worked, lived and often died.  I asked the guardians how many were housed in each of the cells, but they had no idea.  It would have had to be many to provide sufficient labour to tend the fields that spread across the surrounding hills.

But this was a short-lived enterprise.  During the revolution, fearing for their lives, the coffee planters fled with their slaves to Louisiana and Cuba, where they replicated the habitations they had built in Haiti.  Using the date carved into the cornerstone of Lasaline as a reference, these coffee houses, now well over 200 years old, may not have been  in operation for even ten years.

(My apologies to Bob for mutilating his song title.)

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