The Abandoned Memory of a Mad King
August 21, 2012
Behind us lay the tiny houses of red, yellow, and blue, perched alongside the roadway of Milot. And ahead, crowning a lofty peak is, in all of its magnificence, the Citadelle. It had been the will of one man, a freed slave who became a mad king, Henri Christophe. He had been, they say, a benevolent tyrant, one who desperately wanted his people to erase forever the heritage of slavery in Haiti. And the Citadelle, even in its abandoned ruin, has become the symbol of free Haiti, a hope, a dream, a quest if nothing else.
Photographer Gerald Crawford and I ride past the Sans Souci Palace while chickens scratch and scramble beneath our horses’ feet and leave behind the apple tree – the justice tree, the tree of life and death – where Christophe hanged his enemies. It was almost in the shadows of those limbs, in 1820, that a heartbroken Henri Christophe calmly walked to his room and shot himself with a silver bullet when his people turned against him.
At the police station in Milot, we had rented our horses for three dollars apiece, paid three dollars for a guide, and a dollar each for a couple of carry boys. One grabs the reins and leads my horse up the switchback, rocky trail, and the other trots along behind with a stick to make sure my mount doesn’t have any intentions of stalling.
I didn’t say I was the Lone Ranger. There is no hearty “Hi-Yo Silver.” I have a saddle horn to grip. And a prayer. It is two hours to the top or about two minutes back down to the valley if I fall over the edge of the cliff and head straight to the bottom.
It is a surrealistic ride to the summit of the mountain, a kind of offbeat dream, one concocted in a carnival fun house. Girls slip in and out of the mango and mahogany forests, balancing baskets of headfruit and bananas on their heads. And around every corner, it seems, drift the sounds of Haitian pied pipers – little boys blowing their hearts out on hand-made bamboo flutas. They don’t know any songs, but for a quarter one will sell you his flute.
A man walks barefoot down the trail carrying his shoes so they will look nice when he arrives in the village of Milot. At the top of the rise, with bongo drums beating out a steady rhythm, a Haitian dances on wooden stilts, blowing his green and white plastic whistle, holding out his straw hat for coins.
In Haiti, everything has a price.
In Haiti, begging is an art form.
In Haiti, begging is an industry.
A tiny girl, dressed in rags, picks a flower and holds it up to us for sale. It’s the only thing she owns. Crawford smiles. It’s worth a dollar, he says. She grins. For a day, she is the richest girl between Milot and the Citadelle. Tomorrow there will be more flowers. On the ride back down, there will be more flowers.
We pass a splendid, antique cannon, lost from the Citadelle, burrowed in the dirt of a farmer’s front yard. The people are poor. The cannon would bring a great deal of money, but there is no way to carry it down the mountainside. The farmer will die of hunger some day and be buried next to an ancient fortune. A dictator had tried to bring the cannon to the museum in Port-Au-Prince. Fifty men failed miserably. They left the cannon where it lies.
Our guide tells us, “The boys who lead your horses are descendants of the people who walked up this trail to build the Citadelle. If one faltered, Christophe had him shot. That encouraged the others to do better. That’s why these boys are so fearless and strong. They are stronger than the horses.”
The Citadelle looms before us, gray and solemn, a shroud of stone across the crest of the mountains. There is nothing else in the world quite like it. It is a magnificent ruin. Cannon balls are piled in the courtyard, waiting for soldiers who will never return. I can still smell the pungent odor of powder in the magazine. It exploded during a lightning storm in 1842.
From the top, there is a sheer one-thousand-foot drop off the side of the castle. It’s said that King Henri Christophe once marched a band of his troops off the edge to impress a visiting dignitary with his army’s discipline. Now, Henri Christophe himself lies buried in that huge, deserted courtyard. Only a few come to step on his grave.
The Citadelle is a mute testament to the slave rebellion of the early nineteenth century when Haitians freed themselves from French Colonial rule. Christophe had shaken loose his chains. His fortress in the sky, built in eleven years by two hundred thousand men, was his last monument, his last stand, his final place of refuge should the French ever return. The French never did.
But those who wanted to escape the binds of France finally fought to escape the iron rule of Christophe. He had always believed that the soldiers in the Citadelle would save him. But he awoke one day and realized that he was a man alone. The soldiers who had sworn to defend him had now sworn to destroy them. With a pistol in a small dark room in Milot, he fired one shot and robbed them of their glorious and final quest.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of the Christian suspense thriller, Golgotha Connection.