King Henry I's citadel in Edwidge Danticat's The farming of bones
Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones is a historical novel but, even more than that, it is a novel about the relationship between narrative and history, about how stories help preserve the past. Set before and during the Parsley Massacre of 1937, The Farming of Bones memorializes the victims of government-led genocidal violence through the story of one Haitian woman, Amabelle Désir, who narrowly escapes only to be haunted by her losses and by the atrocities she witnesses. Before the Massacre, Amabelle lives in the Dominican Republic, working as a servant for a wealthy Dominican family. When she reflects on her home in Haiti, however, she returns again and again to a building of great historical significance: the citadel of King Henri I, a self-declared king of Haiti during the early years of the new Haitian republic. This citadel has long been a centerpiece of Haitian history, discussed in nineteenth-century works like Beaubrun Ardouin’s Études sur l’Histoire d’Haiti (1853) as a consequence of the king’s extravagance and ostentation. Yet in Danticat’s novel, the citadel is no excessive display of wealth and power; it is a fortress protecting national and cultural memory, a testament to the importance of remembering your country’s past.
Danticat’s first descriptions of Henri I’s citadel juxtapose Haiti’s past and Amabelle’s present, and the citadel stands as the one rare thing remaining from a different time, a lost time. Danticat portrays Amabelle wandering the fortress’s “deserted war rooms,” smelling the “musty cannonballs,” feeling Henri I’s armour “bleeding rust” onto her hands, hearing the wind through the “wild weeds and grass growing out of the cracks in the stone walls” (Danticat 45). In this moment, Amabelle is smelling, feeling, and hearing history—history that is in the process of crumbling, rusting, and cracking. In the citadel, Amabelle imagines hearing the king give orders to “tired ghosts” who have to remind him that his time has passed: it is “a different time.” Haitians have become “a different people” (45). Yet, even though Danticat portrays the citadel as a haunted and disintegrating remnant of a “different time,” this building also has power and importance in Amabelle’s present moment. For it is in this citadel that Amabelle truly sees her country: from the “safety” of its rooms, Danticat writes, Amabelle “saw the entire northern cape,” from the “yellow-green mountains,” to the “rice valley,” to the king’s nearby “palace of three hundred and sixty-five doors” (45). Amabelle literally “sees” Haiti through the citadel, but she also seems to figuratively see Haiti through the citadel. She conceptualizes her nation and her national identity through this building’s connection to its past. Here, King Henri’s famous motto--je renais de mes cendres, or “I am reborn from my ashes”—takes on a new meaning. The country of Haiti is reborn from its past, from the “ashes” of its history.
In Danticat’s novel, the citadel is no excessive display of wealth and power; it is a fortress protecting national and cultural memory, a testament to the importance of remembering your country’s past.
Danticat’s choice to celebrate King Henri I and his buildings as symbols of Haitian history might seem surprising, seeing as King Henri is often portrayed as a ruler who rejected the equality and democracy of Haiti’s early republic and exploited his people for his own extravagance. In a 1853 history, Études sur l’Histoire d’Haiti, Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin describes Henri’s establishment of a royalty and nobility in Haiti as a kind of strategic ploy executed by a crafty villain. He writes that Henri Christophe was “clever enough” to understand the difficulties inherent in proclaiming himself king and therefore influenced generals and other public officials through a “skillfully manipulated ploy” (Ardouin). Once the “notables” were thoroughly “intoxicated” by his “ploy” to be named King, the people of the city “had no choice” but to share in their “enthusiasm.” Ardouin also describes how King Henri granted large plantations to his relatives, named his family members “grand officers,” and built elaborate palaces for them. Ardouin ultimately justifies the king’s actions, but he does acknowledge the potential injustices of his extravagance. These choices were a “necessary complement to the monarchical system,” Ardouin writes, but he maintains that we do have the right to ask: “what did the poor gain from all this pomp, from all the expense all this entailed in order to support a system at the cost of public property?” In other words, what did all of this do for the Haitian people?