Touring the Haitian Revolution

Mural on wall of Lycée Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Port-au-Prince.
Mural on wall of Lycée Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Port-au-Prince.

I’m in the middle of editing the new edition of my Haiti guidebook for Bradt, which will be hitting the shelves towards the end of the year. One thing I’m particulary pleased about are some of the new maps – a specific map to historic sites in the north, and plans of the Citadelle Henry and palace of Sans Souci.  Haiti’s history offers so much to the visitor.

With that in mind, I’ve just put together a photo journal for Age of Revolutions, touring the main locations of the Haitian Revolution. It was a fun exercise, and gave me the opportunity to throw in some of the historical footnotes there’s never space for in a travel guide. On the cathedral on Place d’Armes in Cap-Haïtien for example, witness to so many key moments in Haitian history:

The great chronicler of Saint-Domingue, Moreau de Saint-Méry, wrote that when the church’s bell rang, the blacks would cry, ‘A good white is dead, but the wicked ones remain.’

The photo journal can be found here.

The Bradt Guide to Haiti at the Citadelle Henry
The Bradt Guide to Haiti at the Citadelle Henry

I also spoke to the Haitian culture and lifetyle website Kreyolicious about the new guidebook, as well getting to take the temperature of the Haitian tourism right now. Overall I’m cautiously optimistic, although the continuing drama of that is Haitian politics makes it difficult to take a truly long-term view (to be fair, as a Briton writing in the days after Brexit it might be fair to equally turn the mirror on my own country). In the new guidebook there’s a lot more coverage of community-led tourism project, such as at Dondon, a little-visited town that has some great caves with Taíno carvings:

[The town] got together and formed a local tourist association so they could get organised to attract visitors so that those assets benefit the whole community. They weren’t waiting for the tourism minister to give them their blessing or for an NGO to come and do some capacity building, they just went ahead and set it up themselves. I was thrilled to be able to write about them in the new guidebook.

Efforts like this give me great hope for long-term tourism development in Haiti. You can read the complete Kreyolicious interview here.

Copying Cities: 3D printing Palmyra

Copies of the Temple of Bel’s entrance arch were replicated in London and New York as a symbol of defiance. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Copies of the Temple of Bel’s entrance arch were replicated in London and New York as a symbol of defiance. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

I’ve just written an article for The Guardian about modern technology and copying cities. It was inspired by the destruction of the archaeological remains of Palmyra and possibilities that 3D printing bring to potentially recreate monuments and entire cities, but spins out to discuss the Victorian trend for plaster cast copies of Classical statues, how the resurrection of Warsaw after the Second World War was inspired by a nephew of Canaletto, and how Kathmandu might be rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake.

The technology raises difficult questions. What does it mean to copy an ancient monument or building? Can a reproduction ever be as good as the original? Or is “authenticity” less important than symbolism to people who’ve survived death and destruction?

You can read the whole article here.

King Henry of Haiti – History Today

Henry Christophe, King of Haiti - article by Paul Clammer (History Today, March 2016)
King Henry of Haiti (History Today, March 2016)

I’ve just returned from six weeks in Haiti, researching a new edition of my guidebook for Bradt Travel Guides. I was also working on my Henry Christophe project, revisiting historical sites associated with him and the Haitian Revolution, spending time in archives and libraries in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, and interviewing a number of Haitian historians.

The first fruit of the project has just been published in the March 2016 issue History Today, the UK’s oldest history magazine. It’s a 2200-word profile of the revolutionary leader-turned king, that serves an introduction to his life and times.

You can read the article here, but you’ll need to be aware that it’s behind the website’s paywall. A week’s access costs £7.95, which also lets you dig into their online archive, which covers almost everything that History Today has published since 1951 – great value!


Lonely Planet Rajasthan

Lonely Planet Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra (2015)
Lonely Planet Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra (2015)

My latest outing for Lonely Planet has hit the bookshelves. I covered Rajasthan – one of India’s most popular tourist destinations – for both LP’s Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra, and  India, the 16th edition of one of LP’s most epic guidebooks.

Researching a destination like Rajasthan presents a different set of challenges to other guides I’ve done. Despite what the internet may tell us about the declining state of the printed guide, India is a country where it still very much holds sway – backpackers don’t refer to the Lonely Planet guide as ‘the Bible’ for nothing. For the writer, that means that any hint that Lonely Planet in town instantly brings out the touts hoping to get their business in the book. While I normally use my discretion as to whether I tell people what I’m doing  (it’s useful in some circumstances, less so in others), Rajasthan is one place where it’s essential to keep a vow of silence. It’s easier said than done of course, and there were still several occasions where I was rumbled and had to change travel plans to avoid welcoming committees at train stations when I arrived in a new city – something that happened on more than once. At times I felt more like a spy than a travel writer! Luckily, India is a country where the rewards of travelling more than outweigh the challenges, and I’m happy to be able to help guide others around some of its sights.

Lonely Planet’s Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra is available here. Lonely Planet India is available here.


Morocco Trip Planner – Wanderlust magazine

Morocco Trip Planner (Wanderlust, October 2015)
Morocco Trip Planner (Wanderlust, October 2015)

The new issue of Wanderlust travel magazine has hit the shops, and features a large trip planning article to Morocco, spread over a dozen pages. The piece has several different themed itineraries to give you a taste of the country: Cities, Mountains, Coast and Desert, plus a short nuts and bolts primer on getting the most out of a trip.

I still remember my first time in Marrakech, feeling bewildered in the maze of its traditional medina but always being sucked back to the pulsing energy of the Djemma el Fna square, with its musicians, acrobats, steaming pots and smoking braziers. Everything was loud, uncompromising and thoroughly joyful. On that trip, I hopped, skipped and jumped my way to Morocco by bus from London, but these days the cheap flight revolution has helped transform the country’s tourism, and Marrakech is an accessible four hour flight from a host of regional British airports, as well as easily reachable from other European hubs.

That first trip I made to Morocco was back in 1994. There weren’t any fancy riads then, but I can remember an awful lot of grungy hotels. I’ve been travelling there regularly ever since, including a spell leading tour groups there, and contributing to the last four editions of Lonely Planet’s Morocco guidebook (twice as head author, including the current edition).

You can find Wanderlust online here. The Lonely Planet guide to Morocco is available here, in book/e-book and PDF formats.

Lonely Planet Morocco, 11th edition (2015)

Lonely Planet’s new Jordan guidebook

Lonely Planet Jordan (9th edition)
Lonely Planet Jordan (9th edition)

Between the summer of 2013 and spring of 2014, I was based in Jordan’s capital Amman, living just off the popular thoroughfare of Rainbow Street. The end of my time there coincided with the commissioning of the new edition of Lonely Planet’s guide to Jordan, and I was very pleased to sign on to the book and share my experiences of the country, along with co-author Jenny Walker. That guidebook finally hits the shelves this week.

As well as covering Amman for the guide, I also updated chapter on the Dead Sea, as well as all the the area around Irbid, the wonderful Roman city of Jerash and the Jordan Valley.

Jordan is a fantastic country to visit, a relative oasis in a tough neighbourhood, but one whose tourism industry has been taking a beating in recent years. Yet the startling ruins of Petra are somewhere that should be on anyone’s travel bucket-list, while only this week the country got its fifth UNESCO World Heritage site with the inscription of ‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’ – the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been baptised. That this announcement came in the week when the guidebook hits the shelves may just be coincidence, but Pope Francis visited the Baptism Site while I was carrying out research for the book, so wonder wonders if he has the inside track to a higher reviewing panel than a mere guidebook writer.

Although it can’t guarantee an answer to such theological and editorial conundrums, the new Lonely Planet guide to Jordan, will help you navigate your way around one of the Middle East’s most interesting destinations. It’s available to buy here.

Henry Christophe

Christophe overseeing the construction of the Citadelle (engraving by Ramos Blanco at Place des Héros de l'indépendance in Port-au-Prince, erected 1954)
Christophe overseeing the construction of the Citadelle (engraving at Place des Héros de l’indépendance in Port-au-Prince)

I’m currently carrying out research into the life of Henry Christophe, the Haitian revolutionary leader who later crowned himself king of Haiti. His is an utterly fascinating life – a man who started life as a waiter in an inn, helped lead his country to freedom in a slave revolution which he then divided in civil war. His kingdom was a contradiction – he saw himself as the one to bring enlightenment values to Haiti through mass education, but supported the state by forcing his people back to work on the hated plantations or building the Citadelle la Ferrière, his greatest monument (and nowadays the jewel of Haiti’s nascent tourist industry). His rule ended in insurrection against his tyranny, and the king alone in his palace putting a bullet through his own heart.

It’s Christophe’s early life – those years as a waiter – that are currently fascinating me. He was deliberately opaque about his early life, and as yet the paper trail is quite thin. But thanks to the excellent Marronage in Saint-Domingue archive I’ve just turned up the following advert from a 1789 issue of the Saint-Domingue newspaper Affiches Amèricaines:

Affiches américaines

A Monsieur Badêche is mentioned in several accounts of Christophe’s life (as early as 1825, by the Haitian writer Hérard Dumesle), as the owner of the Hôtel La Couronne in Cap Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien) where Christophe allegedly worked. Dumesle also writes that Christophe had worked as a mason. The age also matches Christophe’s ‘official’ 1767 date of birth. Could this advert be at all related?

Other elements don’t match, most importantly the description of him as mulâtre, and his height – some firsthand accounts put him at closer to five foot ten. But it’s an intriguing find nonetheless.

I’m looking into this more, and discussing it further with academics specialising in the period. In recent years there has been a lot of new scholarship that’s shed light on the early lives of the revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, but there has been relatively little focus on Henry Christophe. It’s exciting that there’s still plenty of space out there for new leads and discoveries!


After Revolution: Versions and Re-visions of Haiti

© Leah Gordon “Chal Oska” (1998) from the series “Kanaval”
“Chal Oska” (1998) from the series “Kanaval” © Leah Gordon

Registration has just opened for the forthcoming conference ‘After Revolution: Versions and Re-visions of Haiti’ co-hosted by the Institute for Black Atlantic Research and the University of Liverpool. The conference takes the centenary of the US occupation as an occasion to explore Haiti’s history, politics and culture since its 1804 Declaration of Independence. I’ll be presenting a paper, on representations of Haiti in travel guidebooks produced during and since the US occupation. There’s a great line-up of speakers, including the curator and long-time photographer of Haiti Leah Gordon, with keynote addresses by anthropologist/performance artist Gina Athena Ulysse and Matthew Smith of the University of the West Indies (Mona).

The conference is in Preston, England on July 9-10. There’s more information here, and the full programme of speakers here (PDF).

Jamaican nightlife

In Kingston you'll be spoilt for choice for vinyl-touting DJs. Image by Christopher Pillitz / Image Bank / Getty
Kingston DJ (Image by Christopher Pilitz / Image Bank / Getty)

Lonely Planet asked me to write about nightlife in Jamaica for their website. Most tourists concentrate their visits around Montego Bay, but I really wanted to take the chance to sing the praises of Kingston. It receives far too few visitors, but really is the cultural heart of the country, and there’s great music to find any night of the week, from live bands to fantastic street parties:

What Kingston is really famous for is its sound systems: giant speaker stacks with a ‘selector’ (DJ) playing the tunes and a ‘toaster’ acting as MC to the proceedings. Part block-party, part fashion show and all-out stereo war, sound-system parties are an essential Jamaican experience. They start late in the night and go on into the early morning so you’ll need to pace yourself – don’t even think of turning up before midnight.

For me, the real gem is Kingston Dub Club, up on the skyline above the city. It’s a great scene with locals of all stripes, elder Rastas, Japanese reggae enthusiasts, Red Stripe and rum, and DJs playing sublime dub on a set of decks under a huge mango tree. You can find some Soundcloud mixtapes here.

If that whets your appetite, you can read my full article on the Lonely Planet website.


Sources and Methods interview

Paul Clammer

I listen to a lot of podcasts. One I’ve been enjoying a lot recently is Sources and Methods, a podcast describing itself as a show where ‘interesting people doing interesting things get to talk about the what, how and why of what they do.’

I’ve known one of the hosts, Alex Strick, for a number of years – he helped out with the Pashto phrasebook section of my Lonely Planet Afghanistan guidebook – and was thrilled when he asked if I would be interviewed for the podcast. In the resulting hour-long discussion we range from the mechanics of researching travel guides, the nature of writing about countries where visitors are more likely to be NGO workers than tourists, and the challenges and opportunities for guidebooks in a digital landscape where everyone can upload a hotel review to TripAdvisor, and expect to get the resulting travel information for free.

I also got to play a mini-round of Desert Island Discs, picking a book, a film and a song to recommend – the hardest aspect of the entire interview!

You can listen to the podcast here (where you can also read the accompanying show notes), or via iTunes or Stitcher.