The currently sleepy nature of Cap-Haïtien belies a turbulent past. It has been razed to the ground five times by man and nature alike, and had four changes of name. Its history is inextricably linked to Haiti’s colonial past and struggle for independence.
Cap-François was founded in 1670 by Bertrand d’Ogeron, who recognized the superb natural harbor of its location. It was a refuge for Calvinists fleeing religious turmoil in France, but as Saint-Domingue grew as a colony, the port soon became its most important possession. Renamed Cap Français, it sat at the hub of the booming plantation economy of the 18th century. Sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo swelled its coffers, and all fed by the African slave trade. By the middle of the century, Cap Français was displaying its wealth through its grand buildings and the fine dress of the colonists, the ‘Paris of the Antilles.’
This Paris was destined to burn in the great slave revolution. Early rebellions had been squashed here, the inhabitants witnessing the executions of Mackandal in 1758, Vincent Ogé, who had agitated for mulatto’s rights, in 1790 and Boukman a year later. The city was sacked when the full revolution erupted, then completely torched in 1803 on the orders of Toussaint Louverture, who preferred to see it burn rather than fall into the hands of Napoleon’s invading army. At Vertières on its outskirts Dessalines won the final victory that brought independence, and renamed the city Cap-Haïtien as a symbol of freedom. In a gesture of vanity, when Christophe became king he renamed it Cap Henri, but the name reverted on his death in 1820.
From then Cap-Haïtien ceded its central political and economic role to Port-au-Prince, and never fully recovered from the earthquake that leveled it in 1842. Charlemagne Péraulte, the hero of the Caco rebellion against the US military occupation in 1915, is buried here, but even he couldn’t stop the Americans forcing one last name change on the city, when they reordered the street plan for their own convenience.