Founded by the French in 1698, the exact origins of Jacmel’s name remain a mystery. The Arawak settlement it replaced is believed to have been called Yaquimel, although other sources point to Jacques Melo, an alleged colonial founding father. Either way, Jacmel was a prosperous port by the close of the 18th century, when the town’s large mulatto population began demanding equality with the whites. Soon after, Jacmel became an important battleground in the swirl of the Haitian independence struggle, with the mulattoes under André Rigaud initially siding with the colonists against the slave armies. The black general Lamour Derance from Jacmel more successfully led the struggle from the other side, eventually uniting the two sides, although Jacmel again became a center of mulatto power when Haiti split into two following Dessaline’s death in 1806.
Jacmel also played a small role in the South American independence movement. Pétion hosted Simón Bolívar here in 1816 when the Venezuelan revolutionary leader was assembling his army, hospitality that Bolívar returned by abolishing slavery after liberating his country.
By the middle of the 19th century, Jacmel served as a major Caribbean loading point for steamships bound for Europe, and many European names can be found on the gravestones in the cemetery from this time. Jacmel was the first town in the Caribbean to have telephones and potable water, and when the cathedral was lit up on Christmas Eve 1895, Jacmel became the first town to have electric light. The town center was destroyed by a huge fire in 1896 and then rebuilt in the unique Creole architectural style that remains to this day. Port trade, however, began to dry up following WWII and the Duvalier era, leaving the annual Carnival the one time of year when Jacmel truly recreates its glory days.