Razed five times (by both humans and nature), Cap-Haïtien has a turbulent history, inextricably linked to Haiti’s colonial past and independence struggle.
Cap-François was founded in 1670 by Bertrand d’Ogeron, who recognized the superb natural harbor of its location. As St-Domingue grew as a colony, the port was renamed Cap Français, and sat at the hub of the booming plantation economy. Sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo – and the slave trade – swelled its coffers. By the middle of the century, Cap Français was so rich it was dubbed the ‘Paris of the Antilles.’
This Paris was destined to burn in revolutionary fire. Early rebellions had been squashed here, the inhabitants witnessing the executions of Mackandal in 1758; Vincent Ogé, who had agitated for mulattoes’ rights, in 1790; and the Vodou rebellion of Boukman a year later. The city was sacked when revolution erupted, and completely torched in 1803 on the orders of Toussaint Louverture, lest it 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. When Christophe became king he renamed it Cap Henri, but the name reverted on his death in 1820.
Leveled by an earthquake in 1842, Cap-Haïtien has arguably never fully recovered. Its central political and economic role has been long-ceded to Port-au-Prince, and even today the road to the capital is very poorly maintained.