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Port-au-Prince was founded in 1742 during the boom years of French rule, when it was decided that St-Domingue needed a new central port, and was given its royal charter as capital seven years later. The broad bay in the Golfe de la Gonâve was the ideal location; its name taken from the French ship Prince that had first moored there in 1706.

During the slave revolution Port-au-Prince was a key strategic target. Jean-Jaques Dessalines rejected it as his new capital, seeing it as a mulatto stronghold (Pétionville, in particular), and was assassinated on its outskirts in 1806. When Haiti was reunited in 1820, Port-au-Prince returned to its capital status and has dominated the country ever since.

The initial site of the city was confined to the modern Bel Air district. In 1831 Pétionville, located in the cleaner hills above the city, was considered as a possible alternative capital but the idea never stuck. During the 19th century Port-au-Prince grew rapidly, its expansion only occasionally halted by the periodic fires that razed it to the ground. The wealthier residents moved to the rural east of the city, creating the suburbs of Turgeau and Bois Verna, where many of Port-au-Prince’s best gingerbread houses can now be found. The poor found themselves pushed to the less salubrious marshy areas of La Saline in the north, the beginning of the city’s bidonvilles (shanty towns).

The 20th century saw a push for modernization. The US occupation of 1915 improved the city’s infrastructure and hygiene through its drain-building program. In 1948 the Estimé government built a link road to Pétionville, spurring the growth of the Delmas suburb. A year later the waterfront area just south of the docks was remodeled to celebrate the city’s bicentennial. During the Duvalier period anarchic growth was more the order of the day, as vast numbers of country dwellers flocked to the city. The model development of Cité Simone (named for Papa Doc’s wife) soon lapsed into slums, and was subsequently renamed Cité Soleil, while the sprawl of Carrefour similarly lacked state services or infrastructure.

Port-au-Prince continues to grow like a wild plant. The rich have largely retreated to Pétionville and other upscale suburbs, while the poorest areas such as Cité Soleil have proved the breeding ground for both popular political movements like Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas, and the armed gangs that prospered in the period preceding and following his 2001 ouster. The presence of UN troops, while not without controversy, has at least brought a semblance of order back to the streets.