Mapping Early Haitian History
By Paul Clammer
In 2016 I was in Cap-Haïtien, working on an update for my guidebook to Haiti. Mapping is a key part of writing travel guides, and I spend a lot of time physically locating places and dropping pins on Google Maps. My first visit to Cap-Haïtien as a travel writer was in 2007, so it's a familiar city to navigate, a fact made even easier since its streets still retain the grid system laid down by French invaders in the late 17th century.
On this visit to Cap-Haïtien, however, I had a second motive. I am currently doing research for a biography of the Haitian revolutionary leader (and later, king of Haiti) Henry Christophe. I wanted to try to find the location of the Couronne, which was the inn where the young Christophe had legendarily worked before the revolution. I was hoping to better understand both his life and the city he grew up in.
To help me, I had a number of aids. The first was a copy of Moreau de Saint-Méry's Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie francaise de l'isle Saint-Domingue. This comprehensive colonial guide to the French colony contains some 400 pages on colonial Le Cap alone, including detailed street-by-street descriptions of the city. The Description is an invaluable resource, especially when used in conjunction with the listings from the Affiches américaines.The French were keen cartographers of their most valuable colonial city, and several excellent plans are available online. I found the most useful to be a 1785 map that showed Le Cap prior to the revolution, but other later maps were produced showing the damage done to the city when it was set ablaze in June 1793, as well as subsequent efforts at rebuilding.
(1784 map of the Plaine du Nord, showing the locations of the Citadelle Henry and Sans Souci palace)
Another useful resource for exploring colonial Le Cap is Gauvin Bailey's Colonial Architecture project, which reveals the surprising number of colonial buildings in Le Cap that survived both the revolution and the 1842 earthquake that severely damaged the city. The Couronne Inn, I discovered, stood on a block that was destroyed in the 1793 fire, but I was pleased to learn that the site is now occupied by a soft drinks depot that sells Champagne Couronne, one of the most popular of Haitian sodas. Another happy discovery was that the layout of the market in Place Clugny still almost exactly matches that described by Moreau de Saint-Méry, with the possible exception being that it now mostly sells cheap plastic goods.
Physically walking the locations associated with the Haitian Revolution and the early years of Haitian independence can help connect us to history in a deeply material way. I find it remarkable that the opening and closing acts of the revolution – the ceremony at Boïs Caïman and the Battle of Vertières – took place within five miles of each other. Or that midway between the two you can step a few yards off the main road and cross a still-used colonial bridge to the Breda plantation, where Toussaint Louverture had once lived. Standing behind the walls of the fort at Crête-à-Pierrot and surveying the surrounding terrain, you instantly understand why it was that Dessalines chose it to make his great stand against the French army.
While Moreau de Saint-Méry remains an invaluable guide, it must be remembered that any colonial source carries colonial biases. To get closer to a Haitian perspective, I also use Rouzier's Dictionnaire géographique et administratif universel d'Haïti, published in Port-au-Prince in 1892, which provides crucial details down to the commune level, with notes on historic events that took place in each location.
Looking beyond Le Cap, there are many maps to be consulted in the digital archive. For the Plaine du Nord, the crucible of the Haitian Revolution, the Library of Congress's 1784 map Plan de la plaine du Cap François has a fantastically high level of detail, allowing you to easily map colonial roads on Haiti's modern road network. Gallica's Carte topographique de la région du Cap-Français et du Fort-Dauphin, covers an even wider area. With the help of these, I have been able to build a picture of the Kingdom of Haiti, mapping Henry Christophe's plantations and 'chateaux', as well as testing Michel-Rolph Trouillot's contention that Christophe built his palace of Sans Souci in Milot on the spot where he killed his rival of the same name in early 1803.
For modern reference maps, Open Street Map has a far greater level of detail for Haiti than Google Maps, although the latter's satellite imagery is useful when ground-truthing locations. For topographic maps, the best resource is the 1963 U.S. Army Map Service Series E732, covering the entirety of Haiti at a scale of 1:50,000 over a series of 89 sheets. This is particularly useful for anyone trying to track military campaigns over Haiti's famously mountainous interior.
The bulletins produced by ISPAN provide a useful guide to the surviving built environment of Saint-Domingue and early Haiti, as does their 2014 gazetteer 200 monuments et sites d'Haïti à haut valeur culturelle, historique ou culturelle. Jacques de Cauna's ‘Vestiges of the Built Landscape of Pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue’ published in The World of the Haitian Revolution (2009) provides an excellent primer on what remains of colonial plantations, as well as pointing towards future directions for research.
(1785 map of Port-au-Prince, showing the site of Dessalines' murder and modern landmarks)
Finally, while archival material and modern maps are invaluable, we must not neglect the oral histories and traditions that Haitians have themselves retained about certain locations. Boïs Caïman is easily found today, thanks to signage from the Haitian Ministry of Tourism, and its location matches colonial maps for the plantation where the 1791 ceremony is said to have taken place. But after my visit I was taken to another site that claimed to be the 'real' Boïs Caïman rather than the one for tourists. A few days later I was told of a third, even more secret, location where the ceremony was held, which only Vodou initiates were allowed to visit. For some, it seemed that Boïs Caïman was everywhere and perhaps this is the most important thing that anyone studying early Haitian history can learn.