Port-au-Prince is the capital and most populous city of Haiti. The city’s population was estimated at 987,311 in 2015 with the metropolitan area estimated at a population of 2,618,894. The metropolitan area is defined by the IHSI as including the communes of Port-au-Prince, Delmas, Cite Soleil, Tabarre, Carrefour and Pétion-Ville.
The city of Port-au-Prince is on the Gulf of Gonâve: the bay on which the city lies, which acts as a natural harbor, has sustained economic activity since the civilizations of the Taíno. It was first incorporated under French colonial rule in 1749. The city’s layout is similar to that of an amphitheater; commercial districts are near the water, while residential neighborhoods are located on the hills above. Its population is difficult to ascertain due to the rapid growth of slums in the hillsides above the city; however, recent estimates place the metropolitan area’s population at around 3.7 million, nearly half of the country’s national population. The city was catastrophically affected by a massive earthquake in 2010, with large numbers of structures damaged or destroyed. Haiti’s government estimated the death toll to be 230,000.
Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taíno people, who arrived in approximately 2600 BC in large dugout canoes. They are believed to come primarily from what is now eastern Venezuela. By the time Columbus arrived in 1492 AD, the region was under the control of Bohechio, Taíno cacique (chief) Xaragua. He, like his predecessors, feared settling too close to the coast; such settlements would have proven to be tempting targets for the Caribs, who lived on neighboring islands. Instead, the region served as a hunting ground. The population of the region was approximately 400,000 at the time, but the Taínos were gone within 30 years of the arrival of the Spaniards.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Amerindians were forced to accept a protectorate, and Bohechio, childless at death, was succeeded by his sister, Anacaona, wife of the cacique Caonabo. The Spanish insisted on larger tributes. Eventually, the Spanish colonial administration decided to rule directly, and in 1503, Nicolas Ovando, then governor, set about to put an end to the régime headed by Anacaona. He invited her and other tribal leaders to a feast, and when the Amerindians had drunk a good deal of wine (the Spaniards did not drink on that occasion), he ordered most of the guests killed. Anacaona was spared, only to be hanged publicly some time later. Through violence, introduced diseases and murders, the Spanish settlers decimated the native population.
Direct Spanish rule over the area having been established, Ovando founded a settlement not far from the coast (west of Etang Saumâtre), ironically named Santa Maria de la Paz Verdadera, which would be abandoned several years later. Not long thereafter, Ovando founded Santa Maria del Puerto. The latter was first burned by French explorers in 1535, then again in 1592 by the English. These assaults proved to be too much for the Spanish colonial administration, and in 1606, it decided to abandon the region.
For more than 50 years, the area that is today Port-au-Prince saw its population drop off drastically, when some buccaneers began to use it as a base, and Dutch merchants began to frequent it in search of leather, as game was abundant there. Around 1650, French flibustiers, running out of room on the Île de la Tortue, began to arrive on the coast, and established a colony at Trou-Borded. As the colony grew, they set up a hospital not far from the coast, on the Turgeau heights. This led to the region being known as Hôpital.
Although there had been no real Spanish presence in Hôpital for well over 50 years, Spain retained its formal claim to the territory, and the growing presence of the French flibustiers on ostensibly Spanish lands provoked the Spanish crown to dispatch Castilian soldiers to Hôpital to retake it. The mission proved to be a disaster for the Spanish, as they were outnumbered and outgunned, and in 1697, the Spanish government signed the Treaty of Ryswick, renouncing any claims to Hôpital. Around this time, the French also established bases at Ester (part of Petite Rivière) and Gonaïves.
Ester was a rich village, inhabited by merchants, and equipped with straight streets; it was here that the governor lived. On the other hand, the surrounding region, Petite-Rivière, was quite poor. Following a great fire in 1711, Ester was abandoned. Yet the French presence in the region continued to grow, and soon afterward, a new city was founded to the south, Léogâne.
While the first French presence in Hôpital, the region later to contain Port-au-Prince was that of the flibustiers; as the region became a real French colony, the colonial administration began to worry about the continual presence of these pirates. While useful in repelling foreign pirates, they were relatively independent, unresponsive to orders from the colonial administration, and a potential threat to it. Therefore, in the winter of 1707, Choiseul-Beaupré, the governor of the region sought to get rid of what he saw as a threat. He insisted upon control of the hospital, but the flibustiers refused, considering that humiliating. They proceeded to close the hospital rather than cede control of it to the governor, and many of them became habitans (farmers) the first long-term European inhabitants in the region.
Although the elimination of the flibustiers as a group from Hôpital reinforced the authority of the colonial administration, it also made the region a more attractive target for marauding buccaneers. In order to protect the area, in 1706, a captain named de Saint-André sailed into the bay just below the hospital, in a ship named Le Prince. It is said that M. de Saint-André named the area Port-au-Prince (meaning “Port of the Prince”), but the port and the surrounding region continued to be known as Hôpital, but the islets in the bay had already been known as les îlets du Prince as early as 1680.
Pirates eventually refrained from troubling the area, and various nobles sought land grants from the French crown in Hôpital; the first noble to control Hôpital was Sieur Joseph Randot. Upon his death in 1737, Sieur Pierre Morel gained control over part of the region, with Gatien Bretton des Chapelles acquiring another portion of it.
By then, the colonial administration was convinced that a capital needed to be chosen, in order to better control the French portion of Hispaniola (Saint-Domingue). For a time, Petit-Goâve and Léogâne vied for this honor, but both were eventually ruled out for various reasons. Neither was centrally located. Petit-Goâve’s climate caused it to be too malarial, and Léogane’s topography made it difficult to defend. Thus, in 1749, a new city was built, Port-au-Prince.
In 1770, Port-au-Prince replaced Cap-Français (the modern Cap-Haïtien) as capital of the colony of Saint-Domingue.
In November 1791, it was burned in a battle between attacking black revolutionaries and defending white plantation owners.
It was captured by British troops on June 4, 1794.
In 1804, it became the capital of newly independent Haïti. When Jean-Jacques Dessalines was assassinated in 1806, Port-au-Prince became the capital of the mulatto-dominated south (Cap-Haïtien was the capital of the black-dominated north). It was re-established as the capital of all of Haiti when the country was unified again in 1820.
During the American occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), Port-au-Prince, garrisoned by American Marines and Haitian gendarmes, was attacked twice by caco rebels. The first battle, which took place in 1919, was a victory of the American and Haitian government forces, as was the second attack in 1920.
Back in the 1970s, Haiti was a tourist destination for the jet set, welcoming visitors like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But political violence, instability and more recently the 2010 earthquake have changed the country’s image, and most of the tourism has vanished.
The 1949 World Expo held in Port-au-Prince created an opportunity for the Haitian Government, led by Dumarsais Estimé, to attract international attention to Haiti and to develop its tourism industry. Haiti tourism in the 1960s was up and down during the François Duvalier “Papa Doc” regime.
In the the 1970s and early 1980s tourism in Haiti was booming under Jean-Claude Duvalier “Baby Doc”. Although Haiti was under a dictatorial regime, they at least understood the value of tourism. Haiti was known as the Paris and pearl of the Antilles. Haiti even received tourists from nearby islands who were impressed with its numerous unspoiled beaches, mountains, exceptional coffee, rum, creole food, art, religion, history and beautiful people.
On 12 January 2010, a 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, devastating the city. Most of the central historic area of the city was destroyed, including Haiti’s prized Cathédrale de Port-au-Prince, the capital building, Legislative Palace (the parliament building), Palace of Justice (Supreme Court building), several ministerial buildings, and at least one hospital. The second floor of the Presidential Palace was thrown into the first floor, and the domes skewed at a severe tilt. The seaport and airport were both damaged, limiting aid shipments. The seaport was severely damaged by the quake and was unable to accept aid shipments for the first week.
The airport’s control tower was damaged and the US military had to set up a new control center with generators to get the airport prepared for aid flights. Aid has been delivered to Port-au-Prince by numerous nations and voluntary groups as part of a global relief effort. On Wednesday, January 20, 2010, an aftershock rated at a magnitude of 5.9 caused additional damage. (Wikipedia)