This is one of only a few surviving original contemporary manuscript maps concerning the Great Fire of June 21-26, 1793, that consumed most of Cap‑Français (popularly known as ‘Ville du Cap’, today’s Cap-Haïtien), the commercial centre of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), one of the wealthiest trading cities in the New World. The destruction of the city occurred within the greater context of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), whereupon the city was set ablaze under mysteries circumstances, during a complex battle between rival French factions and Haitian rebels. The consequent destruction of Cap‑Français was one of the great turning points in the history of the West Indies, forever altering the course of the established Trans-Atlantic economy.
The map focuses closely on the city of Cap‑Français proper, from a westward-oriented perspective. The city is shown composed of 260 orderly, geometrical built-up blocks, punctuated by squares. Entitled “Plan de la Ville du Cap où est marqeé en noir ce qui à été Incendié les 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 & 26 Juin 1793.” [Plan of Ville du Cap where the places marked in black indicate the areas destroyed by the fire of June 21-26, 1793], the plan shows that the vast majority of the city was consumed in the conflagration, with scarcely some blocks along its periphery still remaining. Beyond the city, the Morne Jean highlands rise to the right-hand side of the map, while on the left, commences the plantation estates upon the fertile plains along the Rivière Mapou. A scale in French toises appears in the lower left.
The present map, while diminutive, is exquisitely drafted in the contemporary French military cartographic tradition, employing fine watercolour hues and an especially elaborate title cartouche. Importantly, it appears to be an original composition, as it does not seem to mimic any other known map. The draftsman of the map remains mystery, although its style and quality suggests that it was quite likely made by a professional French military engineer, perhaps even an evacuee from the Great Fire.
While a matter of conjecture, the present map may in fact be a fragment of a larger composition, perhaps an inset to a no longer extant map of Saint-Domingue, owing to the appearance of a broad line along the map’s lower edge. The map is drafted on fine, laid paper, bearing the watermark of crown and post horn with a pendant “GR”, of the prominent English firm of J. Whatman. This watermark is consistent with Whatman papers produced during the 1780s. While the map was almost certainly drafted by a French hand, it was then not uncommon for paper stocks of various national origins to circulate across the West Indies.
Moreover, based on the map’s style, subject matter and the watermark, it was almost certainly made in 1793, or very shortly thereafter, when the Great Fire of Cap‑Français was still top of mind, and before reconstruction programmes got underway in the late 1790s.
The present map is of considerable importance, being one only a few surviving contemporary maps depicting this seminal event in West Indies-Atlantic history. We know of only two other comparable maps, only one of which is a manuscript.
Of particular note is Charles-Joseph Warin’s “Plan de la ville du Cap Français sur lequel sont marqués en teinte noire les ravages du premier incendie, et en rouge les islets, parties d'islets, édifices, etc. qui existent encore. Le 21 Juin, 1793.” (circa 1793) (Bibliothèque nationale de France, GED-913 (RES)). Please see link:
The present map has many similarities to Warin’s work, in that it features the city from the same perspective and scope, and depicts the same extent of fire damage. However, there are noticeable differences with respect to the formation and placement of built-up areas, indicating that the plans are not directly related, although they are both broadly predicated on the authoritative contemporary template of city’s plan, being René Phelipeau’s survey of Cap‑Français (first published in 1784).
The only other contemporary map of the Great Fire of which we are aware is a small map engraved by John Francis Renault, Plan de la ville du Cap Français : ou est marque en feu ce qui et incendie pour copie conforme a l'original. : Plan of Cape Français those buildings that appear in smoke are burnt down the blank squairs are such buildings as still remain., which was printed within an issue of John Harrison’s Columbian Gazetteer (New York, September, 1793) (OCLC: 873728865). As indicated, Renault, a Franco-American artist (who was not present at the fire) copied this map from an unidentified manuscript map that was likely brought to New York by one of the thousands of French refugees who fled Cap‑Français in the wake of the fire.
It is also worth being aware of a manuscript map which shows the French efforts to reconstruct Cap‑Français in the later 1790s, being Charles Humbert Marie Vincent’s “Plan de l'état actuel de la ville du Cap servant à indiquer les progrès de ses reconstructions.” (drafted between 1796 and 1799) (Bibliothèque nationale de France, GESH18PF149DIV4P23/1). Please see link:
Historical Context: Cap‑Français and the Haitian Revolution
Cap‑Français (modern Cap-Haïtien) was, for most of the 18th Century, the commercial centre of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the world’s most profitable colony, which occupied the western third of the island of Hispaniola. In the years leading up the French Revolution, Saint-Domingue was the ultimate plantation economy, responsible for 60% of Europe’s coffee imports, 40% of its sugar imports, and accounting for 40% of France’s overseas trade. Over 1 million Frenchman directly owed their livelihoods to Saint-Domingue trade. The owners the colony’s plantations were amongst the wealthiest men in France.
Cap‑Français (founded in 1670) was an immensely wealthy port, and as evidenced on the present map, was comprised of a well-ordered grid of streets and impressive public squares, graced by splendid public buildings and mansions. It was considered to be the second grandest city in the West Indies, after Havana. In 1789, Cap‑Français had a population of almost 19,000, which was large for a New World city, roughly the same size as Boston, or a major French provincial centre, such as Dijon. Located on a fine natural harbour, on a plain, at the foot of a prominent highland cape, it was a teeming mart of commerce, with its harbour always full of mercantile vessels, and its thoroughfares always busy with carts laden with produce.
Cap‑Français served as the capital of Saint-Domingue from 1711 to 1770 (when the capital was moved to the smaller, but more central, Port-au-Prince), but remained the colony’s economic centre, and the capital of the Province du Nord. This province was by far the colony’s most productive, home to 170,000 people and hundreds of Saint-Domingue’s best plantations.
However, behind Cap‑Français’s grand facades and the astounding economic statistics, on the eve of the French Revolution, Saint-Domingue was a powder keg, ready to explode at any moment. The backbone of the colony’s plantation economy was the ignoble institution of slavery. Slavery was practiced with exceptional brutality on Saint-Domingue, and ever-building resentment resulted in many small-scale slave rebellions, which were always crushed with overwhelming force.
In the late 1780s, the population of Saint-Domingue approached half a million; however, this was demographically imbalanced, with there being 425,000 slaves, 40,000 whites and 28,000 frees blacks and mulattos. Up to this time, the French authorities and plantation owners had maintained an effective, if severe, regime, that successfully maintained the status quo. However, the more prescient visitors to Saint-Domingue, such as the Abbé Raynal, warned that the plantocracy’s days suppressing the Black majority were numbered.
The outbreak of the French Revolution, in 1789, progressively destabilized the French regime in Saint-Domingue, ushering in the Haitian Revolution. What transpired is incredibly complex and controversial. In essence, the largest and best organized slave rebellion in modern World history came up against a French regime that was itself in a state of civil war; while an ill-fated, yet consequential, British invasion of the colony added further instability.
By the summer of 1791, Metropolitan France was completely preoccupied with its domestic affairs, as the Ancien Régime hastily crumbled, giving way to radical Jacobinism. France stopped sending sufficient military forces to Saint-Domingue necessary to maintain the plantocracy’s brutal suppression of the slaves. Moreover, the planters themselves seemed to be incredibly ignorant of the situation, merely going about their business, without making extra-precautions. Meanwhile, slave leaders, only a few miles outside of Cap‑Français, were in the midst of secretly planning a mass rebellion.
Beginning on the night of August 22-23, 1791, an unprecedentedly large and well organized slave rebellion broke out, starting at Bois Caïman, just outside of Cap‑Français. It spread life wildfire, soon engulfing all of the Province du Nord. The French colonial regime was caught totally unprepared, as 100,000 slaves marauded across Saint-Domingue’s northern plains, torching 900 plantations and killing over 4,000 whites.
Amidst the chaos, on September 26, 1791, a relatively minor fire broke out in Cap‑Français, although the blaze was soon extinguished, before it caused mass destruction.
The Haitian rebels soon came to control over one-third of Saint-Domingue, under the direction of their dynamic and clever leader, Toussaint L’Overture. In October 1791, the colonial capital of Port-au-Price was burnt to the ground amidst heavy fighting. All of the Province du Nord was overrun, except for Cap‑Français, which remained a French enclave, with the sea being its only link to the outside world. White and pro-French Mulatto and Free Black refuges flooded into the city, nearly doubling its population.
This is where the French civil conflict comes into play. The French Jacobin revolutionaries who, by 1792, were completely in charge of France, were ideologically unsympathetic to slavery, with many being outright abolitionists. Conversely and naturally, the plantocracy in Saint-Domingue were almost uniformly royalists, and ardently pro-slavery.
The French revolutionaries decided that the only way for France to keep control of Saint-Domingue was for Free Blacks and Mulattos to be given full political rights and for ‘cooperative’ slaves to be emancipated, and brought under French Revolutionary allegiance. On April 4, 1792, the soon-to-be deposed king Louis XVI, under duress from the Jacobin revolutionaries, enacted a decree that did just that.
In February 1793, General François-Thomas Galbaud du Fort was appointed to be the Governor-General of Saint-Domingue, with a specific mandate to enforce the April 4, 1792 decree. However, upon his arrival in Cap‑Français, Galbaud revealed himself to be a closet-conservative, aligning himself to the hardline planters, refusing to offer equality to Free Blacks and Mulattos, as well as quashing any notions of slave emancipation.
The Jacobins were incensed by Galbaud’s betrayal, and promptly dispatched the revolutionary commissioners, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, both ideological abolitionists, to Cap‑Français to depose Galbaud and make entreaties to Free Blacks and Mulattos, as well as to slave leaders.
In early June 1793, Sonthonax and Polverel arrived in Cap‑Français, at the head of an army 6,000 strong. They promptly deposed Galbaud and imprisoned him and his main followers on ships in the harbour. However, Galbaud managed to convince many of the sailors manning the vessels to spring him and to join him in an attempt to overthrow the commissioners, restoring a conservative regime in Cap‑Français.
In what became known as the Battle of Cap‑Français, on June 20, 1793, Galbaud landed in the city at the head of 1,000 men, and was soon joined by many more conservative supporters. He aimed to take the city’s arsenal and government house, where Sonthonax was based. Sonthonax’s defence of the city was incompetent, but Galbaud failed to press his advantage. The entire scene descended into chaos, as Galbaud and Sonthonax fought each other inconclusively in the streets. This created a vacuum for the Haitian rebels, who managed to enter the city, fighting both French parties. Mass looting ensured and at some point a fire started (it is not known who started the fire, and whether or not it was intentionally set). The blaze, fed by trade winds, rapidly became out of control and progressively consumed the city, block by block. By June 22, the entire centre of the city was an inferno.
Amidst the carnage, Sonthonax’s force retreated into the nearby hills, seeking to negotiate a truce with the Haitian rebels, while Galbaud, his followers and 10,000 white colonists boarded ships and sailed for America. As shown on the present map, by June 26, 1793, when the fire was finally extinguished, the inferno had destroyed the vast majority of the city. Cap‑Français was virtually destroyed and would never again attain prominence in global affairs. The event was a watershed moment in the history of the West Indies and Trans-Atlantic trade, and can be likened to the destruction of Port Royal, Jamaica, during an earthquake in 1692, which likewise suddenly removed one of the region’s economic power centres.
What transpired in the coming years is unbelievably complex, as the Haitian Revolution continued. The French revolutionaries and conservatives continued to battle each other, while the prior eventually negotiated an uneasy alliance with L’Overture’s Haitian forces, based on a promise of the complete manumission of slaves and civil rights equality for Blacks in the French Republic. L’Overture’s faction remained the dominant Haitian rebel force, yet was also involved in infighting against other Haitian factions. Moreover, Britain launched an invasion of Saint-Domingue, on the side of the French conservatives, which while unsuccessful (resulting in the death of 60% of the British forces, mostly due to Yellow Fever), further destabilised the country. The British fully withdrew by 1798.
The French revolutionary forces, allied with L’Overture’s army, managed to regain full control of the ruins of Cap‑Français. In the late 1790s, they proceeded to rebuild the city under the direction of the military engineer Charles Humbert Marie Vincent.
In 1801, the new French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, ordered a massive expedition to retake control of all of Saint-Domingue. Napoleon was personally close to members of the plantocracy and was allegedly a proponent of reestablishing slavery. These factors alienated many Black and Mulatto Haitians who may have otherwise cooperated with his regime. In October of that year, Napoleon sent an initial force of 20,000 under General Charles Leclerc, described as the “the elite of the French army.” Leclerc’s legions were eventually strengthened by 80,000 reinforcements.
The partially rebuilt Cap‑Français was intentionally put the torch by Haitian rebels, on February 4-5, 1802, in effort to prevent the city from serving as a convenient base for Leclerc’s forces. Virtually all of Vincent’s rebuilding efforts were destroyed, as this fire proved to be almost as severe as the 1793 conflagration.
Upon his arrival, Leclrerc moved against L’Overture who was hobbled by fighting other Haitian factions. He initially made short work of his mission, taking control of most of the territory of Saint-Domingue. In April 1802, Napoleon revoked the former Jacobin regime’s decrees abolishing slavery. News of this reached Saint-Domigue and caused most of Leclerc’s Black soldiers and allies to turn on him, imperiling France’s hold on the colony. The defecting soldiers included the skilled commanders Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe, who would become the new leaders of the Haitian Revolution. In June 1802, Leclerc betrayed L’Overture, by dishonorably arresting him during an official parley; the Haitian leader was then sent to France to die in a freezing Alpine prison.
Leclerc’s force soon became bogged down in guerilla warfare against rebel forces under the overall command of Dessalines, while the French troops died by the hundreds from yellow fever. The French gradually lost control of the country, and by the summer of 1803, they only controlled the cities of Môle St. Nicolas and Cap-Français. The French lost the deceive battle of Battle of Vertières (November 18, 1803), which forced France to leave Saint-Domingue once and for all.
On New Years’ Day, 1804, Dessalines declared the creation of the Republic of Haiti. This was a watershed historical moment, as Haiti became the first Black-ruled nation in the Americas. It also marked the triumph of an enslaved people against a variety of formidable opponents, including the elite of Napoleon’s legions. While the independent state of Haiti would perhaps not live up the sprit of the revolution that created it, the self-liberation of Haiti’s peoples served as a beacon to the world’s enslaved peoples. The Haitian Revolution also played a major role in Britain’s decision to shut down the global salve trade, in 1807, eventually leading to the abolition of slavery in the Americas later in the 19th Century.
References: N/A – Unrecorded. Cf. [On the Burning of Cap‑Français:] Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (Chicago, 2007), pp. 180-232. [On Colonial Saint-Domingue:] James E. McClellan III, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue and the Old Regime (Chicago, 2010).