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Ville de Port-au-Prince

Coordinates: 18°32′N 72°20′W / 18.533°N °W / 18.533; -72.333
Country  Haiti
Department Ouest
Arrondissement Port-au-Prince
Founded 1749
Colonial seat 1770
 - Mayor Jean Yves Jason
 - City  dunams (36.04 km2 / 
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 sq mi)
Population (2003)
 - City 704776
 - Urban density
 - Rural density
 Metro 1,728,100
 - Metro density
 -  Density
 -  Density
Time zone EST (UTC-5)

Port-au-Prince (; ; Haitian Creole: Pòtoprens; ) is the capital and largest city of the Caribbean nation of Haiti. The city's official population was 704,776 as of the 2003 census.[1]

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 Arawaks. It was first incorporated under the colonial rule of the French, in 1749, and has been Haiti's largest metropolis since then. The city's layout is similar to that of an amphitheatre; 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 3.5 million, nearly half of the country's national population.[2]

Port-au-Prince was catastrophically affected[3] by an earthquake on January 12, 2010, with large numbers of structures damaged or destroyed. Haiti's government has estimated the death toll at 230,000 and says more bodies remain uncounted.[4]


Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by people known as the Taíno, 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 of Xaragua.[5] He, like his predecessors, feared settling too close to the coast—such settlements would have proven to be tempting targets for the Caribes, 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.[6]

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. Anacaona tried to maintain cordial relations with the Spaniards, but this proved to be difficult, as the latter came to insist upon larger and 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, though only to be hanged publicly some time later. Through violence and disease, 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. Finally, 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 pirates, or 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 not long thereafter, a new city was founded to the south: Léogane.

While the first French presence in Hôpital, the region that was 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 Englishmen intent on encroaching upon French territory, 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 this 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.

Though 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 the English. 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 Le Prince"), although the port and the surrounding region continued to be known as Hôpital (however, the islets in the bay had already been known as les îlets du Prince as early as 1680.)

The English did not trouble 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 this time, the colonial administration was convinced that a capital needed to be chosen, in order better to control the French portion of Santo-Domingo (Hispaniola). For a time, Petit-Goâve and Léogane vied for this honor, but both were eventually ruled out, for various reasons. First of all, neither was centrally located. Petit-Goâve's climate was too malarial, and Léogane's topography made it difficult to defend. Thus, in 1749 a new city was built: Port-au-Prince.

Colonial history

In 1770, Port-au-Prince replaced Cap-Français (the modern Cap-Haïtien) as capital of the colony of Saint-Domingue, and in 1804, it became the capital of newly independent Haïti. Before Haïtian independence, it was captured by British troops on June 4, 1794.

French colonial commissioner Étienne Polverel proclaimed the city Port-Républicain on 23 September 1793 "in order that the inhabitants be kept continually in mind of the obligations which the French revolution imposed on them". It was later renamed Port-au-Prince by Jacques I, emperor of Haïti.[7] When Haiti was divided between a kingdom in the north and a republic in the south, Port-au-Prince was the capital of the republic, under the leadership of Alexandre Pétion. Henri Christophe renamed the city Port-aux-Crimes after the assassination of Jacques I at Pont Larnage (now known as Pont-Rouge, and located north of the city.)

2010 earthquake

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.[8] 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[9] and was unable to accept aid shipments for the first week. The airport's control tower was damaged[10] 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.[11]