A Brief History of Cap Haitien: Haiti, it all started in the North. Cap Haitien, or “O-Kap” as locals know it, has its pre-colonial origins as the native town of Guárico, when Christopher Columbus first makes landfall in the northern town of Mole Saint Nicolas. The city has since changed names a number of times, marking significant historical events with each change. In 1697, when the French are ceded the western third of the island [through the “Treaty of Ryswick” with the Spanish], Cap Haitien quickly becomes the capital of the new French colony under the name of Saint Domingue. It is again renamed as Cap Francais in the 18th century and booming exports make it the richest of all of the French colonies. Producing and trading cocoa, tobacco, coffee, cotton, indigo and [approximately] half of the world’s sugar supply, Cap Francais is in fact the richest city in all of the New World and is soon nicknamed “The Paris of the Caribbean.”
A dark cloud falls over the colonial city when the struggle for independence is launched in 1791. Within the year, Cap Haitien has been ransacked as a result of clashes between the French Army and Revolutionary forces. In 1804, rather than let the French Army gain control of Cap Haitien, the entire city is set ablaze, under orders by the leader of the revolution—Toussaint Louverture himself. Following Toussaint’s death, and the declaration of Haiti’s independence in 1804, Cap Haitien slowly starts to rebuild as Haiti becomes the second independent nation in the western hemisphere and the first free black slave nation in the world.
In 1806, following Jean Jacques Dessalines’ assassination, power struggles within the local armed forces explode and Haiti is soon split into two territories, the North Kingdom under General Henri Christophe’s rule and the Southern Republic [comprising most of the national territory] under the leadership of Alexandre Petion. Henri Christophe declares himself king and renames Cap Haitien as Cap Henri, which serves as the Northern Kingdom’s new capital [until Henri Christophe’s death in 1820]. During King Henri’s reign, big changes come to the North of Haiti. The King orders the construction of a magnanimous fort at the top of Bonnet a L’Eveque. Not surprisingly, he dubs it “La Citadelle Henri.” King Henri also orders the construction of the Sans Soucis Palace near the base of Bonnet a L’Eveque, to be used as a residential/administrative building for his family and government.
When Henri Christophe dies in 1820, Cap Haitien regains the name is still carries today. The colonial and independence days have long since past but today, Cap Haitien still continues to play a captivating role in Haiti’s unique story. It is most renowned for its preserved monuments and historical sites. Post earthquake, the Haitian Government along with various international stakeholders are making big plans for the city of Cap Haitien, eyeing it as natural location to which development efforts can be expanded outside the capital city of Port au Prince.
Important Dates in Cap Haitien History:
1670 : the City of Cap Francois is founded before it is renamed Cap Francais when they French obtain control of the Western side of the Island.
1743 : Toussaint Louverture is born just outside the city.
1791 : The Haitian Revolution begins in the Cap Haitien area on August 22.
1794 : Slavery is officially abolished on August 29 by Leger Felicite Sonthonax.
The People The people of Cap Haitien, Capois and Capoise (Kahpwa & kahpwaz), as they are called, are warm and friendly. Like most Haitians and many other Caribbean cultures, Capois’ are passionate about local music and cultural festivities but they are especially proud of the rich historical inheritance they have preserved for the last 300 plus years. In fact, pride is a quality often associated with Capois’ and many speculate that perhaps this is also a form inheritance from the glory days of Haiti’s struggle for independence. It is said that Capois’ sing when they speak their native tongue because of the rhythmic cadence they add to the pronunciation of their Creole. Take a walk down the seafront “Boulevard,” laden with small bars, nightclubs and restaurants, to meet and experience the laidback leisure style of Cap Haitien locals.
Oswald Durand, Poet Laureate of Haiti during his life.
Toussaint Louverture, leader of the revolution that led to Haiti’s independence in 1804
Ti Corn, Cornelia Schutt, a musician who exported melodic folk ballads from Haiti on her travels around the world.
Toto Bissainthe, a comedienne and folk singer with a multinational career in Haiti and in parts of the Europe and the Caribbean. In 1993, she starred in Raoul Peck’s acclaimed film “L’homme Sur Les Quais.” [The Man on the Shore]
Cap Haitien Today Since it first served as the capital of the Saint Domingue (French colony in the 17th century) Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second city, has always been and still today remains an important administrative and economic center for the country. Cap Haitien is also the major center for Tourism in Haiti, hosting more than half of all touristic activities available in the entire country. Its wonderful beach resorts and historical sites comprise all the fixings of an enriching Caribbean getaway.
Population: 190,000. Cap Haitien is a mellow town and although the grandeur of what was once the most prosperous French colony has faded, the city itself is still teaming with cultural and economic activity and tremendous potential to regain its rank among the great cities of the Caribbean. As Chef lieu [administrative and economic center] of the North Department, Cap Haitien plays an important administrative role for the entire department. The main city is spread over 52.32Km2 and its streets are laid out in a grid pattern—Streets parallel to the ocean are marked by letters [A-Q] and those streets perpendicular to the sea are marked by numbers [1-26] (original French names of these streets were changed by the Americans during their occupation of Haiti in 1912). Streets are easily navigable; you won’t get lost in this city, expect perhaps in the charm of the French colonial architecture found throughout the city. The modern city of Cap Haitien comprises one International Airport, one hospital, 64 hotels, 62 restaurants and 5 banks. In Haiti, Cap Haitian is also a place for higher education. Students interested in earning a college diploma can apply at Roi Henri Christophe University and Universite Chrétienne Du Nord [Christian University of the North].
Cap Haitien International Airport currently offers quick flights to the capital city of Port au Prince; if you’ve got business to tend to in the capital? Simply hop on an early flight and you’ll arrive at your destination within 30minutes. Turks & Caicos Airlines also offer international flights toward Grand Turk, South Caicos, the Dominican Republic (Puerto Plata & Santiago), Nassau and Jamaica (Kingston). Florida Coastal Airlines carries out daily flights toward Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida. Situated 260 km north of Port au Prince, Cap Haitien generally benefits from lower crime rates than those in the capital city. Thankfully, because of its location, Haiti’s second city has been isolated from much of the political instability centralized in Port au Prince in recent years.
Places to stay inside the main city:
The Prison: Although not yet adapted to receive tourists officially.
Venturing Beyond the Main City: Cap Haitien is the center of Haiti’s historic past, mostly because, beyond great adversity, Capois’ have done an astounding job of preserving relics and monuments from the glory days of the struggle for independence. A bridge from the colonial age has been maintained and is still in use today.
All of these historic sites in and near Cap Haitien can be reached by car and trips to visit these sights are easily arranged at either the local hotels or through tour operators working in the area.
Vertieres: Just outside the Cap Haitien city, you can visit the historic site of Vertieres, where a last battle of the Haitian Revolution took place. [Insert Picture] Morne Rouge – Bois Caiman: The site of a historic vodou ceremony led By Samba Boukman, a vodou priest and slave rebellion leader thought to have launched the first major efforts to expel French forces from Haiti.
Palais Sans Soucis: Built in under Henri Christophe’s rule in the early 1800s, The Sans Soucis Palace was severly damaged by the 1842 earthquake. The Palace was originally built as a residential and administrative center for Henri Christophe’s government. Today, its stunning ruins are still enough to transport you to another time—A time where Haitians banded together behind the ultimate cause—Freedom.
Citadelle Laferriere: located 27Km outside of Cap Haitien city, the Citadelle is the magnificent mountain top fortress built under Henri Christophe [it used to carry the name of the self-appointed Northern King and known as “La Citadelle Henri”], an important general during the Haitian Revolution. Perched 3000ft up the mountain of Bonnet A L’Eveque, It was originally designed as a lookout point and defense fort to ward off potential attacks by the French. It boasts 365 cannons of varying size with cannon balls neatly stacked next to each canon. The Citadelle’s massive structure was built over a period of 15 years and with the help of 20,000 workers. The view from the massive structure rooftop are awe-inspiring. If you only have time to visit only one historical site in Haiti, La Citadelle Laferriere is the one you can’t miss.
Places to Stay outside the Main City:
Taino Beach Hotel
Highlight: Cormier Plage Resort [Insert Picture]
Situated a few sandy kilometers from Labadee Beach, Cormier Plage is a scenic Caribbean getaway that offers guests a priceless island experience with deliciously mixed drinks and seafood fresh from the Atlantic Ocean. Service at this seaside resort is a cut above the rest; don’t miss a chance at “doing nothing” on the beaches of Cormier Plage.
Cultural activities not to miss:
Carnaval: Mardi Gras is a big deal in Haiti. It’s a cultural celebration that unites Haitians of all colors and creeds together. Although Haiti’s main carnival event takes place in Port au Prince, other cities such as Jacmel and Cap Haitien also host their own thematic chapter of this event. This year’s theme was centered on “Women at the heart of Haiti ‘s Reconstruction.”
Patronal Festivities: The city’s patron saint Notre Dame De L’Ascension is celebrated on August 15.