Haiti Earthquake of 1770: Saint-Domingue and Port-au-Prince Destroyed

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1770 Port-au-Prince earthquake is located in Haiti

From the late 1400s through the late 1600s, the Spanish controlled the island of Hispanola, the site of modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. French pirates began to inhabit the western side of Hispanola, also called Santo Domingo in Spanish or Saint-Domingue in French. In 1697 the Treaty of Ryswick led to Spain’s ceding of the western third of the island to the French.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves, imported from Africa, were used for sugar cane production on the island by the mid-1700s. Slaves outnumbered white Europeans and free Blacks by more than 8 to 1. Tens of thousands of slaves were imported each year for sugar, indigo, and coffee production, and the harsh conditions killed nearly as many slaves each year as were imported. By 1770 Saint-Domingue, which would become Haiti in 1804 after a slave revolt and political and social revolution, was a well-established French cash crop colony.

Haiti Earthquake of 1770

Saint-Domingue had experienced a serious earthquake in 1751 and again in 1770. According to Jean Vogt in the article “A glimpse at the historical seismology of the West Indies”, “Widespread cracking and liquefaction occurred in 1751 and 1770 in the wide Cul-de-Sac plain of Southern Haiti,” and this liquefaction, in which layers of sediment in the earth’s crust shift and form a liquid-like substance that causes buildings, piers, and other structures to shift and break, was present in the 2010 Haiti earthquake as well.

Seismic Activity, Tectonic Plates, Fault Line and Tsunamis

Seismic activity in the region is common, with a large fault line running within 100 km of Port-au-Prince. The shift in tectonic plates that came with liquefaction has also produced a record of known Haiti earthquakes stretching back to the late 1600s, and many quakes on record triggered tsunamis. The 1770 event caused a tsunami that hit Haiti, spreading water 7.2 km inland.

Saint-Dominique and Port-au-Prince Destroyed

As J. Scherer notes in his often-cited 1912 article, “Great earthquakes in the island of Haiti,” 200 deaths were recorded in the 1770 earthquake as buildings flattened in Port-au-Prince. The relatively low death toll was attributed to a rumbling sound that preceded the Haiti earthquake, allowing people to leave buildings before shifts occurred.

Saint-Domingue experienced widespread social unrest and political devolution following the quake. While the actual natural disaster killed relatively few people initially, in the aftermath more than 30,000 died from famine and food poisoning. Thousands of slaves escaped in the disorder after the 1770 quake, setting the stage for future revolts and eventual revolution in the early 19th century when Saint-Domingue became Haiti, the first independent nation controlled by former slaves.

References:

  1. Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  2. Mann, Paul. Active tectonics and seismic hazards of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and offshore areas. Boulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America, 2005.
  3. Scherer, J. (1912). “Great earthquakes in the island of Haiti”. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 2: 174–179.
  4. Vogt, Jean. A glimpse at the historical seismology of the West Indies. Annals of Geophysics, Vol. 47, N. 2/3, April/June 2004