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 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.
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).