The first great earthquake mentioned in histories of Haiti occurred in 1564 in what was still the Spanish colony of Española. It destroyed of Concepción de la Vega and Santiago de los Caballeros.
The earthquake of November 9, 1701, destroyed countless buildings and roads. Part of the area along the north shore of the Tiburon Peninsula from Logane to Petit Goave sank into the sea.
The severe earthquakes of November 21 and 22, 1751, destroyed the recently founded town of Port-au-Prince and overthrew buildings on the plain of the Cul de Sac.
The earthquake of June 3, 1770, was one of the strongest shocks recorded on the Island of Haiti, the area of greatest destruction extending from Croix de Boquets through the plain of the Cul de Sac to Port-au-Prince and along the north coast of the Tiburon Peninsula as far as Miragoine. The sea rose a mile and a half up into the island and at Grand Goave the foot of the mountain of La Saline was partly submerged.
In 1783 the principal church at Santiago partly collapsed after another strong quake.
The earthquake of May 7, 1842, however, was the worst recorded in Haiti before this week’s catastrophic quake. It hit near Cap Haitien, a city of ten thousand inhabitants on the north coast of Haiti. Approximately half of the population died. Waves dashed against buildings along the quay. In the neighboring village of Port de Paix the sea withdrew 60 meters, only to come back to bury the city under four or five meters of water. The 1842 earthquake did serious damage to Henri Christophe’s palace at Sans Souci (see image above) and to the Citadelle La Ferrière near Milot. Milot was Haïti’s former capital under the self-proclaimed King Henri Christophe, who ascended to power in 1807, three years after Haïti had gained independence from France.
Contemporary newspaper reports offerd the following description of the damage:
“May 30, 1842: The New York papers of Saturday morning contain all the particulars received of the great earthquake at Cape Haitien, which occurred on the 7th inst. and destroyed an immense deal of property and thousands of lives. It is a singular fact that at Bayou Teche, Louisiana, an earthquake was experienced on the same day, and the waters of the river and lake rose suddenly about six feet…
“There were two very decided shocks, the first was not as long as the second; the latter was the most violent and lasted about three minutes. All abandoned their houses, and the streets were filled with the afrighted population … There is scarcely a single brick or stone house which has not suffered damage. They are all more or less damaged. Some, it is said, are scarcely habitable. The facade of the Senate House … were detached from the edifice and broken into pieces by the fall…
“During these latter days it appears to us as if the earth on which we were walking was constantly quaking.
Photo of Sans Souci by Nick DeWolf