An Impromptu History of Earthquakes in Haiti

The Carabean Plate

The Caribbean Plate

The  Caribbean chain of islands lie along the northern edge of the Caribbean tectonic plate. For this reason, the area has been prone to seismic upheavals well before records have been collected. Seismologists have also been expecting a major earthquake in the area, due to the fault line the runs near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital:

The fault, called the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden Fault, runs some 16 kilometers from Port-au-Prince and is at the intersection of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, which are slowly sliding past one another. This movement creates a strike-slip fault, the same kind as the San Andreas Fault in California, where the North American and Pacific plates are sliding in different directions. And like the San Andreas, the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden Fault has been building up pressure.¹

The expected earthquake occurred in Haiti this past week, with devastating consequences.  I was interested in what the historic literature said on the subject and I found the following:

Haiti, 1754

Hispaniola, 1754

By the accounts of the late earthquake at Hispaniola, it appears to have almost equalled that of Lisbon in the year 1755. A village, called Cruix de Bouquets, containing about an hundred families, two leagues from Port’ au-Prince, wholly sunk and disappeared, there being nothing but water to be seen in its place; and the Plantations are also destroyed for many miles round it. There were eighty persons in the hospital at Port’ au-Prince, all of whom were killed by the fall of the house, except one man. A large, inn, about two miles from Leogane with a number of people in it, was instantly taken in by the opening of the earth, so that no remains of it are to be seen. A very high mountain, standing close by the shore, was thrown into the sea, which caused a swell to the height of 130 feet above the common surface. Another large mountain, about two miles from Port-au-Prince, was blown up in the air, leaving in its place a basin of water about three or four fathom deep. (1770)

(The London magazine, or, Gentleman’s monthly intelligencer, Volume 39, pg 432. By Isaac Kimber, Edward Kimber, 1770)

St. Domingo, 1770.—During a tremendous earthquake which destroyed a great part of St. Domingo, innumerable fissures were caused throughout the island, from which mephitic vapours emanated and produced an epidemic. Hot springs burst forth in many places where there had been no water before; but after a time they ceased to flow

In a previous earthquake, in November 1751, a violent shock destroyed the capital, Port au Prince, and part of the coast, twenty leagues in length, sank down, and has ever since formed a bay of the sea.

(Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell Volume 2, pg 494,1889)

Fifteen shocks of earthquake were felt in those four years (1783 – 1786), of which only two were very sensible, namely, those of June 18, 1784, and July 11, 1785. They undulated from w. to E., and without a trembling movement (mouvement de trepidation).”


To these notes of St. Mery I would add that this is a country of earthquakes, though now perhaps in a less degree than formerly. In 1564 the town Concepcion de la Vega was destroyed by one of these disturbances. In 1760 the same fate befell the nascent metropolitan city of Port-au-Prince; and so lately as 1842, the beautiful town of Cape Hai’tien, the pride of Western Haiti, was in the same way reduced to a heap of ruins. I was near forgetting the terrible earthquake of 1751, which, among other widespread damages, entirely destroyed the town of Azua in the south.

In the plain of Cul-de-Sac, lying aback of Port-au-Prince, a subterranean detonation is sometimes heard in the spring and autumn, followed by a sharp vertical shock of double or treble movement. This phenomenon, locally called ” Gouffre,” is produced by some cause as yet unexplained. It is much feared by the inhabitants, more perhaps from superstition than an apprehension of danger; for, so far as I have been able to learn, the Gouffre is not a destructive sort of disturbance.

Shocks still occur in various parts of the island; but, as it would appear, with decreasing intensity.

St. Mery concludes, from certain indications to be met with in the eastern parts of the plain of the cape, that volcanic action once existed in the neighbouring mountains. He may be right, but later observers are silent on the subject. It must, however, be borne in mind that this island has as yet but in part been subjected to scientific exploration.

( The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society …, Volume 48, from pg 262, ‘Haiti or Hispaniola’, by Major R. Stewart, 1878)

Hayti has on several occasions suffered from earthquakes; the most disastrous on record are those of 1564, 1684, 1691, 1751, 1770, 1842, &c. By that of 1751 Port au Prince was destroyed, and the coast for 60 m. submerged; and by that of 1842 many towns were overturned and thousands of lives lost.

( The new American cyclopædia: a popular dictionary of general knowledge, Volume 9. from ‘Hayti’. pg 5, by George Ripley, Charles Anderson Dana, 1869)

And just this morning, another quake, an aftershock that would have has caused more damage if everything had not been already flattened and deaths.

What is clear from history is that Haiti does not need to be rebuilt, it needs to be transformed. The island not only faces the continuous threat of further earthquakes, it also faces the yearly threat of hurricanes. To allow Haiti to rebuild without a dramatic modernising the  infrastructure of the island will keep Haiti as a constant charity case rather than reaching its potential as a productive state. Stabilization is not enough.

For more information on the history of earthquakes in the Caribbean see: A glimpse at the historical seismology of the West Indies by J. Vogt, 2004.

¹Scientific American: Haiti Earthquake Disaster Little Surprise to Some Seismologists


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