This map of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola was created around 1750 when the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) was growing rapidly. Titled ‘La Ysla Espanola’, it was drawn by a Spanish cartographer and shows how the island was divided between the two ruling empires of Spain and France.

The colony of Saint-Domingue

During the mid-1700s remarkable numbers of African people were enslaved and forcibly shipped by colonists to Saint-Domingue. By 1754 there were 172,000 slaves[1] toiling on plantations to meet the demand for sugar and coffee and Saint-Domingue had become France’s richest colony.

By the late 1780s such rapid growth had created a volatile and complex society. Political upheavals in France were transferred to Saint-Domingue where, in 1791, the enslaved Africans rose up en masse and fought for freedom. The Revolution resulted in the abolition of slavery in Haiti and Haitian independence. Their story is told by C L R James in his definitive history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938). In his 1967 play of the same title, he uses drama to emphasise the experience of the thousands of enslaved people who were part of the Revolution.

Why was this map created?

The map was most likely created for official purposes, which could have included military and strategic uses and serving the need of colonial forces of the time to understand the island’s terrain, coastlines and roads. It is unfinished and was added to and amended over time. A kind of working document, it alludes to the development of this region in the 18th century.

The mountain ranges on the map are shown in dramatic relief, as if they are seen from above. This more technical, less pictorial, way of drawing maps developed around 1700 and was influenced by the scientific ideals of the Enlightenment.

This would have been the best available map of its time, and part of a corpus of related material, including other maps, charts, reports, inventories and lists. The fact that it is in manuscript form is significant as the information contained in it could be controlled by a small number of powerful people. It was also easier to prevent it from falling into enemy hands – unlike printed maps which were more widely available.

This map is part of the Bauzá Collection at the British Library, one of the largest collections of maps and papers on colonial Latin America outside the Iberian Peninsula. The British Museum acquired the collection from Spanish naval officer, hydrographer and cartographer, Felipe Bauzá in 1848.


[1] C L R James, The Black Jacobins (London: Penguin, 2001), p. x.