The recent earthquake in Haiti has induced many Charlestonians to offer assistance and aid to the unfortunate sufferers of that island nation. Charleston is certainly not alone in offering relief to Haiti from afar, but we in the Palmetto City can claim to have a rather special distinction in this regard. In fact, Charlestonians first experience in providing aid to Haitian refuges began in the summer of 1793. The story of this interesting connection goes back to the early days of what became known as the Haitian Revolution.
During colonial times, the port city of Charleston enjoyed some limited trade with the French island colony of St. Domingue (the western half of the island of Hispaniola, renamed Haiti in 1804), but the 1778 alliance between France and the United States increased the channels of communication dramatically. For many years afterwards, the French colony provided sugar, fruit, and other commodities that were sold in Charleston’s waterfront markets. When slaves and free persons of color in St. Domingue began revolting in 1791, Charleston paid close attention to the violent uprisings that rocked its trading partner, which we called “St. Domingo.”
The situation in St. Domingue was volatile and uncertain for many months, but in the summer of 1793 things worsened considerably. Starting in June of that year, white planters, merchants, and artisans began fleeing St. Domingue in large numbers in any ship they could find. Most took only what possessions they could carry in their arms, and the wealthiest brought trusted slaves as well. Throughout the second half of 1793 and into 1794, these refugees took shelter in Atlantic port towns from Florida to New York, and in New Orleans in the gulf of Mexico as well.
Anticipating the arrival of refugees in their town, Charlestonians began collecting donation in July 1793. Boatloads of penniless refugees began streaming into the city soon afterward, eagerly searching for peace, shelter, food, and clothing. The exact number of refugees who came to Charleston from St. Domingue is unclear, but contemporary evidence indicates that the number was probably between 400 and 500 men, women, and children. Almost immediately, the City Council of Charleston faced the need to secure the basic necessities of life for hundreds of starving refugees. Many local residents welcomed families of refugees into their homes, while others found respite in the glebe (rental) properties of the city’s various churches. Some refugees were left on the street, however, and so the city government made a bold move: it housed an unknown number of “unhappy sufferers” in a building known as the “New Market” in Market Street.
The “New Market” was built as a tall, one-story, rectangular “shed” two hundred feet long and twenty-seven feet wide, located one hundred feet east of Meeting Street in the middle of what is now Market Street. Built ca. 1790–91, it had a tiled roof supported by brick arched pillars and was designed to serve as an open-air meat market. This “New Market” was the first of several building planned for the city’s new market space in the newly designated Market Street, but the plan was moving slowly in 1793. In a moment of crisis, therefore, Charleston City Council apparently voted to convert the New Market into a dormitory for refugees from St. Domingue. The records of City Council from that era were lost in 1865, but fragments of the story survive in the contemporary newspapers. On 19 August 1793, the Charleston City Gazette published a notice informing the public of their plan to house a number of the refugees:
“The corporation of this city intending to fit up the New Market for the reception of distressed persons, from Cape Francois, proposals for executing the carpenters and bricklayers work, are requested before Wednesday next; in the mean time and further information may be obtained by applying to Robert Hazlehurst, Thomas Hall, Thomas Doughty, Joseph Purcell.”
Since we have no City Council records from this era, the details of this relief effort have unfortunately been lost to time. There is another source, however, that provides confirmation that the City of Charleston did indeed follow through on its plan to convert the New Market into housing for refugees. During this same era, the city routinely published an annual report of the city’s finances, and here we find some important clues.
The 1794 report of the accounts of the City of Charleston mentions money spent on market repairs, but provides no further details. The annual reports of 1795 and 1796 (published in the Charleston City Gazette of 5 September 1795 and 5 September 1796), however, both indicate that a balance of nearly £2000 was spent “for fitting up the New Market for the reception of the unhappy sufferers from St. Domingo, in 1793.”
How many refugees lived in the New Market, and how long did they stay there? These are questions to which we may never know the answers. It is revealing, however, that Charleston City Council had intended to move all of the city’s market activity—the selling of vegetables, fruits, and butchered meats—into Market Street in the early 1790s, but that plan was delayed for a decade. Between August 1793 and the spring of 1804, the city made no progress in turning Market Street into a proper market. Starting in May 1804, the city resumed filling the marshy area and building market sheds, and the new “Centre Market” officially opened to the public on 1 August 1807. It seems unlikely that refugees from St. Domingue resided in the refurbished New Market building from late 1793 until the spring of 1804, but they probably lived in it long enough to discourage the city from undertaking the expenses required to convert it back to a market shed.
The “New Market” of 1793 was renamed the city’s “Beef Market” in 1804, and it was destroyed in the massive fire that burned Ansonborough in April 1838. Although a new, slightly wider brick market shed was erected on that site in 1838, that building and the rest of Charleston’s Centre Market (now commonly called the City Market) stand today as a living reminder of the long-established connection between our city and the people of Haiti (St. Domingue).