Excerpted with permission, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan M. Katz. Available from Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Copyright © 2014. (Scientific American is part of Macmillan Publishers.)

Port-Au-Prince was never an easy place to live. Sixty million years ago, the land under it was caught in the middle when the buoyant continental crust of North America crashed into the Caribbean Plate. The two plates had been pushing against each other for ages, forcing up from the seabed an arc of islands that would one day be known as the Greater Antilles. Then came a jolt so violent that it changed the plates’ direction, catching the arc in a side-swiping collision that would slowly tear each island to splinters. On the second-largest island of the Greater Antilles, these shearing forces forged the highest mountains and deepest troughs of the archipelago. On its northern half rose the Massif du Nord; in the southwest, the Massif de la Hotte and Massif de la Selle. Between these mountains, at the foot of where the Caribbean was being pushed over the volcanic terrain was a solitary lowland depression just seven and a half miles wide. That is where Port-au-Prince would be built.

Over thousands of years, several groups of people migrated across the archipelago without leaving evidence of large settlements. That changed around fifteen hundred years ago with the arrival of the Taíno, potters and weavers who organized themselves into chiefdoms. At the western edge of the lowland depression, one chiefdom built a capital called Yaguana. The Taíno’s reasons for choosing that spot are lost to time; after a Genovese sea captain ran aground on the island’s north coast in December 1492 and found evidence of gold on behalf of the Spanish crown, the first wave of European colonists murdered and enslaved the Taíno, working them to death with such industry that after a century their civilization was wiped out. Only their words remained: tobacco for a roll of leaves to be smoked and hurricane for the mighty windstorms that rose from the sea. The Taíno had many names for their island too, but one, best befitting the western half, where four-fifths of the splintered land jutted at least six hundred  feet and rose to peaks more than eight thousand feet, was pronounced Hay-iti, meaning the “mountainous  place.” The Spanish used different names: Hispaniola, or little Spain, for the island as a whole; and Santo Domingo, after the Catholic saint, for their colony.

Other European empires attacked the island, first because of rumored gold, then for access to the rest of the Americas, and finally just because they were fighting for everything in the world. A 1697 treaty ending an unrelated war in Europe divided the island, with the Spanish retaining control of the east and France gaining dominion over the west. Mapmakers simply translated the existing colony’s name into the two languages: Spanish Santo Domingo’s capital was on a protected bay off the island’s southeast. French Saint-Domingue was ruled from a city on the northwest coast called Cap-Français, close to where the Europeans had first arrived. No one cared as much about the plain adjacent to the former Yaguana, which took several more days to reach by ship from Europe.

That began to change in the mid-eighteenth century. Having killed the Taíno and given up on gold, the Europeans found a new source of wealth. Sugarcane and coffee grew like weeds in the island’s fertile soil, and the French imported thousands of kidnapped African men, women, and children each year to cultivate the crops. The labor was deadly, but it made Saint-Domingue the French empire’s greatest engine of wealth. Pirates and English privateers menaced Cap-Français, the rich colony’s de facto capital, from the north; the plantation owners sought a more protected port in the south. There was a promising spot along the lowland depression a few miles east of La Yaguana, which the French pronounced Léogâne. The spot was shielded from foreign armies and hurricanes by high mountains to the north and south. Its founders laid out a rectilinear grid by the sea and established a new port, which some say they named for an early visiting ship called Le Prince. In 1749, France’s King Louis XV declared the Port-au- Prince the capital of Saint-Domingue.

With mountains at its back and the sea at its throat, there was little space for the new city to grow. Still outshone by Cap-Français, Santo Domingo, and the magnificently productive countryside, Port-au-Prince remained a backwater. Then, over the course of the twentieth century, the city’s population exploded. Given what happened just two years after it was founded, the city’s fathers would have found this an exceedingly bad idea.

In 1751, a series of earthquakes rattled Hispañola. They culminated on November 21, when a massive temblor razed the brand- new city of Port-au-Prince to the ground. Everyone was stunned. In the century and a half since that Genovese captain, Christopher Columbus, had stumbled onto the island, the ground had been still. There had been no equivalent earthquake in France in memory; the massive temblor that would transform Western philosophy and science by destroying Lisbon, Portugal, on the seemingly inviolable date of All Saint’s Day, 1755, was still four years away. Whatever the Taíno knew about earthquakes, they weren’t around to tell. The colonists, noticing that flexible wood structures withstood the quake better than rigid masonry, briefly outlawed the latter. But the order was soon forgotten.

That bill came due again on June 3, 1770. At roughly 7:15 p.m., the earth unleashed a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, destroying prisons, hospitals, churches, government buildings, and homes. At least two hundred people died.  Many slaves responsible for food production escaped into the mountains, and a famine broke out in the city, killing thousands.  Tainted meat bought from rival Spanish colonists sparked an anthrax outbreak that killed thousands more.

The upheaval that formed the Caribbean islands had also made the lush chain one of the world’s most volatile earthquake zones. But while small earthquakes erupted with regularity on other  islands,  such as Puerto Rico, in western  Hispaniola, the ground tended to erupt massively and then  go still for decades, or even centuries. After destroying the new city twice in its first twenty-one years, the fault under Port-au-Prince locked in place. But those who had learned the island’s secret would not be around for long.

Over a century of rule, the French had brought nearly a million African slaves to Saint-Domingue. But their lives were short. Some 10 percent died each year, hacked, crushed, or scalded to death in the sugar-making process, sickened by horrid living conditions, or murdered. Since it was cheaper for the masters to buy new people than keep alive the ones they had, two-thirds of the colony’s slave population at the start of the 1790s had been born in Africa, nearly all arriving after the last great earthquake on Saint-Domingue.

The white masters refused to educate slaves, if they could communicate with them at all. Many of the enslaved retained their native tongues; others were developing a mixture of French and those languages into a new vernacular called Kreyòl.

In 1791, as revolution tore through metropolitan France, slaves, former slaves, and the mixed-race descendants of slaves and plantation owners rose up. Even while declaring commitment to the rights of all men, the French Republicans fought to keep their most valuable colony, the bedrock of their national wealth. The Spanish, who still controlled the eastern two-thirds of the island, invaded Saint-Domingue, as did the British. The black insurgents, many led by a former slave named Toussaint Louverture, played the invaders off each other, defeated them all, and ended racial slavery in the colony. When Napoleon tried to invade to re-instate the vile institution a few years later, the people stood up to an expeditionary force of the most powerful army in Europe and, through strategy, fierce combat, and some help from yellow fever, won independence.  The new nation’s first leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, reclaimed the Taíno word for the jagged land, Haïti, and on New Year’s Day 1804 declared an independent republic. CapFrançais was rechristened Cap-Haïtien, and Port-au-Prince became the national capital. What memory of earthquakes might have remained had been swallowed by decades of war.

An earthquake and tsunami would rock northern Haiti in 1842, killing thousands, but it ranked low on the agenda of a president fending off rivals and insurrections. A massive earthquake and aftershock would strike off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, long since the name of Haiti’s Spanish-speaking neighbor on eastern Hispaniola, in 1946, but few died: It was a holiday, and most people were outdoors. Haitians didn’t spend much time worrying about such things. Earthquakes were urban disasters. And, at heart, Haiti was a nation of farmers.

The new nation faced trouble from the start. The United States and Europe relied on slavery to drive their economies. A nation not only ruled by black people but forged by former slaves who had overthrown and carried out violent reprisals against their former masters was an intolerable exception. The new nation was embargoed and denied recognition, most importantly by the young United States. Cut off from an unwelcoming world, the young republic developed as a place where free people provided for themselves without having to answer to much authority.

Those first generations stayed out of the cities, building their new nation in the countryside, which they called peyi andeyò—the “land beyond.” They raised manioc and pigs on the mountains and planted rice in the valleys. Difficult to reach and harder to govern, this forbidding land was where the nation’s culture, language, and religion were forged. It would take quite a force to make people leave.