Haiti Culture

Haiti culture has its roots in the slave system begun by colonists from Spain in the 16th century and continued by subsequent colonists from France. Within 50 years of Christopher Columbus’ first landfall on Hispaniola Island, all but about 150 of the original several hundred thousand indigenous Taino Arawak people had been wiped out by the Spanish. As the native population rapidly declined, there arose a need for labor, and the Spanish became the first to import slaves from Africa into the Western Hemisphere. They arrived in the early 1500s on both Hispaniola Island (today shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Cuba.

It is the mixture of races that created the Haitian Creole people, and the society that created them divided the population into a distinct class system along racial lines. The black slaves hardly mixed at all with the indigenous Taino because the latter had mostly disappeared by the time the slaves began arriving. White slave owners almost immediately began concubinage of the African women, who produced racially mixed children. Often the concubines would be freed by their masters; they had a higher status than the Africans and their lighter skinned children had an even higher status. As time progressed, there was an elaborate system to differentiate between the races and to apportion certain rights and privileges to some of them. There were three groups: the slaves who were almost pure African; freed slaves who were usually mulattoes or gens de couleur (“people of color”) and were also called affranchise; the white European colonists who were called blancs (whites). The slave had virtually no rights whatsoever. To keep the affranchise in their place, the whites passed numerous laws restricting their freedom. These laws and regulations resembled those found in apartheid South Africa. However, the affranchise prospered in many economic ways, as they were not prevented from owning land and they were allowed to lend money to white men. It was this class of well-to-do, educated, but second-class citizens that drove the Slave Rebellion beginning in 1791 and leading to the country’s independence in 1804.

Haiti culture was further shaped by the treatment of the African slaves, which was brutal under the Spanish regime. The French (who became the new rulers in 1697) outdid the Spanish in brutality. As a result, it was rare for the slaves, especially the men, to live long enough to reproduce. The slave supply needed constant replenishing, and very few slaves were Haitian born. As a result, the cultures and beliefs of Africa flourished among the slave population. The slaves were primarily from the West African coast – from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria – and they brought their traditional religion Vodun with them. The Catholicism of the French was forced upon the slaves, who incorporated it to produce what is today’s Haitian voodoo.

There are several Francophone (French-speaking) regions in the Americas in which the people refer to themselves as Creole. These include Guadaloupe, Martinique, Jamaica, and Louisiana. The Haitian Creole people are closely associated with the Creole people of Louisiana, especially around New Orleans. This is where many "people of color" fled after independence, when there was a backlash against the affrachise, whom the slaves believed had oppressed them. Today, Creole unites Haitians of all races, as well as most of the people of the West Indies. The Creole identity has shaped Haitian food, religion, and customs. They speak a distinct Haitian Creole language (called patois) that is comprised of French vocabulary laid on top of West African grammar. Haiti culture is also marked by its distinctive music, called compas. This is variation of merengue, which has been popular with the people since the early 1800s.

Image: Rafaelle-Castera - Photographer

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