The recorded history of Haiti began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus made landfall on La Isla Espanola, the island of Hispaniola, which is today shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although this voyage is considered to be the one during which Columbus “discovered” America, he did not actually land on mainland North America until his third voyage in 1498. During this first voyage he sailed in the Caribbean, discovering islands in the Bahamas as well as Cuba. Columbus claimed the island for Spain and established a settlement called Navidad.
There were already indigenous people living on Hispaniola as well as most other Caribbean islands. They were the Taino people of the Arawak group, who were at first welcoming to the newcomers but fared poorly under Spanish rule. It is estimated that there were several hundred thousand Taino on the island when Navidad was founded. As with all of their subsequent conquests in the New World, facts about Haiti include the Spanish introduction of a system called “repartimiento,” in which Spanish citizens who came to the Americas were granted large parcels of land and were allowed to force the natives to work the land for them. By 1550 only 150 Taino were still alive on the island.
Facts about Haiti slavery parallel those of many other Spanish controlled islands in the Caribbean – especially Cuba. Because of the shockingly rapid decline in the native population, Spain became the first European country to bring slaves to the New World. They came primarily from West Africa from Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The first arrived in Hispaniola in 1501.
In 1697 the history of Haiti took another turn when the Treaty of Ryswick divided the island of Hispaniola into Spanish Santo Domingo and French St. Domingue. The French carried on with slavery, and French rule saw some of the most brutal conditions for slaves anywhere in the world. Because of the brutal conditions, slaves had little chance to reproduce naturally and at all times they were almost all African born. This had a profound effect on Haitian culture, since the culture the Africans brought with them remained prevalent for hundreds of years. This included African vodou, which is today known as Haitian voodoo.
While the slaves of Haiti did not flourish, the colony became the crown jewel of French possessions and the richest in the Western Hemisphere. By 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) facts about Haiti include the island providing approximately 40% of the sugar and 60% of the coffee imported by Great Britain and France. Almost single-handedly, the island was a primary support of a lavish lifestyle for the French wealthy aristocracy. But slavery would prove to be the downfall of this “success” story. There was a violent slave rebellion from 1791 to 1803, and in 1804 the newly-named country of Haiti became the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere; the United States was the first. The name Haiti means “mountainous country” in the language of the Taino Arawak people. In Haitian Creole, it is Ayiti. The Haitian Creole is a language of primarily French vocabulary that uses primarily West African grammar.
The first Emperor of the new republic was assassinated in 1806. Following this was a civil war and decades of instability, culminating in American intervention and occupation of the country by the United States from 1915 to 1934. This intervention and the creation of a National Guard paved the way for the modern history of Haiti to be dominated by a military force that eventually saw the installation of the notorious Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier as “President For Life.” At his death in 1971, he was replaced by his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” and Haitian “boat people” began arriving in Florida the following year. The rule of this father and son team saw great repression and corruption, the squandering of wealth and widespread poverty among the people. In 1986, the young Duvalier fled to exile in France, but little improved in the country, which saw further unrest, more cruel dictators, international trade sanctions, and even naval blockade. Today, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, a fact exacerbated by the devastating 2010 earthquake that left more than 300,000 people dead and as many as two million homeless.
Image: Rafaelle-Castera - Photographer