Spain claimed the island of Hispaniola – of which modern-day Haiti is the western one third and the when Christopher Columbus first landed there in 1492. They imported the first black slaves to Hispaniola when their first pool of forced laborers, the island’s native Taino Indians, was nearly eliminated by disease and harsh living conditions.
French pirates or buccaneers used what is now Northwest Haiti – Tortuga Island (Île de la Tortue) in particular – to attack shipping lanes. Eventually, their numbers grew and the French settled further south onto the mainland. Over the next hundred years, black African slaves were shipped in by the thousands to work on sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations. By the time of the American Revolution, Haiti (then called Saint Domingue) had become the richest colony in the French empire, nicknamed the “pearl of the Antilles.”
Conditions for many slaves were horrific. Writings from the time describe masters torturing and killing their slaves. In 1790, there were slightly more than 50,000 white landowners and freemen extracting labor from half a million slaves – nearly one freeman for every 10 slaves.
In 1791, a long and violent slave uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christoph began. It finally led to independence in 1804. The nation was renamed Haiti, after the Taino word for the island meaning “mountainous land.”
Haiti became the world’s first black republic and the second free nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. But the existence of a country of former slaves so close to home was abhorrent to many Americans, particularly in the slaveholding South. For years, no nation would recognize Haiti as a country. The United States did accept Haiti’s independence until Abraham Lincoln’s administration, nearly 60 years later. France eventually acknowledged Haiti’s sovereignty in 1838, but only after exacting 150 million gold francs from Haiti in restitution – ten times the nation’s total revenue.
Haiti was never able to revive its profitable plantation economy, which had depended entirely on slavery. Most of them squatted on small plots of land around the country, resulting in the motley collection of small subsistence farms that still exists today.
Modern Era and Political Instability
In the 19th century, Haiti floundered under a series of ineffectual and tyrannical leaders and endured an occupations by U.S. Marines. Since the nation’s birth, it has suffered under a long line of dictators and more than 30 military coups.
Perhaps the most notorious of those dictators were the regimes of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The Duvalier came to power in the 1950s. During his nearly 30 years in power, they were criticized for their rampant corruption, mismanagement and oppression. An estimated 30,000 Haitians were killed during that period for opposing the regime, in addition to the unknown numbers who died from widespread famine and disease.
Baby Doc, Duvalier’s son fled the country in 1986 before a series of coups and political oppression that racked the country for four more years. In 1991, Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti’s president after a landslide victory. But a few months later, Aristide was temporarily overthrown in a coup funded by wealthy Haitian business leaders and political opponents who disliked his platform favoring the poorest Haitians.
The coup eventually led to intervention by the United Nations, which continues today in limited fashion. Aristide was restored to power in 1994 and disbanded Haiti’s military. He was succeded by his first prime minister, Rene Preval.
Aristide won national elections again in 2000, though they were largely criticized as less-than-credible.
Political tensions and violence, both caused by Aristide and his opposition, grew over the next few years, pushing Aristide to flee the country again in 2004 in the face of another coup. Supported by international peacekeepers, an interim government held office until Preval was elected again in 2006 in elections that were declared legitimate.
I the last years since the election, the UN peacekeeping force has kept a strong presence in the country. This has lead to an era of relative political stability and decreasing violence. In the 2010 election the people of Haiti elected Michelle Martelly. It is yet to be seen how he will make his mark on Haiti’s long and complicated history.