Haiti Has One Of The Most Expansive And Influential Histories In The World
Located on the western side of Hispaniola, Haiti is a nation rocked by revolutions and steeped in culture. We take a look at 21 highlights of the country’s history ranging from courageous slave revolts, rum-soaked pirates, murderous despots, and change-making visionaries.
The Indigenous Haitians
Ancestors of the Taíno people, an Arawak-speaking population, were the first to inhabit Haiti. They are rumored to have arrived as early as 4000-5000 BC and researchers of this indigenous group debate whether they originated from the Amazon Basin, the Yucatán Peninsula or even as far as the Colombian Andes. Despite a wave of smallpox and slavery in the 16th century driving the Taíno to extinction, their language is immortalized in Haiti’s name, which is a transliteration of Ayti, meaning Mountainous Land.
The Arrival of Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti on Dec. 5, 1492, whilst sailing around the Caribbean Islands during his iconic expedition funded by the Spanish Empire. In an act of imperial uncouthness, he swiftly renamed it La Isla Española and established La Navidad, the first European colony in the Americas, which was located near to present-day Cap-Haïtien on the north coast.
Bartolomé de las Casas
Bartolomé de las Casas was ordained as the first priest in the Americas in 1510. He was one of the first to propose the use of African slaves as a method for offsetting the decline of the Taíno, who were rapidly dying from enslavement and foreign disease. It’s estimated that there were up to 8 million Taíno, before the arrival of Europeans, and by 1548 less than 500 were left. Las Casas later denounced all forms of slavery, but historians and abolitionists have since indelibly labeled him as one of the founders of the transatlantic slave trade.
Queen Anacaona, born in Léogâne, Haiti, was the last Taíno chief. After being captured by the Spanish and refusing to become a concubine she was executed. Her bravery has been praised in modern Haitian music, such as by Ansy and Yole Dérose.
In the 17th century the swashbuckling Welshman, Henry Morgan, was contracted by the British to invade the colonial Spanish settlements scattered throughout Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Failing to succeed he turned his attention to plundering wealthy Caribbean ports for gold and used Isla Vaca on Haiti’s south coast as a base of operations. After years of government-sponsored marauding, including accidentally blowing up his most prized battleship after a night of hard drinking, he fled to Jamaica with his bounty and bought 5,000 acres of land for cultivating sugar cane for the British. In 1944 his notoriety was spread even further around the world with the founding of the Captain Morgan rum brand.
An Island of Outcasts
Tortuga Island on Haiti’s north coast was an epicenter for piracy. Previously fortified by the Spanish, a small number of French and English buccaneers began their first attempts to settle here in 1625. Over four decades the nations battled for ownership of the island, with Spain gaining and losing control four times. In 1684, the European superpowers signed the Treaty of Ratisbon, which effectively outlawed piracy and led to many of Tortuga’s settlers to seek out more legitimate work in the navy or cutting and trading wood.
Kings of Coffee
When Spain ceded Haiti to the French in 1697 it was renamed Saint-Domingue and in less than a century became an agricultural powerhouse producing 60 percent of all coffee and 40 percent of sugar for Europe. So productive was this new French colony that it became referred to as The Pearl of the Antilles.
The Slave Rebellion
The Haitian Revolution starting in 1791 was the most successful slave rebellion in world history. The three-year rebellion led to the abolishment of slavery across all of France’s territories, the country’s independence and kick-started slave revolts in the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Gunpowder and Guano
Since 1857 there has been a territorial dispute between Haiti and the U.S. over uninhabited Navassa Island. The US maintains its control under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which was passed as federal law, to allow U.S. citizens to claim unoccupied islands for collecting guano deposits which were readily used in the production of gunpowder and agricultural fertilizer.
The first book to be written entirely in Haitian Creole, Dezafi by Frankétienne, was published in 1975 and described daily life during the Duvalier regime. It wasn’t until 1987 that Haitian Creole was recognized, alongside French, as the official language of the country.
There’s a saying in the country that “Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo.” It’s believed that voodoo’s roots go back 6,000 years to Benin and was brought over to Haiti during the slave era where it was practiced in secret. It’s even said that a single ceremony led by Duty Boukman, a voodoo priest, instigated the Haitian Revolution. As a steadfast part of Haitian culture for centuries, it was formally considered in 2003 by Haiti’s Catholic President at the time, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as having equal standing to Catholicism.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of slaves managed to escape the French to hide away in Haiti’s mountains. They were known as mawon which means “escaped slave” in Haitian Creole. Their clandestine communities, known as maroons, survived through hunting, agriculture, and capturing and returning other slaves who tried to escape. The most well-known maroon leader, François Mackandal, poisoned the drinking water of hundreds of plantation owners throughout the 1750s.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was the eldest son of an African prince. L’Ouverture led the revolutionary forces during the Haitian Revolution and after France abolished slavery he allied with them to overthrow the British and Spanish on the island. After his success, he wrote Haiti’s first constitution. A visionary, he ratified that “All men can work at all forms of employment, whatever their color.” and “There can be no slaves on this territory; servitude has been forever abolished. All men are born, live and die there free and French.”
Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 makes it the world’s oldest black republic and after the United States, it is the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Between 1804-1915 over 70 dictators ruled Haiti. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was the first ruler of independent Haiti carried out the genocide of 3,000-5,000 white native French and French Creoles. The only people spared were Polish who defected from the French army, medical professionals and a handful of German colonists.
The Citadel Laferrière
The imposing Citadel Laferrière is the largest fortress in the Americas and was built by slave rebellion leader Henri Christophe after gaining independence from France. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, the mountaintop citadel was designed to sustain 5000 men with food and water for up to one year.
Jewel of the Caribbean
The Sans-Souci Palace, 3 miles from Citadel Laferrière, was the royal residence of Henri Christophe. The palace’s ornate stonework and majestic architecture have been compared to the Palace of Versailles in France.
At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, when Liechtenstein and Haiti unveiled their country’s flags they realized they were identical. Soon after Liechtenstein added a crown to their flag to avoid any further confusion.
François Duvalier was elected as president in 1957. After an attempted military coup d’état, Duvalier’s regime exerted a totalitarian rule over Haiti. He consolidated his power by creating an undercover death squad which Haitian’s referred to as the Tonton Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack) which is named after a local mythological creature that kidnaps children and carries them away in a sack to be eaten. His aim was to spread fear, crush dissent and assassinate his opponents. An estimated 30,000 were killed. Duvalier declared himself President for Life until his 19-year-old son took over in 1971 and ruled until 1986 when he was forced to flee during a revolt.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, was elected in December 1990, but in less than a year was overthrown in a coup d’état giving rise to General Raoul Cédras. Under military rule up to 5,000 Haitians were killed and thousands of Haitians tried to flee the country by boat. Between 1991 and 1992 the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted over 41,000 trying to flee the country.
On Jan. 12, 2010, an estimated 217,000 people were killed by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake which destroys most of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The international community came together to help the country rebuild.