* Haiti Haitian history

Haitian History

Haitian children
Figure 1.--Haiti was in the 18th century the most valuable colony in the Caribbean. The slave-based sugar industy made foirtunes for French planters. As a result of French colonial policy and the resulting slve rebellion, the Haitian population is almost entirely of African origins. It is today one of the poorest countries in the world.

Columbus discoverd the island of Hispaniola on his first voyafe (1492). It became an important part of the Spanish Main. Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to the French at the Treaty of Ryswick (1697). The French colony becomes Saint Domingue. Saint Domingue in the 18th centuryb became the richest colony in the America. The capital, Cap Français, becomes known as the Paris of the New World. It becomes as slave colony sedicated to the production of sugar--a commodity of unprecedented value. The French operated Saint Domingue with unprecedented cruelty even in an age in which slavery played an important role. The 0.5 million slaves on the island were terrorized into submission. Floggings were common place. Slaves were punished for minor offences with starvation or even being buried alive. The French Revolution occured in France and the reverbreations soon reach Saint Domingue (1789). Whites on the island were split. They turn their eire on Mullatos when the French NationaL Assemby approves modest legislation about their status. A Voodoo houngan named Boukman launches the ininital slave rebellion (1791). The French are unable to maintain control. The slaves emerged victorious, fighting off Naopleon's and British efforts to see the valuable colony. It is one of the few examples in history of a successful slave rebellion. Haitains declared an independent republic (1804). The country is never able to develop the Haitain economy. And what was the richest colony in the Americas gradualy evolved into one of the poorest countries in the world.

The Taino

There was a flourishing Native American civilization on the island of Hispaniola when the Spanish arrived. The principal Native American group was the Arawak/Taino people. The Arawak were a Native American group living in Venezuela, the Caribbean, and to a lesser extent Central America. There was no central organization. The Arawak were a language group with a shared culture. The Taino who populated Hispaniola were the Taino, a tribe of the larger Arawak language group. Taino meant in their language "men of the good". The Taino populated the larger islands of the Caribbean (Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico). They had originated in Venezuela and gradually migrated along the Caribbean chain. Contemprary observers describe the Taino as a gentle, calm and hospitable people. The Taino on Hisapiola are described as some of the most advanced and oranized of the Taino. Some sources report a poopulation of Tainos on the island as 3-4 million.

Columbus (1492)

Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus (Criistobal Colon) spent years trying to convince first King João of Portugal and then the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain to support a voyage of exploration west into the Atlantic. Columbus believed that he could reach the orient by sailing West much more quickly than sailing around SAfrica ad then east. The idea that the world was flat was not as widespread as is sometimes suggested, at least among educated people. Columbus has, however, badly underestimsated the size of the globe. And of course he and the rest of Europe had no idea that an entirely unknown new continent lay between Europe and Asia. King João was focused on sailing south around Africa. So Columbus worked on the Spanish monarchy for several years. He had finally given up on convincing Ferdinand and Isabel and decided to approach the French king. Finally after the fall of Granada, the Spasnish monarchs decided to back the voyage in part concerned that the Frech might bsacl him. Their reluctance also resulted from Columbus' extrodinary demands. Columbus was on the way to France when a court official reached him with news thast he had obained royal backing. Columbus with his three ships first landed in the Bsahamas andf thn proceeded south to Cuba and Hispaniola. He landed along the northern coast of Hispaniola (December 5, 1492). He called the Tainos he encountered "Indians", convinced that he had reached the Indies.

Spanish Colony (1493-1697)

Columbus' first voyage was a small-scale expedition. His initial idea was to set up trading poss as the Portuguese were doing along the coast of Africa. At a fairly early point, however, as the hope of finding gold in quantity fades, Columbus seems to have shifted toward seizing control and administering Hispsaniola as a colony. And he decided to generate income by eslaving the inhabitants. At firs he spoke of the war-like Caribs who he insisted practiced canabilism, but soon he began making slaves of the Tainos as well. Columbus returned the next year with a much larger expedition, but one he had diffiuculty controlling. There were men to begin the colonization of the new lands, but with few women. The Spanish proceeded to occupy the island which they called Española--meaning "little Spain". In English the island is called Hispaniola. Columbus proved to be a gifted navigator, but a poor administrator. The Spanish set about turning the Taino into a slave work force. Columbus hoped to generate income by shipping Tainos back to Spsain for sale as slaves. The Taino resisted, but not very effectively. They were ultimately defeated. The brutal methods used by the Spanish, the Taino's lack of resistance to European diseases, and the mistreatment of enslaved captives decimated the Taino population. As a result, within 50 years the Spanish destroyed the Taino people. The destruction of the Taino can becalled genocide, although the goal of the Spanish was more to enslave and exploit than to destroy the Taino. Bartolomew Las Casas, a Spanish priest working with the Taino, protested the abuses perpetrated by the Spanish. He suggested importing Africans which could be enslaved to work on the island. The first blacks were bought to the island only a decade after Cloumbus' first landing (1503). The first blacks were from Spain and not Africa. African slavery became well established in European colonies. The Spanish hold on the island was strongest on the eastern part of the island and center on the principal port of Santo Doingo. English and French bucaneers established pirate bases on the western coast of Hispaniola.


With the destruction of the Native American population, the Caribbean islands were depopulated. On some of the islands an odd asortment of people lived outside the colonial structure. They included deserters, castaways, escaped slaves, criminals, religious non-conformers, and others. They made a living by selling supplies to sailing vessels. Livestock such as cattle and hogs roamed wild. The early Buccaneers would kill lve stock and cure the meat. (The French word for cured meat is the orgin of the word Buccanee.) They were important in areas like Haiti where Spanish colonial authority was weak. They dominted Tortol off the northern coast of Haiti. Gradually the Buccaneers shifted from selling supplies to taking over the ships of treasure-laden ships. Their operations were limited by a base where they could enjoy their captured treasure. An opportunity presented itself when the English seized Jamaica. The English fleet could not permanently protect the islands and at first there was only a small English force. It is at this time that the English governor invited the pirates of Tortola to base themselves in Port Royal. Buccaneers were thus able to operate from a secure port. It as this time that Henry Morgan becomes interested in privateering. Jamaica became a base for captain Henry Morgan, one of the most famous of the Caribbean pirates. Governor Modyford cooperated with the English buccaneers under Henry Morgan. Morgan primarily preyed on Spanish ships. The Buccaneers not only helped protect Jamaica for the British, but Morgan launched audacious attacks on the Spanish. First he struck Santiago in wastern Cuba. The most ambitious attack was on Portobello in Panama. This was a transhipment point for the Spanish treasure fleet. There take was mind-boggeling.

French Colony: Saint Domingue (1697-1791)

French adventurers landed on the island of La Tortue (Tortuga Island) off the northwestern arm of Hispaniola. The French subsequently began exploring and settling on the mainland and succeeded in largely displacing the Spanish from western Hispaniola. A series of military engagements followed. As a result by the late 17th century, the French had defacto control of western Hispaniola. This and one of Louis XIV's wars in Europe eventually persuaded the Spanish to cede western Hispaniola to the French under the Treaty of Ryswick (1697). The French named their new colony Saint Domingue. And they began transforming the colony into a vast sugar plantation. The French began importing large numbers of African slaves to work the plabtations under the most apauling conditions. The destruction of the Taino and importation of Africans changed the demographics of St Domingue. African slavery was an important economic institition by the 18th century, especially important for the Caribbean sugar islands which were a major element in Western European economies. Saint Domingue in the 18th century became the richest colony in the America. The capital, Cap Français, becomes known as the Paris of the New World. It becomes as slave colony sedicated to the production of sugar--a commodity of unprecedented value. The French operated Saint Domingue with unprecedented cruelty even in an age in which slavery played an important role. The 0.5 million slaves were ruled by terror into submission. Floggings were common place. Slaves were punished for minor offences with starvation or even being buried alive.

French Revolution and Slavery

The French Revolution occured in France and the reverbreations soon reach Saint Domingue (1789). France lost most of its empire to the British, but retained imporant Caribbean islands. Liberty was a byword of the French Revolution as it had been in the American Revolution. But like the Americans, the leaders of the French Revolution did not move toward abolition. In America any step toward abolition during the Revolution or the frameing of the Constitution would have meant disunion as it would have been unacceptable to the southern colonies. In France it appears to redlect the bouergoise character of the Revolution and the economic importance of Caribbean slavery to the French economy. While France did not move toward abolition, the Revolution did have substantial reverbreations, both in the Caribbean and in England which affected slavery. Neither the Revolutionaries or Napoleon moved toward abolition. Neither did the restored French momarchy after the Napleonic Wars. This in fact posed a problem for Britain which after abolishing slavery gave the Royal Navy the task of ending the Atlantic slave trade.

Slave Rebellion (1791)

Whites on the island were at first split concerning the Revolution. Thus changed as the National Assembly began to address the subjet of slavery. The French National Assemby approved modest legislation concerning free people of color, mostly affecting mulasttos. They granted French citizenship to well-to-do free prople of color (May 1791). The white settlers not only refused to comply with the Assembly's decesion, but were outraged at the very idea and ran riot. The whites lynched mullatoes they could lay their hands on. They also burned the Tri-Color flag of the Republic. Seemingly unconsidered was the reaction of slaves which constituted the great bulk of the population. The mulattoes and freed slaves resisted. This was the first fighting on Haiti. [Blackburn, pp. 633-44.] And in the seething political situation, groups of slaves launched attacks. The attacks at first were scattered, occuring mostly at isolated plantations in the north. A Voodoo houngan named Boukman launched the ininital slave rebellion (1791). The French were at first able to maintain control, but the devision between the whites and the mulatoes significantly weakened the French position on the island.

War for Independence (1791-1804)

After the initial slave rebellion, a civil war develops between the black dominated north and the mulatto dominated south. Toussaint L'Ouverture, an educated herb doctor and military man, emerged as the leader of the former slaves in the north. He conquered the entire island. Spain ceded the eastern side of the island to France (1795). Toussaint managed to restor order, ended the massacres, and restored some of the colony's lost prosperity (1796). Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France. He attempted to retake Saint Domingue because of the huge sugar exports that had come from the colony. He sent a substantial 34,000 man army to defeat the slave armies and reestablish French control. The French commander Leclerc through subterfuge seized Toussaint L'Ouverture seized and deported him to France (1801). He died in a French prison. The Convention in Paris reintroduced slavery to Saint Domingue (1802). This result in a renewed rebellion and more massacres (1802). The Fench Army was decimated by a yellow fever epidemic. The slaves continued to resist even after Toussaint's capture. Haitains declared an independent republic (1804).

Haitian Republic (1804)

The long complicated revolutionary struggle carried on by the slaves of Saint-Domingue finally ended with freedom and the founding of the Republic of Haiti (January 1, 1804). Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independent black Republic of Haiti (1804). The Haitan Revolution is one of the few successful slave rebellions in history. It was also the first independent black republic. The country's new leaders decided to name the new country Haiti. This was the Taino name for the island ("high land") and chosen to honor the originl inhabitants. Dessalines ordered the killing of all Frenchmen remaining on the island a step designed to ensure that the whites would never be able to regain control. The new country was not accepted by the international community. No European country recognized Haiti nor did the United States. The French withdrew, but refused to recignize Haitain independemce. Countries like the Britain and the United States saw Haiti as a threat. The United States had a substantial slave population and slave rebellions was an enduring fear in the South. Britain had valuavle colonies in the Caribbean with economies based on slavery. Haiti offered assistance to South American revolutionaries. Dessalines is, however, is only able to maintain control in the black north.

Civil War (1806- )

Dessalines was unpopular with the mulattos who controlled the south. He was assassinated (1806). A civil war follows between the south (under General Petion) and the north (under Henry Christophe).

Northern Kingdom (1806-20)

Henry Christophe was a general during Haiti's long and brutal independence war and was an important factor in defeating France. He set up a northern republic (1806). He crowned himself Henry I emperor of Haiti (1811). He set up a hereditary monarchy, complete with his own coinage and a aristocracy (counts, dukes, and barons) to manage the kingdom. He of course had a newly minted coat of arms. The motto was, "Je renais de mescendres" -- meaning, "I rise from my ashes." Like many other monarchs, he began a massive building program to establish the status of Haiti and his place on the world scene. The Independene War resulted in destruction on an epic scale. Christophe's vision was to establish something magnificent in the middle of the reconstuction effort. Saint Domingue had been the most profitable colony in the world, centered on the production of sugar. It was also the cruelest which is saying a grreat deal given how cruel the slave plantations on the other Cribbean colonies were. Almost all of the infrastrure of the slave colony had been destroyed in the indepence war. Haiti was the second colony fter the United Sttes to declare indeoennce from a European empire ws disrupted by civil war. Christophe first set up an independent republic in the north, but then decided to bcome monarch. This enable him to become the permannt ruler, but in fairnss to Christophe, it was the way most of the world was ruled at the time. He seems to have reasoned that this might help him gain European recognition. Other countries including the Unioted States were willig to trade with Hiti, but not recognize it. Cgritophe tried to lay Briain off France, but without success. Christophe concludd that sugar oproduction and the pltation econmy had to be restarted. The Haitian people, hoever, wanted no part of plantation labor. They were happy to pursue subsistence agriculture on small plots. Christophe used force to drive them back on plantations. He also drafter workers for his massive construction projects. He organized the Royal Dahomets, a military police force to track down runaways. The King over time began to be seen tyranical ruler by his subjects. He not only forced workers back on the plantations, but built a massive palace (sans-Souci) and fortress (Citadel) at Cap Haitien in northern Haiti. Sabs-Souci becme knon as the Versailles of the Caribbean. It is completed at great cost and the loss of many lives. He not only alienated workers, but apparently much of his newly created arristocravcy who believed that they were not being fairly treated. Chrstophe suffered a stroke which left him much diminished. His enemies moved against him and as rebel forced appriached the palace, Christophe commited suicide, shooting himself with a silver bullet (1820).

Boyer (1820- )

General Boyer seized control of Haiti after Christophe's suiside (1820). He ended the civil war that had plagued Haiti since independence. Boyer persuaded France to recognizing Haitian independence by paying 150 million Francs.

Instability (1843-1915)

Haiti becomes an unstable state. Haiti had 22 heads of state, most of whom are forced from office by rebellions and coups. Racial politics dominate the country with a rivalry for power among whites, the mulatto elite, and the blacks. The economy declined and financial problems increase.

American Intervention (1915-34)

Haiti is unable to pay its foreign debt. President Theodore Roosevelt takes over control of Fitian customs (1905). Presdient Guillaume Sam was dismembered by a mob. The chaos and violence causes President Wilson to land marines and seize control of the country. The Americans restore order and make major improvements to the country's infrastructure. The economy begins to improve. Eveen so, many Haitians resent their presence. President Franklin Roosevelt becomes president in the United States (1933). He adopts the Good Neighbor policy toward Lain America. The orders the Marines outof Haiti (1934). The United States continued to contro Haitain Customs for a few more years (1941).

Duvalier Regime (1957-1986)

François Duvalier, a medical doctor and union leader, won the presidency in a democratic election (1957). Duvalier became known as 'Papa Doc'. He sets about destroying Haitian democracy. He introduces terrorism to Haiti, creating the tontons macoutes ("uncle boogeyman" in Creole). They are a combination sectret police and private militia. They kill opponents, some openly. Others disappear. to his administration. Duvalier was a practicing vodunist. His loa was Baron Samedi, the guardian of cemeteries and a harbinger of death. He changed the Haitain constitution to avoid the necesity of future elections. The chnges allow him to be elected president for life (1964). Duvalier died and is succeeded by his son Jean Claude (1971). He is only 19 years old and becomes known as Baby Doc. The criminal nature of the Duvalier regime destroyed the Haitain economy. Public services disappeared. Under Duvalier, Haiti became the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The Duvalier regime collapses under mounting oposition and the U.S. Operation Deschoukay (February 1986). Baby Doc flees to France where he lived in luxury with money stolen from the Haitian people.

Aristide (1990-95)

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular Catholic priest, is elected ptresidentin a landslide victory (December 1990). The Haitian Army deposes Aristide's government. The Organization of American States refuses to recognize the Army regime and imposed an embargo. Aristide returned to Haiti to serve out his presidebntial term (1994). He is supported bu U.S. military and UN troops.

Préval (1995- )

René Préval is elected presidentb in another landslide victory (December 1995).


Blackburn, Robin. "Haiti's slavery in the age of the democratic revolution", William and Mary Quarterly (2006) 63. 4, pp. 633-74.


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Created: 7:28 PM 10/31/2007
Last updated: 12:51 AM 7/9/2018