UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!



Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, "discovered" and named by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. Haiti has a uniquely tragic history. Colonialism, slavery, natural disasters, and revolution have plagued the small country since Christopher Columbus landed on its shores in 1492. Before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous Arawaks (also known as Taino) flourished on the island. Although researchers debate the total pre-Columbus population of the Arawaks (estimates range from 60,000 to 600,000), the detrimental impact of colonization is well documented. Disease and brutal labor practices nearly decimated the Indian population within 50 years. Within fifty years of Columbus' arrival, Hispaniola's entire indigenous population of Arawak Indians had been wiped out by slavery and disease.

Spain ceded the western third of the island of Hispaniola, or Santo Domingo as it became known under Spanish control, to France in 1697. French authorities quelled the island's buccaneer activity and focused on agricultural growth. Soon, French adventurers began to settle the colony, turning the French portion of the island, renamed Saint-Domingue, into a coffee- and sugar-producing juggernaut. By the 1780s, nearly 40 percent of all the sugar imported by Britain and France and 60 percent of the world's coffee came from the small colony. Known as the "pearl of the Antilles," Saint-Domingue annually created more wealth than the entire United States and more than the rest of the West Indies combined.

As the indigenous population dwindled, slaves became vital to Saint-Domingue's economic development. Slaves arrived by the tens of thousands as coffee and sugar production boomed. Under colonial rule, nearly 800,000 slaves arrived from Africa, accounting for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. Many died from disease and the brutal conditions of the sugar and coffee plantations. Statistics show that there was a complete turnover in the slave population every 20 years. Still, by 1789 slaves outnumbered the ruling white population 4 to 1 - 452,000 slaves in a population of 520,000. The island was ripe for revolution, and marauding bands of slaves became increasingly common.

Haiti's colonial origins had demonstrated that an illiterate and impoverished majority could be ruled by a repressive elite. The slaveholding system had established the efficacy of violence and coercion in controlling others, and the racial prejudice inherent in the colonial system survived under the black republic. A lightskinned elite assumed a disproportionate share of political and economic power.

In the seventeenth century when the French began sugar cane plantations in Western Hispaniola, they imported black slaves to do the fieldwork. The French Revolution in 1789 served as a catalyst for a slave rebellion beginning in Haiti in 1791. In 1791 Toussaint Louverture emerged as the leader of an organized and widespread slave rebellion that finally toppled the French colony. Toussaint, an educated slave who had studied the military campaigns of Julius Caesar, led a massive revolt of former slaves that began in the northern region and eventually spread across the entire island. A temporary truce occurred between France and Toussaint's army, but the political rights it afforded the former slaves were not enough to stop the fighting for long. As the death total rose, French General Donatien Rochambeau reportedly informed Napoleon Bonaparte that the only way France could win would be to kill everyone in Saint-Domingue over the age of 12. The slaves' struggle for independence united the colony's black majority and mulatto elite; it pushed on for twelve years. Ultimately, the resumption of war in Europe led France to surrender in November 1803. Finally, on January 1, 1804, Haiti won its independence. After 300 years of colonial control, Haiti emerged as a free, black republic. "Haiti" was the name the Arawaks were believed to have called the island before the arrival of the Europeans.

Haiti, the first black republic in modern times, sprang directly to self-governance from French colonialism, a system that had a profound impact on the nation. Haiti formally renounced its colonial bond with France in January 1804, as the result of the only successful slave rebellion in world history. By January 1804, local forces defeated an army sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, established independence from France, and renamed the area Haiti. The impending defeat of the French in Haiti is widely credited with contributing to Napoleon's decision to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803. Haiti is the world's oldest black republic and the second-oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States.

The country's longevity as an independent nation in the Western Hemisphere is second only to that of the United States. Over this span of almost two centuries, however, the country has never known a period free of tyranny, repression, political conflict, racial animosity, and economic hardship.

Two separate regimes--north and south--emerged after independence but were unified in 1820. Two years later, Haiti occupied Santo Domingo, the eastern, Spanish-speaking part of Hispaniola. In 1844, however, Santo Domingo broke away from Haiti and became the Dominican Republic. Although Haiti actively assisted the independence movements of many Latin American countries, the independent nation of former slaves was excluded from the hemisphere's first regional meeting of independent nations, in Panama in 1826, and did not receive U.S. diplomatic recognition until 1862.

With 22 changes of government from 1843 to 1915, Haiti experienced numerous periods of intense political and economic disorder, prompting the United States military intervention of 1915. Following a 19-year occupation, U.S. military forces were withdrawn in 1934, and Haiti regained sovereign rule.

The chaotic and personalistic nature of Haitian political culture combined with chronic underdevelopment to provide fertile ground for a succession of despots, strongmen, and dictators. Even the few national leaders whose election apparently reflected popular sentiment, such as Dumarsais Estimé (1946-50) and François Duvalier (1957-71), rejected constitutional procedures in favor of retaining personal power. The popular revolt that deposed President for life Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-86) demonstrated the Haitian people's rejection of parasitic despotism. At the same time, however, the revolt reaffirmed another lesson of Haitian history: violence has often been the only effective route to change.

François Duvalier (1957-71) won a suspiciously large victory in the presidential election of 1957. Duvalier came from a modest black family in Port-au-Prince. His platform consisted of pro-black nationalism, strong support from the military, and state acceptance of the voodoo religion. The army disqualified Duvalier's most popular rival, Daniel Fignolé, and likely tampered with ballots. Amidst the controversy, Duvalier officially assumed the presidency in 1957, backed by a majority in both houses of the legislature.

As a candidate for office, Duvalier had been known as "Papa Doc" because of his paternalistic concern for poor and sick Haitians. During his 14-year reign, however, Duvalier focused more on controlling his people than caring for them. His dictatorial methods were harsh even by Haiti's standards. In 1961 he discarded the bicameral legislature in favor of a unicameral one, and then secured for himself the title of president for life. In order to control the military, Duvalier frequently shuffled the leadership, bringing young black soldiers to command positions until they too became threatening to the administration. Duvalier also created the Presidential Guard and the Volunteers for National Security (Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale?VSN), or makout as they were known, for the express purpose of averting attempted coups. The VSN functioned as a secret, paramilitary group, using blackmail and terror to control Haiti's citizenry.

Largely through his brutal tactics, Duvalier held the presidency until his natural death in 1971. His son, Jean-Claude (1971-86), assumed leadership of Haiti at the age of 19. After initially deferring to his ambitious mother, Jean-Claude, referred to as "Baby Doc," adopted many of his father's leadership tactics. He lived lavishly, siphoning off funds from the governmentally controlled tobacco industry, while Haiti descended further into poverty. The administration relied heavily on intimidation to maintain power. A visit from Pope John Paul II on March 9, 1983, saw the pope echoing the people's cries for improved access to food, water, education, and employment. It proved to be the beginning of the end for Jean-Claude. On February 7, 1986, Haitian citizens revolted against the corruption-rife administration. Threatened by rioting crowds and pressured by the United States, Duvalier gave up the presidency and fled Haiti.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 07-10-2011 17:48:05 ZULU