Taino indians were the indigenous peoples when Christopher Columbus established the settlement, La Navidad, near the modern town of Cap-Haïtien. It was built from the timbers of his wrecked ship, Santa María, during his first voyage in December 1492. When he returned in 1493 on his second voyage he found the settlement had been destroyed and all 39 settlers killed. Columbus continued east and founded a new settlement at La Isabela on the territory of the present-day Dominican Republic in 1493. The capital of the colony was moved to Santo Domingo in 1496, on the south west coast of the island also in the territory of the present-day Dominican Republic. The Spanish returned to western Hispaniola in 1502, establishing a settlement.
Hispaniola’s indigenous population suffered near extinction due to European diseases to which they had no immunity. A small number of Taínos survived by setting up villages elsewhere on the island.
In 1595, the Spanish, frustrated by the twenty-year rebellion of their Dutch subjects, closed their home ports to rebel shipping from the Netherlands, cutting them off from the critical salt supplies necessary for their herring industry. This Spanish action was counterproductive as English, Dutch, and French pirates were now free to establish bases on the island’s abandoned northern and western coasts, where wild cattle were now plentiful and free.
In 1697, the Spanish ceded the western part of Hispaniola to the French, who called it Saint-Domingue. It developed into a slave colony for France based on the sugar industry manned by vast numbers of African slaves. The Spanish part of the island deteriorated due to earthquakes, hurricanes and a shrinking population.
In 1711, the city of Cap-Français was formally established by Louis XIV and took over as capital of the colony from Port-de-Paix. In 1726, the city of Les Cayes was founded on the Southern coast which became the biggest settlement in the south. In 1749, the city of Port-au-Prince was established on the West coast, which in 1770 took over as the capital of the colony from Cap-Français.
By the 1780s, Saint-Domingue produced about 40% of all sugar and 60% of all coffee consumed in Europe. Saint-Domingue accounted for a third of the Atlantic slave trade. Brutal conditions and European disease prevented much slave population growth, which led to a constant importation of African slaves. African culture remained strong among slaves to the end of French rule, in particular Vodou, which commingled Catholic liturgy and ritual with the beliefs and practices of Guinea, Congo and Dahomey.
In 1685, French King Louis XIV enacted the Code Noir, which accorded certain human rights to slaves and responsibilities to the master, who was obliged to feed, clothe, and provide for the general well-being of their slaves. The code noir also sanctioned corporal punishment, allowing masters to employ brutal methods to instill in their slaves the necessary docility, while ignoring provisions intended to regulate the administration of punishments. Thousands of slaves fled to freedom, forming maroon communities and raiding isolated plantations.
Saint-Domingue also had the largest and wealthiest free population of color in the Caribbean, numbering 25,000 in 1789. First-generation people of color (gens de couleur) were offspring of a French male slaveowner and an African slave female concubine. In the French colonies, the semi-official institution of “plaçage” defined this practice. By this system, the children were free and could inherit property, thus originating a class of Mulattos. As mulatto numbers grew, the French enacted discriminatory laws preventing them from taking up certain professions, marrying whites, wearing European clothing, or carrying swords in public. Nevertheless by 1789, mulattos owned one-third of the plantation property and one-quarter of the slaves in Saint-Domingue.
The 1789 French Revolution caused French colonials to adjust new laws applied to Saint-Domingue. Ten days before the fall of the Bastille, in July 1789, the French National Assembly had voted to seat six delegates from Saint-Domingue. In Paris, a group of wealthy mulattos led by Julien Raimond and Vincent Ogé, unsuccessfully petitioned the white planter delegates to support mulatto claims for full civil rights.
In March 1790, the National Assembly granted full civic rights to the gens de couleur. Vincent Ogé traveled to Saint Domingue to secure implementation of this decree, landing near Cap-Français (now called Cap-Haïtien near Labadee) in October 1790 and petitioning the governor, the Comte de Peynier. After the governor refused his demands, civil war erupted. Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavennes, a veteran of the Siege of Savannah during the American Revolution, attempted to attack Cap-Français. However, the mulatto rebels refused to arm or free their slaves, Hence, their attack by Oge and Chavennes was defeated by white militia and mulattos (including Henri Christophe). Afterwards, they fled east to the Spanish-controlled part of Hispianola. They were captured however, returned to the French authorities, where Ogé and Chavennes were executed in February 1791.
In August 1791, slaves in the northern region staged a revolt that began the Haitian Revolution. Within hours, northern plantations were in flames and rebellion spread throughout the colony. In 1792, the French sent a general to re-establish control of Saint-Domingue and enforce the civil rights recently granted to free people of color by the National Convention of France.
In January 1793, the Spanish Crown sent its forces in Santo Domingo into battle on the side of the slaves. In August 1793, that forced French-owned Saint-Domingue to proclaim freedom of slaves throughout the colony.
On 4 February 1794, Robespierre officially abolished slavery in France and its colonies. White colonists continued the fight to continue slavery, with assistance from the British. They were joined by many free men of color who opposed the abolition of slavery — because they too owned slaves. It was not until word of France’s ratification of emancipation arrived back in the colony that Toussaint Louverture and his army came over to the French Republican side in May 1794.
In 1795, Spain ceded Santo Domingo to France and Spanish attacks on Saint-Domingue ceased.
In 1798, the British were forced to withdraw from Saint-Domingue. Mulatto general Rigaud had set up separatist movement in the south and Pétion had joined him. With the British out, Toussaint swung into action against them. Heavily armed American ships bombarded mulatto fortifications and destroyed Rigaud’s transport barges.
By 1801, Toussaint controlled all of Hispaniola and proclaimed the abolition of slavery there. He did not, however, seek reprisals against France. Toussaint asserted so much independence that in 1802, a jealous Napoleon sent a massive invasion force to regain French control. In May 1802, Napoleon signed a law to maintain slavery in Martinique, Tobago and Saint Lucia. French General Leclerc was authorized to restore slavery in Saint-Domingue when the time was opportune. Word began to reach the colony of the French intention to restore slavery.
With 40,000 European troops, plus help from white and mulatto colonist forces commanded by Alexandre Pétion, Leclerc won several key victories. Two of Toussaint’s chief officers, Dessalines and Christophe, recognizing their untenable situation, transferred their allegiance to Leclerc. At this point, the French invited Toussaint to negotiate a settlement. It was a deception. Toussaint was seized and deported to France, where he died of pneumonia while imprisoned at Fort de Joux in 1803.
The betrayal of Toussaint and news of French actions in Martinique undermined collaboration with Dessalines, Christophe and Pétion. Convinced that the same fate lay in store for Saint-Domingue, they once again battled Leclerc. The war became a bloody struggle of attrition. The rainy season brought yellow fever and malaria, which took a heavy toll on the French invaders. By November, when Leclerc died of yellow fever, 24,000 French soldiers were dead and 8,000 were hospitalized.
Leclerc was replaced by Rochambeau, who claimed France must re-declare the negroes to be slaves and destroy at least 30,000 of them. The French burned alive, hanged, drowned and tortured black prisoners, including boiling them in cauldrons of molasses. Each act of French brutality was repaid by the Haitian rebels. After Rochambeau buried 500 Haitian prisoners alive, Dessalines responded by hanging 500 French prisoners. Rochambeau’s brutal tactics united black, mulatto, and mestizo soldiers against the French.
As the tide of the war favored the former slaves, Napoleon abandoned his dream of restoring France’s Caribbean empire. In 1803, war resumed between France and Britain. To concentrate and fund on the war in Europe, Napoleon signed the Louisiana Purchase in April 1803, selling France’s North American possessions to the United States. The Haitian army led by Dessalines, devastated Rochembeau at the Battle of Vertières on 18 November 1803. In January 1804 Dessalines, declared independence, reclaiming the indigenous Taíno name of Haiti (“Land of Mountains”) for the new nation. Most of the remaining French colonists fled to Louisiana or Cuba. The remaining French were slaughtered by Haitian military forces.
One exception was the Polish Legions that had fought in Napoleon’s army. A majority of Polish soldiers refused to fight against the Black inhabitants. For their loyalty and support for overthrowing the French, about 500 Poles acquired Haitian citizenship and many of them settled there to never return to Poland. To this day, many Polish Haitians still live in Haiti and are of mixed racial origin. Today, their descendants are living in Cazale, Fond-des-Blancs, La Vallée-de-Jacmel, La Baleine, Port-Salut and Saint-Jean-du-Sud.
France refused to recognize the newly independent country’s sovereignty until 1825, in exchange for 150 million gold francs. This fee was demanded as retribution for the lost property, was later reduced to 90 million. Haiti agreed to pay the price to lift a crippling embargo imposed by France, Britain and the United States. But to do so, the Haitian government had to take out high interest loans and could not repay the loan in full until 1947.
In September 1804, Dessalines proclaimed himself Emperor. His autocratic state was not liked by the Haitian masses. For the elite leaders of Haiti, maintaining a strong military to ward off either the French or other colonial powers and ensure independence would create a free state. The leaders of Haiti tied independence from other powers as their notion of freedom. In contrast, the Haitian peasantry tied freedom on the ability to cultivate their own land within a subsistence economy. Unfortunately, because of Dessalines’ desires, a system of coerced plantation agriculture emerged. Tensions followed. Ultimately, two of Dessalines advisers, Henri Christophe and Alexandre Pétion, helped his assassination in 1806.
After the coup d’état, Christophe created the authoritarian State of Haiti in the north, and the gens de couleur Pétion established the Republic of Haiti in the south. Christophe attempted to maintain a system of labor and agricultural production akin to the former plantations. By contrast, Pétion broke up the former colonial estates and parceled out the land into small holdings.
The eastern part of the island rose against the new powers following general Juan Sánchez Ramírez’s claims of independence from France and prohibited commerce with Haiti. In November 1808, all the remaining French forces were defeated by Spanish-creole insurrectionists. In July 1809, Santo Domingo was born. The government put itself under the control of Spain.
In 1811, Christophe proclaimed himself King Henri I in the North and commissioned several extraordinary buildings. He even created a nobility class in the fashion of European monarchies.
In Pétion’s south, the people of color minority led the government and commenced land redistribution to peasants. Due to its weak international position and labor policies, Pétion’s government was perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1815, at a key period of Bolívar’s fight for Venezuelan independence, Petion gave the Venezuelan leader asylum and provided him soldiers and material support. In 1816, Petion suspended the legislature and turned his post into President for Life. Not long after, he died of yellow fever, and his assistant, Jean-Pierre Boyer replaced him.
In 1820, Boyer reunited with Dessalines through diplomatic tactics and ruled as president. Almost two years after Boyer had consolidated power in the west, in 1821, Santo Domingo declared independence from Spain. Boyer, however, occupied the ex-Spanish colony in 1822, encountering no military resistance. From 1824 to 1826, Boyer promoted the largest single free-Black immigration from the United States in which more than 6,000 immigrants settled in different parts of the island. Today, a large number of these immigrants reside in Samaná, a peninsula on the Dominican side of the island.
By 1840, Haiti had ceased to export sugar entirely, although large amounts continued to be grown for local consumption as taffia-a raw rum. However, Haiti continued to export coffee, which required little cultivation and grew semi-wild. Boyer was overthrown in 1843. The entire island remained under Haitian rule until 1844, when in the east a nationalist group called La Trinitaria led a revolt that partitioned the island into Haiti on the west and Dominican Republic on the east, based on what would appear to be a river divide.
In 1860, the Haitian government reached an agreement with the Vatican, reintroducing official Roman Catholic institutions to the nation. Michel Domingue’s government peacefully transferred power to Lysius Salomon. Monetary reform and a cultural renaissance ensued with a flowering of Haitian art culture. Haitian intellectuals, led by Louis-Joseph Janvier and Anténor Firmin, also emerged during this period.
After more than century of leaders who started out well, then became dictators with negative impacts on Haiti, fast forward to 2006 when President Aristide was overthrown. Elections were held in February 2006 and won by René Préval.
On 12 January 2010, Haiti suffered a devastating 7.0 earthquake that killed 50,000 to 220,000 people. The capital, Port-au-Prince, was leveled. A million Haitians were left homeless. Many survivors were treated for injuries in emergency makeshift hospitals, but many more died of gangrene, malnutrition, and infectious diseases.
In April 2011, Michel Martelly, a former musician and businessman, was elected president. Under his administration, the majority of those left homeless following the quake were given new housing. He offered free education programs to Haitian youth and an income program for Haitian mothers and students. The administration launched a massive reconstruction program to modernize government buildings, public places, and parks. Michel Martelly put emphasis on foreign investment and business with his slogan “Haiti is Open for Business”. Perhaps one of the more major contributions made for the revitalization of the Haitian economy was their push for tourists.
In February 2016, Michel Martelly stepped down at the end of his term without a successor in place. Following Hurricane Mathew in summer 2016, Martelly’s appointed successor, Jovenel Moise, was elected president.