Haiti was inhabited by the Taino Indians when Christopher Columbus landed at the St Nicolas breakwater on 5 December 1492; see The Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Columbus named the island Hispaniola. The Taino were a branch of the Arawak Indians, a peaceful tribe that was weakened by the frequent violent invasions of the Carib Indians, who were said to be cannibals. Later, Spanish settlers brought smallpox and other European diseases to which the Taino had no immunity. In a short time, the indigenous Taino were virtually wiped out. Today, there are no recognisable traces of Taino blood in Haiti. Today’s inhabitants have exclusively African and/or European roots.
In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola, and in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of the island to France. With the development of sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Santo Domingo flourished and became one of the richest in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were brought to Haiti to work on these French plantations. Working conditions for slaves in Haiti were the harshest imaginable, as the sugar and coffee plantations were labour intensive. The French imported huge numbers of slave labourers who eventually outnumbered the French planters ten to one. Even within the minority of free people in the colony there were great differences, between the “petit blancs” who did not own slaves and worked in trade or as overseers, the “grands blancs” who owned slaves and plantations, and the “libres de couleur” who were descendants of slaves and whites and occupied every stratum of free society, from wealthy landowners to poor day labourers. The whites, most of whom were born outside the island and came to Santo Domingo only to make their fortune, established a racist caste system aimed at depriving the “libres de couleur” of the relatively powerful position they had held until the mid-18th century. However, all these inherent tensions (and the overarching tension of slavery) came to a head when the French Revolution broke out in the metropolis in 1789 and all the talk of “freedom” and “equality” led everyone – including the great whites – to want to overthrow the colonial order that had been in place until then, leading to a slave revolt and the collapse of the entire society based on slavery and plantations.
In August 1791, the approximately 500,000 slaves of Santo Domingo revolted, burning down all the plantations and killing every white person they could find. After a bloody 13-year struggle, influenced alternately by the Napoleonic Wars and the American War of 1812, the former slaves drove out the French and founded Haiti, the first black republic, in 1804. Since its revolution, Haiti has experienced at least 32 coups, a series of military rule aimed at maintaining power and extracting wealth from a large peasant base. Lack of government and civil unrest led to the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
Although order was restored and much infrastructure was built in Haiti by the United States, Haitians did not appreciate the occupation of their country. The withdrawal of the Americans by President Roosevelt in 1934 left a power vacuum that was filled by the Haitian military elite. The Forbes Commission aptly noted in 1930 that “the social forces that created [the instability] remain – poverty, ignorance, and the absence of tradition or desire for free and orderly government.”
The next 20 years were marked by ruthless power struggles that ended with the rise of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship lasted almost thirty years. His son, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, took power after Papa Doc’s death in 1971. Baby Doc was ousted in 1986, followed by further bloodshed and military rule that led to a new constitution in 1987 and the election of former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990.
After a coup, Aristide went into exile. Most of his term was usurped by a military takeover, but he returned to power in 1994 after Haitian General Raoul Cedras asked the United States to intervene, negotiating the withdrawal of the military from Haiti and paving the way for Aristide’s return. His former prime minister, René Préval, became president in 1996. Aristide won a second term as president in 2000 and took office in early 2001. However, allegations of corruption were followed by a paramilitary coup that toppled Aristide in 2004. Since then, Haiti has been occupied by UN peacekeeping forces (MINUSTAH).