The Haiti Project - History of Haiti
A tiny tropical island sits in the Caribbean, decorated with
palm trees and colorful hibiscus flowers. Its mountains stand
majestically looking down upon sandy beaches and green valleys.
From afar it appears as any other island one might encounter sailing
the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Yet, as we draw closer
we notice a difference. There are no tourist resorts dotting the
coasts, no high rise hotels with sand volleyball courts and marimba
bands. This is Haiti, this is different. If the land could speak
it would tell of tragedy and violence, of abuse and bloodshed,
of power and greed. Why does the country stand apart from its
neighbors? The answer lies in the turbulent history of this tiny
The Early Years
Christopher Columbus landed on the tiny island he called, "La
isla espanola" in December 1492 (The name was later shortened
to Hispanola). The island was inhabited by local Arawak Indians
who referred to their home as "Hayti", or mountainous
land. In keeping with imperialistic ideology, the Spaniards used
and abused the native Arawaks to the point of near extinction.
It's location and lush soil made Haiti a treasure constantly
sought after by Britain, France and Spain. Finally, by the middle
of the 17th century the island became a French colony.
Under French rule Haiti flourished. Haitian products were in
great demand in the European market and the tiny island became
invaluable as a resource for cocoa, cotton, sugar cane and coffee.
Unfortunately, the great demands for these products also created
a demand for inexpensive labor. The French, as the Spanish before
them looked to Africa as a solution to the labor problem. They
imported slaves from the west coast of Africa.
By 1780, Haiti was one of the wealthiest regions in the world.
France relied heavily on the slave trade to maintain its economic
base. This created a number of problems that would later affect
the future of Haiti. First, the slaves brought with them the religious
practices of voodoo which for them was more a lifestyle than a
religion. Second, the French treated the slaves with undue harshness
creating hatred amid an already resentful environment. Third,
a class of mulattos arose from the relations of the slave owners
and the slaves. There arose a class system, still present today,
with a minority of light skinned, sophisticated, Catholic, French-speaking
Haitians at odds with dark-skinned, voodoo worshipping, Creole-speaking
In 1791, a successful slave revolt was initiated against the
French. The Haitian slaves ousted Napoleon, and by 1804, the island
becomes the first black independent nation, with General Dessalines
declaring himself emperor. With power comes abuse and the abuses
of Dessalines led to his assassination. He was followed by Henri
Christophe, an illiterate ex-slave who ruled in the north and
Alexandre Petion, a mulatto who ruled in the south. When Christophe
died the north and south united. In 1844, the island split into
two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The tiny country
of Haiti was in a state of anarchy, poverty was rampant and there
was no one with the support or ability to rule and govern fairly.
The class system was ever present with the wealthy at one extreme
and the poor at the other.