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Haiti, History

The Arawak, the original inhabitants of the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, called the island Ayti, meaning “land of mountains.” When he arrived in 1492, Christopher Columbus named the island La Isla Espanola (Spanish for “The Spanish Island”) in honor of his Spanish sponsors. The name later evolved into the modern name Hispaniola. After an early settlement near Cap-Haitien was destroyed by Native Americans, the Spanish settled the eastern half of the island and left the west unsettled. French pirates operating from the island of Tortue hunted wild boar and other animals in Haiti to sell as food to passing ships. By 1697, when Spain formally ceded the western one-third of Hispaniola—the portion that later became Haiti—to France, the French had established a flourishing slave-plantation system throughout the colony. At the end of the next century, Saint-Domingue (the French colonial term for Haiti) was the world’s richest colony. The population at that time totaled more than 450,000 slaves, more than 25,000 free mulattoes, and about 30,000 French planters.

About 800 Haitian volunteers fought in the American Revolution (1775-1783) under French general Marquis de Lafayette and thereby gained some military experience. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, inspired the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791. This rebellion was led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, Alexandre Sabes Petion, and Jean-Pierre Boyer. By 1794 forces under Toussaint Louverture (today known as “the Precursor”) had freed the colony’s slave population and rid it of its French and British presence. By 1801 Toussaint Louverture ruled the entire colony. Although Toussaint Louverture was captured by French forces in 1802 and died a prisoner in France, the rebellion he had fostered did not die. In 1804 Dessalines declared Haiti to be the world’s first black republic. Unfortunately, most of the country’s plantation infrastructure had been destroyed and all the experienced administrators had been eliminated.

In 1806 Dessalines was assassinated, and for some years thereafter the northern part of Haiti was held by Christophe. In the southern part of the island a republic was established by Petion. Upon the death of Christophe in 1820, Boyer, the successor to Petion, began to consolidate his power throughout the island. He succeeded in unifying Hispaniola under his rule in 1822. In 1844 the eastern two-thirds of the island declared its independence as the Republic of Santo Domingo, now the Dominican Republic.

The subsequent history of Haiti was characterized by a series of bitter struggles for political ascendancy between the blacks and the mulattoes. In 1849 a black man, Faustin Elie Soulouque, proclaimed himself emperor as Faustin I, and for ten years he ruled in a despotic manner. In early 1859, the mulatto Nicholas Fabre Geffrard restored republican government; he remained in office until 1867.

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