Haiti’s legacy is long and varied, and so much could be
shared about the trials and triumphs of this island nation. Here is just a
brief rundown of what you need to know about Haiti’s history, beginning with
colonization and ending with current day.
As early as 2,600 BC, settlers from South America arrived to
modern-day Haiti by way of handmade boats. Centuries later, around 250 BC, the
Arawak people are thought to have settled there, though records of their period
in history are quite sparse. In addition to the Arawaks, the Taíno population
eventually inhabited this area, as well, occupying Haiti for hundreds of years.
It wasn’t until 1492 that European explorers descended on
this area, with Christopher Columbus setting foot on Haiti’s beaches in
December of that year. Columbus landed at Mole Saint-Nicolas and dubbed the
island La Española, though the name was later Anglicized to Hispaniola. Today,
Hispaniola still refers to the island as a whole, though it has since been
divided into two separate nations — Haiti to the west, and the Dominican
Republic to the east.
While the Spanish initially claimed ownership over the entire
island, they mainly constructed settlements on the eastern side. The western
portion of Hispaniola was left largely empty until the 17th century, when the
French chose to settle there. In 1697, the Spanish and the French signed the
Treaty of Ryswick, wherein France was given the western third of Hispaniola.
They called their colony Saint-Domingue.
In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue (Haiti) became quite rich
by exporting sugar, coffee, cotton, indigo, and cocoa. Sadly, however, this
prosperity came at a price. Slaves were brought to work on these plantations,
suffering terrible treatment from their owners. In August of 1791 these slaves
started a rebellion, which in turn caused a war that devastated the colony.
This war raged on until 1794, when France finally decided to end slavery there.
One of the leaders in this slave rebellion was a man by the
name of Toussaint L’Overture. When the war came to a close, Toussaint joined
the French army, who were then fighting Spain against their claim to the
eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola. In 1797, Toussaint was made commander of the
French army, and by 1801 he was in control of the entire island. Not only did he
declare all slaves free, but he made himself head of the new government and
published a brand new constitution.
Displeased with Toussaint’s actions, the French used a trick
to capture him, but the fight was far from over. Another former slave,
Jean-Jacques Dessalines continued the struggle against the French, and on
January 1, 1804, the island officially gained its independence. It was renamed
Haiti, and is recognized as the second oldest independent nation in the Western
Hemisphere (after the United States). Today, Haiti still celebrates its
Independence Day on
January 1st, complete with parades, fireworks, and dancing in the streets.
Although independent, Haiti was left devastated by the
repercussions of the war. Dessalines would be assassinated in 1806, and just
three years later, the Spanish captured the eastern part of Hispaniola (now the
Dominican Republic). In 1822, President Jean-Pierre Boyer of Haiti re-claimed
this eastern portion, but the two nations separated permanently in 1844.
President Boyer would actually be overthrown in 1843 (having
served since 1818), an action which corresponded with a long period of
instability for Haiti. Between 1843 and 1911 the nation was under sixteen
different rulers, and of these, eleven were overthrown by revolutions.
The early 20th century in Haiti was largely marked by this
political instability, when in 1915, the United States commissioned Marines to
occupy the country and protect American business interests there. But because
this occupation was resented by so many Haitians, the U.S. Marines were finally
withdrawn in 1934.
Throughout the mid to late 1900s, Haiti saw quite a bit of
political turnover, with a number of different presidents taking power for
various amounts of time. It was not until 2006, when René Préval was elected
president, that some semblance of stability was hopefully going to be achieved.
But then, in January of 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck fourteen miles
west of Port-au-Prince, destroying most of the capital. The earthquake
took the lives of an estimated 217,000 people, and left more than two million
Haitians without homes.
In the nearly seven years since, Haiti has
worked rebuild what was lost, and has never given up hope for its future. They continue to look ahead to
further growth and success.