The Republic of Haiti is located on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. The name "Haiti" is derived from the word "Ayiti," which means "land of high mountains" in the language of the Taino, its indigenous people. The country has the honor of being the first nation to establish independence in the Latin American region. It is also the first post-colonial Black-led country in the world, and the only one that achieved its nationhood through a successful slave revolt.
Spanish and French Colonization
As with most Latin American countries, Haiti's official history begins with colonization by a Western European power. The island was first settled and claimed by the Spaniards through Christopher Columbus in 1492 and named "Hispaniola." The forced labor, repression and Old World diseases that characterized most Western colonies caused a high death rate among the indigenous population of Tainos. In the meantime, coastal Spanish settlements on the island were threatened by pirate attacks from other competing European powers such as the British, Dutch and French.
In 1602, the colonists were ordered to move inland to the capital city of San Domingo, which left the northern and western coasts open to occupation by other colonizers. By 1670, France strengthened its control of the western part of the island by establishing its first permanent settlement, Cap Francois (currently Cap-Haitien). In the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, Spain officially gave up the western territory to France. The Spanish-controlled side of the island would later become the Dominican Republic, and the portion of the island controlled by the French became the Republic of Haiti.
Class and Race Hierarchies
The French colony thrived from agricultural production and export. Africans, forcibly brought to the island plantations to work as slaves, did the labor. The tremendous brutality practiced by the French brought about sporadic slave revolts. Those that were able to escape hid out in the inland mountains where a dwindling population of Tainos absorbed them. Eventually the Tainos died out and what remained was a colonial society with the French on top and the African slaves at the bottom. Between these two social levels, was the mixed-race or mulatto class--the offspring of male French colonists who took female African slaves as concubines. These gens de couleur (people of color), as they were referred to by the French colonists, were free and able to inherit property. But others of mixed race had no civil or political rights.
The French Revolution of 1789 spurred the propertied mulattos to pursue equal rights for their class, but not emancipation for the slaves. The mulattos took up arms, but were easily defeated and their leaders executed. The slaves in the northern region carried out the actual Haitian Revolution on August 22, 1791. Their leaders were Toussaint Louverture, who is considered the father of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Cristophe.
Hostilities temporarily ceased when the French National Convention ratified the abolition of slavery in all of its colonies. During this interim period, the revolutionaries were able to fend off a British invasion and practically had control of all Hispaniola, including the Spanish territory. However in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte sent a large invading force to reclaim the island and intended to re-establish slavery. Fighting resumed, but the revolutionaries were outnumbered. Dessalines and Cristophe tried to negotiate and Louverture was betrayed, captured and eventually died in a French prison.
Louverture's demise convinced the other leaders to continue the struggle. The French forces committed numerous atrocities in an attempt to subjugate the revolutionaries, but these only served to solidify the former slaves and the mulattos to unite against the colonizers. When the French started losing ground in their war with the British, their forces in Hispaniola weakened from lack of supplies, which were effectively blocked by the Royal Navy. Dessalines and the revolutionary army finally decimated the French on November 18, 1803, at the Battle of Vertieres. He declared independence on January 1, 1804, and called his new nation Haiti.
The Constitution of 1804 contained three significant provisions pertaining to social freedom: The first was the freedom of religion, which dislodged Catholicism as the central religion; the second was that all citizens of Haiti regardless of skin color were to be called "Black" in order to eradicate the race-class hierarchy; and the third was that white men would not be allowed to own any property or assets on Haiti.
LaTasha Favors has been writing professionally since 2008. She specializes in travel- and health-related topics and has published articles on various websites, including Search-costa-rica.com and MyFrenchRealEstate.com.