The written history of Haiti began on December 5, 1492. Although Haiti was not the site of Columbus' first landfall in the New World, he did arrive there on his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere. Columbus' journal is filled with his admiration of this small island that he named Ysla Española (later Latinized into Hispaniola), which means "Spanish island."
The voyage's flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on a reef a few miles east of modern-day Cap-Haitien, and with the help of the local Taino Indians, Columbus and his men disassembled the Santa Maria to erect the first European settlement in the New World, Fort Navidad. Although Columbus' account praises the helpfulness and honesty of the Indians who assisted the Spanish, these same Indians were enslaved during the Spanish crown's subsequent voyages and conquest. The island, as well as the entire Caribbean, was claimed for the Spanish monarchy, whose main purpose was to procure the region's gold supply.
During the 1600's, French buccaneers settled on the infamous Tortuga island. This is modern-day La Tortue, located off the northwest coast of Haiti. These buccaneers took illegal control of the western third of Hispaniola. Later, a peace agreement officially awarded this territory to the French crown and the French colony Saint-Domingue was born. Though not originally a slave colony, as agriculture became the main focus of the colony's economy, thousands of Africans were imported as a slave labor force to man the fields, as the Taino Indian population had already been decimated by the abuse of the Spanish.
By the mid-1700's, Saint-Domingue, though small in size, had become the wealthiest colony in the New World; not for its gold mines, but for its sugar cane fields. The French colony became known as "Eden of the West" and "Pearl of the Antilles," even though this enormous wealth was achieved on the backs of its African slave force. An official census in 1770 records a population of 40,000 white colonists, 28,000 free men of color and mulattoes (the colony's mixed race descendants of French fathers and black mothers), and 500,000 black slaves.
During this same period, Paris, the capital of the colony's mother country, was thrown into turmoil by the storming of the Bastille, which set off the French revolution and sent huge currents of upheaval into Saint-Domingue. Free citizens of the colony took up sides and began fighting each other, totally ignoring the slave population. However, under the leadership of a slave named Boukman, the slaves rose up and attacked the unsuspecting French. The blacks went through a succession of leading mean, with Toussaint Louverture eventually rising to the top and becoming the Revolution's most celebrated hero. Though small in stature, he had an incredibly sharp mind, knowing how to handle himself in battle, in politics, in trade, with the Europeans, with the Americans, with the freemen of color, and with many tribes of displaced Africans.
The Haitian revolution lasted twelve long years and took many twists and turns, including both Spain and England attempting to seize the colony from France. Eventually, however, the former slaves were victorious, although Toussaint did not live to see Napoleon's troops surrender and leave the island in defeat. Jean-Jacques Dessalines had been Toussaint's top general during the revolution and led the former slaves to victory and became Haiti's first executive officer. The name Haiti was then taken from the Taino Indian language because the slaves desired a name that predated French dominance of the region.
The question is often asked why this once wealthy colony is now a country with such serious economic struggles and there are many contributing factors. When the slaves first revolted in the northern plain in 1791, they not only brutally murdered any French man, woman or child they could get their hands on as retaliation for the century's worth of brutality they had suffered, the slaves also destroyed anything that symbolized the Frenchmen's property, including plantation homes, cane fields and sugar refineries. When the victorious Haitians claimed the prize of a land for themselves, it was no longer the wealthy, productive land of the colonial days, but a burnt shell of it.
Another reason for Haiti's economic struggles stems from the way land was parceled out after the Revolution. Haiti's first commander-in-chief, Dessalines, was assassinated by his own soldiers less than three years after independence was declared, and to fill his void, two warring generals took charge, splitting Haiti into two nations. One of them, Alexandre Pétion, is credited with the final blow to Haiti's lucrative plantation system, and to keep his soldiers fighting against his opponent, Henri Christophe, Pétion paid his troops with land, splitting large plantations into small family plots. The "Pearl of the Antilles" was reduced to overcrowded family farms barely capable of feeding their own inhabitants.
A final reason for Haiti's continued turmoil that came from the period of its revolution was the unwillingness of other countries to acknowledge Haiti as a sovereign nation until France did. The governments of the world viewed Haiti as a colony in revolt, not an independent country. Haiti was especially ostracized by its surrounding slave-holding nations who wanted nothing of its slave rebellion spirit spreading to their lands. Although Haiti declared its independence on January 1, 1804, France did not recognize its sovereignty until 1825, and then only conditionally, charging Haiti with crippling indemnity for France's loss of land and revenue. It wasn't until 1838 that France fully recognized Haiti as an independent nation, and other countries followed suit. However, thirty-four years of international isolation did nothing to help Haiti's economic woes.
There are many other factors which have all contributed to Haiti's struggle to care for itself and its people. Though some of these deficiencies could be reversed or improved, they have been the norm for over two centuries and won't be changed overnight.
We at Sonlight Ministries believe that many things could be done to improve Haiti's present situation, but believe that encouraging responsible, mature, Godly men and women will make the longest lasting and most permanent improvements. Thank you for supporting the work we do at Sonlight. Please contact us for ways you can get involved.