Learn from the Past

History of Haiti

The written history of Haiti began on December 5, 1492


The written history of Haiti began on December 5, 1492. Columbus arrived there on his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere and his 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 ship to erect the first European settlement in the New World, Fort Navidad. 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 eventually took illegal control of the western third of Hispaniola and later, a peace agreement officially awarded this territory to the French crown. 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 slaves to replace a decimated Taino population.


Under the leadership of a slave named Boukman, the slaves rose up and attacked the French colonizers. The blacks went through a succession of leading men, with Toussaint Louverture eventually 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, however, the former slaves were eventually victorious. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint’s general, led the former slaves to victory. The name Haiti was then taken from the Taino Indian language because the slaves desired a name that predated their colonizers.

2010 - 2021


approximate number of deaths in 2010 earthquake

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti some 15 miles south of the capital, Port-au-Prince.  The city, already beset by a strained and inadequate infrastructure and still recovering from two tropical storms two hurricanes of August–September 2008, was ill-equipped to deal with such a disaster. Other affected areas of the country—faced with comparable weaknesses—were similarly unprepared. The death toll estimates were as high as 300,000.

In 2021, President Jovenel Moise was assassinated, and plunged the country, already suffering from rising violence and an economic crisis, into further turmoil. The Prime Minister, Ariel Henri, took on the role of acting president.

Country in Turmoil

The question is often asked why this once wealthy colony is now a country with such serious economic struggles. When the slaves first revolted, they not only brutally murdered French colonizers, but they also destroyed French properties, 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. Subsequent parceling of the land among military officers resulted in 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.

Haiti’s continued turmoil also came from 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.  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. 


Today, Haiti is facing one of the hardest times in recent decades. Gang violence, a lack of elected officials, and a cholera outbreak have all contributed to its dire situation. These factors and others have all contributed to Haiti’s struggle to care for itself and its people. 

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