- So, today, Haiti is, as everyone is contractually obligated to point out when talking about Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They got there through a mix of the world screwing them over a lot, their own political and economic mistakes, and then environmental catastrophes caused both by God and their own hands. But they will never not be the country that was born from the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world, that they had been created by a group of men and women who would not be slaves anymore, who beat back every major world power who tried to come in and tell them how it was going to be. The history of Haiti is not pretty, and Haiti is not in great shape right now. But, I'm proud to know them, proud to know their history and proud to have shared it here with you over the course of this series, and I hope that from now on whenever you encounter news about Haiti, you feel a better connection to the country, and understand them a little better, because they deserve to be more to us than just "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." They were once the Avengers of the New World.
The Republic of Haiti (French: République d'Haïti, Haitian Creole: Repiblik Ayiti) occupies a little more than a third of the island of Hispaniola (now there's a famous name), with the Dominican Republic taking the remainder. It is the most populous state in The Caribbean, and, alongside Canada, one of the only two officially Francophone countries in the Americas.
Hispaniola was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus on December 25th, 1492 when he accidentally crashed his flagship into it (everyone on board had a bit too much to drink at the Christmas feast). The island was originally inhabited by Taíno Indians, which were promptly wiped out by smallpox and the Spanish colonizersnote . In 1697, Hispaniola was bisected to form the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) and the Spanish Santo Domingo (present day Dominican Republic) by the Treaty of Ryswick. France would later take over the entire island de jure in 1795, though by the time the last Spanish had left, Haiti was already independent in fact if not yet name.
The country was originally colonized by literal Buccaneers (so named because they used to sell beef jerkynote made on wooden racks called bucannes before realizing that piracy paid better). But as ship raids grew more difficult to pull off, most of these scallywags settled down to become plantation owners, mainly growing sugarcane and coffee (via slave labor). The business rapidly became incredibly profitable, and the colony dealt with this by importing hundreds of thousands of African slaves to increase production. By the 1780s, Saint-Domingue—what the French called the territory—was supplying something like three quarters of the world's supply of sugar and coffee, which France could sell at high margins to make Saint-Domingue the single most profitable European colony by a country mile. (Yes, even more profitable than India.)
The cost of this was a mind-bogglingly brutal form of slavery, the like of which has not been seen anywhere before or since. It was said that half of the slaves sent to work in the fields died within five years.note Some of this was the harsh discipline on the plantations; some of it was the combination of long hours and maltreatment; and some of it—possibly most of it—was what we today would call industrial accidents caused by the owners' complete disregard to safety in the interest of profit and speed, especially on sugar plantations (which used a lot of heavy machinery to extract the sugar, and which extraction process frequently involved situations where a slave could be exposed to massive industrial juice presses and large amounts of sticky, hot molten sugar.)
However, Haiti soon came to be dominated by a mixed race upper class in addition to the extremely small white upper class known as Grands Blancs. The Petits Blancs (Small Whites) who mostly owned no slaves and worked in mid to low-level jobs resented the fact that the free coloreds were often economically better off and insisted on increasingly racist laws, which in turn arose the ire of the free coloreds.
This all changed in 1791, inspired by the egalitarian sentiments of the French Revolution, and the fact that they outnumbered the whites 10-to-1, the slaves (aided by black freemen and mixed-race mulattos plus a shamefully small smattering of high-minded whites) revolted. Despite the heavy resistance (the slavemasters had been preparing for such revolt all their lives), the rebellion, led by the self-taught military genius Toussaint Louverture* , quickly swept over the entire island, forcing the French Commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax to emancipate all of the slaves in 1794.
Despite this, Louverture was actually quite proud to be French and would have been content leaving Haiti an internally autonomous French colony. "Papa Toussaint" drafted a constitution for Saint-Domingue that first and foremost declared the island's loyalty to France. It then proceeded to outline the "Louverturian state", a system of what amounted to enlightened absolutism, with all power given to the Governor-General—Toussaint himself—and managed by the one functioning institution in the region—the army. But the system Toussaint envisioned was also rigorously legalistic, defined by strict codes that applied to everyone (except the Governor-General, of course) and enforced the legal equality of the races. However, "cultivators"—that is, the old plantation field slaves—were still required to work on the plantation, as for all that Toussaint—himself a Black ex-slave—truly believed in equality of the races, he could not see any viable economic model for the colony other than plantation agriculture selling cash crops to the world.
Toussaint hoped this would be enough to keep the French metropole from interfering further in the island's affairs. After all, "rigorously legalistic enlightened absolutism" is a fair description of the state Napoléon Bonaparte was building for himself back in France. However, Napoleon attempted to reintroduce slavery and sent over an army to enforce the edict. Yellow fever and the seasoned Haitian army made short work of the French and Haiti became independent in 1804, the first state in recorded history to undergo a successful slave revolution and the second state in the Americas to achieve independence after the United States.note However, Louverture—who, interestingly, never once declared formal independence during his time as leader of the country—was captured by French using the False Reassurance of a parley, and died in a French jail in 1803.
Louverture was succeeded by the radical Black supremacist Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who massacred most White Haitians remaining in Haiti in revenge, and styled himself after his old enemy Napoleon by declaring himself Emperor of Haiti, as the country became more autocratic. Dessalines was quickly assassinated, and the country was divided in two. General Henri Christophe established State of Haiti (later Kingdom of Haiti) to the north, which was if nothing else an attempt to revive old Papa Toussaint's vision of an enlightened autocracy ruling over a plantation economy in the context of racial equality (without the Whites Dessalines had killed). In the south, the Colored leader Alexandre Pétion established the Republic of Haiti; this was originally a genuine attempt to establish a constitutional regime (albeit one with relatively minimal popular participation), but Pétion gradually assumed more and more power in himself.note However, for a variety of reasons, Pétion abandoned the plantation-centered model and allowed Haitians of all (well, both) races to establish smaller, self-owned farms. This meant that the economy basically stopped producing sugar (the single most lucrative crop of pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue), but oh well, at least the people were quiet.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Empire defeated the remaining French and recolonized eastern Hispaniola. However, the two Haitian states eventually reunified, and took over the eastern Spanish-speaking part of Hispaniola in 1822.
Despite losing the war, the French returned in 1825 to demand the Haitians pay an indemnity for French property losses incurred due to the war. In exchange, the French said, they'd recognize Haitian independence. The Haitian president of the day, Jean-Pierre Boyer (an old lieutenant of Pétion), agonized over this decision for weeks, knowing that the amount they were asking (the figure amounted to 100 million francs, or $21 billion today) was (1) exorbitant and (2) insulting, as the amount demanded clearly included "compensation" for the lost value of slaves, and was thus asking the Haitians to "buy" with cash the freedom they had won with their blood, sweat, and tears. But recognition by France was potentially the key to economic success, since if France recognized Haiti, so would the rest of the world. Also, the French had a navy and Haiti really did not, and it seemed like the French would have no qualms using that navy against Haiti should Boyer turn down their offer.
In the end, Boyer swallowed his pride and accepted the deal. France did indeed recognize Haitian independence, and the rest of Europenote followed suit. But alas for Haiti, recognition did not bring prosperity. Haiti was forced to take out gigantic high-interest loans from French banks to pay the indemnity. While Haiti managed to pay off the French government in the mid-19th century, they didn't fully pay back the banks until 1947.
Meanwhile, Boyer's regime was facing trouble in the Spanish-speaking of the eastern part of the island due to their incompetent rule. They fought against Haitian rule and won their independence as the Dominican Republic in 1844. The new Dominican Republic, beset by economic troubles, in turn asked to be re-colonized by the Spanish (the only place ever to be colonized three times by the same European power), but the move was highly unpopular, and this time Haiti actually lent aid to the Dominican independence movement they once fought against. The Spanish were force to withdraw in 1865, the year in which the American Civil War ended and thus any hope of going against the Monroe Doctrine unchallenged.
Since then the country has undergone a succession of coups, repeated occupation by the USA, the rule of the father-and-son despots known as "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier (the latter rising to power at 19), followed by what can only be called anarchy. Things were finally settling down politically, just in time for a horrific earthquake to hit in the January of 2010, and the country has yet to fully recover from the loss of infrastructure. In July of 2021, president Jovenel Moïse was killed by assassins and found with a gouged eye and 12 bullet wounds inside his home.
The parents of former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime left for The United States after their own parents (i.e. Reggie's grandparents, on both sides of the family) started having harsh political disputes among each other.
In fiction: Haiti is mostly known for voodoo (despite being 95% Christian), specifically the Hollywood portrayal of it. While Vodou is a part of Haitian tradition (even among Christians, Vodou practitioners are often seen as having supernatural powers), the perception of the faith situation in Haiti is almost certainly due to the influence of the Duvalier family; Papa Doc used the religion as a weapon of terror against the populace.
- Quantum of Solace
- Saint-Monique in Live and Let Die is a No Celebrities Were Harmed Hollywood Atlas depiction.
- The Serpent and the Rainbow
- Danny Glover's pet project is a biopic of Toussaint Louverture (the leader of the aforementioned slave revolt). He's had a hard time getting funding, primarily (it is said) because the film would have no or virtually no white people.
- Island Beneath The Sea takes place against the backdrop of the Haitian revolution.
- Arcade Fire's song "Haiti" (from Funeral) is about the days of Duvalier. Frontwoman Régine Chassagne is the daughter of white Haitian emigrants to Quebec; her parents lost several relatives in the Jérémie Vespers and other Duvalier-era mass-murders.
- Alexandre Dumas père was of Haitian descent through his father, Napoleonic general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.
- Santana's self-titled 1971 album had a track titled "Toussaint L'Overture" (sic). However, Louverture's name isn't in the lyrics, which are all in Spanish.
- Steely Dan's "Haitian Divorce" references a long-forgotten practice of New Yorkers going to Haiti to get a divorce (NY divorce law is typically about two steps behind everyone else, not getting non-consensual no-fault divorce until 2010—most other jurisdictions had had it since the 70s or 80s). The woman in the song also has a fling with a hot Haitian guy while in the country to her papers, leading to a particularly obvious child.
- Season 4 of Revolutions by Mike Duncan deals with the Haitian Revolution. Duncan is particularly hard on slavery and all its supporters. He also has some choice words for Dessalines' massacre of the remaining whites in 1804—which he noted, in the apocryphal words of Talleyrand, "was worse than a crime, it was a mistake" (in Duncan's analysis, Dessalines's genocide both made it impossible for Haiti to win recognition of its independence abroad and sowed the seeds of his own eventual assassination at home). Still, he came out with a deep, deep respect for Haiti, its history, and its people, as did most of his listeners, as reflected by his parting words on the season (now the page quote).
The Haitian flag
The Haitian national anthem
- Unitary semi-presidential republic
- President and Prime Minister: Ariel Henry (acting)
- President of the Senate: Joseph Lambert
- President of the Chamber of Deputies: Gary Bodeau
- Capital and largest city: Port-au-Prince
- Population: 11,439,646
- Area: 27,750 km² (10,710 sq mi) (143rd)
- Currency: Haitian gourde (G) (HTG)
- ISO-3166-1 Code: HT
- Country calling code: 509
- Highest point: Pic la Selle (2680 m/8,793 ft) (83rd)
- Lowest point: Caribbean Sea (7,686 m/25,217 ft) (-)