Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492, greeted by a friendly population of Taino/Arawak people. The Spanish exploited these people first in search of gold and later to grow crops for the conquistadors. The Taino/Arawak died out from overwork and European diseases. From 1508, African slaves were imported; sugar, tobacco, and coffee replaced food crops. As other settlements flourished, the Spanish abandoned the western third of the island which was eventually occupied by French pirates converting to farming. That segment of the island was officially ceded to France in 1692. The rest of the island remained in Spanish hands, today the Dominican Replublic.
For the following 100 years, San Domingue (Haïti) and its plantations grew prosperous providing valuable goods to France. While the colony became one of the richest in the history of Colonialism, the French slave system was particularly brutal. At the same time, the ratio of slave to free population grew to 10 - 1. There was also a class of free people of color who were allowed to own property.
The winds of the French Revolution (1789) blew into Haïti infecting the free people and breathing ideas of freedom into the slave population. The first uprising came in 1791; this would become a full-fledged revolution which even Napoleon’s expeditionary force was unable to quell.
On January 1, 1804, the republic of Haïti was proclaimed, an all-black and mulatto nation.
How did this early victory of a predominantly slave population over its colonizers evolve? Many obstacles prevented Haïti’s growth into a healthy industrialized democratic nation.
In the early days of independence, the leaders attempted to continue a plantation-based economy. This was productive but a form of serfdom replaced slavery a system un acceptable to the Haïtian people.
During the next phase, two Haïtis developed. The property-owning governing elite was concentrated in the cities and larger towns. The vast majority of the population lived in the rural areas, farming small plots from former plantations and trading with the urban elite. This solidified an economic divide.
A major factor in Haïti’s struggle as a nation was the refusal of white nations to recognize Haïtian independence and engage in trade relations. The slave-owning nations were terrified that a successful revolution in Haïti would catch on and spread to their slave-dependent economic structure.
France refused recognition until recompense for property lost during the revolution was paid. The white nations of Europe and the US boycotted trade with Haïti reinforcing the economic divide and impeding the growth of a working democracy.The government of Haïti was made up of a small class of elite. A faction would sponsor a president and a government which allowed this faction to pillage the Haïtian treasury. Some years later, another faction, funded by foreign capital (often German) would raise an army and drive out the sitting government. This new faction would in turn drain the wealth in the Haïtian treasury.
The US, disturbed by the presence of foreign capital and wanting full control of the Caribbean, occupied Haïti in June 1915 until 1934. From 1915, until the present, the US has had a major influence in the affairs of Haïti.
A cultural movement in the 1930s, “noirism”, shifted the attention of intellectuals from French, European models to a greater appreciation of blackness and the African roots of common Haïtians. It was this ideological wave that François Duvalier (Papa Doc) pledged to bring to fruition before getting caught up in the dictatorship of the Duvalier dynasty.