Perspectives on Haiti: Looking at the Past to Understand the Present

A historical overview of what was once the New World’s richest European colony and is now the poorest nation in the Americas
WRITER-ID | 1 April 2010

Haiti’s brown landscape contrasts sharply with the lush green forests of its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. [National Geographic]

The island of Hispaniola — occupied by Haiti on the western third and by the Dominican Republic on the other two thirds — was one of many Caribbean islands inhabited by the Taíno Indians at the time of European arrival in 1492.

Ayiti (“land of high mountains”) was the indigenous Taíno name for the mountainous western side of the island and the inspiration for the present day name for the country, Haiti. The Taíno name for the entire island was Kiskeya. Christopher Columbus called the island Hispaniola, in honor of Spain, when he first landed there.

After the arrival of Spanish settlers, diseases and massacres decimated the native population, which fell from 500,000 to only 60,000 inhabitants in less than 15 years. Within a few decades, the native population had become practically extinct, prompting the Spanish governors who had established settlements on the island to begin bringing in enslaved Africans as laborers to replace the diminished work force.


  • Population: 9,876,000 (2008)
  • National Language: French, Creole
  • Per capita income: $660/year (2008)
  • Life expectancy: 61 (2008)
  • Percent of population using improved drinking water sources: 58 percent (2008)
  • Percent of population using adequte sanitation facilities: 19 percent (2006)
  • Mortality rate for children younger than 5: 72/1,000 live births (2008)

UNICEF: The State of the World's Children Report 2009


  • 230, 000: Estimated death toll from the quake
  • 3 million: Estimated number of people affected by the quake
  • 1 million: Estimated number of displaced people
  • At least 50: Aftershocks of magnitute 4.5 or higher that have hit Haiti since the January 12 quake
  • 300, 000: Children younger than 2 in need of nutritional support
  • 90: Percentage of schools in Port-au-Prince that have been destroyed

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Red Cross, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. State Department, the World Food Program


As a gateway to the Caribbean, Hispaniola quickly became a haven for pirates. The western part of the island was settled by French buccaneers who succeeded in growing tobacco, a promising venture that led many to become settlers. This population did not submit to Spanish royal authority until the year 1660 and instigated a series of conflicts between Spain and France. In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick settled hostilities between the competing colonial powers, dividing the island among the two nations along the same border demarcations that remain until the present day, with France renaming its portion of the island Saint-Domingue.

At the time, half the world’s production of coffee and sugar came from Saint-Domingue, along with tobacco, cotton, indigo and other products processed in France and re-exported to the rest of Europe, making it the richest colony in the New World. Many French colonists soon arrived and established plantations in Saint- Domingue, lured by the hopes of high profits. From 1713 to 1787, approximately 30,000 French colonists emigrated to the western part of the island, with exports from the area soon accounting for two-thirds of France’s external trade.

The thriving commodity market desperately needed a large work force, rapidly establishing Saint-Domingue as the largest single market for the European slave trade. Under the mantle of the slave system, and taking advantage of a highly productive colony, France extracted all it could.

<h2>TWO OFFICIAL LANGUAGES</h2> <p>During French rule, children of mixed race, usually born of unions between African women and European men, were called mulâtres, whereas the term creole was used to describe a mixture of European, Amerindian and African ancestry, regardless of skin color. This blending of races also produced the language known today as Creole, which is a mixture of various languages and dialects. </p> <p>Despite having common cultural links with its Hispano-Caribbean neighbors, Haiti remained predominantly francophone. Today it is the only independent French-speaking nation in the Caribbean employing both French and Creole as o#cial languages. </p><div class="image-container redactor-caption ghai caption-float-right"> <img class="img-responsive" src=""> <span class="image-caption ">An illustration depicts Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the revolt against French rule in Haiti. [Getty Images]</span> </div> <p>The French Revolution of 1789 led to the emancipation of slaves in all French colonies two years later. The news spread quickly in Saint-Domingue, sparking a rebellion. Sugar mills were destroyed and hundreds of owners were killed. About 80 percent of the slave population was freed. Saint-Domingue won its definitive independence on January 1, 1804, with the newly founded country adopting the name Haiti in honor of the native Taíno population. It was the second independent republic in the Americas, after the United States. </p> <h2>A NEW BEGINNING</h2> <p>Independence looked like a brilliant new beginning, but the dream of a brighter future was short-lived. Colonial powers were appalled by the events in Haiti, fearing the example of Haitian independence could spread to become a dangerous threat to their own possessions in the region. Boycotted by almost every nation in the world, Haiti fell into extreme economic dificulties, unable to export or import. France began to collect payments from Haiti for a controversial and extremely high debt it placed on the country to compensate the loss of slaves and property by former French land owners.</p> <p>The bitter dispute only ended in 1838, when the Haitian government agreed to pay France 150 million francs. For more than 80 years, this debt, paid numerous times over through unending interest fees, drained the Haitian economy. !e debt was only considered paid off by France in 1922.</p> <h2>ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION</h2> <p>By then, a large part of Haiti’s original vegetation and abundant natural resources had been depleted due to hundreds of years of colonial rule and mismanagement. </p> <p>The environmental destruction increased exponentially during the 20th century, as Haiti struggled to catch up with the developing world and often sacrificed long-term sustainable development in order to meet short-term economic needs. </p> <p>Deforestation is a complex process that has different origins in different parts of the world. In much of Latin America, a major cause is the clearance of land for agricultural production and grazing, particularly to meet the growing global demand for animal food. In Haiti, the driving force responsible for widespread environmental damage has been poverty, forcing Haitians to rely on wood as chips used for cooking and as their prime source of fuel, since much of the country, outside the major cities, does not have access to electricity. </p> <p>According to the U.S. Library of Congress Federal Research Division, an estimated 98 percent of Haiti’s original forest cover has been chopped down, a process that also ruined once fertile farmland and is contributing to desertification. In addition to soil erosion, deforestation has caused periodic flooding, since rainwater runs off rather than being soaked up by the roots of trees.</p> <p>But these are not the only reasons that make Haiti particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Poor construction methods, due to the prolonged lack of economic development, have claimed many lives that would have otherwise been spared. A population plagued by centuries of slavery and with few educational opportunities, never had the means to fully develop a construction design and standard that could withstand earthquakes. </p> <p>As architect Robin Cross told CNN in a recent interview: “It isn’t generally earthquakes that kill people, it’s generally buildings that kill people.” Cross is the director of projects for Article 25, a nonprofit architectural group based in London that helped the region of Kashmir in Pakistan after a severe earthquake hit the area in 2005, killing more than 70,000 people. </p> <p>These concerns need to be addressed as the international community and the government of Haiti study the best options for the future of the country. “Haiti’s friends realize that Haiti’s true development cannot be built on aid, but must be based on investment,” Haitian President René Préval said during a recent summit meeting between Mexico and the Caribbean Community, adding that the nation needs “not rebuilding but refounding.” </p> <p>The leader of the slave-led independence movement against French rule in Haiti, Toussaint L’Ouverture — whom French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte held prisoner in a dungeon until he died from hunger and thirst in 1803 — said before he died: “In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of black liberty in Saint-Domingue. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” That spirit of resilience and independence still lives within the Haitian people.</p> <div class="clearfix"></div> </div> <div class="ccm-block-likes-this-wrapper"> <div class="ccm-block-likes-this-share"> <span>Share:</span> <ul class="list-unstyled"> <li><a href=""><i class="fa fa-facebook"></i></a></li> <li><a href=""><i class="fa fa-twitter"></i></a></li> <li><a href="mailto:?"><i class="fa fa-envelope"></i></a></li> <li><a href=""><i class="fa fa-download"></i></a></li> </ul> </div> <div class="ccm-block-likes-this-comment"> <span>Comment:</span> <a href="#" onclick="scrollToConversation(); return false;"><i class="fa fa-comment"></i></a> </div> <div class="ccm-block-likes-this-likes"> <span>Like this Story?</span> <a rel="nofollow" href="" data-action="block-like-page" class="btn-likes-this">Yes</a> <span class="ccm-block-likes-this-likes-count">85</span> </div> </div> <script type="text/javascript"> var $conversation; 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