Haiti occupies the western side of Hispaniola, an island it shares with the Dominican Republic. Located in the Caribbean, Haiti has a tropical climate. It is a rough and mountainous country about the size of Maryland. When the island of Hispaniola was ‘discovered’ by Columbus in 1492, it was already home to a native population called the Tainos. While the Tainos were originally welcoming, the intolerance and abuse of the settlers caused them to react violently. As the island was colonized, they were forced into slave labor and were overcome by disease and conflict. Although there were hundreds of thousands of Tainos in 1492, in less than sixty years their population had been reduced to only 150. Shortly thereafter they were wiped out completely.


Hispaniola was a disappointment at first because of its lack of gold but soon became an integral point in the trade route as gold was discovered in other areas of the New World. The Spanish controlled the island, called Santo Domingo at the time. The western side of island was more often known as St. Domingue because the French had established a settlement on the Ile de la Tortue and were expanding to the northwestern corner of the Spanish colony. There they built the city now known as Cap-Haitian. In 1697 Spain granted sovereignty of St. Domingue to France in the Treaty of Ryswick. Over time, this small French colony grew prosperous, producing 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of sugar imported in France and Great Britain. The unfortunate backbone of this trade was slavery. At the peak, there were over half a million African slaves working on the plantations. Almost all of them were African-born because the plantation owners were so cruel that few lived long enough to reproduce (except as concubines to their white owners).


Life on the plantations was especially brutal, and in 1804 Haiti became the first free-black republic as the people not only declared their independence from France, but overthrew their plantation owners as well. The rebellion was started by Toussaint Louverture, one of the few slaves who had a liberal master and was therefore literate. As the slave rebellions began, Louverture first made sure his master’s family was safely evacuated, and then he joined the rebellion. At this time, France, Great Britain, and Spain were all vying for control of this valuable colony. Because his primary goal was emancipation of slavery, Louverture joined forces with France. Out of gratitude for his help, General Etienne-Maynard Laveaux appointed Louverture Lieutenant Governor of Saint-Domingue. With help from the US, he held control of the whole island by 1800. In 1802, during a break in the wars with other European countries, Napoleon turned his eye once again to St. Domingue. Unhappy with its autonomy, Napoleon attacked and after devastating losses, Louverture followed his two generals (Christophe and Dessalines) in surrender. Just over a year later, France’s war with Britain resumed and Napoleon’s focus returned to Europe. The French general Donatien Rochambeau never received the supplies he was promised, so was forced to flee Haiti. On January 1, 1804, Haiti became the first independent black-led republic in the world and the first independent nation in Latin America.

Haitian Government

Dessalines became the first dictator to govern this new country called Haiti (from the Taino name Ayti, meaning mountainous). The land had been ravaged by years of war, and commerce was virtually at a standstill. Unlike Louverture, Dessalines was a field slave who wanted to exact revenge on his oppressors. Whites were massacred indiscriminately, and life for the blacks changed little. Lacking another viable plan, Dessalines maintained the plantation system to continue the economy. Instead of slaves he had forced labor with brutal penalties for runaways and those that harbored them. He also conflicted with the gens de couleur (mulattos) like his fellow-officer Petion who enjoyed a middle-class status between black slaves and the white elite. His regime was fraught with corruption, and being a general he ran the country with military-like harshness. In October of 1806, he was assassinated on his way to stifle a mulatto rebellion.

The next month, Henri Christophe was elected president, with Alexandre Petion as the head of the legislature. Because they drafted a constitution with a weak presidency and strong legislature, Christophe was essentially a black figurehead for the ruling mulatto elite. Outraged, he marched on Port-au-Prince, but was unsuccessful in overthrowing his opposition. He retreated to the north and declared himself King Henri I, settling at Cap-Haitian to rule what would now be the kingdom of the north. Christophe was a strict ruler and maintained the plantation system. Although the laborers were bound to the plantation, the workload was more humane and all laborers received a portion of the profits.

In the south, Petion took the opposite approach. He distributed land in small pieces making it affordable to virtually everyone. While this was good for morale, it was considerably less productive for the country as a whole. Sugar production and export ended and while they still grew coffee it was not enough for significant exports. Petion died in 1818 and was succeeded by his secretary, General Jean-Pierre Boyer. In 1820, Christophe suffered a debilitating stroke and soon after committed suicide allowing Boyer to unite north and south into one nation once more.

Although there was relative calm under Boyer’s presidency, the greater part of the nineteenth century was a time of instability. Between 1843 and 1915 there were twenty-two heads of state, but only one served his full term. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the US had turned a watchful eye toward Haiti. There were relatively few Germans in Haiti, but they controlled about 80% of the economy and often used their military power to exact what they wanted from the Haitian government. This concerned the US greatly, but what pushed President Wilson to intervene was the news that Germany was planning on setting up a station for their Navy in Môle Saint-Nicolas. When a political uprising led a mob to attack and dismember a former Haitian president, the US waited no longer. From 1915 to 1934, the US had control of the Haitian government. Many aspects were positive, like improved infrastructure and healthcare. However, the Marines that occupied the island had strong racial-prejudices against all Haitians regardless of class. After a number of disturbances, a treaty was written and President Roosevelt withdrew all US troops in August of 1934. From 1934 until 1957 Haiti had seven different leaders, and it was a period marked by military involvement. Most of these presidents manipulated the constitution to prolong their term in office, embezzled money from the government, or both. Often the Garde, later renamed the Haitian Army, would exert control either for or against the president, and they sometimes took over in the interim between presidents.

The election of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1957 marked a turning point in the presidency. A doctor who practiced vodou, Duvalier had much support from the common people. He had been a part of the Estime administration and saw the inordinate power of the military. Duvalier determined not to allow such a powerful military to threaten his position, so he created an alternate force called the tonton makouts. This group acted as a secret police force for his regime, cruelly retaliating against anyone with anti-Duvalier sentiments. During his time in power, roughly 30,000 Haitians were killed for political reasons. Because he ruled with terror, he was able to maintain order and the country was relatively stable during Duvalier’s presidency. When he died in 1971, he named his son as his successor.

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was only nineteen when he took office and showed little interest in his role as head of state. His primary interest was to continue and increase the embezzlement that began with his father, and he left the governance of Haiti to his mother and a group of his father’s advisors. He was milder than his father, so the public opinion of him was higher. However as married into the mulatto elite and increased his extravagant spending, his popularity declined. Because he refused to leave office at the request of President Ronald Regan, the country lost a significant amount of aid from the US. In spite of his earlier refusal, Duvalier was eventually forced to leave office in 1986.

In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, was elected to the Haitian presidency. His popularity was high, but took a sharp decline in 1991 when he gave a graphic speech encouraging his supporters to kill all the opposition. Days afterward, he was exiled and did not return until 1994 (with the help of the US). He finished his original 5-year term in 1996. His former Prime Minister, Rene Preval was elected president for the next 5-year term. In 2000, Aristide was reelected, but faced much opposition and violence followed. There was a violent rebellion in 2004, and the UN was brought in to keep the peace. Since then, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) has been a strong presence in the country. In 2006, Rene Preval was again elected to the presidency, and he remains in office today.


The past few years have been a time of relative peace—each year there have been fewer kidnappings and just this fall the minimum wage was increased. The country was relieved to see the 2009 hurricane season pass without incident. All that changed on January 12, 2010. At 4:53 p.m. a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the country to its core, killing over 230,000 and injuring countless more. About two million people lived in the zone considered “heavy to moderate structural damage”. One reason that it was so devastating is the proximity of the epicenter to the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The lack of adherence to building codes while constructing massive concrete structures has proved devastating. To compound this problem, emergency services are unreliable at the best of times, and many emergency response/medical professionals were injured or killed in the quake.