The recorded written history of Haiti began on 5 December 1492 when the European navigator Christopher Columbus happened upon a large island in the region of the western Atlantic Ocean that later came to be known as the Caribbean. It was inhabited by the Taíno, and Arawakan people, who variously called their island Ayiti, Bohio, or Kiskeya(Quisqueya). Columbus promptly claimed the island for the Spanish Crown, naming it La Isla Española (“the Spanish Island”), later Latinized to Hispaniola. French influence began in 1625, and French control of what was called Saint-Domingue—modern-day Haiti—began in 1660. From 1697 on, the western part of the island was French and the eastern part was Spanish. Haiti became one of the wealthiest of France’s colonies, producing vast quantities of sugar and coffee and depended on a brutal slave system for the necessary labor. Inspired by the message of the French Revolution, Haitian slaves rose up in revolt in 1791 and after decades of struggle the independent republic of Haiti was officially proclaimed in 1804.
Early History Haiti has a uniquely tragic history. Natural disasters, poverty, racial discord, and political instability have plagued the small country throughout its history. Before the arrival of Europeans, Arawak (also known as Taino) and Carib Indians inhabited the island of Hispaniola. Although researchers debate the total pre-Columbian population (estimates range from 60,000 to 600,000), the detrimental impact of colonization is well documented. Disease and brutal labor practices nearly annihilated the Indian population within 50 years of Columbus’s arrival.
Spain ceded the western third of the island of Hispaniola to France in 1697. French authorities quelled the island’s buccaneer activity and focused on agricultural growth. Soon, French adventurers began to settle the colony, turning the French portion of the island, renamed Saint- Domingue, into a coffee- and sugar-producing juggernaut. By the 1780s, nearly 40 percent of all the sugar imported by Britain and France and 60 percent of the world’s coffee came from the small colony. For a brief time, Saint-Domingue annually produced more exportable wealth than all of continental North America.
As the indigenous population dwindled, African slave labor became vital to Saint-Domingue’s economic development. Slaves arrived by the tens of thousands as coffee and sugar production boomed. Under French colonial rule, nearly 800,000 slaves arrived from Africa, accounting for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. Many died from disease and the harsh conditions of the sugar and coffee plantations. Statistics show that there was a complete turnover in the slave population every 20 years. Despite these losses, by 1789 slaves outnumbered the free population four-to-one⎯452,000 slaves in a population of 520,000.