Haiti was inhabited by the native Taino Indians when Christopher Columbus landed on December 6, 1492 at Mole St Nicolas. Columbus named the island Hispaniola. The Taino were a branch of the Arawak Indians,a peaceful tribe that was weakened by frequent violent invasions by the cannibalistic Carib Indians. Later, Spanish settlers brought smallpox and other European diseases to which the Taino had no immunity. In short order, the native Taino were virtually annihilated. There is no discernible trace of Taino blood on Haiti today. The current inhabitants have exclusively African and/or European roots.
In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola and in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of the island to France. Through the development of sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Saint-Domingue flourished, becoming one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were brought to Haiti to work on these French plantations. Work conditions for slaves on Haiti were the harshest imaginable, as sugar and coffee plantations required intensive labor. The French imported an enormous slave labor force, which ultimately vastly outnumbered the French planters 10 to 1.
In August 1791, Saint-Domingue's nearly 500,000 slaves revolted, burning every plantation to the ground and killing all tthe whites that they could find. After a bloody 13 year struggle, the former slaves ousted the French and created Haiti, the first black republic, in 1804. Since its revolution, Haiti has had at least 32 coups over the centuries, a series of military dominations that focused on maintaining power and extracting wealth from a large peasant base. A lack of government and civil unrest led to the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
While order was brought about and much infrastructure was developed in Haiti by the United States, Haitians resented the occupation of their country. The withdrawal of Americans by President Roosevelt in 1934 left a power vacuum that was filled by Haitian military elite. The Forbes Commission in 1930 accurately noted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain--poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government."
The following 20 years saw ruthless struggles for power that ended with the ascension of FranÃ§ois Papa Doc Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal dictatorship lasted nearly thirty years, with his son, Jean-Claude BÃ©bÃ© Doc Duvalier assuming power after Papa Doc's death in 1971. BÃ©bÃ© Doc was ousted in 1986, followed by more bloodshed and military rule that culminated in a new Constitution in 1987 and the election of former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990.
After a coup, Aristide went into exile. Most of his term was usurped by a military takeover, but he returned to office in 1994 after Haitian General Raoul Cedras asked the United States to intervene, negotiating the departure of Haiti's military leaders and paving the way for the return of Aristide. His former prime minister, RenÃ© PrÃ©val, became president in 1996. Aristide won a second term as president in 2000, and took office early in 2001. However, accusations of corruption were followed by a paramilitary coup that ousted Aristide in 2004. Since then, Haiti has been occupied by U.N. peacekeeping troops MINUSTAH.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Tourists who are unsettled by grinding poverty probably should visit elsewhere. However, for those with patience and an open mind, Haiti reveals a rich culture that is unique among post-colonial nations.
It is extremely helpful when traveling in Haiti to have a local contact, through a church, a hotel, or just through making friends with someone. Experiences like dining locally, riding on a tap-tap, or strolling through one of the insanely crowded outdoor markets are great fun and very worth doing but are much safer and easier if you have a trusted Haitian to go along as a guide and interpreter.