Slavery & rebellion
Christopher Columbus' account of the discovery of the island Hispaniola in 1492 is the first record of the country we now know as Haiti. Arawak Native Americans originally lived on the island but were wiped out by the Spanish.
In the 17th century the French, Dutch and British started taking over parts of the island. In the 18th century, the French and Spanish split the island into two territories: the French half was called Saint Dominique (now Haiti) and the Spanish half was called Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). During the 17th and 18th centuries, hundreds of thousands of slaves arrived in Haiti from Africa and were put to work on European sugar and coffee plantations. The French used the slave labour to cultivate the area's natural resources and develop Haiti into the richest colony in the new world.
There were four categories of people in Haiti during the 17th and 18th centuries: white colonists, free blacks (often mixed-race), black slaves (usually African-born) and runaway slaves (known as Maroons). The Maroon community was steadily growing in hiding – living deep in the forests, forming organized groups and raiding plantations.
Their first real leader was François Mackandal, who led a revolt against slavery from 1751 to 1757. In 1758, he was captured by the French and burned at the stake. That same year, white landowners began passing laws that restricted the rights of people of other colours and classes. A rigid caste system (a set of rules defining which class or racial groups are entitled to specific rights and liberties) was defined and strictly controlled.
At around this time the French revolution was in progress and the motto of "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood" was changing the way French people thought about equality. This shift in attitude had a major impact in Haiti, where the ideals of liberty and equality were almost non-existent. In 1791 the new revolutionary government in France declared that all black people born to free parents should have the same political rights as whites.
A Maroon-led revolt
The Maroon population saw this conflict as an opportunity to gain power. They led a revolt that spread across the whole of Haiti. Slaves massacred the French slave-owners, whom they outnumbered ten to one, burning the plantations where they were forced to work.
The most famous commander was Toussaint L'Ouverture, a self-educated former domestic slave. L'Ouverture was an excellent military leader, and under his command the slaves gained the upper hand. He took over leadership of the country, ruling it as an independent nation.
In 1794, slavery in France and the French colonies was outlawed. However, when Napoleon came to power (1799) he tried to retake Haiti and reintroduce the practice of slavery. This reignited the fighting. The French soon regained control of the country from the former slaves, capturing L'Ouverture in 1802 and imprisoning him in France, where he later died.
After years of fighting, the French forces were finally defeated at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803. On January 1, 1804, Haiti was declared a free republic. Haiti's was the largest and only successful slave revolt in the Atlantic. The revolt created the first black republic and the first independent country in Latin America.
Haiti's independence brought new challenges. The country had been weakened by years of war: agriculture was devastated, trade was almost non-existent, and the people were uneducated and mostly unskilled. The new country was forced to pay 90 million gold francs (worth $12 billion today) of reparations to French slave-owners in 1825, and also had to pay France for its independence for the next 100 years. Many historians believe that these payments contributed significantly to the poverty and social problems faced by Haiti today.
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