In 1492, a fellow named Christopher Columbus–maybe you’ve heard of him–landed his boat on the western side of a Caribbean island that is now known as Hispaniola and declared it territory of Spain. The local Taino people, who already lived there and had never heard of Spain, didn’t agree. Unfortunately for the Taino, the Spanish insisted. (To put it mildly). The Spanish converted the Taino to Catholocism then forced them to mine gold. They also infected the Taino with smallpox. By 1517, the Taino were virtually extinct.

So begins the modern history of Haiti, a nation that was literally born of struggle, and one that has faced setback after setback–some natural, some man-made–over the last five hundred years.

After the Spanish erased most Taino from Haiti they brought Africans to Hispaniola to use as slaves. For the next two centuries Haiti became the haven of French pirates, some of whom made so much money growing tobacco that they went legit. The French pirates refused to accept Spanish rule. In 1697 the Spanish and French divided Hispaniola into the western, French part, now known as Haiti, and the eastern Dominican Republic. (Haiti has about 1/3 of the island, the D.R. the rest.)

Over the next hundred years Haiti became the wealthiest French colony in the Western Hemisphere, profiting from slave labor on sugar, coffee and indigo plantations. By the end of the 1700s the slaves found inspiration in the French Revolution, rebelled against the French, and became independent in 1804. Haiti was the first independent country in Latin America, the world’s first black-led republic, and the only nation ever born of a slave revolt.

(At this point about 10,000 Haitians, mostly French Creole, fled with their remaining slaves to New Orleans. The French settlers brought Creole language and culture; their slaves brought Haitian “voodoo.”)

Unfortunately, free Haiti still faced many economic and political problems that its string of dictatorial leaders either were not able to solve or actively made worse. The nation pressed along until 1915 when the Americans occupied it under a policy in which the U.S. claimed the right to “stabilize” small nations in the Caribbean and Central America. America dismantled Haiti’s constitutional system, built over a thousand miles of roads (using very-poorly-paid Haitian labor) and created a local military force that intimidated the population long after the U.S. left in 1934.

For most of the next half-century members of Duvalier family ruled Haiti — first “Papa” Doc, then his son, “Baby” Doc. “Papa” proclaimed himself a champion of the rural black population but he also intimidated Haitians through his repressive policies. When he died his 19 year old son took over and ruled Haiti aggressively until he was ousted in 1986. (“Papa” was the more popular of the two.) Since then Haiti has endured several military coups and several bouts of leadership by popularly elected former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide — some with U.S. support and some without.

Throughout this chaos the astoundingly resilient Haitian people have become collectively poorer and poorer. Most educated Haitians have fled the nation; only about half of the Haitian population is literate and fewer than 30% reach sixth grade. When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, it devastated a nation that has struggled so hard to stay hopeful despite having already survived devastation time and time again.

More information:

Wikipedia on Haiti | The cast of characters: Papa Doc, his son Baby Doc and the nation’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide | American “stewardship” of Haiti in the early 20th century | Haitian deforestation: losing 20 million trees a year | Many aid organizations are working in Haiti after the earthquake, but what can actually help? | Want to know about Haitian Vodou? | Despite it all, Haitian optimism?

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