Bob Corbett
August 1999.


Haiti is a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. Hispaniola has two countries. Haiti makes up roughly the western 1/3 of the island. The Dominican Republic makes up the eastern 2/3 of the island. The two countries are not on very friendly terms and never have been. Their roots are very different. Haiti is primarily populated by African-Caribbean people with a history of French colonialism. The Dominican Republic is made up of Afro-European mixed blooded people and their roots are deeply influenced by Spanish colonialism.

Additionally the two countries have a long history of mistrust, even hatred. Haiti has twice occupied The Dominican Republic in the 19th century, and in 1937 The Dominican Republic perpetrated a terrible massacre on Haitians living in or near The Dominican Republic's borders.

Haiti is about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, just over 10,000 square miles. The current population is roughly 7,500,000 in Haiti. Another million Haitians are living abroad in the U.S., Canada and France. It is difficult to know how many of these people are simply waiting for conditions to improve in Haiti, or to what extent these Haitians living abroad are now becoming residents and citizens in these host nations.

From 1957 to 1986 Haiti was ruled by the Duvalier family in the persons of Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc -- 1957-1971) and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc -- 1971-1986). This was a period of brutal dictatorship, the suppression of most normal freedoms in Haiti, particularly political dissent from the "Duvalier revolution." It was, also, in the later years, a period of a rather stable law and order society that one tends to get with dictatorships.

In 1986 there was an uprising of the people of Haiti and president Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti. At this time Haiti entered into a very difficult period which is still going on. It is a period of struggle for control of the country, and what has resulted is a great deal of political and social instability. There seem to be a number of factions including:

Today Haiti is a nation in disarray and disorder, unsafe, economically desperate without much clear hope of significant improvement in the very near future. It is a country in struggle.

The vast majority of Haiti's people live in desperate poverty and personal unsafety. They are jobless, hungry, unsafe and discouraged. Despite this many continue to struggle for populist reform. These masses are without much power other than their sheer numbers. The opposition has power, money and most importantly, weapons.

The international community, especially the United States, which has great power in Haiti, seems without serious interest in the plight of the masses of the Haitian poor.



Before Columbus landed on the island (Dec. 6, 1492), his second land-fall in the "New World," there was a large population of Taino/Arawak people who lived on the island in relative peace. It's difficult to know their numbers with any exactitude, but somewhere over 1/2 million seems a reasonable estimate.

They lived lives of great simplicity, farming and fishing. There was little native game on the island to supplement their diets. They had few enemies, but seem to have feared the more war-like and aggressive Carib people who were centered on the nearby island that is today Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately for the Taino/Arawak, they befriended the Spanish, and gave them some gifts of gold jewelry. There wasn't much gold on Hispaniola, but the Spanish assumed otherwise and thought that Hispaniola was to be the motherload of gold they hoped to find. This led to return voyages to the island and the suppression of the Taino/Arawak.

It soon became clear that there wasn't much gold on Hispaniola, and the Spanish turned it into a bread basket, providing food for the conquistadors who were exploring and conquering peoples in the rest of the Caribbean and Central America. In the process the Taino/Arawak were virtually enslaved.

They did not respond well to this new state of slavery. They died in the labor and more than that they died from European diseases. Effectively, as a distinct and recognizable people on the island of Hispaniola, they disappeared by the middle of the 17th century. The Taino/Arawak survived in other areas of the Caribbean and South America, but not on Hispaniola.

Other than in this historical context, they don't contribute much to the later development of the country of Haiti. Their labor was supplanted by African slaves (the ultimate root of the people who today make up the population of Haiti). Certainly there must have been some inter-mating between members of the two peoples, thus some remnants of Taino/Arawak blood must have been passed on, and there are a few words of language or a custom here and there that MIGHT be traced back to a Taino/Arawak influence. However, this blood and cultural contribution is quite negligible in the formation of the Haitian people.


The Spanish quickly saw that Hispaniola was not to be the source of gold for Spain. Hispaniola was converted into a farming region to provide food for the Spanish in other areas of the Caribbean and Central American. The island was worked first by the Taino/Arawak, but before long, African slaves were imported. This began as early as 1508 and the Africans became the primary labor source very quickly. Sugar was introduced as a crop to join tobacco and coffee as attractive crops as well as regular food stuffs.

However, before long Hispaniola became an island of little interest to the Spanish. Spanish settlements were being founded in other areas of the Caribbean and Central and South America and these settlers found it more economical to provide their own food. Hispaniola became a quite uninteresting and useless island. There was one town at the far southeast portion of the island, the settlement which is today the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo. The Spanish kept this settlement and the farms around it, but little by little the rest of the island was virtually abandoned and unpopulated (including the extremely fertile western part of the island which was later to become Haiti).


In the 17th and century the major nations of Europe sponsored privateers. These were basically free-lance sailors who worked for a European nation and harassed the shipping of rival nations. The sailors or freebooters as they were called, often received a portion of the spoils won in these high seas battles and were the forerunners of the later pirates.

When the nations of Europe de-emphasized the use of privateers, there was a large navy of these tough folks who were not ready to give up their lives of high-seas raiding. They became non-governmental free lance robbers, the pirates that we all know of.

One of the strong holds for the pirates was the island of La Tortue (Turtle Island), a small island, just a few miles off the northern coast of what is today Haiti, and, today, a possession of Haiti. The dominant group of pirates who used La Tortue as their base were French pirates.

From the Spanish days of using the western portion of the island, 50 to 100 years earlier, there were many wild animals which survived after the Spanish gave up the use of the island. This included cattle, goats, sheep and horses. Since this region, the northern plain and mountains of Haiti, was very fertile, the animals flourished. The pirates were fond of going across the narrow water way into the island of Hispaniola to hunt wild game.

They used to kill the game and cook it over an open flame. This is a "boukan" in French, and this process and these people became known as "boukanniers" in French, or buccaneers in English, a common term for pirates.

However, pirating wasn't what it used to be and some of these French pirates choose to settle in Hispaniola and become farmers. They sent back to France for women, and France was only too happy to empty some of the women's prisons, sending a variety of women not desired in France, to this remote Caribbean outpost. Slowly a community developed in the northcentral and northwest of Hispaniola. By the early part of the 17th century the French even named some of these former pirates as French officials to oversee the community forming there.

The Spanish protested the French presence, but never really pushed it too much. The community waxed and crops began to flow back to France. It was an attractive place, fertile and with great potential as a colony.

Finally, in 1697 at the Treaty of Rystwik, at the conclusion of a European war not involving Hispaniola at all, the Spanish needed another bargaining chip and ceded the western portion of Hispaniola to the French. Thus the island was divided. The eastern Spanish portion was called Santo Domingo, Spanish for St. Dominic. The western French portion was called San Domingue, French for St. Dominic. But the island was now divided and a defining characteristic, the geographic one, was fixed for modern day Haiti.


From the official birth of the colony of San Domingue (1697) for just over 100 years, the French colony waxed and became one of the richest colonies in the history of the world.

An agricultural economy based on slave labor grew sugar cane, coffee, the dye indigo, cotton, tobacco and many exotic spices which were in high demand in Europe and Asia. The planters produced the goods but were prohibited from processing the crops in the colony itself. Thus all the goods were shipped to France and processed there. From the processing plants French merchants spread out to the whole of Europe and near-Asia creating a booming economy for France. Another huge portion of this economy was the slave trade itself.

The French colonial slave system was particularly brutal, worse that virtually any other place in the Western world. Slaves were routinely treated with great brutality and inhumanity. However, the French foolishly, for their own safety, allowed the number of slaves to grow without any concern and within a 100 years of colonial rule had arrived at a very dangerous 10-1 ratio of free to slave population. In 1791 there were approximately 500,000 slaves and about 50,000 free people. Some 30,000 of those free people were people of color, both black and mulatto.

In the French colonial system free people of color could own slaves and property, however there were other restrictions. On San Domingue the free people of color were not much into the sugar trade but mainly controlled coffee. However they were a distinct "ruler" class.

This structure was phenomenally determinative of much of later Haitian history. After independence and the coming of a black republic, this class of former free planters emerged as rulers of Haiti. This class structure of a very small class of rulers and a huge mass of common folks has always been the norm in Haiti and is one of the greatest barriers to the emergence of Haiti into a nation with any serious sense of democratic equality.


The spirit of the French Revolution infected Haiti. Added to that the brutality of the French slave system and the huge number of slaves in relation to the free people and the stage was set for a lasting revolution. There had been many revolts of slaves and attempts and social change, but the final moment of French rule came in Aug. 1791 with an uprising which was more about the rights of free people of color than freedom for slaves.

Nonetheless, this 1791 uprising developed into a full-fledged revolution war. France realized the crucial economic importance of the colony and made every attempt to defend their rule. Eventually it came down to Napoleon sending a large expeditionary force to win the colony back securely for France in 1802. This caused the last eruption of revolutionary fervor and the defeat of the French. On Jan. 1, 1804 the nation of Haiti was proclaimed. It was an all-black (and mulatto) republic with a constitutional prohibition against white people owning land. This particular provision of the Haitian constitution lasted until 1918 until the occupying forces of the United States forced a constitution onto Haiti which did not contain this prohibition.

There is much controversy about the Haitian Revolution and what sense to make of this victory over the French. We will study this in much greater detail in due time.


The fledging leaders of the newly independent Haiti, Dessalines and Christophe, attempted to imitate the French system without slavery. They wanted to build an economy based on plantation agriculture and sugar. Actually they made astonishing achievements, both returning the economy to roughly 75% of the productivity of the pre-Revolutionary period. However, this was done within the context of a social system which while not a slave economy, approached it, looking much more like European serfdom. This was simply not what the Haitian people wanted.


Between about 1820 to 1840, under the presidencies of Alexander Petion and Jean-Pierre Boyer, the old French plantation system of economy died forever.

In the briefest form what developed was a world of one nation, but really two Haitis. There was the official nation of Haiti, ruled by the government, but really centered in the two main cities, Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien and the next half-dozen largest towns, all but one being a seaport town. (The sole exception was the inland Central Plateau town of Hinche.)

These towns were controlled by the small property owning elite. The vast majority of Haitian people lived in the rural areas and basically didn't belong to "Haiti" in any normal sense of the term. The did subsistence agriculture and stayed away from "Haiti" and its government and army as much as they possibly could. Given the mountainous nature of much of Haiti this was not difficult to achieve. There were buffer zones, markets, where the rural peasants could trade agricultural products, especially coffee, at a fraction of its international value, in exchange for essentials. This trade allowed the elite class to make a substantial income and for the masses of people to survive in some sort of peace, security and isolation from "Haiti," the official nation.

Again, this process was extremely definitive in forming and creating the fundamental social, economic and governmental system which is still dominant in Haiti today.


The white slave owning world was utterly shocked by the victory of Haitian revolutionaries over France. Here was a white world with slaves (England didn't banish slavery in 1833, the first major white nation to do so, and the U.S. held slaves until 1862) and this was a terrifying situation. There was much talk of "servile revolutions" and the worry was that slaves in other places would take the successful Haitian revolutionaries as models and revolt in other locations. This was a special worry in the south of the United States where the agricultura; economies of cotton and tobacco were completely slave-dependent.

In France there was the further concern for the usurped property of French citizens, the former white planters from San Domingue. The French wanted recompense for this property before it would recognize Haitian independence.

Further there were a great outcry in the white world that black people were inherently incapable of ruling themselves. Multitudes of books and pamphlets belabored this view in the early 19th century and Haiti always came in for attack as one of the key pieces of evidence of this impossibility.

It is important to note that the success of the Haitian Revolution came just at the same time as the French and American Revolutions. This was the period of the birth of functional democracy.

But, the white nations of Europe and the United States refused to recognize Haitian independence and boycotted trade relations with Haiti. This was one of the major causes of the development of the "two Haitis" that I discussed above, and made the growth of democracy in Haiti to be virtually impossible.

The masses of Haitian rural peasants were illiterate and remain so today. Both the Industrial Revolution and the Democratic Revolutions passed Haiti by.

It is critically important to understand the causal implications of these actions and attitudes of the outside world on the internal development of the history of Haiti.


Within Haiti there began a curious and disastrous series of governmental revolutions. Basically the government was a tiny class of elite. Various factions of the elite would sponsor a "president" and under the protection of this particular government the favored faction of the elite would pillage the Haitian treasury. After a certain amount of time a different faction of the elite, normally funded by foreign (often German) capital, would raise an army, march on Port-au-Prince and drive the sitting government into exile. The new faction would take its turn at the troff of the Haitian treasury and the cycle continued.

The upshot of this period of Haitian history is critical. First of all it further established the class and color relations which exist to this very day as dominant patterns in Haitian life. Further, the role of foreign capital in funding these revolutions gave an increasing foothold of foreign capital. This became troubling to the United States after the decision to build the Panama Canal. This geo-political decision of the U.S. gave rise to a much more militant interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine and desire for full control over the Caribbean, the "back yard" of the U.S. As World War I approached, the penetration of German capital into Haiti was a great worry to the U.S.

Using a trumped up concern for U.S. financial interests and the "concern" with approaching anarchy in Haiti, the U.S. occupied Haiti in June 1915 and remained in control of Haiti until 1934, with financial and political hegemony continuing long after the end of the official occupation. In many ways it still continues today.

From 1915 until and including the present, the United States has been a major power and factor in what does and does not happen in Haiti.


In the 1930s a movement sprang up in Haiti which turned the mainly mulatto intellectual class away from its old power base -- imitation of white, French European models of life and meaning -- and toward a greater appreciation of blackness, Africanness and Haiti's roots in the common black people.

This movement effected the intellectual class, especially poets, novelists and other writers first, later on artists as well. It set the stage for a political ideology which led the "black revolution" which Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc) was pledging to enact before it got sidetracked into the personalist dictatorship of the Duvalier dynasty.


Haiti's peasants may have lived lives of agrarian simplicity in order to escape a corrupt and damaging government, but eventually simplicity gave way to misery. It's hard to fix when this occurred, but the dynamics are not too hard to see.

Haitian peasants owned a bit of land. However, they chose to divide the land equally among their sons. Thus land plot sizes got smaller and smaller as the population grew. Secondly, the peasants used farming methods which we actually harmful to the land, burning off top soil, and over-planting crops which took too much out of the soil. Lastly, since the only fuel in the country is wood, little by little the vast forests of Haiti were cut, overwhelmingly for charcoal. The land became deforested and the soil could not hold against the season torrential rains. The top soil of Haiti washed away into the sea leaving great pressure on the land left. The result was eventually misery. My own suspicion is that agrarian simplicity with a modestly adequate diet became increasingly scarce after the beginning of the 20th century, and now, as that century ends, Haiti is left in a desperate situation in which millions of her people are malnourished, hungry and having little hope or prospects for a better future.

However, a populist movement somewhat tied to the democratic impetus implicit in Latin American Liberation Theology arose in Haiti in the late 1970s and gained power in the early 1980s. On February 7, 1986 this movement culminated with the fleeing of Jean-Claude Duvalier to France on an U.S. military jet. There was a great deal of hope in the latter part of the 80s, but since then things have deteriorated and today the Haitian movement for more populist movement is in great struggle with forces of reaction.


This short and over-simplified history is meant to give the reader a context for a course on Haitian history. The gaps and details will hopefully be filled by the course itself. However, if this sampling has either raised explicit questions which weigh on you, or if there are gaps that leave you surprised, or if you think that from what you already know the picture should look different in some particular that I have sketched, then please don't hesitate to write me at the address below to inquire or suggest additions or corrections.

Bob Corbett

Bob Corbett


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