A Brief History of Haiti

Haiti’s Taino Indians first met Europeans in 1492 when Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, wrecked on the island, then known as Hispaniola. 

Spain leapt at the chance to colonize the wealthy region, and in the next fifty years annihilated an estimated 4-5 million Taino Indians by the hard labor required to mine gold and other rich resources. 4 million? 50 years? 365 days each year? One must do the calculation to understand that an average of more than 200 indigenous people died every single day for 50 years. 

Eventually losing interest in the task of governing the island, in 1697 Spain abandoned its western portion to France. Continuing to hold the eastern portion of Hispaniola, soon known as the Dominican Republic, Spain settled into a less-exploitive way of life, creating a reality that shapes the region’s economy, politics and resources, even today.

By contrast, France vigorously engaged in the task of enriching its own economy through harvest of resources from its newly-acquired land, now known as Haiti. The richest of all France’s colonies, Haiti offered France products much-coveted by the western world: indigo, mahogany and sugar.

To supply muscle to harvest these labor-intensive resources, France entered the cross-Atlantic slave trade, developing an especially cruel system of human trafficking. Records show that the estimated 700,000 men and women shipped to Haiti from western Africa could be expected to live little more than seven years before they died of exhaustion, starvation, or direct violence inflicted by plantation owners.

A complicated overlap of European insurgents, Napoleonic incursions and a slave rebellion led, in 1804, to Haiti becoming the first black republic in the world. One interesting fact of history is that Napoleon’s need for money to fight Haiti’s slaves fueled his sale of the Louisiana Purchase to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. This expansion of our country encompassed fifteen present U.S. states (including Minnesota) and small portions of two Canadian provinces. Because the United States was still a nation of slavery, our government refused to offer diplomatic recognition or any other assistance to the new nation of Haiti.

A bizarre artifact of European power was the reparations that Haiti was forced to pay France for its loss of property (slaves and land). This debt of US$40 billion (per 2010 calculations) impoverished the young nation for generations.

Ravaged of its natural wealth and populated by former slaves and others who shared few cultural, familial or political bonds, internal struggles over land distribution followed as armed Haitian peasants were used by one elite or the other over the next 100 years.

In 1915, draped in the Monroe Doctrine, American marines landed in Port au Prince to put an end to anarchy and to defend democracy and American investments. Following the U.S. withdrawal twenty years later, François Duvalier was elected president and quickly assumed dictatorial powers, filling jails and killing political opponents. In 1964 Duvalier (Papa Doc as he came to be known) assumed the title of President for Life. When Duvalier died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude became leader and several years later fled to France with most of the country’s treasury.

More years of bumbling government followed, with a brief period of hope and reform upon the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990. But turmoil continued to plague Haiti with a variety of internal and international power struggles that rarely gave any regard to the well being of Haitian people. Political turmoil continues to ensnare the country in repeating cycles of violence even today.

You’ve just read a long and painful history which weaves together the lives of the people of St. James and Bonne Nouvelle — the economic poverty of one nation, the economic wealth of the other. 

Europe’s mansions built with Haiti’s mahogany.

In Haiti, not an ounce of gold would have been stolen, a single mountain laid bare, nor any Indians or Africans enslaved if people in countries with technological might and cultural practices of dominance had not wanted to build houses, live luxuriously and ground their identities ever-more deeply in what they owned.

Bigonet 2010


And that’s where the lives of the people of St. James link with the Taino Indians of 1492, with the West African slaves of the 18th century, and with the men and women of Bigonet today. Minnesotans could not have the material well-being that we enjoy without exploitation, without  at-least some people around the world being much poorer than we are.

A major challenge of our lives, then, is to understand what changes in our own behavior are demanded to improve the lives of others — to mold a relationship of shared dignity, respect, commitment and responsibility.

Click here to return to other information about the partnership of St. James and Bonne Nouvelle.