Haiti occupies the western third of the island that Columbus named Hispaniola. The natives who lived here prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 1490's called their home Hayti, which means high country. After these Indians were exterminated by the Spanish, the colony became known as St. Domingue.
The French, who came after the Spanish, turned the colony into their richest overseas possession. But not by themselves. In 1791, the population of the colony was: 39,000 white people, 27,000 people of mixed blood, and 452,000 slaves. You can guess who was doing the majority of the work on the sugar and coffee plantations, which were so productive that Haiti was called “the pearl of the Antilles.”
The Haitian slaves were treated brutally and died early and often. As a result, 20,000 new slaves had to be kidnapped from Africa each year to keep the plantations running. Consequently, two-thirds of the slaves living in the colony in 1791 had been born in Africa. They spoke Creole, a hybrid of French and African languages, which is still spoken today. They had memory of being free.
In 1789 there was a little thing called the French Revolution. The slaves heard about concepts like “the Rights of Man” and took them seriously. In 1791, slave uprisings launched the Haitian Revolution, a fractious, brutal, bloody 13-year-war, which ended when the slaves drove Napoleon’s troops from the island. Haitian independence was declared on January 1, 1804. It was an uneasy alliance between the blacks and the people of mixed blood—there were 64 different shades of color identified—fraught with counter-productive power struggles and violent skirmishes. But the white slave owner ruled no more.
Haiti became the first and only country established by a slave rebellion and the first black republic. Do you think France, whose rule the slaves overthrew, or the United States, Haiti’s democracy-loving, revolution-fomenting, but—alas—slave-holding neighbor to the north west, was thrilled about these firsts? No, they were not. The U.S instigated trade blockades and didn’t recognize Haiti until 1862. France demanded that Haiti pay 90 million in gold francs as restitution to French plantation owners. It took Haiti 100 years to pay this surreally unfair levy.
Haiti, welcome to the league of nations.