Haiti occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Haiti’s history is a tragic tale of cruelty, opportunism, and extraordinary heroism. The story begins with a French colony called Saint-Domingue and their importation of enslaved Africans.
French colonists constructed enormous plantations in the fertile Haitian soil. The enslaved Africans were forced to grow sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee for export to France. Hunger and disease were prevalent among the Africans, and violent rebellions were common. åIn 1791, the Africans revolted under the leadership of Francois Toussaint L’overture. Following thirteen years of bitter and bloody battle, the former slaves forced the French to relinquish their colony, but by then, Louverture had been captured and imprisoned in France, where he died in prison. In Louverture’s absence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the Haitian Revolution. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines and the revolutionaries renamed the former colony Haiti, an Arawak word that means land of mountains.
There had been many black kingdoms in Africa, but never before had a black government replaced a white colonial government. Haiti became the first nation in the Americas to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, the revolutionaries who formed the first independent black nation in North America had no experience in government. While the French were in control, Haitian people were not allowed to be educated, so only a few could read or write. Other nations did not recognize the black government, and the income from sugar production was gone because the sugar plantations had been destroyed in the long war.