When Haiti led the world…

Haiti – the world’s oldest black republic and second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. Ayiti (land of high mountains), Bohio or Quisqueya (mother of all lands). These are all the original names of Haiti as given by the original inhabitants – the Tainos (an Arawakan people). As the history books go, around AD 600, the Tainos supposedly moved northward from the Orinoco delta in South America and settled the islands of the Caribbean. 

Map of Haiti courtesy www.lonelyplanet.com
Map of Haiti courtesy http://www.lonelyplanet.com

According to a brief by Yale University Genocide Studies Programme, “It is uncertain how many Taíno were living in Hispaniola at first contact. Estimates of the population range from several hundred thousand  to over a million”… “Within twenty-five years of Columbus’ arrival in Haiti, most of the Taíno had died from enslavement, massacre, or disease.  By 1514, only 32,000 Taíno survived in Hispaniola.”

From Spanish “La Isla Hispaniola” (Latin – Hispaniola) to French “Saint Domingue”

The transition to French control is interesting. According to Wikipedia,  “In 1655 the newly established English administration on Jamaica sponsored the re-occupation of Tortuga under Elias Watts as Governor. In 1660 the English made the mistake of replacing Watts as Governor by a Frenchman Jeremie Deschamps,[5] on condition he defended English interests. Deschamps on taking control of the island proclaimed for the King of France, set up French colours, and defeated several English attempts to reclaim the island. It is from this point in 1660 that unbroken French rule in Haiti begins.”

Gens de Couleur and Vodou

I encourage you to do some exploring to find out more about the period of slavery that followed in Saint Domingue (Haiti), the emergence of the gens de couleur (people of colour – usually the offspring of a French male slaveowner and an African slave chosen as a concubine) and the persistence of the folk religion of Vodou – which co-mingled Catholic teachings & rituals with beliefs and practices of the Congo, Guinea and Dahomey (kingdom in present day Benin). Interesting bit of research – St Domingue had the largest & wealthiest “free population of colour” at the time.

Flag of Haiti courtesy www.flagsofworld.com
Flag of Haiti courtesy http://www.flagsofworld.com

Napoleon Defeated, Retribution to be paid

Fast-forward to 1802-1804: Napoleon is defeated. A simple statement, that does little to address or expose the conditions under which that victory was won. According to Wikipedia however, “Despite the Haitian victory, France refused to recognize the newly independent country’s sovereignty until 1825, in exchange for 150 million gold francs. This fee, demanded as retribution for the “lost property,”—slaves, land, equipment etc.—of the former colonialists, was later reduced to 90 million. Haiti agreed to pay the price to lift a crippling embargo imposed by France, Britain, and the United States— but to do so, the Haitian government had to take out high interest loans. The debt was not repaid in full until 1947.”

For today I end with a small extract from an Op-ed article in the New York times To Heal Haiti, Look to History not Nature. The writer, Mark Danner says, “And yet there is nothing mystical in Haiti’s pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons. Act of nature that it was, the earthquake last week was able to kill so many because of the corruption and weakness of the Haitian state, a state built for predation and plunder. Recovery can come only with vital, even heroic, outside help; but such help, no matter how inspiring the generosity it embodies, will do little to restore Haiti unless it addresses, as countless prior interventions built on transports of sympathy have not, the man-made causes that lie beneath the Haitian malady.”

Next up – Fast forward to Haiti today, the life, food, people, music, night life. Prepare to party readers!!!

Related Posts: A Page from my Haiti Earthquake Memoirs

                             Sonje Ayiti – Remembering Haiti

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