On 12th January 2010, the ground began to shake. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Caribbean nation of Haiti brought with it unimaginable carnage as the country’s capital Port Au Prince was all but levelled with anywhere up to 300,000 people dying and over a million becoming homeless.
However, this event, though seismic in scale and effect, was simply the latest tragedy to befall this country that has a population of just over 11 million and that lies roughly 1,000 km (621 miles) south-east of the glitz and glamour of Miami Beach.
The story of Haiti is one of slavery, revolutionary struggle, devastating corruption and political ineptitude and a seemingly catastrophic cycle of bad luck that has seen earthquakes, disease and war tear the county apart. Few countries around the world have suffered quite like Haiti, and sadly even today, there seems no end in sight.
The modern nation of Haiti occupies roughly half of the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic forming the other half. We don’t have a huge amount of information about the area before the arrival of Christopher Colombus, but we know that the island was effectively broken into five Chiefdoms; Marién, Maguá, Maguana, Jaragua and Higüey.
Each of these chiefdoms essentially operated independently but they were all made up of inhabitants known as the Taíno, an Arawak people who were indigenous to South America and the Caribbean. It’s thought that at the point of first contact with the Europeans, there was around 60,000 Taíno on Hispaniola.
The Spanish Arrive
The date 1492 often erroneously connects Christopher Colombus with the present-day United States but it was, in fact, Hispaniola where the famed – and deeply vicious as we’ll come to shortly – Columbus first set foot in the new world.
The Spanish began establishing settlements over the following years, some of which survived, others were ravaged by the local population and quickly abandoned. Columbus was responsible for the kidnapping of over 1,000 people on Hispaniola as well as countless instances of rape, torture, mutilation and outright murder that paints a very different image of this crusading exploring than is often portrayed.
The Taíno suffered horribly under Spanish rule – either through their near-genocidal tactics or the blizzard of disease they brought with them that decimated the local population. In the first century of Spanish rule alone, an estimated 95% of the indigenous Taíno died, through disease, murder or starvation.
Spanish interest in the island soon began to wane as more lucrative, gold supplying areas were being discovered. Eventually, half of Hispaniola was ceded to the French in 1697 after many decades of bitter fighting and the area that is now Haiti was renamed Saint-Domingue.
The city of Cap-Français was established in 1711 and Port-au-Prince in 1749, and the latter quickly grew in stature and soon became the island’s capital – though, this being Haiti, it was dogged with horrid luck and was hit by two severe earthquakes, one in 1751 and the other in 1770, both of which devastated much of the young city.
In the latter part of the 18th Century, the island’s importance exploded with huge amounts of sugar and coffee being exported from Saint-Domingue – reportedly 60% of all the coffee and 40% of all the sugar consumed in Europe at the time. Unfortunately, this brought with it a truly evil import and it’s thought that during the island’s blossoming heyday, an estimated that 790,000 slaves were brought into the colony from Africa – almost a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. By the 1780s, roughly 40,000 slaves were arriving each year to toil under appaling conditions on Saint-Domingue.
Small-scale rebellions and escapes were common among the slave population on the island. Many escapees went on to form Maroons, small settlements away from their captives, but a revolution many thousands of miles away would have a huge effect on the area.
When the French rose up in revolt in 1789 it wasn’t immediately clear what this meant for the country’s many colonies – would the slaves whose work had brought fabulous riches to French coffers also be offered ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’?
Of course not. While there were some concerted efforts to improve the rights of slaves and the ‘Gens de couleur’ – free people of colour who were often the result of relationships between slave owners and their mistresses – the French Revolution was strictly a white-only affair and the lives of people of colour barely changed.
But the rumblings had begun. In August 1791 a large slave revolt erupted that quickly spread across the island. While things swung wildly in the early stages, a sustained movement under the direction of Toussaint Louverture, a general who has gone down in the history of the island as the ‘father of Haiti’, eventually took hold and it became clear that the French were in real danger of losing one of the pearls of their colonial, slave-driving crown.
In a desperate act, Napoleon sent a huge force of 40,000 men to the island to wrestle back control, but while there were some initial successes, the scale of the uprising was too much for the French to ever really stamp their authority on. In response, their methods became more brutal and vicious than ever before, but it must be said, this was usually met with equal bloodletting by the local population.
In 1803, with France and Britain now at war and with reinforcements blocked from reaching Saint-Domingue, the end was nigh for the French. The final months of occupation were savage as those fighting for their independence killed between 3,000 and 5,000 of the remaining French population and French Creoles in what has come to be known as the 1804 Haiti Massacre. On 1st January 1804, the new leader of the revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared formal independence – using the indigenous Taíno name of Haiti – meaning ‘Land of Mountains’.
The Polish Connection
Before we continue on there is one more interesting story that came out of this time that is worth looking at. Part of Napoleon’s invasion force was a group of Polish soldiers that formed the Polish Legion. At the time, Poland had been divided between Prussia, Austria and Imperial Russia, and many Poles saw European nations to the west, especially newly freedom-minded France, as their best hope of eventually securing their homeland.
It’s not known exactly how many arrived in Haiti – some say just over 5,000 – but they were said to quickly become appalled by the situation on the Caribbean island, so much so that in 1804 many deserted and actively fought for the Haitians against the French.
After the fighting ended, instead of facing the same repercussions as other Europeans, namely either death or expulsion, the Polish were the only non-native group to be allowed to remain in Haiti should they wish to. It’s thought that just over 500 chose to stay on the islands and were effectively integrated into society.
Even to this day, you can visit the villages and towns of Cazale, Fond-des-Blancs and La Vallée-de-Jacmel and find Haitians with blond hair and blue eyes, the descendants of those brave Polish men who joined the Haitian rebellion in 1804.
The World’s Oldest Black Republic
When Haiti gained its full independence, it became the first formal black republic anywhere in the world. Now, of course, we have to take a statement like that with a degree of delicacy. It goes without saying that this was not the first black state but it was the first to be governed not under a monarchy or tribal leader but by its own constitution.
It also became the first independent nation in the Caribbean to break free from slavery and colonial dominance, but while this was certainly a time of great joy, looking back, this was just the start of another, possibly even darker chapter to come.
The issues were immediate. Most western nations refused to recognize Haiti as an independent country, because, well, I’m sure you can guess why. The supposedly enlightened French had been routed by the supposedly inferior Haitians and many countries were fearful of such ideas spreading to their colonies or in the case of the United States to its many plantations. It was clear at this early stage that the idea of free black people running their own country didn’t sit at all well with those with paler skin.
Haiti initially came under the rule of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines – even freed colonies with a pretty defined constitution were susceptible to megalomania apparently – but his glorious rule lasted just two years before he was assassinated and Haiti was effectively split into two, with one section, the Kingdom of Haiti led by Henri Christophe and the other, the Republic of Haiti, led by Alexandre Pétion. Though again, this didn’t last long and the country was quickly reunited under the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer.
The French, in a final act of vengeance that would cripple the young country for well over a hundred years, demanded an indemnity of 150 million francs in 1825 in exchange for diplomatic recognition and compensation for loss of French property – while 14 French warships floated menacingly off the coast.
The Haitian President buckled under the demands and the country began a yearly payment to France paid, which was financed by taking out foreign debt that would plague the country for years. In 1838, the figure was reduced slightly to 90 million francs (still equal to roughly $21 billion today) a figure that the country didn’t pay off until 1947 – 122 years after the agreement.
In 1842, the country was rocked by its third major earthquake in just 150 years, with the 8.1 magnitude Cap-Haïtien earthquake and the tsunami that followed it, killing just over 5,000 people. The world’s first black republic was off to a difficult start.
The second half of the 19th Century had been tumultuous with successive power struggles that had seen leaders come and go with alarming frequency. Things continued in the same vein in the early stages of the 20th Century and between 1911 and 1915, there were six different presidents, all of whom were either killed or forced into exile.
At this point, Haiti was in debt up to its eyeballs, so much so that debt repayments accounted for around 80% of its total revenue. Most of this was still being paid to the French, though the Germans and the Americans both held sizable debt interests in the small island. And if you are starting to get that slightly uncomfortable feeling that some serious chicanery might be on the horizon – yes, you’re entirely right.
In 1914, some truly shady financial interests said to be led by the National City Bank of New York, who were keen on acquiring a controlling stake in Haiti’s sole commercial bank Banque Nationale de la République d’Haïti, began actively trying to encourage the U.S government to invade and occupy Haiti as a way of protecting American financial interests and more broadly, and almost certainly less importantly, to restore order and to provide better conditions in the country.
The coup that deposed Haitian President Michel Oreste on 27th January 1914 was the final excuse needed. Rumours that Haiti may be about to default on their loans began to swirl, despite the country always having complied with its agreements, and in an act of absolute daylight robbery, American Marines landed on the island and took control of the country’s gold reserve of about $500,000 ($13 million today), which was transferred first to USS Machias anchored offshore, then on to National City Bank’s New York City vault on 55 Wall Street.
But things were far from done and after the lynching of Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam – broadly friendly with the United States and their financial interests – in July 1915 by a furious mob, an initial 330 U.S Marines arrived on the island to take control of Port au Prince.
The American occupation of Haiti lasted just shy of 20 years and saw numerous uprisings and plenty of highly contentious actions on the part of the United States. While it’s true that this period saw a huge amount of road building and other infrastructure projects, much of it was done by peasants who were required to perform labour on local roads in lieu of paying a road tax.
It’s perfectly clear that the American occupation was done so with several underhand motives behind it that sought to increase revenue and control over the island. However, when it ended in 1934, in many ways the country was in a much better state than it had been before the Americans arrived. Education, healthcare, infrastructure and transportation had all greatly improved and the foundations for a more peaceful, modern Haiti had certainly been planted.
Papa Doc and Baby Doc
Before we arrive at what is referred to as the Duvalier dynasty that lasted between 1957 and 1986, several presidents managed to cling to power for the entirety of their terms, but usually did so with suffocating repression which finally led to a military coup in 1950.
The first direct elections held in Haiti (open to all) were held the same year with Paul Magloire, an elite black Colonel in the military, assuming power. Four years later, Hurricane Hazel arrived in the region and completely decimated Haiti, killing at least 486 on the island and destroying 40% of the coffee trees and 50% of the cacao crop, an event that severely affected the country’s economy for several years.
The man who later became known as Papa Doc – François Duvalier – was initially seen as a mild-mannered doctor who had served as a rural administrator of a United States-funded anti-yaws campaign before becoming a politician in the 1950s. In September 1957, he was elected as President under the National Unity Party banner that championed the rights of Haiti’s poor.
While things began with an optimistic tone, events quickly began to unravel and with hindsight, we now look back at the reign of Papa Doc – a period when roughly 30,000 Haitians died, many at the hand of the Tonton Macoutes, a paramilitary hit squad – as one of the most repressive regimes in modern history.
Much of what occurred in Haiti during the period was incomprehensible with effective state-sponsored terrorism unleashed upon its population. Mass murder became common and gang rape was frequently used as a tool of repression – often witnessed and even directed by Papa Doc himself.
When he died in 1971, Haiti breathed a sigh of relief even as his 19-year-old son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) was sworn in. The younger incarnation may not have had the same psychopathic tendencies as his father, but the man was nothing short of a disgrace who robbed the country blind through a series of slush funds even as the nation’s fortunes began to collapse.
The 1980s saw poverty increase and several outbreaks of disease tore through Haiti. The African swine fever virus epidemic led to hundreds of thousands of creole pigs being slaughtered, an animal that constituted a principal source of income for many on the island. The appearance of HIV in the same decade and the widespread confusion and stigmatisation that came with it, threw further fuel on the fire as the disease spread quickly around Haiti.
The Modern Era
Eventually, Baby Doc was forced from power in 1986 and the country lurched unsteadily on. In 1988, elections were held that recorded a remarkable turnout of just 4% and the country commenced another period of clattering from one president to another, with one coup in 1991, and another in 2004, which saw Jean-Bertrand Aristide controversially bundled out of the country aboard a U.S plane. He always maintained he never resigned and that he was effectively kidnapped by American authorities, while the U.S has always stated it was merely removing him and his family for their own safety.
But make no mistake about it, whoever has been in power in Haiti over the last 30 years has at the very least been a part of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and outright theft that has left the country a tattered mess. For many, life in Haiti remained one of staggering poverty and inequality and it was difficult to see how it could get any worse. However, as we know, worse is exactly what happened.
As we’ve seen, Haitians have become uncomfortably accustomed to earthquakes, but the events of 12th January 2010 were on a completely different scale. While it was technically a lower magnitude than previous earthquakes, the swollen population in Haiti, poor housing, and utter poverty many already lived in, meant this was by far the worst.
We may never fully know how many died that day and during the successive aftershocks, but a figure of between 100,000 and 300,000 is often used. The staggering numbers of the dead meant that most were buried in mass graves without any formal identification taking place. The government said at the time that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged. Many areas looked like they had simply been bulldozed and Haiti began to resemble a war zone.
And yet sadly that’s still not the end of the story. A cholera outbreak swept through the squalid conditions shortly after the earthquake and didn’t officially end until 2019. Officially it killed nearly 10,000 people, with over 800,000 infected across Haiti.
In the days, weeks and months following the earthquake, the world’s attention – and tears – seemed focused on Haiti. Large fundraisers got underway as charities directed their actions towards this battered Caribbean nation. But even here, the results have been dreadful and there have been some serious questions asked as to where the millions of fundraising dollars have gone. Even years after the earthquake, many projects had not even been started and thousands remained living in temporary shelters.
The Red Cross raised over $500 million, the most of any charity, and yet what has been produced with that money is painfully limited. Hardly any houses have actually been built and there are now open accusations of either outright corruption or financial ineptitude on a colossal scale. This is one murky cash hole with plenty of questions left to be answered.
The Cursed Nation
Unfortunately, there still is no light at the end of the tunnel for Haiti. In July 2021, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated after unidentified gunmen managed to storm the Presidential compound. The attack has been widely blamed on Colombian mercenaries but who they were working for is far from clear and there have been suggestions that companies in the United States may have been involved.
For Haiti, this was simply yet another sad chapter in this quiet awful story that has brought so much pain, upheaval and death. Whether it’s natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, psychopathic despots, rampant corruption and of course outside meddling, Haiti has seen it all over the years. If there was a single cursed nation on the planet, it may well be this tiny Caribbean country with its tragically chequered past.
Haiti: a long descent to hell | Haiti | The Guardian
Haiti | History, Geography, Map, Population, & Culture | Britannica
Haiti: A brief history of a complex nation | Institute of Haitian Studies (ku.edu)
Haiti (Saint-Domingue) | Slavery and Remembrance
When France extorted Haiti – the greatest heist in history (theconversation.com)
Haiti’s history of violence and disasters | Reuters
Op-Ed: The West owes a centuries-old debt to Haiti – Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)
Haiti’s long history of violence, invasion and repression (france24.com)