We don’t really have a set of complete information in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquakes with regard to history and socio-political analysis.  What follows is a humble attempt with links to help us better understand this small Caribbean nation.  Please continue to pray for Haiti and its people.

Fast facts

The following data come from CIA — The World Factbook, where you can find detailed information:

– Size: comparable to Maryland

– Population: 9m; 38% are children under the age of 14; median age is 20 years

– People: 60 years life expectancy; 52% literacy rate; religion — 96% Christian (80% Catholic, 16% Protestant); 50% of the population practices voodoo 

– Border: shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic

– Government: Republic, with constitution (1987) and universal voting at the age of 18; President is René Preval (2006)

– Climate: tropical and semi-arid;  prone to hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes, droughts 

– Terrain: rough and mountainous; deforestation a problem; only 28% of the land is arable; only 12% is used to grow permanent crops

Fight for independence

1492: Christopher Columbus discovers the island.  Spaniards work native population to death in silver mines within 10 years’ time.

1791: August 14 — a meeting and/or voodoo ritual takes place at Bois Caïman on St Dominique (Haiti’s original name) which starts the Haitian Revolution of African slaves from Niger and Dahomey (Bénin) against their French owners (more on this tomorrow).

1791: August 25 — the revolution begins.  50,000 slaves revolt. 1,000 French-owned sugar and coffee plantations are burnt to the ground.

1793: Britain, at war with France, decides to invade St Dominique and end the revolution. Five years and 12,000 British soldiers later, they withdraw.  Britain at that time is the world’s superpower and largest slave-trading nation.

1794: Spain, possibly colluding with Britain, invades.  They also fail.

1800:  The efforts of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who leads the slave forces, causes the opposing mulatto army to surrender. Some mullatoes leave the island.  L’Ouverture then puts plans in place to stabilise the country.  He also begins corresponding with US President John Adams, who sends him arms and ships. (Yes, the US was a slave-owning nation at the time.  This did make the US slaveowners nervous.)

1801: A constitution is drawn up and the extant Colonial Assembly gives L’Ouverture executive power to accompany his title of Governor General for Life.

1802: Napoleon Bonaparte sends his brother-in-law General Leclerc with 10,000 troops from the mainland to quell the fighting but to no avail.  The general and most of the troops die in battle — but not before a weakened L’Ouverture surrenders to the French, who were in a strong position at the time. 

1803: L’Ouverture is sent by ship to France where he dies in a cold prison dungeon in the Jura mountains on April 7.  Napoleon sells Louisiana and contiguous French territories to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.  He loses interest in that part of the world.  Leclerc’s replacement, General Rochambeau, flees to Jamaica where he surrenders to the British.

1804: January 1 — a new nation called Haiti declares its independence.  Jean Jacques Dessalines succeeds L’Ouverture as leader and becomes the people’s liberator.

1805: Dessalines crowns himself (like Charlemagne!) Emperor of Haiti.  Corruption, autocracy and licentiousness upset the remaining mulatto population, still an influential part of Haitian society. The economy is going nowhere. He unsuccessfully attempts to invade Santo Domingo in the eastern part of the island. Thus, the two halves of the island are never the same again. The world learns of Dessalines’s brutal treatment of whites and isolates the country. Dessalines travels on horseback with a column of troops to put down a mulatto uprising. A senior mulatto officer shoots him fatally in Port-au-Prince. 

19th century history

1806: Henri Christophe, a black, becomes leader, with Alexandre Pétion, a mulatto, as head of the legislature.  However, the mulattoes effectively made Christophe a figurehead with the real power in Pétion and the legislature.  Unhappy, Christophe establishes his own dominion in the north of the country.  Pétion governs the south as a republic, which has Port-au-Prince as its capital.  Its constitution is closely modelled on that of the United States.

1809: Pétion was less fortunate with his republic.  Although he began land distribution, initially to his soldiers, within a few years almost everyone could buy their own land. However, they had little reason to grow anything other than subsistence crops. Consequently, there aren’t sufficient amounts of harvested crops — like coffee or sugar — to export.  

1811: Christophe  crowns himself Henri I of Haiti and creates a series of noble titles for his friends. He brings in a select, loyal group of warriors from Dahomey (Benin) — the Royal Dahomets — to oversee work on the plantations.  Life for those in the fields is harsh, but better than it had been under Dessalines.  Production and export levels rise, too, bringing in a steady income for the region and its people.

1816: The constitution under which Pétion governed as elected president is replaced with a charter creating an office of President for Life.

1818: Pétion dies.  His mulatto elite remains in place.  He was generally well liked by all the people, however, and becomes known as Papa Bon Coeur (Father Good Heart).  Having said that, he had more of an impact on neighbouring South American countries’ fight for independence than on making his part of Haiti prosperous.  General Jean-Pierre Boyer, Pétion’s confidant, succeeds him.

1820: Henri I commits suicide after he suffers a stroke.  His resulting physical disability causes him to lose control of his army and become despondent.  Boyer, with a show of troops, reunites the nation.

1822: The export of sugar from Haiti ceases.  Sugar mills close and workers lose their jobs.  The military is the only career option for black men, who, being deprived of education, are largely illiterate.

1830s: Boyer’s economy struggles.  Tensions between blacks and mulattoes increase.  Boyer’s opposition is Hérard Dumesle, a writer and political thinker, who encourages Haitians to form a national identity and divorce it from the French. 

1838: France refused to settle claims from Haiti dating from the Revolution.  Boyer was anxious for them to recognise the nation of Haiti. He agrees to pay France never to reclaim Haiti and to secure recognition of Haiti as a nation.  Originally, the amount to be paid was 150m French Francs, which France agreed to reduce to 60m FF.  By then, it was too late.  Haiti’s coffers were evaporating.    

1843: Dumesle, with most of Boyer’s army now on board for reform, overthrows Boyer with the help of his cousin, Charles Rivière-Hérard, who led a troop of rebel forces. When Boyer finds out, he sets sail for Jamaica, never to return.  Rivière-Hérard takes over as military ruler.

1844: An invasion of Santo Domingo by the Dominicans (as in Republic) weakens Rivière-Hérard’s control.  Black farmers in rural areas of Haiti are also unhappy; they want a black president.  Rebel groups oust Rivière-Hérard and the mulatto elite installs Philippe Guerrier, who held a title under Henri I.  This marks the first of the leaders installed by mulattoes to appease blacks in the rural areas.  This period runs through the early 20th century.  You can read more here and here.

1862: Haiti is still shunned by major nations of the day, but the United States recognises it as a fully fledged nation. For the rest of the century, some legislators in the US government propose to annex the island, although this has little support from others.

Tomorrow: The significance of Bois Caïman