A Short History of Haiti


In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island we now know as Haiti, claiming it for the Spanish and naming it Hispaniola.  Soon after this, the New World’s first settlement was built at La Navidad on Haiti’s north coast.  The island remained under Spanish control until 1698, when, subsequent to the treaty of Ryswick, it was split into two separate colonies; Spain’s stronghold of Santo Domingo and France’s colony, St. Domingue or ‘The Pearl of the Antilles’, which would prove to be its most lucrative overseas territory.

The island was ruled over by these two colonial powers for the next 100 years, with trade in sugar, rum, coffee, and cotton flourishing.  Meanwhile, the Spanish and French authorities became increasingly involved in the booming slave trade.  Jamaican-born Boukman was the first to sow the seeds of dissent against the latter by leading a slave revolt against the occupying powers in 1791.  This broke out into a 13 year war of liberation, waged by the slave armies on the colonists and, later, Napoleon’s army.


Toussaint Louverture, leader of the revolution, was deported to France by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, where he died a year later.  His deputy, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took the reins and, in 1803, the slave armies claimed victory over the French at the Battle of Vertières: on 1 January of the following year, Dessalines declared the second republic, and the island was re-named ‘Haiti’ – or ‘Ayiti’ in Creole – meaning “mountainous country”.

A mere two years after reclaiming its freedom from the French, Haiti returned to turmoil, with General Dessalines being assassinated in 1806, and a civil war ravaging the country between 1807 and 1820.  The island was divided into the northern kingdom of Henri Christophe and the southern republic, governed by Alexandre Pétion.  The conflict came to an end when Christophe, faced with a mutiny by his own men, was driven to suicide.


After Cristophe’s death in 1820, Jean-Paul Boyer took on the role of president of the entire republic, leading the Haitians to independence from Spain in 1821.  In 1838, France recognised Haitian independence, but at a high price.  Haiti was forced to take out crippling loans in order to pay the 150 million franc indemnity demanded by the French for this ‘privilege’.  In the meantime, the island continued to be shunned by other nations on account of its unruly reputation.


In 1915, US Marines occupied Haiti, seizing control of its ports and custom houses.  Despite organised resistance, they did not withdraw until 1934.  Later, in 1937, tragedy struck Haiti, when the Dominican President, Rafael Trujillo, gave the order for his soldiers to massacre thousands of Haitians residing near the border of the Dominican Republic.

After a series of failed attempts at democracy, military-controlled elections lead to Dr Francois Duvalier being named President in 1957.  The regime, as reinforced by the President’s henchmen, the ‘Tonton Macoute’, became infamous for its brutality.  In 1964, the corrupt Duvalier, better known as ‘Papa Doc’, changed the constitution to make himself ‘President for Life’.  Tens of thousands of Haitians were killed or exiled during his ruthless dictatorship.

Following Duvalier’s death in 1971, the reigns of power were handed to his 19-year-old son, Jean Claude. “Baby-Doc”, who equaled, if not surpassed, his father in cruelty, killing and torturing thousands.  By the year of his ascendance to presidency, Haiti had become the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and remains so to this day.

By 1986, massive demonstrations against Jean Claude Duvalier’s tyranny led the US to intervene by arranging his exile to France.  General Henri Namphy took his place as the head of a National Governing Council, and, the following year, a new constitution was ratified.  However, in November 1987, the general elections were soon abandoned, after dozens of people were shot at by militants and the Tonton Macoute.

Political Turmoil

In 1988, military-controlled elections were held, and Leslie Manigat became Haiti’s President.  His ousting by General Namphy four months later would be the first in a chain of political upheavals.  In November 1988, General Prosper Avril seized power from Namphy, heading up a repressive regime with widespread censorship in place.  However, by 1990, popular protests and pressure from the American Ambassador convinced Avril to resign, with democratic elections taking place in December.  Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide was named President, with 67.5% of the vote.

On returning from addressing the UN General Assembly in 1991, President Aristide faced a violent coup d’état staged by the military and was ousted.  In the aftermath of the coup, the Organisation of American States (OAS) called for an embargo on the de facto regime in Haiti, but this ultimately failed as goods continued to be smuggled through the Dominican Republic.

In July 1993, President Aristide and General Raoul Cédras signed the Governors Island Accord, calling for the retirement of Cédras, the return of the President, and the formation and training of a new civilian police force.  General Cédras refused to step down as promised, and there was further unrest.  The embargo on Haiti was reinforced by the UN, and human rights observers were brought in.  The following year, a naval blockade was backed by Argentine, Canadian, French, Dutch and US warships.

In September 1994, US President Clinton formed a multinational force with 20 other nations, which proceeded to land on the island after the coup leaders agree to leave the country.  On 15 October, the exiled President Aristide and his Government returned to Haiti.  Former Prime Minister, René Préval, won the elections to become President in December 1995.


Charges of corruption and fraud sullied the municipal and legislative elections of 2000, leading to a boycott of the presidential elections later that year, which were won by Aristide.  By 2004, Haiti’s economy was struggling, while human rights abuses and political violence were rife.  This backdrop paved the way for yet another upheaval, with a rebel movement seizing power and forcing Aristide into exile.

During this tumultuous time, Boniface Alexandre assumed the interim authority, before René Préval was re-elected as President in February 2006.  The elections were once again marred by corruption and uncertainty, and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti remained in the country, having arrived there during the 2004 Haiti Rebellion.

Natural Disasters

The catastrophic Haiti earthquake which struck Haiti on 12 January 2010 had devastating effects, leaving over 217,000 people dead and 2.1 million homeless.  Hurricane Sandy, which hit in 2012, caused further damage, with over another 200,000 people left without a home.

In October 2016, the most powerful storm to hit Haiti in over fifty years, Hurricane Matthew, left more than 1.4 million people in the country in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Causing unprecedented flooding,

Haiti Today

In April 2011, Michel Martelly won a landslide victory in the presidential elections, remaining in the position until February 2016, following a difficult election period and subsequent riots in late 2015 and into the New Year.  Jocelerme Privert was named as interim President, before Jovenel Moïse won the November 2016 elections, taking office the following February.