Haiti has a unique history for many reasons, a facet which contributes to its rich and dynamic culture compared to other Caribbean nations. It was the second country to become a republic in the Americas when it gained independence following a 10-year slave rebellion, making it the first republic in the world to be led by people of African-descent. It is one of most heavily populated Caribbean islands and the largest French-speaking nation in the Americas. Unfortunately, despite its proud origins and ensuing culture, Haiti remains one of the poorest nations in the world and was subject to a tyrannical regime from the Duvalier dictatorships for most of the 20th century. It also has a history of destructive earthquakes, which continues to mar development efforts.
Christopher Columbus first landed at Mole Saint-Nicholas in 1492. Three weeks later, his ship continued to the site of the present day Cap-Haitien. Before that, the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti forms one-third of, was populated by native Taino Indians. They attempted to resist foreign occupation, as evidenced by the battle led by Queen Anacaona (who is now considered as one of Haiti’s founders), but ultimately lost. The Spanish wanted to island for its gold, but later the French colonists introduced sugar and tobacco plantations as export crops.
The location of the island made it a haven for pirates, who would use the country as a base to loot passing ships traveling through the Caribbean en route to Europe. Many sought out Tortuga, a notion which has gone down in literary and romantic history. By the 17th century, French buccaneers had begun to settle in Hispaniola, causing conflict between France and Spain. By 1697, the island had been divided in two, and Haiti was ceded to France. They brought over slaves to work on the plantations and continued to rule for another 107 years.
Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789, the slaves rose up and demanded to be freed. After a 10-year rebellion, the country finally gained independence in 1804. It was hailed a republic and was the first country to be governed by people of African descent in the world. The ensuing years of the 19th century saw a power struggle, and by 1915, the US military took Haiti in an attempt to restore political stability. Their presence lasted until 1934. By 1957 after some turmoil, the first of the Duvaliers took office, which unfortunately led to a dark period in Haiti’s past.
Francois Duvalier had formerly been the Minister of Health, a position which earned him his nickname, Papa Doc. Initially he was popular among the Haitians, but his use of state-terrorist tactics to control the population turned him into an evil dictator until his death in 1971. Following Papa Doc was his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, nicknamed Bebe Doc, who led the country until he was ousted in 1986. Both the Duvaliers used elements of voodoo to instill fear and oppression in the people, and were despised as leaders.
A coup-d’état, elections and further coups followed until 1994 when democracy was restored with the help of the US administration. The army was disbanded and even today Haiti lacks an official military. The 2010 earthquake has not helped efforts to maintain stability and it was one of the most destructive ever recorded, leaving 316,000 people dead and 1.6 million homeless. This tragedy dealt a big blow to the already poverty stricken country, although international support to rebuild Haiti has been steady and successful.
The culture of Haiti has its roots in West Africa, and to this day many of its inhabitants feel more aligned to Africa than they do to the Caribbean or Americas. In fact, in 2012 Haiti announced its intention to join the African Union (a political entity representing the continent). Since Haiti was a former French colony, elements are still evident in culture, particularly in music and the language. A variant called “Creole” is widely spoken, but French is still the official language of Haiti, rivaled only by Canada as the most populous French-speaking nation in the Americas.
Haiti adopted Roman Catholicism from its former French colonizers, although more famously the practice of Voodoo is observed. Voodoo has its roots in West Africa, but encompasses aspects of many religions, and is combined with traditional folklore and tales that have been passed down through the generations. The infamous Voodoo dolls are not a part of Haitian Voodoo, although the country’s Duvalier dictators used other fearful elements to oppress the nation during their tyrannical rule. West African culture has also influenced Haitian art work and jewelry. The Panthéon National Museum (Port-au-Prince) houses artifacts and historic documents telling the tale of Haitian history from the Spanish conquest in 1492 through present day.