On August 22, 1791, the slaves on the French island of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean begun a rebellion which ended with independence for the new country of Haiti in 1804. This was the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas and Haiti was the second country, after the United States, to become independent of European colonizers. The French had first arrived in the 1660s and in 1697 they established a colony here. Saint-Domingue was a quiet, provincial, outpost until the sugarcane arrived. In the eighteenth-century Europeans developed an intense love affair with sugar and it was above all on plantations in the Caribbean that it was produced. The labor force required for the task was imported as slaves from Africa. [Read more: “Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey“] Soon the plantation owners in Saint-Domingue were making enormous profits. The 40,000 whites on the island were the owners of some 500,000 African slaves.
The French Revolution of 1789 provided the slaves with a language in which to formulate their demands. They too wanted liberté, égalité and fraternité. In addition, the voodoo religion united the community around a shared identity. The leader of the uprising, Toussaint Louverture, was a freed slave who soon proved himself to be a very talented general. Before long he had the slave masters on the run. However, once Napoleon Bonaparte had come to power in Paris, he sent a punitive expedition to the Caribbean. They captured Toussaint Louverture and dispatched him to France. Yet the revolution itself was unstoppable. New, equally talented, leaders emerged and in 1803 the French army was conclusively defeated. Independence was declared the following year. The country was renamed “Haiti,” meaning “mountainous place” in the language spoken by the Taino, the people who had lived here before Columbus arrived.
The subsequent history of Haiti is a sad one. By the nineteenth-century the sugar boom was over and the country’s new elite proved itself to be both authoritarian and corrupt. The United States invaded the island in 1915 and occupied it until 1934. Since 1945, the country has had a number of dictators and military coups have replaced one another. Haiti is today the poorest country in the western hemisphere.