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Historical Haiti (before 1804)

In December 1492, Cristoforo Colombos (known as Christopher Columbus) anchored off the northern shoreline of Haiti, near Cap-Haïtien, Haiti. Before he named the island Hispaniola (La Isla Española), or Little Spain (which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Haiti had been known as:

  • Ayiti - by the indigenous Taino population of Haiti meaning "flower of high land" or "mountainous land" - the Taínos gave the world sweet potatoes, peanuts, tobacco, guava, and pineapple
  • Quisqueya - by other indigenous populations on surrounding islands meaning "cradle of life" or "mother of all lands" 

In 1496, Colombos' brother, Bartholomew Columbus, established the first Spanish settlement of the New World in Saint Dominique (Santo Domingo), the capitol of the Dominican Republic. The Spaniards exploited the island's gold mines and reduced the Taíno to slavery. In fact, within twenty-five years of Columbus' arrival in Haiti, most of the Taíno had died from enslavement, massacre, or disease.

In 1697, nearly two hundred years later, Spain ceded the western part of Hispaniola to France. Under French rule, Santo Domingo became the country's richest colony of the eighteenth century, producing half of the sugar and coffee being bought and sold in Europe. 

Slave labor had been forcefully brought over from Western Africa to replace the labor lost as the indigenous Taino and Carib populations dwindled to almost zero from the imported European diseases and unbearable conditions imposed by the European conquerors.

"As a parade of European explorers and colonists claimed the land as their own, they gave it new names, aggressively imposing a series of new identities on a place that had existed long before their arrival:

  • Espanola, meaning Little Spain
  • Saint Domingue, under French rule
  • The Pearl of the Antilles as the colony “flourished” with the enormous profits furnished by slave labor and sugar cane

"But when Saint-Domingue’s former slaves declared independence in 1804, they chose an old name for their new country: Ayiti.

"Despite historically having very little contact with the Taíno, the freemen chose a name that harkened back to a time before Columbus, before European interruption, before Colonial greed and cruelty, and before their own forced arrival, symbolically restoring to the original inhabitants of the island that which had been stolen centuries before.

"For the founders of Haiti, naming the new country was not about imposing yet another new identity, but rather reaffirming an old one; one that spoke to the beauty and autonomy of the land beneath their feet, a burgeoning symbol of freedom and independence in a post-colonial world." | Source