On December 5, 1492, a sunny Wednesday morning, the caravel Santa Maria anchored a few meters off the coast. Lost at sea for months, hungry and exhausted, the crew saw dry land: pristine beaches, winding rivers and dozens of trees laden with fruit. Among the curious crowds at the bow was the commander of the expedition that would forever change the history of the Americas: Christopher Columbus.
It was the first time that the Spaniards arrived in what we now call Haiti, a territory they would soon name Hispaniola. When Europeans landed on the island, close to 500,000 Arawke (or Taino) and Caribbean Indians populated different parts of the mountains and plains. About 40 years later, the balance of the meeting resulted in the annihilation of 450,000 natives, leaving only 50,000 unfortunate ones.
The natives lived in small communities, growing maize, potatoes, yams, manioc and other agricultural products. It was these products and lots of fresh water – by the way – that they offered to the European cadaverous newly arrived on their land. This land they called Ayiti (mountainous land).
Received by Guacanagari, one of the Arawke chieftains, the Spaniards gathered information about the unknown territory and questioned the native about the small gold ornaments hanging from his ears and neck. In permanent war with the Caribbean, Guacanagari saw the possibility of interrupting the looting, kidnapping of women and expulsion from land through an alliance with the Spaniards.
Both Arawkes and the Caribbean were accomplished weavers, but they also spun, planted, and harvested in the communal fields they shared. Although none of them domesticated any animals, they had large forests to hunt their prey. They did not know iron, but crafted pottery and gold objects with unusual skill. They also had a vast vocabulary, part of which was incorporated into the Spanish lexicon: pepper, corn, tobacco, canoe, manioc.
A few months after the meeting, Columbus returned to Europe. He died some time later convinced that he had arrived in the Indies, not knowing that the winds took him to America. The admiral’s confusion created a noun used to this day to name the inhabitants of these parts: Indians.
The Spaniards’ lack of interest in exploring the territory whetted the appetite of other settlers. In the second half and the 17th century, after brief negotiations, the island of Hispaniola was in two: the western band (present-day Haiti) was ceded to the French, while the eastern part (present-day Dominican Republic) remained under Spanish rule.
The French named the land São Domingos, started the colonization process and implemented the production of a delicacy that was highly valued at the time: sugar. As the years progressed, thousands of enslaved Africans landed on the island to work on the sugar cane plantations. In a short time, São Domingos became the richest colony in France and on the corners of Paris you could hear the buzz about the overseas domain, known as the “Pearl of the Antilles”.
Responsible for around 40% of the wealth produced by France, São Domingos was the only territory on the planet in the 17th century where the production of sugar, indigo, coffee and cotton took place at the same time. The colony’s importance was of such magnitude that back in 1763, during intense rounds of negotiations, the French preferred to hand over French Canada to England than to cede St Domingue to them.
The waves of enslaved people disembarked on the island generated fears in the colonial authorities, who tried to create ways to differentiate and divide them by granting certain privileges. In 1685, a document called the Black Code came into effect, which allowed free mestizos (children of whites with black women) the same prerogatives and prerogatives enjoyed by the colonizers, including possession of enslaved people, land and commercial establishments, educational training and military command.
These measures made possible the rise of large mestizo and black landowners, who enjoyed political, military and economic power. They walked the streets dressed in fine clothes, imported carriages and a procession of slaves at their disposal. They even awakened the rancidity of less privileged whites who spat after the passage of the entourage.
Although most of the wealth produced in São Domingos flowed to France, much of it remained on the island and provided the elites (mestizos, blacks and whites) with opulence incomparable in the Caribbean. Therefore, in their majestic carriages, these same elites could visit two resident orchestras, part of which consisted of black musicians. In addition, they gambled in casinos, attended military parades, visited horse shows and frequented a traveling wax museum with images of personalities from different parts of Europe and America: George Washington, president of the United States, was among the laureates.
In March 1784, São Domingos would host the first air balloon flight in the Americas. A week later, colonial authorities, large landowners and merchants gathered in a sprawling spring field to watch the flight of another, even more imposing balloon.
The capital of São Domingos, Port-au-Prince, concentrated attractions little seen in other colonial cities, including European ones. There were magicians, illusionists and jugglers scattered in different streets; an immense botanical garden attracts those interested in appreciating acclimatized plants brought from different parts of the world; a bathroom was a frequent destination for those who wanted hot water and the company of prostitutes; in addition to dozens of bookstores scattered in different parts of the city.
Another six cities had theaters with permanent companies, which staged more than 150 plays annually. One of these theaters was located in Cap François, held 1500 spectators and was always full. A favorite spot for the elites, it housed the performances of the island’s most famous actor: the ex-slave Chevalier, who died on stage: “Close the curtains”, he told the astonished audience, “the farce is over”.
Colonization established nuances in all spheres of everyday life, so the wealthy residents of Cap Francois could boast of its museums, numerous newspapers, and even a Royal Society of Arts and Sciences founded in the 18th century.
However, as in other slave societies, the fear of revolt haunted the powerful, be they mestizos, blacks or whites. Santo Domingo had the largest slave population in the Caribbean, something that led an important French parliamentarian, Count Mirabeu, to say that the rich slept “at the foot of Vesuvius”. And this volcano showed signs of constant eruption, especially with the constant flight of enslaved people.
The captives fled in droves, especially towards the northern plains (the main agricultural area of São Domingos), where they met other fugitives and conflated rebellions. Finally, a group of enslaved worker representatives from hundreds of farms gathered in a remote place called Alligator Woods. There, under the starry night sky, they slaughtered a pig, drank the pig’s blood and vowed to rebel on a certain day. In the heat of the crowded meeting, a haughty and imposing member took the floor. With fists clenched and eyes blazing, he told the crowd: “throw away the image of the god of whites who thirst for our tears and listen carefully to the voice of freedom that speaks in the hearts of all of us.” Enough!
In the early morning of August 22, 1791, a Monday, while the powerful were sleeping, the volcano erupted. The shrill beats of drums gave the signals and the enslaved attacked the buildings, the owners and their lackeys with machetes, scythes and torches. They marched through the plantations setting fire to everything related to work: sugarcane fields, sugar mills, boiler houses, warehouses, coffee and cotton plantations. Machines that resisted the fire were destroyed with hammers; the carriages were smashed and the horses released. In a short time, thousands of white, mestizo and black men were executed with the same refinements of violence that subjected their enslaved. A member of a militia capturing fugitives was nailed alive at a farm gate and had his arms and legs severed; an enslaved carpenter known to denounce fellows was shut in two; a farmer was beheaded in front of his wife, who was also later killed.
Terrified by the bloodshed, dozens of owners, some in pajamas, fled to Cap François for shelter and safety. While the flames consumed the plantations, many enslaved decided to protect their masters from the lava of the volcano.
In the same Cap François, a gaunt and taciturn black man, counting around 40 years of age, enjoyed privileges on the farm where he lived. Trusted man of its owner, the merchant Bayon de Libertat, exercised the function of animal breeder and coachman. Asked for the quality of services provided, especially as a botanist and veterinarian, he claimed to be the son of a West African chief before boarding a slave ship bound for the Caribbean. Literate and with easy transit in Santo Domingo, he was known as Toussaint.
Toussaint was released a few years before the start of the 1791 revolt. After his manumission, he became a slave owner and subjected many others to captivity. Faithful to its former owner, he took it upon himself to contain the rebels for some time until the family had enough time to flee Cap François.
Seeing the advance of the agitation, Toussaint hesitated to join it. He didn’t want to lose the many privileges he enjoyed, including some captives and the admiration of some farmers. Feeling the change in the winds, he realized that the time had come to move forward and never look back: he took a bayonet and embraced the revolution.
News of the disturbance in Santo Domingo reached Europe. For the first time in history, thousands of whites were being executed by enslaved people: the metropolitans trembled, the world was turned upside down. Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled France, sent troops to contain the mutineers. In addition, thousands of guns, supplies and dollars arrived from the United States from President George Washington and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners.
As fierce battles ensued and the territory burned in flames, Toussaint quickly projected himself as a skilled strategist, earned the respect of the rebels, and assumed positions of leadership. When he was raised to the command post, he adopted a surname of his own choosing: L’Ouverture, which means “The Opening”. The nickname probably derives from the way the troops led by Toussaint forced breaches when attacked by the French or even from a scar on his mouth caused by the shrapnel of a cannonball.
Napoleon Bonaparte and his soldiers believed that control of the island would be quickly reestablished, but they came up against the guerrilla techniques adopted by the enemy, the complete ignorance of the territory and the superb characteristic of the colonizers. The latter even overrode common sense. Successive ships loaded with soldiers arrived in Santo Domingo wearing heavy uniforms made of thick wool, uncomfortable and not very functional to fight in the infernal and humid heat of the tropics. The layers of flannel and wool were soaked with sweat, creating a thick, soggy layer that caused dehydration and heatstroke in the solder.
But the uniform was not the only mismatch. French doctors did not know that malaria and yellow fever were transmitted by mosquitoes that breed in standing water. The main hospital for the colonizing troops, located in Port-au-Prince, was beside a swamp full of insects. When a soldier contracted yellow fever, doctors prescribed flour dumplings with cayenne pepper, which ended up making the illness even worse, as yellow fever weakens the inner tissue of the stomach.
Just as winter had always been allies of the Russians, Toussaint L’Ouverture used its best generals: malaria and yellow fever. Taking advantage of the dry seasons to train the troops and elaborate guerrilla techniques, he left the most brilliant offensives for the rainy seasons, which favored the contamination by malaria and rendered enemies useless. There were several battles in which the French fell into traps and were left with almost their entire body buried in the mud.
Cornered by the action of the rebels and trying to appease the spirits Léger-Félicité Sonthonaz, a high-ranking French official stationed on the island and in the service of Napoleon, proclaimed the end of slavery in São Domingos. It was August 29, 1793, three years after the volcano erupted which had already left a pile of corpses rotting on the country’s crops, roads and establishments.
The military power of the ex-enslaved was waning, resources dwindling and several generals, officers and soldiers deserted, deluded by the promises of the French monarchy. In May 1802, Toussaint decided to negotiate a truce and agreed to meet a French general. Caught in an ambush on the way to the rendezvous point, he was tied up, rushed to the coast and loaded onto a ship for France where he would die in prison ten months later, on April 7, 1803.
Detention, however, did not make the movement back down. Another general, Jean Jacques Dessalines, assumed the leadership of the movement. Hungry, demoralized by successive defeats and halved, the French troops retreated at the end of 1803.
In the wake of the stampede, the balance of the catastrophic undertaking: more than fifty thousand Frenchmen murdered. Napoleon suffered more losses in Santo Domingo than in any other battle. Furthermore, with his treasury depleted by the vain effort to subdue the ex-enslaved, he was forced to sell Louisiana to the United States and halt the advance of French colonization in the Americas.
On January 1, 1804, the leaders of Santo Domingo proclaimed the country’s independence. In celebration of victory, they erected a statue in the heart of Port-au-Prince and proclaimed themselves “Avengers of the New World”. The ex-enslaved were avenging the Arawkes and the Caribbean, the peoples who made contact with Columbus. In honor of the Indians, they re-established the name of the island given by its first inhabitants: Haiti.
In more than 12 years and 4 months of war, cultivated fields were razed to the ground and thousands of people were murdered. Famine has plagued the country, which has lost more than half its population. Workers, teachers, doctors and other professionals who survived the war fled. In the cities, hundreds of people lived in temporary shelters and in the rubble of what, years before, had been the most splendid buildings in the Caribbean.
The legacy of violence left Haiti devastated. To this day, the country is punished for the boldness of the rebels, but the invader – the greatest European armed force in history – was defeated.