the story of the island with a split personality

It all started, like so many others in the Caribbean, with Christopher Columbus. The Genoese navigator encountered this 29,418 square mile piece of misty mountains and virgin forest – which, on the 21st century map, lies between Cuba and Puerto Rico – on his first voyage of “discovery”. He landed at what is now Mole-Saint-Nicolas, on the north coast of Haiti, on December 6, 1492, christened his discovery “La Isla Española” (“The Spanish Island”; in time it would corrupted to “Hispaniola”), and triggered a reshaping of the globe. Within a year, the settlers had carved out the first European settlement in the “New World” (La Isabela, now halfway along the northern Dominican coast). In six, they had installed what was to be the first major port (Santo Domingo, now the Dominican capital, to the south). Within a decade, the indigenous population was well on the way to destruction.

Sun sickness

There were five Taino chiefdoms on the island (Jaragua, Marién, Maguana, Maguá, and Higüey) by 1492. These Native American sailors had emigrated from what is now Venezuela at various stages between AD 600 and 1200. They called probably their house “Quisqueya” (although the 16th century Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo argued that the word was “Haiti”). Modern genetic analysis suggests they may have numbered 750,000 when Columbus showed up. This figure had fallen to 26,334 by 1514, as imported diseases – notably smallpox and typhoid – tore apart a population with no immunity to either, and the effective enslavement of encomienda labor system devoured many of those who were forced to toil in the sugar cane plantations and in the gold mines.

The story was hardly happier as the 16th and 17th centuries progressed. Distracted by bigger battles against the Aztecs in “Mexico” and the Incas in “Peru”, and increasingly favoring Havana as its most important port in the Caribbean, the Spanish Empire gradually forgot its Christmas toy of 1492. Such was the neglect that France slowly annexed the western third of the island, first via lightning raids by pirates, then with a constant influx of plantation owners, and the African slaves used to fuel these enterprises. Santo Domingo was declared a colony in 1665, and recognized in Rijswijk 32 years later.

A country born out of crisis

But just as this diplomatic powwow failed to secure peace in Europe, it did little to calm life on Hispaniola. Built on African bodies and bones, Santo Domingo developed a distinct Creole culture through the language and religion of the Spanish colony. For much of the 18th century, it was far wealthier than its neighbour, but it was also seething with resentment. When it began, the Haitian Revolution was a brick through an already cracked window – taking advantage of the unrest in Paris that had begun with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. On the night of August 21, 1791, thousands of slaves revolted against their “masters”, killing the plantation owners, along with their wives and children, before following their leader, the charismatic Toussaint Louverture, into a war of liberation. Even with the rise of Napoleon, who sent an invading force into the colony in 1802, France was unable to restore the old system. The republic that merged in 1804 was called “Haiti”. It was the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery and the only state ever founded on a slave rebellion.

Victory has a price. France recognized Haiti’s sovereignty on April 17, 1825, but delivered its terms – an indemnity of 150 million francs, to compensate dispossessed slave owners – via a fleet of battleships. Facing another war, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to a bill that, adjusted for the 21st century, would be around £27 billion. Although reduced to 90 million francs (about £16 billion) in 1838, the debt crippled Haiti and its ability to develop as a country. He will only pay the last installment in 1947.

Neighborhood conflict

There was, however, a way to make money. Go next. Inspired by events across the border, Santo Domingo had declared independence from Spain in November 1821. The moment was short-lived. In February 1822, Haiti invaded its neighbor. He kept the occupation going for more than two decades – and once the deal with Paris was done, sought to ease his financial burden by heavily taxing the people under his boot. The Dominican War of Independence, which broke out in 1844, was inevitable. It also dragged its heels, but eventually led to the formalization of an independent Dominican Republic in 1856. Weary of the ongoing acrimony, the two countries signed a treaty of mutual recognition in 1875.

Here, finally, were the two sides of Hispaniola with their cut European aprons. Here too there was a void, into which a new power entered. Both came under American control in the early 20th century – Haiti from 1915 to 1934; the Dominican Republic between 1916 and 1924 – as Uncle Sam, worried about the extent of instability in two fledgling nations during a time of world war, forcibly protected his own interests.

A Dominican Despot

From this last period came a despot. Rafael Trujillo remained so faithful to classic dictatorial tropes that he could have read them from a practical manual. Chief of the police and army, his rise to power in 1930 was partly a rigged election, partly a coup. Once in the presidential palace, he renamed the Dominican capital “Ciudad Trujillo” (“Trujillo City”), the highest mountain in the country “Pico Trujillo”. He murdered his political opponents, sucked a fortune of US$800m (£4bn at modern value) from his country’s coffers and ordered one of the most appalling instances of violence ever seen on an island soaked in blood. The Parsley massacre of October 1937 was a week of undisguised genocide – his army seeking out and murdering every Haitian it found alive on Dominican soil. Up to 35,000 people could have died, although it is impossible to assess precise statistics. In many cases, the remains of the victims were thrown into the sea, for the sharks to feast on.

His own end was just as brutal. On May 30, 1961, Trujillo was shot when his car was ambushed near the capital. The weapons were almost certainly supplied by the CIA.

The “voodoo dictator”

Haiti has not escaped a similar tyranny. François Duvalier, a doctor before entering politics, was elected president in 1957. His professional career earned him the nickname “Papa Doc”, but nothing cares about his 14 years in power. A shameless populist, he closely linked his image to that of Haiti voodoo mythology, associating with Baron Samedi, the guardian spirit of the dead in the top hat and black cloak. He was responsible for the deaths of up to 60,000 Haitians who fell victim to the “Tontons Macoutes” – the private militia he used to suppress dissent.

Nor was proximity to the throne a guarantee of survival. In 1963, Duvalier lost faith in Clément Barbot, the leader of the death squad. Convinced that his former right arm could turn into a black dog, the president had all these canines destroyed in Haiti as part of the manhunt. Even his death from heart disease in April 1971 could not quell the madness. His son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) maintained the family business until his dismissal in 1986.

A beautiful destination

Unfortunately, Haiti was little more stable in the four decades that followed, its troubled soul being ravaged by political and natural disasters. Last July saw the assassination of President Jouvenel Moïse. A month later, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed at least 2,248 people. Even if it has nothing to do with the earthquake that eviscerated the country on January 12, 2010 – a blow from the depths that may have claimed the lives of 160,000 people.

Edward K. Thompson