First claimed by Spain in 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti, the nation was then ceded to France in 1665. With colonization came the slave trade—a system of exploitation, abuse and horrific injustice that would set a tragic course for the country’s future.
While Haiti was economically profitable during this era—producing 60 percent of the world’s coffee exports and 40 percent of sugar exported to Europe in the 1780s—few Haitians saw any of the material benefits of this economic success. (Haiti: a long descent to hell, The Guardian).
The slave trade in Haiti was one of the most brutal in the world.
“Haiti's riches could only be exploited by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. For nearly a decade in the late 18th century, Haiti accounted for more than one-third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. Conditions for these men and women were atrocious; the average life expectancy for a slave on Haiti was 21 years. Abuse was dreadful, and routine.” (Haiti: a long descent to hell, The Guardian).
The oppression of slavery and exploitation soon led to unrest, and in 1791, a group of former slaves led the first successful slave revolt in history (Haiti’s History, PBS). This battle set the wheels in motion for the Haitian Revolution, ultimately leading to independence in 1804, making Haiti the first Latin American nation to gain independence and the first black-led republic in the world (Haiti Country Profile, BBC News).
However, these victories came at great cost. Guerrilla-style fighting destroyed the country’s infrastructure and most of its plantations, and Haiti was then levied with astronomical reparations to France.
“The long and the short of it is that Haiti was paying reparations to France from 1825 until 1947," says [historian Alex] Von Tunzelmann. "To come up with the money, it took out huge loans from American, German and French banks, at exorbitant rates of interest. By 1900, Haiti was spending about 80 percent of its national budget on loan repayments. It completely wrecked their economy. By the time the original reparations and interest were paid off, the place was basically destitute and trapped in a spiral of debt. Plus, a succession of leaders had more or less given up on trying to resolve Haiti's problems, and started looting it instead." (Haiti: a long descent to hell, The Guardian).
Haiti moved from slavery to revolution to debt to poverty and corruption. The country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. The unemployment rate is astronomical (40 percent), and nearly two-thirds of the population (60 percent) lives under the national poverty line of $2.42 (US dollars) per day. (Source: World Bank)