For more than a thousand years, Native Americans, the Taino people, inhabited the island they called Ayiti. These peaceful people also lived on neighboring islands which, collectively, were later called the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean archipelago by European invaders, who saw themselves as “discoverers.” Led by Admiral Christopher Columbus, who stumbled upon what he and later Europeans would call “the New World” while trying to land in far off Japan, these “discoverers” found Ayiti after nearly two months of exploring other areas that Europeans had previously never seen.
Disregarding the people who inhabited the beautiful Ayiti, Columbus immediately named the Island Hispaniola (Spanish Island).
The date was Sunday, December 9, 1492. It marked the beginning of the end for the Taino people and other Amerindians throughout what subsequently became the Americas.
According to Randall Robinson’s must-read book, An Unbroken Agony, researchers Woodrow Borah and Sherburne Cook of the University of California estimate that 8 million Tainos lived on Ayiti in 1492. There were only 200 Taino survivors on the Island by 1542.
Along with his brothers Diego and Bartolome, Columbus enslaved the pacifist Tainos, who lived as egalitarian communalists. Many Tainos died from European diseases, and others were slaughtered by the brothers, soldiers and Spanish colonists. Enter the Trans-Atlantic African Slave Trade, and later a division of the large island between Spain and France (Spain’s portion would become the Dominican Republic).
The French called the Island St. Domingue, and began importing thousands of African slaves to clear much of the land and build plantations. By the late 1700s, there were over half a million African slaves in St. Domingue, and close to 40,000 whites, as well as almost as many “mulattos.” (The word “mulatto” derives from the Spanish term meaning a young mule.) They were the “free people of color,” the result of white men taking many slave women.
St. Domingue’s soil was the richest and best irrigated in the Caribbean, and its plantations produced far more sugar than England’s best land in Jamaica. In fact, St. Domingue produced “30 percent of the world’s sugar and more than half its coffee, not to speak of cotton and other crops,” wrote Adam Hochchild in his informative book, Bury The Chains.
Hochchild also revealed the origins of the island’s erosion problem: “Thousands of slaves were at work clearing mountainside forests for new coffee estates, but the massive erosion this caused would not take its toll until the next century.”
Hochchild goes on to tell us how very rich France became through its plantocracy on St. Domingue alone: “The colony’s eight thousand plantations accounted for more than one third of France’s foreign trade, and its own foreign trade equaled that of the newly born United States.” White planters and merchants on the island lived a life of luxury unrivaled in “the New World.”
As mean as slavery was purported to have been in the United States of America, French slavery in the island colonies (Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia and St. Domingue), especially St. Domingue, with more slaves than anywhere else in the Caribbean – and the largest market for the Trans-Atlantic African Slave Trade – was most cruel.
Randall Robinson reports that slaves worked “under a broiling sun an average of fifteen hours a day, likely contributing to France’s ultimate undoing. Slaves were routinely worked to death, starved to death, or beaten to death with a cane or a rigoise (a thick thong of cowhide).” The slave revolt on St. Domingue, now known as the Haitian Revolution, was planned and started with drum messages on August 22, 1791. It lasted for twelve and a half years. During that period, ex-slaves defeated the French, Spanish and English armies that were buttressed by economic aid and munitions from the United States government!
Hochchild tells us that on that fateful August night “a large group of slaves representing many plantations met under the night sky in a remote spot called Alligator Woods . . .” and these are the words reportedly shouted to the throng by a revolt leader: “Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears, and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.”
It was Toussaint L’Ouverture, along with his top general Jean-Jacques Dessalines, both ex-slaves who led the successful slave revolt on St. Domingue.
Robinson writes: “On January 1, 1804, the same day that French soldiers sailed for France in humiliating defeat, Dessalines proclaimed his country a free and independent republic, severed its ties with France, and gave the land that had been called St. Domingue a new name, Haiti.” (Remember that Haiti’s pre-European inhabitants, the Taino people, called the Island Ayiti.)