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Haiti: A Historical Overview Essay, Research Paper

Haiti: A Historical Overview

Section One: History

The island of Hispaniola, which is now divided into the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was the first place Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. Columbus colonized a small village on the north coast near present day Cap-Haitien, where his ship, the Santa-Maria, wrecked on the coral reef. He named this settlement Navidad. The natives of area, Taino Indians, seemed quite friendly, and helpful to these newcomers, but the natives became violent as a result of the abuse they received from the Spaniards. When Columbus returned to Navidad one year later, he found it thoroughly pillaged. This did not stop Spain?s expansion into the area however, and Columbus set up a new village to east.

This village, named Isabela, became the first outpost of the Spanish Empire. Although the expectation of huge gold reserves was not true, Spain still made good use of Hispaniola. The island was used as a base for other missions deeper into the Caribbean, and also as a place to test new ways for ruling new lands. One of these new ideas for governing was the use of native slave labor on plantations. This was the beginning of the long history of slavery that Haiti is known for.

The placement of Hispaniola as the gateway to the Caribbean region made it a highly wanted location. Sir Francis Drake, along with other buccaneers, made several attacks against the island. Although they were never successful, these battles slowly deteriorated the dominance of Spain. French residents from the island of Tortuga noticed this decline in power, and started to move into Hispaniola. In 1670, they established there first major community, Cap-Haitien. The French started to control more and more of the island, and in 1697, Spain gave it to France.

By the mid-eighteenth century, a territory largely neglected under Spanish rule had become the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere. The system that worked so well for the people in France had a fatal flaw, however. That flaw was slavery. The origins of modern Haitian society began in the slaveholding system. The mixture of races that eventually divided Haiti into a small, mostly mulatto elite and an impoverished black majority started with the white slave owners reproducing with the African women.

In 1791, there was a slave rebellion led by Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture. The bands of slave wreaked havoc on the island. They slaughtered every white person the encountered, and set every white owned building on fire. The blaze was said to have burned for continuously for months. Word of the rebellion quickly made it to Cap-Francais, and the whites there defended themselves with guns, and forced down the uprising.

On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared its independence. This made it the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere and the first free black republic in the world. The French colonists left many aspects of their language, culture, and religion behind. You can still see these impacts in modern Haiti.

Haiti has never really participated in any major world events. The United States has controlled the country twice, both times were to help the government gain power back. While no treaty has ever been signed, it seems as if the U.S. has always kind of been a big brother. Haiti is a member in the United Nations and its associated organizations, and the Organization of American States.

Section Two: Economy

Haiti has always been a poverty stricken nation. In the 1980s, it was ranked as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and as the twenty-seventh most impoverished nation in the world. Haiti is the only low-income nation in the Americas, and it fell even further behind other countries in Africa and Asia in the 80s.

Haiti?s major industry is still agriculture, however inefficient uses of the natural resources has caused deforestation and soil erosion. Manufacturing has also become one of the main industries. This was most likely caused by the abundance of low cost labor. Banking, tourism, and transportation all play minor parts in the economy.

Despite its recent decline, coffee is still the leading cash crop followed by sugar, cocoa, sisal, and cotton. Haiti imports millions of tons of grains each year, because the soil is not suitable for growing any of the grass-like crops. Manufactured goods are becoming the number one export replacing agriculture. The major products are processed foods, electrical equipment, textiles, and clothing.

Throughout Haiti?s history, foreign trade has played a major economic role. The United States is the leading exporter and importer with Haiti. France and Italy are the two main buyers of Haiti?s coffee, but only account for 3 and 4 percent of the total exports. The rest of the exports went to the Dominican Republic and other Latin America countries.

In 1987, Haiti?s gross domestic product was approximately 1.95 billion US dollars, and the per capita income was 330 US dollars. The adult literacy rate is below 30 percent, but in an attempt to raise that level, the government has made attendance in school mandatory between the ages of six and twelve. The number of people that go on in school past sixth grade is almost zero. The quality of schools is very low, and most people look at it as a waste of time.

There is a definite caste system in Haiti; therefore a few people live well while most live in small shacks built of rusty metal. The upper class has relatively nice things. They own cars, televisions, and other amenities we look at as normal. The lower class peasant doesn?t own anything. He may have a job, but any money he makes goes for food and other necessities.

Section Three: Culture

The weight of what has happened in the past still bears heavily on the daily lives of all Haitians. The country?s legacy of slavery and French colonization has left a lasting imprint on the culture. In the past, members of the upper class cherished Franco-Haitian culture because the French language and manners separated them from the masses that they wished to rule. At the same time, former slaves created a peasant culture, but always in the shadow of their urban superiors. Haiti?s dual cultural heritage resulted in negative attitudes toward Haitian peasant life, particularly toward the Creole language, traditional marriages, and voodoo. The recent emergence of a middle class has only confused the debate over what should be considered ?true? Haiti.

As a result of the extinction of the natives of Haiti, the population was entirely controlled by the slaveholding practices of the French colonists. The major planters and government officials who constituted the ruling class carefully managed every segment of the population, especially the majority of African slaves and their descendents. Society was structured for the rapid production of wealth for the planters and their investors in France.

The Haitian Revolution changed the country?s social structure. The colonial ruling class, and most of the white population, was eliminated, and the plantation system was destroyed. The revolution split up the plantation land evenly among the former slaves. Through this process, the new Haitian upper class lost control over all the agriculture, thus giving them more time to work on the government.

The main place where the upper and lower class split is on religion. The main religion of the country is Roman Catholicism, but only the upper class practices it. The lower class practices voodoo. The voodoo religion is based as a domestic cult. The belief system of voodoo revolves around family spirits who are inherited through maternal and paternal lines. These sprits protect their ?children? from misfortune. In return the followers feed the spirits during rituals.

The Haitian culture is gaining recognition both inside Haiti and in other countries. A Creole theater has been established where Creole plays and plays translated into Creole are performed. Concerts of native music and dances are held frequently, and exhibitions of Haitian art are mounted. The changes show a trend in the acceptance of, and pride in the Creole traditions, language, and religion.

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