In 1492 Christopher Colombus on his first voyage to the Americas established a Spanish settlement, Navidad. on the north coast of the island of Hispaniola in what is now Haiti. That settlement was destroyed by the natives but Columbus on a later voyage established Isabela farther to the east on the north coast. The Spanish colony, called Santo Domingo, became a staging point for later expeditions and provided supplies for the conquistadores in Mexico and elsewhere. The first administrator for Santo Domingo was a brother of Christopher Columbus. Spaniards were given estates on the island and the right to compel the labor of the natives. The native population very nearly disappeared during the first half of the 16th century as a result of epidemics and enslavement. As a consequence the disappearance of the native population the population of Hispaniola, even in the Hispanic Dominican Republic, is not mestizo, as is the case in much of Latin America.
After the conquest of Mexico and the establishment of New Spain Santo Domingo lost is status as an administrative center and its economy lacked dynamism. By the end of the 16th century Spain was losing control of the seas to French, Dutch and British forces. Pirates preyed upon weak colonies such as those of Santo Domingo. By the middle of the 17th century French settlers occupied a the island of Tortuga off the north coast of Hispaniola and later French Huguenots began to settle the north coast of what is now Haiti. By 1700 the Spanish king had relinquished control of the western part of Hispaniola to the French. The French settlement was at first known as Sainte-Dominigue but later the name Haiti was adopted based upon the native name for the area which meant mountainous.
During the 18th century the French colony grew and prospered. By the time of the French Revolution Haiti was producing more than half of all the coffee produced in the world and Haiti was producing 40 percent of the sugar for France and Britain and accounted for 40
percent of France's foreign trade at a time when France was the dominant economy of Europe.
The prosperity of the French colony was based upon slavery. By the time of the French Revolution the population of slaves in Haiti was somewhere between 500 and 700 thousand. Most were slaves imported from Africa, predominantly from the west central african region of Dahoumey. The hard labor of the plantations along with the epidemics endemic to the tropics kept the mortality rate high necessitating continuing importation of slaves from Africa. The origin of the slaves in Dahoumey left its effect on the culture of Haiti, particularly in the religion known as Voodoo.
The century of domination of white slave holders over the African women produced a subpopulation of mulattoes. The mulattoes being offspring of the white elite were given special privileges that led to mulattoes accumulating land and some wealth. The mulattoes definitely were below the white elite in social status but they were definitely above the pure African slaves.
During the 18th century communities of escaped slaves developed in the mountain wildernesses. These people were called maroons from the Spanish word cimaron for wild. These maroon communities carried out wars against the slave plantations. One war in 1751-1757 resulted in the deaths of six thousand. The French were able to put down these wars but not able to wipe out the threat from the maroons. The maroons acquired military experience for this period of guerrilla war. Mulattoes of the cities acquired military experience while serving in the French units suppressing the warfare of the maroons. Some mulattoes gained military experience fighting on the side of the revolutionaries in the battle for independence of the British colonies (the American Revolution). The mulattoes had a self-interest in preserving slavery in the colony but they wanted their legal and social status made equal to that of the whites.
The French Revolution Leads to a Rebellion in Haiti
The rebellion of Haiti was not a simple black versus white affair. Instead the political matrix was as follows: