Haiti was inhabited by the native Taino Indians when Christopher Columbus landed on December 5, 1492 at Mole St Nicolas; see Voyages of Columbus. Columbus named the island Hispaniola. The Taino were a branch of the Arawak Indians, a peaceful tribe that was weakened by frequent violent invasions by the supposedly cannibalistic Carib Indians. Later, Spanish settlers brought smallpox and other European diseases to which the Taino had no immunity. In short order, the native Taino were virtually annihilated. There is no discernible trace of Taino blood on Haiti today. The current inhabitants have exclusively African and/or European roots.
In the early 17th century, the French established a presence on Hispaniola and in 1697 Spain ceded the western third of the island to France. Through the development of sugar and coffee plantations, the French colony of Saint-Domingue flourished, becoming one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean. Enslaved Africans were brought to Haiti to work on these French plantations. Work conditions for slaves on Haiti were the harshest imaginable, as sugar and coffee plantations required intensive labor. The French imported an enormous slave labor force, which ultimately vastly outnumbered the French planters 10 to 1. Even within the minority of free people in the colony there were major divisions, between the "petit blancs" (small whites) who did not own slaves and worked in trades or as overseers, the "grand blancs" (big whites) who owned slaves and plantations and the "free coloreds" who were descendants of slaves and whites and occupied all strata of free society from wealthy landowner to poor day-laborer. The whites, who were largely born off the island and only came to Saint Domingue to make a fortune instituted a racist caste system designed to deny the "free coloreds" the relatively powerful position they had gained by the mid 18th century. However, all those inherent tensions (and the overriding tension of slavery) came to a head when the French Revolution broke out in the metropole in 1789 and all this talk of "freedom" and "equality" meant that everybody - including the big whites - wanted to overthrow the colonial order up to that point, ultimately resulting in a slave uprising and the collapse of the whole slavery and plantation based society.
In August 1791, Saint-Domingue's nearly 500,000 slaves revolted, burning every plantation to the ground and killing all the whites that they could find. After a bloody 13-year struggle, that was influenced and in turn influenced the Napoleonic Wars as well as the American War of 1812, the former slaves ousted the French and created Haiti, the first black republic, in 1804. Since its revolution, Haiti has had at least 32 coups over the centuries, a series of military dominations that focused on maintaining power and extracting wealth from a large peasant base. A lack of government and civil unrest led to the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
While order was brought about and much infrastructure was developed in Haiti by the United States, Haitians resented the occupation of their country. The withdrawal of Americans by President Roosevelt in 1934 left a power vacuum that was filled by Haitian military elite. The Forbes Commission in 1930 accurately noted that "the social forces that created [instability] still remain--poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government."
The following 20 years saw ruthless struggles for power that ended with the ascension of François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. Duvalier's brutal dictatorship lasted nearly thirty years, with his son, Jean-Claude (Bébé Doc) Duvalier assuming power after Papa Doc's death in 1971. Bébé Doc was ousted in 1986, followed by more bloodshed and military rule that culminated in a new Constitution in 1987 and the election of former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president in 1990.
After a coup, Aristide went into exile. Most of his term was usurped by a military takeover, but he returned to office in 1994 after Haitian General Raoul Cedras asked the United States to intervene, negotiating the departure of Haiti's military leaders and paving the way for the return of Aristide. His former prime minister, René Préval, became president in 1996. Aristide won a second term as president in 2000, and took office early in 2001. However, accusations of corruption were followed by a paramilitary coup that ousted Aristide in 2004. Since then, Haiti has been occupied by U.N. peacekeeping troops (MINUSTAH).