Pirates. Slaves. Sugar plantations. Parrots. Voodoo. The history of Hispaniola – you know, that strangely shaped island in the Greater Antilles – looks like it was patched together from the crazed ramblings of Jack Sparrow and Guybrush Threepwood. And sure, at first glance, it’s a stereotypical Caribbean island, with tropical forests and mountains and colourful cities and a history of violent dictatorship, but if you just scratch beneath the surface there’s a huge amount of history, interconnectivity and culture that the “Banana Republic”descriptions just don’t cover. For a start, the island is split almost down the middle between the French-Creole speaking Haiti and the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, two nations with enough bad blood between them to fill an ocean, but it’s also got brutal presidents, revolutionary heroes, secret mountain cults and the world’s first independent slave republic. Ladies and gentlemen, the history of Hispaniola.
Hispaniola’s first known inhabitants were the Taíno, a South American Arawak culture who followed Polynesians’ example by sailing around discovering shit until they owned pretty much an entire ocean’s worth of islands. You can get a really good idea of how a culture works from its religion, and if I tell you that the Taíno had two main gods – a goddess of fresh water and fertility and a god of salt water and cassava – you can probably get a good idea of their priorities. (For the record, they also had two smaller spirit-gods for different types of cassava, and Arawak itself is the native word for cassava flour – there’s a definite theme here that I can’t quite place). Like a lot of Aboriginal American cultures they had a matrilineal society, where women owned lands and titles more often than men, and split the island into about 5 different clans, each with a distinctly different culture. When the Europeans came, however – Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his first voyage in 1493 and, because he had a flag, claimed it for Spain – the Taíno quickly died out, – that had no real resistance to Eurasian diseases like plague and smallpox. (If it’s any consolation, we had no resistance to syphillis, but…ugh. Unfortunate implications.) What records we have on them, however, are surprisingly positive – Columbus said that they “have the sweetest voice in the world and are always laughing” – but they are limited, and when Spanish colonisation really began the only Taíno left (about 10% of the original population after smallpox epidemics) were taken as slaves and concubines. The sweet-voiced Taíno only really survive in the name they gave to their island. They called it Ayiti.
Spain, and this is a general theme throughout history, are terrible at empires. They survived mostly by mining silver in Peru – amazingly, that caused huge inflation and a market crash so huge that the Netherlands declared war on them in frustration – and through African slave labour. The slave system in Hispaniola created a natural class system – with Spanish whites at the top, then colony-born whites, then freed slaves and mixed race “mulattoes” with slaves, unsurprisingly, at the bottom. Meanwhile, the awful economic advice crippled the economy of the entire west half of the island and moved most of the Spanish population to the east, essentially giving it what would become Haiti to whoever wanted some more colonial land. In the 1600s, that meant “France and pirates”, and because the French had money and a military and didn’t rely on crime, eventually just “France” – although the fact that a pirate republic existed at all is awesome. By the 1700s, then, Hispaniola was split between the mostly slave French bit and the mostly mulatto Spanish bit. But you know the 1700s. Shit goes down in France in the 1700s. So that’s when things got interesting.
Through the Enlightenment, slaves rebelled pretty constantly in Haiti in an attempt to make slavery unprofitable and dangerous. Many ran away into the mountain where they became “marrons” – which is where we get the word “marooned” – who started worshipping traditional African spirit gods in the guise of Catholic saints. This secret pagan worship became known as Voduo or Voodoo, and your impression of it is probably wrong – mine was – so just understand that it was important in uniting escaped slaves and Baron Samedi is a hell of a lot better than the Grim Reaper because HE KILLS ZOMBIES AND WEARS A DINNER JACKET. This rebellion was happening all throughout the New World – in Florida, black slaves joined forces with the local Seminole Indians and repelled the Spanish for several decades – but nowhere was anti-slavery feeling stronger than in Haiti. The French Revolution near the end of the century promised to change that – specifically, it promised to free all slaves– but Napoleon quickly reversed that policy and that sort of pissed people off (is the understatement of the century). The mixed race-mulattoes, who had been campaigning for civil rights, and the slaves, who had been rebelling for freedom, quickly rose up against the whites – and then against each other – in a three-way struggle for Haiti. The result was unprecedented, unexpected and completely horrifying to the French. The slaves won – – and formed the first slaves’ republic in history.
Unfortunately – you shoule be able to see this coming a mile off by now – the republic of Haiti was kind of doomed from the start. France demanded that the slaves pay reparations for the loss of such an important colony – roughly £8,400,000,000 in today’s terms – and most of Haiti’s wealth had been lost to fleeing ex-slave-owners in the revolution. France, to this day, has refused to repay the charges. Revolutionary heroes like Toussaint L’Ouverture (yes, his name means All-Saints-Day the Overture – he was awesome, look him up) had been executed for treason and the chance of further rebellion was high. After only one year, Haiti abandoned democracy and installed an emperor. The worst would be yet to come.
In the Spanish half of Hispaniola, however, a new kind of revolutionary fervour was taking root. The early 1800s saw most of South America rise up against their Spanish overlords to form free and equal…well, fine, they were republican dictatorships led by colonial whites but they were still a step in the right direction. Spanish Hispaniola rose up and attempted to join the sort-of South American Union but was invaded by – who else- Haiti, and a 20-year occupation of the Dominican Republic began. Campaigners like Juan Duarte eventually secured freedom for the Dominicans, however, and set the stage for the rest of the 19th century. The Dominican Republic could become a trading power by exporting sugar, bananas, coffee – all massively fashionable in the pre-Starbucks USA. Haiti could become an intellectual capital, living evidence against Social Darwinism and racist ideologies. And, for a little while, they were.
The 20th century, however, is not kind to countries. The Dominican Republic declined in stability until a 1930s coup by President Rafael Trujillo, generally accepted as one of the worst dictators in Central America whose lasting legacy is that of the “Parsley Massacres”, a genocidal act in which Haitians in the Dominican Republic were identified – because they couldn’t say the Spanish for “parsley” – and murdered. Haiti, not wishing to be outdone, had successions of presidents who lasted less than a year until “Papa Doc” Duvalier, a dictator who claimed that voduo made him invincible and who – I kid you not -had the Lord’s Prayer rewritten so it began “Our Doc, who lives in the National Palace” Now, the status quo is turning yet again – as strong links to Spanish speaking South America make the Dominican Republic one of the area’s most powerful economies while earthquakes and disease cripple their French-Creole speaking neighbours. For all the twists and turns in history, Haiti and the Dominicans are left in the same imbalanced situation as they were in some 500 years earlier. History is interconnected, and holistic, and beautiful. But it’s definitely not fair.