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The early cultural history of the Haiti

A map of Haiti
A map of Haiti

With so much about Haiti in the news, I thought it might helpful to reacquaint myself with Haitian cultural history.

Despite their poverty, the Haitians have developed a rich and unique culture. While the financial riches created by the Haitians has seldom benefited the people, they have developed a complex, colorful and creative culture that manifests in amazing and colorful folk art, skilled crafts and goods, religion ceremonies and their passion for the drum. They have made a culture that deserves the opportunity to survive and thrive.

The genetics, culture, society, language and politics of Haiti have been in a dramatic flux since Christopher Columbus and the Spanish first landed at the island they called Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic is on the eastern part). When Columbus arrived on December 5, 1492, claiming the island for Spain, he found the Taíno Indians who called the entire island Kiskeya.

The Spanish came for gold. They immediately began to settle the island, bringing their European and Catholic culture and society. The Spanish began mining using the Taíno’s labor. Those refusing to work in the mines were sold into slavery or killed. Unfortunately the Spanish brought their infectious diseases with them, particularly smallpox (arriving around 1507). Without immunity to these new biological challenges, along with extreme social and cultural devastation, the Taíno rapidly went into almost total extinction.

Having wiped out their labor force, the Spanish governors began importing Africans slaves to mine their gold. This brought a variety of African cultures into the horrors of European slavery and forced conversion to Catholicism.

The Spanish were the first of many to see Haiti as a source of profit and its people as cheap labor. African slavery and successive waves of both Spanish and French settlers became the main sources of labor. When the gold ran out, tobacco became the product. Later it would include sugar, coffee and indigo (a blue dye obtained from plants). Colonial powers eventually gave way to international corporations.

The earthquake provides an opportunity for the world to help the Haitians save a culture that has thrived and evolved under the most devastating conditions.

More about Haiti:

J. Michael Dash, Culture and Customs of Haiti, Greenwood (September 29, 2008)

Blog posts on Haiti:

Why is Haiti so poor? (January 14, 2010) From Anthropologyworks
“In 1697, the French took control of what is now Haiti and instituted an exceptionally cruel system of African plantation slavery.”

Is Haiti to be another victim of disaster capitalism? (January 19, 2010) From: The Memory Bank
“The Haitian disaster has boosted Naomi Klein’s theory of ‘disaster capitalism‘. In an article entitled Disaster capitalism headed for Haiti, Stephen Lendman provides a summary of Klein’s argument and a trenchant account of recent events in Haiti as a powerful reinforcement of her central thesis, featuring American imperialism at its worst.”

Slideshow: Massive earthquake shakes Haiti (photos)
(January 14, 2010) From: US Examiner Cindy Adams
"On Tuesday, the strongest earthquake in over 200 years struck Haiti, leaving devastation and destruction in its wake"


  • Anonymous 4 years ago

    This is a good article. I am shocked at myself for not realizing the rich culture of Haiti, in spite of their poverty. I'm so glad you pointed this out. It gives me something to think about when I study the country further.

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