I. 4000 BCE to 1788 CE

Hispaniola, the island that Haiti and the Dominican Republic now share, was inhabited maybe as early as 4000 BCE by migrants originally from Central America. By 1200 CE, northern Caribbean civilizations had mixed and evolved into the Taínos, whom Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived in 1492. Columbus promptly returned to Spain to report to the royal court. But one ship, the Santa Maria, wrecked on the island’s shore and its crew stayed behind. They built a settlement, Navidad, which the Taíno destroyed when the Spaniards provoked them. When the Spanish returned in subsequent voyages, they subjugated the Taíno, who were decimated by disease and overwork. Native leaders like Anacaona were executed. As the Taínos dwindled in number, and sympathizers like the Spanish Friar Bartolomé de las Casas came to their defense, the colonizers started to import more and more enslaved Africans to serve as workers, which led to the Atlantic slave trade.

While the first court of the Spanish crown in the Americas was the Royal Audiencia of Santo Domingo, created in 1526, the Spanish nonetheless started to neglect Hispaniola when they discovered precious metals in Central and South America. French pirates, filibusters, were thus able to settle in what is today Haiti. To consolidate power over this new society, the French monarchy urged planters to settle there. The planters imported enslaved Africans to cultivate tobacco, indigo, and sugar, which were sold in Europe. In the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick, Spain ceded dominion over western Hispaniola to France. The colony, renamed Saint-Domingue, would become the most important asset in the French Atlantic economy. The enslaved Africans were brutally exploited, but some escaped and established maroon societies. In 1685, the crown introduced the Code Noir, which allowed slave owners to violently discipline their slaves. The code also allowed slave owners to free their slaves, and let slaves buy their own freedom, provided their owners approved. Hence by 1790 there were numerous free people of color, many of whom demanded the same liberties as whites. Some served in the French volunteer infantry that helped the United States win its independence.