Haiti was the first Black Republic and the 2nd country in the world to become independent. Its history is rich with stories of a people’s struggle to be free of chains and outside rule.
On December 6th, 1492 Christopher Columbus landed at Mole St. Nicholas in Haiti's north. Most people are aware that Christopher Columbus landed at San Salvador in October 1492, thus "discovering" the New World for Spain. However, it is less known that his second land fall was at Mole St. Nicholas, Haiti, on December 1492, and that the first settlement in the New World was La Navidad, on Haiti's north coast. This settlement, which housed sailors from the Santa Maria which sank off Haiti's coast, was founded on December 24th, 1492, giving place to its name, which means ‘Christmas’ in Spanish.
Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americas. The particular group of Arawak-speaking people who lived on the island of Hispaniola were the gentle Taino Indians, who had been inhabiting their land of ‘Ayiti’ for 700 years prior to the Spanish arrival.
The French settled on the island of Hispaniola in the 16th century and had control over it by the 17th. In the 1700s, France turned Haiti into the richest colony in the world: producing the most sugar and coffee in the world, as well as being an important exporter of products that were important in France’s economic growth. However, this great wealth was founded on great violence – the slave trade was rife in Haiti. The French revolutionary slogan: liberté, égalité et fraternité, resonated in Haiti and revolt was ignited in 1791. After 2 years of fighting, the slaves were freed but the battle was not yet over.
Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France in 1799, and was unhappy with how things had turned out in Haiti. He sent his brother and troops to revert things back to how they were on the island. The request was not easy to fulfil, and the tropical diseases and intense battles hindered the French massively. Napoleon was defeated, and forced to abandon his plans for an empire in the ‘New World’. Due to the war in Haiti, he sold his North American possessions in the Louisiana Purchase, which made the USA a true continental power.
Palais Sans Souci was built by self-declared king, Roi Christophe, in 1813 and was modelled on Versailles to show the rest of the world what Haiti could achieve. The slaves also built a fortress – La Citadelle la Ferriere on a hill 900 metres above sea level which still stands today, and was a pillar for new inland defensive techniques.
Haiti has two official languages: Haitian Creole (Kreyol) and French. It is said that Kreyol is the language of the people, and that French is that of government, law and the elite. Kreyol is thought to have evolved in the slave plantations and is about 300 years old. It is the amalgamation of the various dialects and languages that were brought to Haiti by the slaves from Africa. It also includes a bit of French, Spanish and English – and even some Taino from the native inhabitants. Haiti houses the largest population in the world of Kreyol speakers. Most school education is carried out in French which is not always positive for all, as to many it is a second language. There is some movement towards the promotion of Kreyol, but French is still seen as the superior language.
Haiti is a deeply religious country. The main practises are Christianity and Vodou, and are both recognised as the national religions of the country. In Haiti, you will never be far from a church, and mass is a time to dress up nicely with the whole family. Despite resisting the religion when brought over by the Spanish and then the French, since independence, it has been embraced. A few Haitians are Protestants, too.
Vodou is a complex belief system, rather far removed from ideas we have from films about “voodoo”, and essential to the nation’s identity. They believe in one god that is so far removed from reality and human form, that the only way to get to the god is through spirit teachers/speakers. Haitian Vodou is not found on any other Caribbean island – or anywhere in the world, for that matter! Like Kreyol, the religion was created in the slave communities and still remains a strong part of their culture in the world today. A Vodou temple is called an ounfò, and it is outside the building that the services take place. The services are impressive and incredibly interesting to experience. Singing and drumming is an important part to a Vodou ceremony, as are pictures drawn on the floor in flour, cornmeal or charcoal. There is a July pilgrimage which is incredibly popular, and Vodou as a whole is a must-experience for many tourists.
Haitian cuisine (manje kreyòl) is an interesting blend of African and French influences, with hot peppers thrown in to create a Caribbean twist to their food. Thanks to the coastline surrounding the island, seafood is plentiful and often locally sourced. The fruit is also unmissable including Haitian grapefruit, mangoes, oranges and passion fruit. The Haitian people also blend rich, tasty coffee and specialise in delicious rums.
Haitian art is world renowned. With solid Voudu influences, the creations are colourful and impressive. You will see works all around you when travelling around Haiti as a seller’s attempt to attract buyers. The architecture is inspiring, especially regarding the well-known ‘Gingerbread houses’ of the region, as are the iron and metal sculptures created by local artisans, especially in places such as Croix des Bouquets.
From slow, traditional kompa songs to the rara sounds of the streets, music is essential to this Caribbean nation’s upbringing. Kompa came originally from merengue dancing, and is a slow dance that mixes traditional folk music from Haiti with jazz. It is argued that kompa has become the nation’s favourite genre of music, and it is one that continues to evolve. Mizik rasin means ‘roots music’, and has followed Haiti throughout all its struggles. This genre blends new and old styles of music – modern sounds like rock, pop and reggae, with the well-known rhythm of Vodou drumming. A popular and well known mizik rasin is RAM – the band belonging to the owner of the Oloffson Hotel, who hosts a gig there every week.
In terms of celebrations, Haitian carnival (kanaval) is not like the well-known occasions in Rio or Barbados. However, it is still impressive and the swarm of Haitians getting involved is like nothing else. The carnival most recommended to tourists is the Carnival of flowers in July, as it is the most peaceful yet still impressive. Haiti’s main carnival is on Shrove Tuesday and can be incredibly overwhelming for those who are not natives.
Cockfighting in Haiti is not violent or abusive, as it is in many other countries. It is seen as a pastime, a career and a spectator sport. The birds do not wear blades on the back of their feet, nor do they fight to the death, but it is not for everyone, despite this. Once into the cockfighting arena, there will be a frenzy of betting and throwing of Haitian gourdes with spectators picking their favourite. The actual fight does not take long at all, and it is really the experience you go for, rather than for bloodshed or betting.