Haiti - Background information

Sans-Souci Palace, Haiti by Rémi Kaupp, WikipediaAlthough Citadelle La Ferriére is the most famous of the Haitian forts, the country is full of fascinating historical sites, including the ruins of Sans-Souci near Cap-Haïtien © Rémi Kaupp, Wikipedia

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Haiti: the Bradt Travel Guide


Throughout the 19th century, the USA was Haiti’s biggest trading partner, but Washington refused to recognise Haitian independence until 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was considering emancipating America's slaves. That recognition lasted barely a few decades, when in 1915 the USA sent a military expedition to Haiti and reduced the country to little more than a principality.

The first years of the 20th century were undoubtedly difficult for Haiti. Policies perceived as anti-peasant brought widespread revolts, which were in turn co-opted by politicians eager to grab power. The presidency often seemed like a game of musical chairs. The USA looked at Haiti's instability and began to grow nervous.

The opening of the Panama Canal had increased American desires to lay a controlling hand over the Caribbean, something that only grew when they looked at German penetration into the region (and particularly Haiti) on the eve of World War I. Furthermore, American commercial interests in the country had grown massively, with investments in railroads, sugar and bananas.

Throughout the 19th century, USA was Haiti’s biggest trading partner, but Washington refused to recognise Haitian independence until 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was considering emancipating America's slaves.

The American answer was to seize by force the gold reserves of the Haitian national bank in 1914. A year later, following the killing of President Sam by a mob, they sent in the US marines – with the justification that Haiti had never enjoyed a government competent enough to properly exercise its own sovereignty. The pliable figure of Philippe Dartiguenave was chosen to be president, and the occupation was formalised into a treaty inviting the Americans to stay for 20 years. Having taken control of Haiti’s exchequer, the constitution was rewritten (by future US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to allow foreigners to own land. Haiti was to be the perfect investment destination for American businesses.

Unfortunately for the Americans, the Haitian masses didn’t take kindly to foreign occupation. Resistance sprang up almost immediately. Most famous of those to take up arms was Charlemagne Péralte, an officer in the Haitian army. Péralte began his uprising in Hinche, and led a ragtag army of Cacos – a traditional name for those who rose up against the ruling powers. The Cacos only ever had limited success militarily, but they had a galvanising effect on the Americans, who had been fed stories of ‘voodoo’ rituals and black magic. The Americans further fuelled Haitian resistance by instigating the corvée, forced labour gangs put to work on infrastructure projects like road-building. There was much violence associated with the corvée, which was widely thought of as a return to the days of slavery.

Péralte himself was captured in 1919 and executed – an event captured in a widely distributed photograph that seemed to show him as having been crucified (and has gone on to provide continuing inspiration to Haitian artists). The States continued to try to remake Haiti in its own image, with anti-Vodou campaigns as part of their civilising mission. Resistance was frequently met with the razing of entire villages by fire.

It wasn’t just the countryside that fought the occupation. Unions campaigned against the Americans, and urban culture flourished through the Indigéniste movement led by writers like Jean-Price Mars and Jacques Roumain, who encouraged Haitians to embrace the African roots of their culture.

Second independence

Against a backdrop of countrywide strikes, America eventually tired of Haiti, and in 1934 declared that they had stabilised the country enough to withdraw their forces. They left behind them several important legacies. Regional ports were closed to concentrate power in Port-au-Prince, and the rural economy began to be shifted away from self-sufficiency towards export-based agriculture. The Americans also reordered the army to fight the Cacos, and left a centralised political force whose only fighting experience was training its guns on its own people.

Against a backdrop of countrywide strikes, America eventually tired of Haiti, and in 1934 declared that they had stabilised the country enough to withdraw their forces.

Haiti’s ‘second independence’ was overseen by President Stenio Vincent. He sought to retain close ties to America, as well as the Dominican Republic. The DR, ruled by the dictator Rafael Trujillo, cared little for Haiti, especially as thousands of migrants had fled to the DR during the American occupation. Trujillo’s response was to order the border region cleared through extreme violence – in October 1937 his police and soldiers massacred more than 20,000 Haitians. Vincent baulked at even denouncing the murders, although after international condemnation Trujillo sent Haiti half a million dollars in compensation.

Throughout the 1940s, power alternated between establishment presidents and reformers. Dumarsais Estimé saw a progressive future for Haiti and attempted to reform education and labour laws – as well as trying to develop Haiti as a tourist destination. He was overthrown by army officer Paul Magloire, who painted himself as a bulwark against communism to curry favour with the Americans at the advent of the Cold War. Yet he too was run out of office before too long. In violence-marred elections in 1956, the presidency would go to a modest country doctor called François Duvalier, who painted himself as an heir to Estimé and bearer of the Indigéniste flame.

Natural history

Hispaniola trogon, Haiti by Alfonso Lomba, Wikipedia


Haiti has a rich birdlife, with over 260 species recorded. Of these, 31 are endemic to Hispaniola, with the rest being species found either across the Caribbean or migratory North American species. Top of any birder’s list is the Hispaniola trogon (Priotelus roseigaste), Haiti’s national bird, although sadly under threat due to habitat loss. Slightly easier to find is the bright green Hispaniola parakeet (Aratinga chloroptera), which can sometimes even be spotted in the greener areas of Port-au-Prince. There is a second, slightly larger, parrot species, the Hispaniola Amazon (Amazona ventralis). Another endemic species worth looking out for is the grey-crowned palm-tanager (Phaenicophilus poliocephalus).

(Photo: Haiti’s national bird, the Hispaniola trogon is at the top of many birdwatcher’s list © Alfonso Lomba, Wikipedia)

One of the commonest birds you’ll encounter is the white-necked crow (Corvus leucognaphalus), which you can find chattering in the tops of trees (particularly palms) across the country. A personal favourite is the bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), a tiny grey and yellow bird with a fine curved bill, which can be seen hopping amid flowers to feed on nectar. Haiti also has four species of hummingbird. Eating more substantial meals, there are seven species of hawks and falcons, although the most easily recognisable raptor is the broad-winged and red-faced turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), appropriately known in Creole as mal fini (‘bad end’).


Hispaniola is not rich in native mammal species – with the exception of various bats, almost everything you see was introduced by humans. There are two possible exceptions, which you should count yourself extremely lucky if you encounter. The solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) is a nocturnal insectivorous mammal that looks like a cross between a mole and an over-sized shrew. The solenodon is almost extinct (the introduction of mongooses to the island was a death sentence), but is thought to persist in Parc National La Visite south of Port-au-Prince and parts of the Massif de la Hotte in the southwest. The second endemic mammal is the Hispaniolan hutia (Plagiodontia aedium), an arboreal rodent whose status is made extremely vulnerable by deforestation.


You’ll see lizards everywhere in Haiti. There are plenty of geckos on the walls and a variety of anoles skittering about, of which the males can be identified by their head-bobbing displays and throat sacs, used in territorial displays. You’re less likely to see any snakes, although the Haitian boa (Epicrates striatus) remains reasonably widespread. Unfortunately, despite the common association with Vodou (notably the snake spirit Damballah, who created the world), the one time you’re likely to see a snake is when one has been thrashed to death and displayed by a proud local.

Of the larger species, the most impressive is the rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta), a positively dinosaurian-looking lizard that can grow up to 130cm in length. It’s very rare now owing to being allegedly quite tasty, as well as predation of its eggs by rats. Populations persist near Etang Saumâtre, as well as around Môle Saint-Nicholas. Found in the waters of Etang Saumâtre is a small and threatened population of caimans, or American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus). Although they can reach lengths of 4m, they eat fish, rather than people.

People and culture


The original inhabitants of Haiti, the Taíno, didn’t last long after first contact with the Spanish colonisers. Today, Haiti’s population of ten million are almost entirely of African descent, having been brought to the colony as slaves by the French. When the Haitian Revolution broke out, two-thirds of the population were African-born. Although no accurate data were kept by the French, most slaves were imported from west-central Africa, with ethnic groups like the Fon, Yoruba, Ibo and Kongo particularly strongly represented. Traditions and religious practices from these groups all found their way into the culture of newly independent Haiti.

The French left their genetic mark through having children with their slaves, producing so-called mulattoes. These lighter-skinned Haitians have historically tended to form a separate urban class, dominating politics and trade. Into this mix can be added a minority Arab population from Syria and Lebanon, who migrated to Haiti in the late 19th century.


Haiti’s visual arts are unmatched in the Caribbean. Much of this can be put down to the influence of Vodou, with its rich visual language of vèvè symbols and painted temples. For first-time visitors to Haiti, even the drive from Port-au-Prince airport is an introduction to Haitian art, with street walls masquerading as impromptu art galleries, hung with a hundred colourful canvases to attract the buyer.

Haitian painting in the 19th century was dominated by European traditions of portraiture. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Haitian painting turned its gaze inward towards its older African roots. The Indigéniste movement put subjects like peasant life front and centre, and moved away from literal representations towards more expressionist interpretations. Idealised landscapes were also popular, with the whole sometimes dubbed Haitian ‘Naive’ or ‘Primitive’ art.

Haiti’s visual arts are unmatched in the Caribbean. Much of this can be put down to the influence of Vodou, with its rich visual language of vèvè symbols and painted temples.

In 1944, an American artist, DeWitt Peters, ‘discovered’ the Indigéniste painters and opened the influential Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. Peters collected a stable of artists that went on to form the bedrock of 20th-century Haitian painting, prime among them Hector Hyppolite, Philomé Obin and Préfète Duffaut. Through the Centre, Haitian art was launched into the world – the so-called Miracle of ’44 celebrating the extraordinary creativity of these previously untutored artists. Among its legacies were the astonishing murals of the Sainte Trinité Episcopalian Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince, sadly wrecked in the 2010 earthquake but now undergoing painstaking restoration. Bright colours and magic realism were the order of the day.


Haitian musicians, Jacmel, Haiti by Paul Clammer

The two most celebrated forms of Haitian music are kompa and rara. Rara is the music of the streets, whereas kompa is the music of dancing and romance – a popular description has it that you must dance so close to your partner as to polish your belt buckle. Kompa is originally derived from merengue, a slow dance music that blended traditional Haitian folk music with the newer sounds of jazz, introduced by the Americans during the occupation.

‘Choucoune’ is perhaps the classic merengue song, famous across the country, with the 1950s big bands Super Jazz des Jeunes and Issa el Saleh and his Orchestra its greatest exponents. In the same decade, the renowned band leader Nemours Jean Baptiste twisted and sped up the beat to create kompa direct, which went on to become Haiti’s defining music. Classic old-style kompa bands like Coupé Cloué and Tabou Combo remain popular to this day, but the music has continued to evolve and suck in other musical influences.

(Photo: Haitian musicians perform in the street parades during the carival in Jacmel © Paul Clammer)

The big kompa artists of today are just as likely to be influenced by slick American R&B as any other flavour. One of the biggest stars of kompa in recent years has been Sweet Micky, the 'President of kompa'. Once best known for his outrageously bad language and cross-dressing, he cleaned up his act significantly enough to enter politics: his real-life alter ego Michel Martelly was elected President of Haiti in 2010 (ex-Fugee Wyclef Jean also attempted to run inthe same elcetion but was disqualified on the basis of his joint Haitian-American nationality. Some of the current big names are Carimi, Michael Brun, T-Vice, and Djakout Mizik.

A folksier style is twoubadou music, somewhat akin to Cuban son. In twoubadou, banjos and accordions are essential, as are gently strummed guitars and lilting vocals.


Haiti’s most important contribution to world architecture is the gingerbread house. Found mostly in Port-au-Prince, but with important examples in Jacmel and Cap-Haïtien, they are paragons of elegant tropical living, designed for the merchant and political classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gingerbreads are primarily wooden houses, with wide verandas and elegant high balconies, steeply pitched roofs and plenty of detailed latticework.

The biggest concentration can be found in the downtown districts of Pacot and Bois Verna in the capital. Many gingerbreads suffer from neglect – to the point of being put en masse on the World Monument Fund watch-list of endangered buildings. Ironically, the flexibility of these wood-framed old buildings allowed them mostly to sail through the 2010 earthquake, when more modern buildings (as well as contemporary buildings made of reinforced concrete, such as the National Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral) quickly collapsed.

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