Haiti is one of the most beautiful countries in the Caribbean with its misty mountain tops, golden beaches, and turquoise waters. Today, this once-rich country is often associated with negativity and hardship. Natural disasters, poverty, child labor, and hunger struggles are often at the forefront of any conversation regarding this beautiful country.
What people do not know, however, is that Haiti officially named the Republic of Haiti is a nation with a rich cultural depth and history and its people are among the most resilient. To help shine some light on this beautiful Caribbean nation, here are some interesting facts about Haiti.
Planning a visit to the Caribbean islands? Take a look at this useful Haiti Travel Guide.
Haiti map. Photo Credit: © Martine Oger via 1234RF.com.
Haiti History Facts
Haiti has a deep, rich history and the distinction of being the world’s first Black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean country. The historic events that led up to this are detailed in books like The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius Scott and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C L R James. To highlight some of these impactful events, here are several Haiti historical facts.
Origin of Haiti Name
Haiti was originally inhabited circa 5000 BC by Indigenous peoples said to have arrived from Central or South America. Among the early settlers were the Ciboney people, later followed by the Taíno people.
Taino society and culture on the island of Hispanola were divided into five caciquats or kingdoms including Marién, Maguá, Maguana, Jaragua, and Higüey. Each of these kingdoms was governed by a chief who then preceded over districts and villages.
The Taíno people, whose name translates to “the good people,” named their island Ayiti, meaning “land of mountains.” Later on, the term Ayiti evolved into Haiti – the name we know today. Other Taíno indigenous names for Haiti include Quisqueya (or Kiskeya) meaning mother of all lands and Bohio.
Chiefdoms of Hispaniola. Photo Credit: © República Dominicana via Wikimedia Commons.
Christopher Columbus & Haiti
On December 6th, 1492, Christopher Columbus anchored off the northern shoreline of Hispaniola (part of present-day Haiti) in a small bay he called San Nicolas, now renamed Môle-Saint-Nicolas. A couple of weeks later, his flagship the Santa Maria ran aground and sank. With the remaining ships smaller, Columbus made the decision to return to Spain leaving behind about three dozen of his men on the island which he had renamed island Española (Hispaniola) meaning “Little Spain.”
Columbus’ men built a fortified encampment, La Navidad and initially, relations between the Spanish and the Taíno people were good but it soon turned south resulting in the locals killing the new settlers.
In 1493, Columbus returned to the island of Hispaniola, and realizing that his men were all dead and the settlement destroyed, he sailed to the eastern coast which is known today as the Dominican Republic. Here he established La Isabela, the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Americas.
The Spanish settlers who arrived with Christopher Columbus carried many diseases to which the people on Hispaniola did not have immunity. Within twenty-five years of Columbus’ arrival in Haiti, the majority of the Taíno people had died as a result of disease, slavery, and massacre.
Surprisingly, a statue of the Italian explorer and colonizer still stands today in the center of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, one of the largest cities in the Caribbean.
Haiti Was Once A Rich Country
While Christopher Columbus claimed Haiti for Spain in 1492, it was the French who truly colonized the island. French influence in Haiti began circa 1625 and they maintained control for 179 years.
During the 18th-century, Haiti was the French Empire’s richest colony. Because of this, the island was nicknamed “La Perle des Antilles,” translated in English as “Pearl of the Antilles.”
The rise in Haiti’s wealth during the 18th-century is attributed largely to the exploitation of enslaved Africans who worked the plantations during this era that helped Haiti to become the world’s leading producer of sugar and coffee.
The plundering of the land and the people had dire consequences. The massive deforestation by the French later led to frequent natural disasters like hurricanes and floods which the country still suffers from today.
Haiti, First Country in the Western Hemisphere to Abolish Slavery
The Haitian Revolution, inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 was the first successful slave revolt in the Americas. It started on August 22nd, 1791 when the enslaved Africans led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, initiated a rebellion against the French settlers.
By 1803, the enslaved Africans succeeded in ending not just slavery, but French control over the country. After gaining independence on January 1, 1804, Haiti emerged as the world’s first Black Republic, and the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to win its independence from a European power. The United States in 1776 was the first country to win its independence in the Western Hemisphere but it wasn’t until 1865 that America followed in abolishing slavery.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s First Ruler Created its Flag
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader of the Haitian Revolution and the first ruler of an independent Haiti designed the country’s first flag in 1803. The design of the Haiti flag is inspired by the French tricolor flag. However, Dessalines removed the white band from the flag to symbolize the removal of all colonizers from Haiti. The blue was then taken to represent Haiti’s Black citizens and the red the gens de couleur, so those of mixed African, European, and Native American ancestry.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, First ruler of Haiti. Photo Credit: © Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
As seen above, the blue and red bicolor flag of Haitian has evolved to include a white rectangle panel bearing the coat of arms. Haiti’s coat of arms depicts a trophy of weapons on top of a green hill and royal palm, symbolizing independence. Above the palm on the Haitian flag is the Cap of Liberty and below the whole arrangement on a white ribbon is the motto L’Union fait la Force (“Unity makes strength”).
Unity in Haiti is celebrated on Haiti Flag and Universities Day which is an independence celebration as well as an occasion to recognize the country’s educational system. Haitian Flag Day takes place on May 18th each year, as this is the anniversary date of the original flag’s adoption in 1803. Not only are there celebrations in Haiti but also cities in the United States with a large Haitian population. In fact, May is also Haitian Heritage Month in the United States with cultural events, exhibitions, and parades in cities like Boston, New York, and Miami with a large Haitian diaspora.
Haiti Geography Facts
Haiti is a magnificent nation founded on Hispaniola Island in the Caribbean along with the Dominican Republic. Check out these cool Geography facts about Haiti.
Where is Haiti?
Haiti is located on the western part of the island of Hispaniola, the Caribbean’s second-largest island after Cuba. Also located on the island of Hispaniola east of Haiti is the Dominican Republic forming the country’s only land border. The rest of the country is surrounded by water, with the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the Caribbean Sea covering the west and south sides.
Hispaniola political map with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Photo Credit: © Peter Hermes Furian via 123RF.com.
Haiti is the Most Mountainous Country in the Caribbean
Haiti is home to more mountains than any other country in the Caribbean. It’s only fitting given the country’s nickname – Land of Mountains. The island is made up primarily of two rugged mountain chains which extend westward from the Dominican border.
Haiti has five mountain ranges, namely Massif du Nord, Montagnes Noires, Massif de la Hotte, Massif de la Selle and Chain de Mateaux. These mountains with their tall peaks make up 75 percent of the island’s surface. Some of Haiti’s tallest peaks include Macaya, Bois Pin, the Kadeneau peaks, and Morne de la Selle, which rises to an elevation of 8,790 ft making it the tallest.
The Western Hemisphere’s largest mountain top fortress, the Citadelle Laferrière, is also found in Haiti. For a tour of the ruins, part of National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers, a UNESCO World Heritage site, check out this group tour of Citadel Laferriere from Cap-Haitien.
Citadelle Laferrière aka Citadelle Henry Christophe aka The Citadelle in Haiti. Photo Credit: © Haiti Tourism.
Haiti has a hot and humid tropical climate. Daily temperatures generally range between 73ºF and 91ºF in the summer and 62ºF and 82ºF during the winter months.
The eastern side of Haiti, particularly the Plaine du Gonaïves and Plaine du Cul-de-Sac, is known to be the country’s driest region. The northern and southern ends experience much more rainfall, with long wet seasons.
Haiti’s southern peninsula is very vulnerable to hurricanes (tropical cyclones) in comparison to other regions. Haiti experienced a number of destructive hurricanes over the past few decades, namely Hurricane Allen (1980), Gilbert (1988), and Georges (1998).
In 2008, the island experienced several severe tropical storms, including Hurricane Hana and Ike, resulting in over 800 deaths and widespread damage.
Haitian Culture Facts
Haiti has a rich culture with influences dating back as far as pre-Columbus times when the island was populated solely by the Taíno and Arawakan people. To learn more about these people, here are a few Haitian facts.
Ethnic Groups in Haiti
Currently, Haiti’s population stands at approximately 11.5 million people and 95% are the full descendants of enslaved Africans. The remaining 5% comprises people of mixed European and African descent (Haitian mulattos) and some of European descent. These individuals of European descent constitute a wealthy elite while the majority of the country is poor.
In Haiti, around 56% of the population identifies as Roman Catholics, while about 30% identify as Protestants. The remaining population is split among smaller groups of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and people of the Baha’i faith.
Voodooism is also a major religious influence in Haiti. This mystical practice with West African roots originated during colonial times and plays an important role in Haitian culture. The country is the first in the world to recognize Voodoo as a religion after it was legitimized by the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Languages in Haiti
The two official languages on this island of Haiti are French and Creole (pronounced Kreyol). Most Haitians speak Creole, particularly during social settings, and then use French in school and professional workplaces. Written Creole is not broadly accepted as the country’s education system retains French as the primary language. About 90% of the Creole vocabulary is derived from French, with influences from Taíno, Portuguese, Spanish, and West African languages.
Warm and sociable, Haitians observe a number of unspoken rules of etiquette, similar to that of the other Caribbean and Latin American countries. Here, respect for elders is held in high regard. Greetings are also very important as strangers almost always acknowledge one another on the streets.
People tend to greet with bonjour (good morning) or bonswa (good afternoon) with men often shaking hands and females often kissing each other on the cheek.
Motown Maurice and USF’s Total Praise Haitian Dances at the Tampa Haitian Flag Day Festival 2006. Photo Credit: © JourneyMeadows via Wikimedia Commons.
Haiti Economic and Political Facts
While Haiti was once a land of riches, the country is now one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Sadly, after becoming an independent republic in 1804, Haiti was not able to hold on to its wealth. The French government saddled Haiti with a debt of 150 million gold francs which they demanded as compensation for “lost property” including the formerly enslaved Africans, land, equipment, etc. Later reduced to 90 million, Haiti was forced to repay the debt to lift a crippling embargo imposed by France, Britain, and the United States. This led the Haitian government to take out high-interest loans and it wasn’t until 1947 that the debt was repaid in full.
Haiti’s government has made major strides since the 1950s to improve its financial situation, however, political instability including the 2004 coup d’état of the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake have made things difficult. That said, below is some additional insight on the country’s government and financial situation including a few quick facts about Haiti’s major sector.
Haiti’s Currency is Named After a Plant
Haiti’s currency, the Gourde (HTG), is named after a prevalent food source in the county known as a gourd. The gourd, which is a fleshy, hard-skinned fruit, was such an important food source for the Haitian people that the plant itself was a currency until 1807.
While today, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, the exchange rate of the Haitian gourde was once tied with the US dollar. From 1919 until 1991, the exchange rate between these two currencies sat at five gourdes per dollar. After that, the Haitian government allowed the exchange rate to float.
Following a series of events including the 2010 earthquake, Haiti’s government now sits with a large sum of foreign debt. The country is heavily dependent on financial aid from foreign countries such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and France. Moreover, Haiti does not have a stock market.
Haiti’s Constitutional Framework
Haiti’s constitution incorporates features from the French and United States constitutions. Plus there is a President and Prime Minister.
Haiti’s president is elected every five years with each president allowed to serve for a maximum of two non-consecutive terms. The prime minister is then the head of government and is appointed by the president. The country also has a parliament comprising a Senate and Chamber of Deputies. Senators are elected every six years and deputies every four.
Tourism is one of the Largest Sectors in Haiti
The picturesque island of Haiti, with its rugged mountain landscapes and beautiful beaches, is a popular Caribbean destination with members of the Haitian diaspora and other travelers, primarily via cruise ships. Thus tourism is one of the country’s largest sources of income.
Nearly a million tourists visit the island of Haiti by cruise ship each year and most experience private Labadee Resort. Leased until 2050 to the Royal Caribbean International, this resort was named after Marquis de La Badie, a French man who was the first settler in the area in the 17th century. Popular things to do at Labadee Resort beyond lounging at the beach are shopping in the Artisan Village, riding down the Dragon’s Tail Coaster, and seeing Labadee from 500 feet above the ground, via the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line which is the world’s longest zip line over water.
For the more adventurous travelers, there are other tourist attractions in Haiti including exploration of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. However, the tourism industry and the rest of the economy are still in recovery from the 2010 earthquake so Haiti is still a long way from achieving financial stability. The government has set up the Haiti Reconstruction Fund with a view to redeveloping the island nation.
Aerial view of cruise ship and beach on Labadee Island in Haiti. Photo Credit: © dimarik16 via 123RF.com.
Haiti Fun Facts
The stunning Caribbean island once known as Ayiti is truly amazing and has plenty to offer, from its rich culture to its friendly people, and here are a few fun facts about Haiti.
Haiti is a Very Colorful & Artistic Country
Haiti is shaped by many cultures with African, French, Spanish, and Caribbean influences. These influences shine greatly through the country’s spectacular array of art and music.
Paintings in Haiti are characterized by bold, vivid colors and often have symbolic meanings. In addition to canvas paintings, metal art is also popular. Some famous artists from Haiti include Préfete Duffaut, Rigaud Benoit, Gesner Abelard and Frankétienne who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Haiti also has a deep music culture, the most popular genre being Kompa. Kompa was developed from Meringue, said to be the country’s national music genre since the 1800s. Among the many Haitian musicians, the actor, musician, and rapper Wyclef Jean is the most famous. With his group, Fugees, Wyclef won 3 Grammy Awards.
Fresh, simple, and regional, the flavors of many cultures shine through Haitian cuisine. A blend of Creole, French, African, Spanish, and Taíno, the food in Haiti is truly flavorful and something you should most certainly try.
The most celebrated food in Haiti is Joumou, more commonly known as pumpkin soup. Joumou is typically eaten on New Year’s Day and Haiti’s Independence Day. The national dish of Haiti is griots with rice and beans, a pork dish complemented with a side of rice and peas.
Soup Joumou, a mildly spicy soup native to Haitian cuisine. Photo Credit: © Aliceba via Wikimedia Commons.
Closing Thoughts on Haiti Interesting Facts
While Haiti has experienced its fair share of tragedies including various natural disasters, its people remain resilient and the country has much to be proud of including successful rebellion and independence from France. Haiti is rich in history, culture, and heritage, and as citizens of the first Black Republic, Haitians continually progress in the face of any adversity. Thus the biggest lesson among all these facts is that of the Haitian people. The grace, strength, and determination they have shown today (and throughout history) is something we could all learn from.
Found these facts about Haiti interesting? Take a look at these more general facts about the Caribbean.