A little over 100 kilometres north of where the 97,000 ton aircraft-carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is disgorging food, water and medical aid to the victims of the Haitian earthquake, lies the site of the wreck of Christopher Columbus’s flag ship, the Santa Maria. She weighed about 130 tons.
Ironically, the timbers of the Santa Maria were stripped and taken ashore to build the first European settlement in the Americas—a town Columbus called La Navidad. It means Christmas and was so named as the Santa Maria was lost on the 25th of December 1492. Columbus sailed away leaving the 39 crew members of the Santa Maria to begin the European settlement of the New World. The Spanish sailors were soon killed by indigenous Taino Indians.
So began the recorded history of what was to become, possibly, the saddest island-state in the world— Haiti.
Haiti has known only short periods of tranquillity following the 518 years since Columbus stepped ashore on this island he called Hispaniola. Here the native Taino were the first in the New World to see the planting of sugar in 1505, to experience smallpox, which struck in 1507, and the first to see the unloading of African slaves, authorised by Ferdinand of Spain in 1510. It was also the first place in the Americas to experience a slave rebellion, which unnerved the Spanish in 1522.
The western side of Hispaniola became the nesting place and hunting grounds for pirates and particularly French buccaneers who eventually settled and took over the now provinces of Marien and Xaragua, which make up modern day Haiti. The country was actually formed in 1697 under the Treaty of Ryswick when Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. The French then called that country Sainte-Domingue.
Haiti, under French, rule became a major source of treasure, with the land then producing half of the world’s coffee and 40% of the sugar used in Britain and France — in fact Haiti represented 40% of France’s foreign trade. Slaves on Haiti numbered at this time between 500,000 and 700,000 souls.
Following the French Revolution, the mulattoes (Haitians of mixed race) were granted citizen rights, but the colonial administrators refused to recognise their new status. In 1791 a black-slave and mulatto rebellion started and there emerged a black leader, Francois-Dominique Toussaint who, in 1801, under a new constitution, became Governor General for life.
A year later Napoleon Bonaparte sent 20,000 troops to seize back the island. He defeated Toussaint and the black Governor General was shipped off to France and imprisoned. A few years later, following a lack of enthusiasm for continuing the fight against the rebellion, the commander of the French forces fled and the country was taken over by a black general and former field-slave, Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Haiti had experiences the end of the first 300-year cycle of violence through slavery and rebellion. During the Spanish and French occupation some slaves had a life expectancy in Haiti of only a few years. Colonial officials had punishments such as tying slaves onto ant heaps or boiling alive, rebellious slaves in vats of bubbling molasses. The next 200 years was little better under a succession of murderous dictators.
The rebellion eventually resulted in the declaration of Haiti as the second only republic in the Americas (the United States of America was the first), but it was at the cost of 100,000 black lives and 24,000 white lives. Some historians say that Haiti is an African country existing in the Americas as the 500 years of horror never allowed the people to fully encompass the western civilisation and advancement taken up by other countries of the region.
The USS Carl Vinson is a far cry from the small boat Columbus wrecked just over 100 kilometres to the north. She can distil 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day, prepare daily 18,000 meals, and has the medical facilities and emergency supplies of a small city. As the crew of the Carl Vinson work to relieve the suffering of the people of Haiti, probably few realise that the city of Chicago was founded by a Haitian and that 750 Haitians fought beside American troops during the American War of Independence.