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Haiti's indigenous Arawak (or Taíno) population suffered near-extinction in the decades after Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492, in possibly the worst case of the widespread depopulation which followed the first European contact with the Americas.

The demographic collapse of the period has been attributed by many to genocide on the part of Haiti's Spanish conquerors. The Catholic priest and contempory historian Bartolome de Las Casas wrote in his multi-volume History of the Indies (1527-61):

There were 60,000 people living on this island [when I arrived in 1508], including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?
It is thought by many historians today that Las Casas's figures for the pre-contact levels of the Arawak population were an exaggeration and that a figure of slightly over a million original inhabitants is more likely, though others have argued for figures of up to eight million.

The exceptional Arawak mortality can be attributed at least in part to acts of slaughter, unrelenting forced labour, harsh punishments for disobedience to slave conditions, and the putting down of Indian resistance to enslavement and cruel treatment. Mass suicides also took place to escape subjection to Spanish overlords. By the 1540s very few Arawaks survived on the island.

Whatever the initial figures, however, some claim that the experience of much of Spanish-ruled America suggests that while brutality and maltreatment - and the disruption of traditional societies and systems of production - took a severe toll, the loss was largely the result of the unintended introduction of Old World diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus) to which the inhabitants of the colonies had no resistance.

By the beginning of the 1600s, Spain had vacated the western third of the island. Trying to cut down on its colonists' trade with Dutch merchants that violated Madrid's mercantilistic policies, Spanish officials ordered them to the eastern part of the island, where they could be better observed by officials in the capital city of Santo Domingo.

This collapse of the original population led to an eventual repopulation with African slaves to work the island's sugar plantations, although slave imports were relatively small until the late 17th century.

French buccaneers later used the western portion of the island as a point from which to harass English and Spanish ships. In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. As piracy was gradually suppressed, some French adventurers became planters, making Saint-Domingue, as the French portion of the island was known, the "pearl of the Antilles" - one of the richest colonies in the 18th century French empire. Saint-Domingue produced about 40 percent of all the sugar and 60 percent of all the coffee consumed in Europe by the 1780s. This single colony, roughly the size of Maryland or Belgium, produced more sugar and coffee than all of Britain's West Indian colonies, combined.

During this period, an estimated 790,000 African slaves were brought to work on sugarcane and coffee plantations (accounting in 1783-1791 for a third of the entire Atlantic slave trade), though inability to maintain slave numbers without constant re-supply from Africa meant that at its end the population numbered only some 434,000, ruled by some 31,000 whites.

Saint-Domingue also had the largest and wealthiest free population of color in the Caribbean, a group also known as the gens de couleur. In the A royal census of 1789 counted roughly 25,000 such persons. Typically these people were the descendants of the enslaved women that French colonists took as mistresses. Though many free people of color were former slaves, most members of this class appear not to have been free blacks, but rather people of mixed European and African ancestry.

The outbreak of revolution in France in the summer of 1789 had a powerful effect on the colony. While rich and poor whites disagreed over how new revolutionary laws would apply to Saint-Domingue, outright civil war broke out in 1790 and 1791 when the free men of color claimed they too were French citizens under the terms of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

On August 22, 1791, slaves in the northern region of the colony staged a massive revolt that would eventually be known as the Haitian Revolution. Eventually the rebellion spread throughout the entire colony. The rebel slaves emerged as a powerful military force, eventually coming under the leadership of Haitian heroes Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. Master by 1800 of almost the whole island, Toussaint was invited to negotiate a settlement in 1802, but was seized and deported to France, where he died in captivity (1803).


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