First, the bits that you already probably more or less know: in the 1700s and 1800s, European powers gradually colonized huge swaths of the world, including the Americas, Africa, and the Middle East. (For an explanation of how this happened, Guns, Germs, and Steel is highly recommended, although I can not be held responsible for any blown minds.) The big players here were Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. The island of Hispanola was fought over by Spain and France, partially because this was fun and partially because it was just the perfect place for the production of coffee, sugar, and indigo (yes, indigo). They settled things in 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick, which basically carved the island down the middle, giving the French the western half and the Spanish the eastern half. And for the next hundred years or so, the western half thrived. Came a huge influx of French, and with them African slaves, into what became one of the more brutal slavery regimes of the time — a third of the Africans died within a few years of arriving.
In 1789 came the French Revolution, and word spread to the colony and caught fire among the slaves, who started a revolution of their own. Napoleon sent in a few tens of thousands of soldiers, but vast numbers of them were killed by
yellow fever the devil, and by 1804 the nation of Haiti was established. (Bonus fact: about ten thousand refugees left the island during this time, and ended up settling in New Orleans, in effect doubling its population and forever changing its culture.)
Now here’s the bit you didn’t know. In 1825, the King of France, Charles X, sent over an armada of ships and soldiers, and under threat of invasion, war, and re-enslavement, then-president Jean-Pierre Boyer signed an “indemnity” under which the French recognized Haiti’s independence in return of a payment of 90 million Francs (actually, it was originally 150 million, reduced to 90 in 1838). And where did Haiti get the money to make this deal? They borrowed it, of course, and from French banks. And what sort of terms did they get? Well, I believe the term is “merde.” (In case you are wondering, the internet’s best guess is that this would be $21 billion in today’s money.)
But whatever, right? These sort of deals are made all the time, and they’re usually dropped when the leadership changes or comes to its mind. But no. For the next hundred years, Haiti made payments on this debt while its people mostly practiced subsistence farming. Instability from it resulted in a crippling series of coups (38 in Haiti’s 200-year history) and left an obviously problematic political and economic heritage.
Does this explain everything that’s happened in Haiti since? Of course not. But it sure does explain some of it.