Haiti, officially the Republic of Haiti, is a sovereign state occupying the western three-eighths of the island of Hispaniola, in the Greater Antilles archipelago of the Caribbean. In recent decades, political strife, poverty, and natural disasters have often shaped the narrative around Haiti. Few know that pristine beaches, tumbling waterfalls, mountaintop fortresses, and eclectic artist enclaves are aplenty in this Caribbean nation. Here are some interesting facts about Haiti.
Facts about Haiti
1. Haiti is the third-largest country in the Caribbean.
Occupying a total area of 27,750 km² (10,714 sq mi), Haiti is the third-largest country in the Caribbean behind Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s territory also includes smaller islands such as Gonâve, Tortue (Tortuga), Grande Caye, and Vache. Comparatively, it is slightly smaller than Belgium or the US state of Maryland.
2. The highest point in Haiti is Pic la Selle.
About two-thirds of Haiti is mountainous and its terrain largely consists of mountains interspersed with small coastal plains and river valleys. Located in the southeast of the country, Pic la Selle is the tallest mountain in Haiti. It rises to an elevation of 2,674 m (8,773 ft).
3. Haiti shares a land border only with the Dominican Republic.
Haiti is bordered to the east by the Dominican Republic (376 km/234 mi), which covers the rest of Hispaniola.
4. Haiti has the second-longest coastline in the Caribbean.
Due to its horseshoe-shaped outline, Haiti has a disproportionately long coastline of 1,771 km (1,100 mi). Along Haiti’s coastline, one can find some among of the most beautiful beaches in the world
5. Haiti is the most populous nation in the Caribbean.
Haiti has a population of over 11.5 million, making it the most populous country in the Caribbean. It is also one of the twenty most densely populated nations in the world.
6. Before European colonization, Haiti was inhabited by three distinct indigenous populations.
Haiti was first inhabited around 5000 BC. The original inhabitants of the country were the Guanahatabey, the Arawaks or Tainos, and the Caribs.
The Tainos originated from the Orinoco and Amazon basins, while the Caribs came from South America. By the time of European colonization, the Taino were the most numerous indigenous people of Haiti.
7. Christopher Columbus was the first European to explore Haiti in 1492.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus made the European discovery of the island of Hispaniola and established a settlement near the present city of Cap-Haïtien.. He claimed the island for the Spanish crown and named it La Isla Española (The Spanish Island), which later became Anglicized as Hispaniola.
8. The name “Haiti” comes from the indigenous Taíno language.
One of the interesting facts about Haiti is that its name comes from the native Taino language place-name ‘Ayti’ meaning “Land of High Mountains.”
9. The Spanish initially colonized Haiti.
However, the Spanish colonists of Haiti weren’t settlers. They were conquistadors, in search of riches, and with the discovery of gold and silver elsewhere in Latin America, the Spaniards’ interest in Haiti faltered.
10. Haiti is a former French colony and was once known as “Saint-Domingue.”
As Spanish interest in Haiti waned, French buccaneers gained an interest in Haiti. They succeeded in growing tobacco and sugarcane and recruited many French colonial families from Martinique and Guadeloupe.
The French West India Company gradually assumed control of Haiti, and in 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick saw Spain formally cede its claim on western Hispaniola and the French colony of “Saint-Domingue” was born.
The French exploited Haiti’s riches by importing up to 40,000 slaves a year. Over a century of rule, the French brought nearly a million slaves to Saint-Domingue from Africa to work on the sugar, coffee, cacao, indigo, and cotton plantations.
11. In the 1780s, Haiti exported 60% of all the coffee and 40% of all the sugar consumed in Europe: more than all of Britain’s West Indian colonies combined.
Economically, the French occupation was a runaway success and the Saint-Domingue colony would become France’s most prosperous New World territory. The colony was the main source of the sugar and coffee that had become indispensable to “civilized” life in Europe.
In the 1780s, Haiti exported 60% of all the coffee and 40% of all the sugar consumed in Europe: more than all of Britain’s West Indian colonies combined. It was so productive that it was referred to as “The Pearl of the Antilles.” It was at this time that Saint-Domingue was arguably the richest colony in the world.
12. Haiti was the world’s first black-led republic and is the first and only nation established as the result of a successful slave revolt.
One of the unique facts about Haiti is that it remains the first and only country established as the result of a successful slave revolt. The French Revolution in 1789 proclaimed equality among all men and outlawed slavery in France.
Plantation owners in Saint-Domingue, however, refused to relinquish their privileges which inspired Haiti’s nearly half-million black slaves to revolt. In a series of violent uprisings, slaves killed white planters and burned down estates.
Under the direction of Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave who had risen to the rank of general in the French army, Haiti’s slaves continued their rebellion. As France became increasingly distracted by war with Britain, the French commander, Vicomte de Rochambeau was finally defeated at the Battle of Vertières in November 1803.
On 1 January 1804, one of Toussaint Louverture’s lieutenants, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed Haiti’s independence making it the world’s first black republic.
13. Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery.
In 1801, the former black slave and guerrilla leader Toussaint Louverture conquered Haiti and abolished slavery. In doing so, Haiti became the first sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere to unconditionally abolish slavery in the modern era.
14. Haiti was the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean and the second republic in the Americas.
Did you know that in 1804 Haiti became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean? It was also the second oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere after the United States.
15. After the Haitian Slave Revolt, France demanded the newly independent country compensate former plantation owners who had lost their ‘property’ to the tune of 21 Billion USD (inflation-adjusted).
In 1825, barely two decades after winning its independence against all odds, the French king Charles X issued a decree stating France would recognize Haitian independence but only at the price of 150 gold million francs (estimated to total 21 billion USD today) – or 10 times the amount the US had paid for the Louisiana territory.
Arguably the most notorious example of colonial theft, the enormous “independence debt” was meant to compensate French settlers and slave owners for their lost revenues from slavery. It was an immense sum, and although it was later reduced to 90 million gold francs, it was far more than Haiti could afford.
By complying with an ultimatum that amounted to extortion, Haiti dutifully paid reparations to France from 1825 until 1947. To come up with the money, it took out huge loans from American, German, and French banks, at exorbitant interest rates. It completely wrecked their economy.
By the time the original reparations and interest were paid off, the nation was basically destitute and trapped in a spiral of debt. This helped to create a pervasive climate of instability from which the country still hasn’t recovered.
16. Although Haiti became independent in 1804, it wasn’t recognized by the US until 1862.
The United States did not recognize Haiti as an independent nation until 1862 even though it attained independence in 1804. This was because American leaders were fearful of the potential impact of Haiti’s existence and a slave rebellion could have in its own slave states.
17. The USA invaded and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
In the early 20th century, Haiti suffered from chronic political strife and financial mismanagement leading the US to worry that the nation was about to default on its massive debts. Moreover, Americans feared that Germany might establish naval bases in Haiti that would endanger access to the newly constructed Panama Canal, which the US had invested heavily in building.
Thus, to preempt any European intervention, stabilize the Haitian economy, and establish order out of civil strife, US Marines landed in Haiti on the orders of President Woodrow Wilson on 28 July 1915.
Over the following 19 years, Americans took charge of public works, agriculture, health, and customs. They installed puppet governments, controlled the economy, oversaw the military and the police, and terrorized citizens.
The onset of the Great Depression and declining markets for Haitian products led to the process of withdrawing American forces and administrators in the 1930s. While Haitians benefitted from the end of endemic political violence and saw the development of infrastructure, the US occupation was deeply resented throughout Haitian society.
18. Haiti has had 23 constitutions since 1801.
This is one of the wackiest facts about Haiti. Chronically plagued by political turmoil, Haiti has had 23 constitutions (without counting the amendments) including the present one, since 1801. This means that Haiti has had the third-most constitutions behind the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
19. Haiti is home to the largest fortress in the Western Hemisphere.
After Haiti gained independence in 1804, the Citadelle Laferrière was built as part of a system of defensive fortifications throughout the country to protect the island from French retaliation. Perched atop a 910 m (3,000 ft) mountain, the citadel covers an area of 10,000 m² (110,000 sq ft).
20. The national anthem of Haiti is named after a man who committed genocide on 3,000-5,000 whites and creoles.
Haiti’s national anthem “La Dessalinienne” (“The Dessalines Song”) is named in honor of Haiti’s revolutionary leader and first ruler Jean-Jacques Dessalines. While Dessalines is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Haiti, he ordered the massacre of white French settlers and French Creoles in Haiti, resulting in the deaths of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, in 1804.
21. Haiti and Liechtenstein had the same flag for 16 years and only discovered it when both countries showed up at the 1936 Summer Olympics, waving identical flags.
Haiti’s civilian flag, which was used for sporting events, was the same as Liechtenstein’s national flag with horizontal blue and red bands. Liechtenstein had used the same design as the Haitian civil flag since 1921.
The fact that the two nations had developed identical flags independent of each other apparently escaped everyone’s attention until both countries showed up at the 1936 Summer Olympics, waving identical flags. To correct this faux pas, Liechtenstein added a gold crown in the upper left corner of its flag.
22. Descendants of African slaves make up 95% of Haiti’s population.
About 95% of Haiti’s inhabitants are of African descent. The other 5% are mulattos, descendants of French planters and African slaves, and whites.
23. The currency of Haiti is the Haitian gourde (HTG).
The Haitian gourde has been the currency of Haiti since 1813. Formerly pegged to the USD at a rate of five gourdes to one dollar, the gourde now floats freely against world currencies.
24. Haiti has suffered from mass deforestation and is now about 98% deforested.
One of the tragic Haiti facts is that it is one of the few countries in the world where the destruction of the original woodland is almost complete. The country was once covered in verdant forests but land clearance for colonial plantations was followed by tree felling for cooking fuel, timber, and slash-and-burn agriculture.
25. Haiti is the poorest country in the western world when measured by GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP).
Due to an amalgam of debt, environmental disasters, corruption, illiteracy, overcrowding, shoddy infrastructure, mismanagement of resources, and self-serving leaders, Haiti holds the unenviable distinction of being the poorest country in the western world.
It is estimated that approximately 75-80% of Haitians live under the poverty line. Poverty is so widespread that there have been shocking reports of desperate people mixing vegetable oil with mud to make something that at least looked like a biscuit.
26. Haiti is one of only two independent nations in the Americas that have French as an official language.
Along with Canada, Haiti is one of only two independent nations in the Americas to designate French as an official language. However, only 10-20% of the population uses French as their primary language.
Approximately 80-90% of Haitians use Creole as their primary language. Haitian Creole is a mixture of early 17th-century provincial French and African tongues, with infusions of English, Spanish, and Amerindian words. It wasn’t made an official language alongside French until 1987.
27. Haiti has been involved in an ongoing territorial dispute with the United States over Navassa Island, a small uninhabited island in the Caribbean Sea.
One of the lesser-known facts about Haiti is that since 1857 it has been involved in an ongoing territorial dispute with the United States over the uninhabited Navassa Island. Haiti stakes its claim to the island since its independence from France in 1804.
On the other hand, the US has maintained control of Navassa Island under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which allows citizens of the US to take possession of unclaimed islands containing guano deposits, so long as they are not occupied and not within the jurisdiction of another government.
Haiti protested the annexation of Navassa Island, but the US rejected the Haitian claim since it didn’t recognize Haiti in 1857. Haiti has never relinquished its claim to Navassa, and its citizens have continued to pressure US authorities for its return.
28. Haiti has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the Western Hemisphere.
Roughly one in 50 people in Haiti is infected with HIV/AIDS, making it the nation with the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the Western Hemisphere.
29. Capital punishment is outlawed in Haiti.
The death penalty has been abolished in Haiti since 1987, making it one of the few countries in the Caribbean to outlaw capital punishment.
30. Haiti is home to the world’s largest solar-powered hospital.
Spread across an area of 19,045 m² (205,000 sq ft) and equipped with 300 beds, the Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais (University Hospital) in Haiti is the largest solar-powered hospital in the world. Its 1,800 rooftop solar panels are capable of producing more than 100% of its energy needs.
31. Haiti is the world’s leading producer of vetiver.
Haiti is the world’s leading producer of vetiver (a clumpy, green grass) and the essential oil derived from it. The high-quality vetiver oil produced in Haiti has a rich, exotic, complex aroma that is used extensively in perfumes, soaps, and deodorants around the world.
32. Haiti is home to one UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The one and only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Haiti is National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers. The site covers three major areas in Haiti: The Palace of Sans Souci, the Citadel, and the buildings at Ramiers.
The three monuments date from the beginning of the 19th century and serve as symbols of Haiti’s independence.
33. Christianity is the most popular religion in Haiti.
Haitians are deeply religious and respect for religion permeates pretty much every aspect of life. Over 90% of Haitians are Christians.
Roman Catholics represent about 50–55% of the population. Most of the remainder belong to various Protestant denominations, the largest being the Baptist and Pentecostal churches.
Vodou, a traditional religion that is partially derived from West African beliefs, is still widely practiced, often in tandem with Christianity. One common saying in the country is that “Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Vodou.”
Much castigated and often misunderstood, it wasn’t until 2003 that Vodou was finally recognized as a national religion alongside Christianity in Haiti.
34. Haiti is part of the Hurricane Belt.
The hurricane belt is an area in the Atlantic Ocean that is prone to hurricanes during the Atlantic hurricane season. Haiti’s position in the middle of the hurricane belt makes the country subject to severe storms during the regular hurricane season from June to November.
Each year large segments of the population suffer from hurricanes, flooding, landslides, droughts, and earthquakes. To make matters worse, Haiti’s high population density, chronic socio-economic problems, and weak infrastructure make it a particularly vulnerable country.
35. Between 1957 and 1986, Haiti was ruled by the notorious Duvalier family.
Haitians have seen their fair share of tyrannical dictators and despots since their country’s independence in 1804, but one dynasty looms above the rest. For nearly three decades, Haiti was ruled by the iniquitous Duvaliers—first by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”, widely seen as one of the most corrupt and repressive dynasties in modern history.
Papa Doc ruled Haiti with totalitarianism and impunity from 1957 until his death in 1971. With help from the Tontons Macoutes—a dreaded paramilitary force that took its name from a folk bogeyman who devours unruly children—Papa Doc presided over the murders of an estimated 30,000 people and the torture of countless more.
After Papa Doc’s death in 1971, his youngest and only son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” became a teenage dictator at the age of 19. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, he continued Papa Doc’s legacy of terror. Corruption, imprisonment, and repression remained staples in Haiti’s government during Baby Doc’s fifteen-year rule.
During their 28 years in power, the Duvaliers dug into state coffers and made themselves very rich indeed. The Duvaliers were at times embezzling up to 80% of Haiti’s international aid, and when Baby Doc finally fled in 1986, estimates of what he took with him run as high as 900 million USD.
36. Haiti has won only two Olympic medals.
Despite having competed at the Summer Olympics regularly since 1900, Haiti has won only two medals – a silver and a bronze. Seven members of Haiti’s shooting team won bronze when the team took third place in the free rifle competition at the 1924 Summer Olympics.
Haiti’s second and last Olympic medal to date came at the 1928 Summer Olympics when athlete Silvio Cator won silver in the men’s long jump.
37. Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Haiti.
The Haitian national football team made its only FIFA World Cup appearance in 1974, becoming the second Caribbean team to do so.
38. Haiti was devastated by a major earthquake in 2010.
On 12 January 2010, Haiti was shaken to its core when shock waves from a fault line 13 km (8 mi) below the earth’s surface caused a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, with an epicenter approximately 25 km (16 mi) west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
It’s thought that 230,000 people were killed, 300,000 injured and 2.3 million people displaced, while over 180,000 buildings were either damaged or destroyed. It was the strongest earthquake to hit the region in more than 200 years and experts claim that it will take decades for Haiti to recover from the earthquake.
39. Cockfighting is hugely popular in Haiti.
Cockfighting is as much a part of Haiti’s culture as bullfighting is in Mexico or Spain. It’s a popular pastime for Haitians and weekly fights regularly draw big crowds.
40. The national flower of Haiti is Hibiscus.
Known as choeblack or rose kayenn in Haitian Creole, the hibiscus is Haiti’s national flower.
41. The national tree of Haiti is the Royal Palm.
The Royal Palm even features on the coat of arms of Haiti.