Before the Europeans arrived, the island was inhabited by a people called the Arawaks, who lived throughout the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1492. The Spanish developed gold mines on the island, but by 1530, the gold ran out.

 In the 17th century, Spain gave the western third of the island to the French, who turned it into one of the most profitable colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Thousands of slaves were brought from Africa to work on sugar cane and coffee plantations.

In 1791 a slave uprising began, led by Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. The former slaves won their battle against the French in 1803. Haiti became the world's first black republic on January 1, 1804.

 Between 1843 and 1915, Haiti experienced political and economic problems. The mulattos, of mixed African-European heritage, held power, but the Blacks opposed them. Because of the country's instability and its strategic location, the United States military occupied the country from 1915 until 1934. In 1946 and again in 1950, military coups displaced the elected Haitian president. 

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The eccentric Henri Christophe ruled northern Haiti between 1806 and 1820. He ordered the construction of the Citadelle Laferrière and other fortresses as a defence against possible re-invasions of Haiti by the French, but these never occurred. 

In 1957, Dr. Francois Duvalier ("Papa Doc") came to power. He was a much-feared dictator, who controlled the country through secret police known as the tontons macoute (Creole for "bogeymen"). When he died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc"), succeeded him. For the next 15 years, he ruled Haiti as his father had. In 1986, he and his family were forced to leave the country.

 In 1987, Haiti adopted a constitution. It provides for an elected parliament, an elected president, a prime minister, cabinet ministers and a supreme court. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the first democratically elected head of state in the country's 200-year history. Shortly after the election, however, the army forced Aristide to leave the country. 

The military government was opposed by many Haitians and by the international community. The United Nations restricted travel in and out of Haiti to pressure the military government to restore power to the democratic government. Aristide returned in 1994. Peacekeeping troops from the United Nations, including Canada, were on hand to make sure the transition went smoothly.In December 1995, René Préval won Haiti's presidential election. He officially became president on February 7, 1996.