In the 1790s the nation of Haiti was known as Saint Domingue, and it was a colony of France. Producing coffee, sugar, and indigo, Saint Domingue was a very profitable colony, but at considerable cost in human suffering.
The majority of people in the colony were slaves brought from Africa, and many of them were literally worked to death within years of arriving in the Carribean.
A slave rebellion which broke out in 1791 gained momentum and was largely successful.
In the mid-1790s the British, who were at war with France, invaded and seized the colony, and an army of former slaves eventually drove out the British. The leader of the former slaves, Toussaint l'Ouverture, established relations with the United States and Britain, and Saint Domingue was essentially an independent nation.
The French Sought to Reclaim Saint Domingue
The French, in time, chose to reclaim their colony, and Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a military expedition of 20,000 men to Saint Domingue. Toussaint l'Ouverture was taken prisoner and jailed in France, where he died.
The French invasion ultimately failed. Military defeats and an outbreak of yellow fever doomed France's attempts to retake the colony.
The new leader of the slave revolt, Jean Jacque Dessalines, declared Saint Domingue to be an independent nation on January 1, 1804. The nation's new name was Haiti, in honor of a native tribe.
Thomas Jefferson Had Wanted to Buy the City of New Orleans
While the French were in the process of losing their grip on Saint Domingue, President Thomas Jefferson was trying to purchase the city of New Orleans from the French, who claimed much of the land west of the Mississippi River.
Napoleon Bonaparte had been interested in Jefferson's offer to purchase the seaport at the mouth of the Mississippi. But the loss of the France's most profitable colony made Napoleon's government begin to think it wasn't worth holding on to the vast tract of land that is now the American Midwest.
When France's finance minister suggested that Napoleon should offer to sell Jefferson all the French holdings west of the Mississippi, the emperor agreed. And so Thomas Jefferson, who had been interested in buying a city, was offered the chance to buy enough land that the United States would instantly double in size.
Jefferson made all the necessary arrangements, got approval from Congress, and in 1803 the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase. The actual transfer took place on December 20, 1803.
The French had other reasons to sell the Louisiana Purchase besides their loss of Saint Domingue. One major concern was that the British, invading from Canada, could eventually seize all the territory anyway. But it is fair to say that France would not have been prompted to sell the land to the United States when they did had they not lost their prized colony of Saint Domingue.
Haiti's Chronic Poverty Is Rooted in the 19th Century
Incidentally, the French, in the 1820s, did try once again to take back Haiti. France did not reclaim the colony, but it did force the small nation of Haiti to pay reparations for land which French citizens had forfeited during the rebellion.
Those payments, with interest added, crippled the Haitian economy throughout the 19th century, meaning that Haiti was never able to develop as a nation.
To this day Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, and the country's very troubled financial history is rooted in the payments it was making to France going back to the 19th century.
Gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of the illustration of Jean Jacques Dessalines, first emperor of Haiti.