Hispaniola’s earliest inhabitants arrived around 2600 BC in huge dugout canoes, coming from what is now eastern Venezuela. They were called the Taínos, and by the time Christopher Columbus landed on the island in 1492, they numbered some 400, 000. However, within 30 years of Columbus’ landing, the Taínos were gone, wiped out by disease and abuse.
The Spanish neglected their colony of Santo Domingo, and through the 17th century it became a haven for pirates and, later, ambitious French colonists. In 1697 the island was formally divided, and the French colony of St-Domingue followed soon after. The French turned St-Domingue over to sugar production on a huge scale. By the end of the 18th century it was the richest colony in the world, with 40, 000 colonists lording it over half a million black slaves.
Following the French Revolution in 1789, free mulattos (offspring of colonists and female slaves) demanded equal rights, while the slaves themselves launched a huge rebellion. Led by the inspiring slave leader Toussaint Louverture, the slaves freed themselves by arms and forced France to abolish slavery.