A carved rock with a cutting edge made by the Indigenous people of Haiti
Despite popular misconceptions, the people of Haiti are not genetically related to the Natives of the island. The current inhabitants of the island are an imported population. Almost all Haitian ancestors come from West Africa, some come from Europe, but virtually none come from the once indigenous people of the island, making us a population of newcomers. This is said in Creole as nou pa moun isit. Despite this well documented historical fact, some people continue to attribute numerous elements of Haitian culture to a purported indigenous past. Rara celebrations, Vèvè writing, the making of cassava, the carving of dugout canoes are among the many cultural practices that have been wrongly attributed to an imagined “Indian” or Native heritage that was supposedly passed down to us. Recent genetic studies of the Haitian people, negates this alleged native blood line.
There is almost no trace of native genes in the present Haitian population. Results of genetic testing on Haitians shows an overwhelming representation of African genes, some European genes, and nearly no genes from the indigenous population of the island. Using available commercial tests to determine our own genetic make-up, we, the writers of this article, found that 80 to 87% of our genes were African and 7 to 20% were European. We had no detectable Native genes. Another Haitian colleague who underwent the same test, found similar results. In 1976, Basu and Associates studied 487 people in Pestel, Haiti and found that about 80% of the genes studied came from Africa and they concluded that only a negligible percentage (<0.02%) came from native american sources. In 2012 Simms studied the y-chromosome of 123 Haitians and found them to be predominantly African. These result beg for explaining how a predominantly African population replaced indigenous people.
At one time, the Native population flourished in Haiti. Current genetic, linguistic and archeological evidence support that people started to populate the Antilles about 7000 years ago. Some of these people, called Ciboney, arrived from South America along the Yucatan peninsula and settled in Cuba and Haiti. Another wave of migration into the Antilles started about 2500 years ago when Arawak people moved from Venezuela to settle in Trinidad and from there, they moved east, hopping from island to island until they reached Puerto Rico. These Arawak people left a trail of pottery that is now used to date their arrival to the different islands. It was not until 1500 years ago (500 C.E) that the Arawak people moved to the islands of Haiti and Cuba where they either replaced or lived alongside the Ciboney people.
By the time Christopher Columbus arrived on the island, Ciboney and Arawak descendants were divided into different ethnic groups, among them the Chemès, the Ciguayos, and the Macorix. The Macorix lived on the northern side of Haiti, and spoke a different language from the people in the interior of the island who became known as Tainos. The Taino name is controversial because it appears not to have been used by the Natives to define the many people who inhabited Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Taino was a term used in the northern parts of Haiti to mean elite social class while naboria met servile social class. The Spanish made no distinction and called everyone Taino. This dubious name is often used by those in Haiti claiming a Native ancestry.
In general, the Haitian people are not descendants of the indigenous population, and they generally do not know how the Native people called themselves. Those who claim Native ancestry commonly say they are descendants of Tainos or Indios referring to the inaccurate names given to the Natives by the Spaniards. The word Indio or Indian was first used by Christopher Columbus who thought he had arrived in the Asian subcontinent, called India in Western Europe. In contrast, because Haitian people are predominantly descendants of West Africans, they correctly remember the names of the various ethnic groups from that region: Ibo, Nago, Adya, Benga, Mede, Foula, Senega, Kongo, Gedevi and so on.
Upon their arrival in 1492, Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards observed that the Natives of the island were not familiar with metal and had no swords or firearms. This gave Christopher Columbus confidence that he would be able to overcome any resistance to their enslavement. Having assessed the situation, he kidnaped a few and brought them to Spain where he sold some and gave a few away as gifts. He retained a few others to train as translators. Las Casas' father who had accompanied Columbus on the voyage, took a Native boy and gave him to Las Casas as a kind of toy. In 1493, Christopher Columbus returned to the island with 17 ships and 1200 soldiers. They brought pigs, cattle, horses, donkeys, attack dogs and rats that had stowed away on their ships. Nonetheless, to facilitate the island's conquest, the Spaniards would need more than their army of men and animals. They would need to immerse themselves in local conflicts and support one side against the other. This strategy became popularly known as divide and conquer, a lesson that the Spaniards learned in their earlier conquest of the Canary Islands.
Arriving in Haiti, Christopher Columbus took note of existing political rifts in the territory and exploited them to his advantage and to the peril of the local population. The island was divided into 5 states. The Spanish force landed in the north and was welcomed by the Native King Gwakanagari whose title was Cacique. Gwakanagari saw the potential benefits of having access to Spanish firearms, cannons, and swords if only he could develop an amicable relationship with Christopher Columbus. Gwakanagari agreed to supply workers to the Spaniards to mine for gold if in return he were given military assistance to expand his state and attack his more powerful neighbor, the Cacique Kawonabo. In fact, Gwakanagari died accompanied by Christopher Columbus in battle against Kawonabo, whom Gwakanagari accused of killing the 38 Spaniards that he had permitted Christopher Columbus to leave behind on the island after his first voyage. These men were left on the island by Columbus to conform to Papal decree that required a permanent military presence in a territory before Spain could lay claim to it.
Gwakanagari's collaboration with Christopher Columbus would prove to be fatal to the Native population. Such collaborations with local leaders allowed the Spaniards to easily conquer non-democratic states. In Kingdoms, like those of the Caciques of Haiti, the destructive will of a single leader could be implemented once that leader could see how he could personally benefit. In regions where the indigenous population had democratic rule, like the Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, their leaders could not so easily sell them out, and the Spanish initially failed to conquer them. The Caribs were able to resist European conquest of their territories for an additional 200 years beyond the collapse of the Caciques of Haiti. In other words, democratic states were better able to protect the interest of their population and thereby resist Spanish conquest. In general, with kingdoms, the Spanish did not need to introduce a system of exploitation, they only needed to tap into a pre-existing social structure. Collaboration with the Cacique Anakawona, allowed her nephew, Cacique Henry, who was born on the island in 1500, to be raised by Spanish priests who named him Henry or Enriquillo, an endearing Spanish way of saying Henry.
The Cacique and Spaniard cooperation precipitated the fall of the island of Haiti into the hands of the Spanish. That cooperation prevented the local population from immediately defining the Spaniards as an invasion force and as a common enemy. However, as more and more Natives were enslaved, raped, and amputated for not delivering to Christopher Columbus the demanded volume of gold, native resistance grew and many of the Caciques rebelled as they saw their power and influence diminish. Kawonabo, a Ciboney Cacique and his wife Anakaona along with other Caciques were captured, imprisoned, and ultimately killed.
With insurmountable crimes against the Native people all around him, in 1519, Cacique Henry fled to the mountains of Mòn Lasèl, and formed the earliest successful maroon community of escaped Africans and Natives. He led a protracted war with the Spanish who later brought the war to an end in 1534 when they negotiated a contract whereby the Spanish would stop attacking Henry and his people so long as Cacique Henry agreed to police the remote areas and turnover any new escapees. This agreement became the template used by colonial powers to turn maroon communities into the police of the remote areas.
Cacique Henry's rebellion was the last significant war of the Natives with Spaniard forces. No one knows exactly how many people lived on the island when the Spanish invasion began. Bacci gives the best estimate at 500,000. Whatever the initial population was, by 1514 there were only 60,000 potential Native slaves left on the island. The small pox epidemic of 1518-1519 resulted in an additional massive number of deaths and helped to reduce that population to 25,000. By 1520 there were more Africans than Natives on the island. After 1550, despite expeditions within the country to find natives to enslave, no one could find any. Since that time, no one has ever shown evidence of any Native communities anywhere on the island.
It is mindboggling that such a large population of people could have perished with very little trace. Their demise was the outcome of wars, enslavement, famine, disease, and even suicide. Many were killed by rubella, measles, chickenpox, small pox and influenza epidemics. These diseases were new to the region, inadvertently transported from Europe. Other diseases like Yellow fever and Dengue fever were brought from Africa. Some natives escaped mistreatment by drinking poisonous cassava water. Many Spaniards also died from wars, from famine, and from numerous tropical diseases from which they had not yet developed immunity. Despite their high death rate, driven by a thirst for gold, more and more Spaniards kept arriving to Haiti and that replenished their dwindling numbers. In 1502, Ovando came from Spain with 2600 men on 32 ships.
As for the Natives, they were driven by self-preservation. Many fled from their cities to take refuge in the mountains or in neighboring islands. Their flight from home caused them to abandon their plantations resulting in widespread famine which further decreased their numbers. Annihilation of the native population was not the initial goal of the Spaniards. Christopher Columbus would have preferred the Natives to remain alive for their labor to be exploited and for their bodies to serve the pleasures of his men.
The ensuing absence of people on the island to be enslaved led the Spaniards to the more expensive option of importing people, mostly from the neighboring islands, the mainland, and Africa. Even the French who acquired the western side of Haiti in 1697 imported Native American people as slaves from regions under French control in north America. Famous among these were about 1000 North American Natchez people taken to Haiti as slaves. The importation of regional Native people is now also supported by some archeological findings in Haiti. Recently, houses were excavated from the old Spaniard city of Puerto Real in northern Haiti, a city built near Natividad in 1503 but abandoned in 1605. The furniture and the houses of that city, presumably built by male residents, were similar to those in Spain, but activities conducted by women, like cooking, showed evidence of techniques of non-Spanish and non-Native Haitian origins. These techniques were those of the Lucayan people who were imported from the Bahamas, likely because of the depletion of the Natives.
By 1550, there were no known communities of Natives anywhere on the island. As more and more Africans kept arriving to the island, there were no Native communities for them to interact with. The new African arrivals died just like the Natives died under their horrendous working conditions. Africans were no more suited for enslavement then any other people. The mortality rate among Africans brought to the island was so high, that Africans who had contact with any Natives did not live long enough to have offsprings. Each generation of enslaved people were replaced by African newcomers. This situation prevented biological continuity over time between generations of enslaved people on the island. Although such a statement is an oversimplification, it offers a practical way of understanding the current Haitian gene pool. The generation of enslaved people who fought the Haitian Revolution were overwhelmingly recent African arrivals and were neither the descendants of Natives nor of earlier enslaved Africans who were taken to the island during the preceding centuries.
Despite their extermination, the Native people of Haiti had a far reaching influence on people all over the world. The variety of plants that they bred and cultivated became part of the staple foods consumed all over the world. Their cassava and corn were imported to Africa and cultivated to supply the slave ships that had to bring with them a 3 month supply of food to cross the Atlantic. Africans arriving to Haiti in the 1700's were already so familiar with Native food crops that they did not consider them to be foreign. Moreover, within the Code Noir, cassava was required by law to be fed to the enslaved people thereby maintaining cassava production despite the absence of the Native population.
As there was no contact between the Native population and the generation of Africans who fought the Haitian Revolution, all Haitian cultural elements attributed to contact with the Natives is purely fanciful. Canoe making is mistakenly attributed to the Native population even though Africans navigated the rivers of Africa on canoes which could hold more than 50 passengers. Vèvè writing and Rara celebrations have erroneously been mis-characterized as Native traditions, even though the evidence proves their African origins. More recently, Farris Thompson has shown evidence supporting both Vèvè and Rara as derived from West African religious traditions. The use of Native statues in Vodou services has also been wrongly used to argue for a continuity between the Haitians of today and the Natives of the past. These Native statues are used because they are so readily found on the island. Usually, the statues are given names of African ethnic groups to make them relevant for Ancestral veneration. Two such statues found in Cavaillon were called Mazondi and Mazonda, names derived from Kongo ethnic groups. Native artifacts were so plentiful in Haiti that in 1814, Baron de Vastey, the first Haitian person to publish a book, wrote that wherever he turned his gaze, he could see jars, tools, figurines, and whole whitened skeletons attesting to the existence of a people who are no more.
Overall, historical and genetic information support that we the people of Haiti come predominantly from West Africa and a few from Europe. For this reason, Haitian culture is best understood through the study of 17th and 18th century Africa and Europe. It is the interaction of people from these two continents that laid the foundation for Haitian culture and religious practices. The overwhelming percentage of African genes in the population supports the Haitian popular statement: Nou soti lwen, nou pa moun isit. Nou se Nèg Lafrik Ginen. This statement ignores the smaller European contribution to our gene pool because the European colonists often did not recognize their “ black” offsprings as their children, so few recognize them today as Ancestors.
Today, the Haitian people are indebted to the Natives of the island not because we are their direct descendants, but because we are the custodians of a land they once inhabited. We empathize with them because our fore-parents barely escaped their fate of near total annihilation. In deference to the Natives, we restored the name of the territory to Haiti. No longer would we call Haiti Saint Domingue, as the French called their colony, or Hispaniola as the Spaniards initially renamed the island. Even though much wrong was done to our fore-parents by the French and Spaniards, out of respect for those who preceded us on the island, Dessalines said that he avenged the Natives. He even called the army of African newcomers fighting the French the indigenous army. He may have done this to show a certain continuity between us and those who once lived on the land. Both populations, Native and imported, shared a common aspiration to liberate themselves from slavery. It is in that aspiration that we stand united. In getting rid of the colonists, we gained our freedom, but in avenging the Natives, we won the right to be the custodians of their land and to call ourselves Haitians.
Nou soti lwen
nou pa moun isit
Nou se Nèg Lafrik Ginen
We come from far away
We are not from here
We are from the West Coast of Africa.
A Haitian boy fishing from a dug out canoe. As in Africa, these canoes are used in non-turbulent waters. Bookmanlit photograph, 2013
Africans from the region of the Benga Nation (Cameroon) in a dug out canoe. The size of the canoes depend on the size of available tree trunks. The photograph is courtesy of Dr. Margaret Armand, 2012
A Haitian girl navigating her dug out canoe in Pestel, Haiti, a long standing tradition from Ginen (West Africa). Bookmanlit photograph, 2013
Another view of the Native rock tool with the cutting edge displayed. The rock is designed with two grooves to fit the fingers and help keep them away from the cutting edge. Bookmanlit photograph, 2015
This tool may have been designed for right-handed use as the decorated side is only displayed when held with the right hand. Bookmanlit photograph, 2015