Columbus landed in Haiti in 1492. Haiti was a French colony from 1697—when it was granted to France by Spain—until 1804. It was France's wealthiest overseas colony, producing sugar, indigo, coffee, cotton, and logwood. Haiti's 400,000 slaves rose against the French in 1791, finally forcing France to abolish slavery in 1794. Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who became a French general, seized the colony in 1801, appointing himself governor. Napoleon sent a strong military expedition to Haiti and Toussaint was captured. French control was short-lived, however. A yellow fever epidemic and guerrilla warfare by Toussaint's followers destroyed the French army, and independence was won on January 1, 1804.

One of Toussaint's generals, Jean Jacques Dessalines, declared himself emperor. He was murdered in 1806 and two other generals—Alexandre Pétion and Henri Christophe—took over the country. Pétion became president of southern Haiti and Christophe made himself dictator and, later, king of northern Haiti. Pétion died in 1818 and was succeeded by Jean Pierre Boyer. After Christophe's death in 1820, Boyer reunited Haiti as a republic.

When the Dominican Republic won its independence from Spain in 1822, it was promptly seized by Haiti and did not become fully independent until 1844. The two republics have continued to feud ever since.

From its earliest days the government of Haiti was unstable. Presidents were assassinated, and honest elections were unknown. Conditions grew so chaotic that Haiti was unable to fulfill its international financial obligations. The United States, fearing intervention by a European power, sent Marines to occupy the nation in 1915. A treaty was signed, under which United States officials assumed administrative functions. The Marines remained until 1934.

The first regularly elected president since 1916 was chosen in 1930. Political turmoil resumed after World War II. Army officers overthrew the government in 1946 and 1950. Colonel Paul E. Magloire in 1950 became the first president to be elected directly by the Haitian people rather than by the National Assembly. He was forced from office in late 1956.

Dr. François Duvalier was elected president in 1957. Unable to succeed himself under the existing constitution, he had a new constitution written. “Papa Doc,” as he was called, established a ruthless dictatorship. Upon his death in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude, became president. The oppression and terrorism of his father's government were eased slightly. However, thousands of Haitians fled to the Bahamas and the United States in the 1970's and 1980's to escape poverty and repression.

In 1986 political unrest caused Duvalier to flee Haiti. He was replaced by a military government. Elections were held in January, 1988, and a civilian became president. Five months later, there was a military coup. A popular uprising drove the military from power in 1990. An interim civilian government ruled until democratic elections were held later that year. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, was elected president. In 1991 a coup, led by military leader Raoul Cedras, ousted Aristide. Thousands of Haitians fled, most seeking asylum in the United States.

The United Nations imposed economic sanctions against Haiti in 1993 and in July, 1994, authorized the use of a multinational invasion force to restore Aristide to power. A United States diplomatic mission, led by former President Jimmy Carter, went to Haiti in September and negotiated the resignation of Cedras and the restoration of Aristide. American troops were then sent to Haiti to maintain order. Aristide was reinstated as president in October, 1994. In 1995 United States troops were withdrawn, but a United Nations force remained. Also in 1995 Aristide's term expired and René Préval was elected to succeed him.

The impoverished nation suffered further losses in the Atlantic hurricane season of 2008. As many as 800 or more people died as a result of successive storms (Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike) in August and September. Many towns were flooded, roads and bridges were washed away, and up to a million Haitians were left homeless. The region's worst earthquake in more than 200 years struck Haiti in January 2010. The earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince. Thousands of people were killed, and several million affected, by the disaster.