Three decades later, religious friction in the Bermuda community causes a group of dissenters to seek a place of their own. From 1648 they settle in the Bahamas, a chain of uninhabited islands forming the fringe of the northern Caribbean. This is where Columbus made his first landfall in 1492. In the intervening half century the Spanish have shipped the natives (some 40,000 Arawak Indians) to work in the mines of Hispaniola.
Later in the 17th century Spain loses two large sections of the central Caribbean to her European enemies. An English fleet invades and captures Jamaica in 1655. In 1664 France’s West India Company occupies the western half of Hispaniola (the region now known as Haiti).
Thererafter, when the limited supply of gold is exhausted, the Spanish West Indies survive as part of the broader economy of Spanish America. The islands are both gathering point and staging post for the fleets bringing goods from Spain and taking back the wealth of Mexico and Peru.
By this time the original inhabitants of the West Indies have been virtually wiped out by a combination of European diseases and physical exploitation. The plantation owners rely instead on slaves from Africa.
The economic importance of the islands, bringing Spanish, French and British fleets into often close proximity, means that the Caribbean is one of Europe’s regular theatres of war. The smaller islands frequently change hands between France and Britain during the 18th century, in an ongoing conflict which reaches a peak in the 1790s during the French Revolutionary wars.
In the new conflict the first arena of war is another rich colonial region, the West Indies. During 1794 the British seize several of the smaller French islands in the Caribbean, at an extremely heavy cost in terms of troops dying of yellow fever. On 1 June 1794 (the Glorious First of June in British accounts) Richard Howe destroys a French squadron in the Atlantic – but fails in his primary purpose of harming the rich convoy being accompanied on its journey from America to France.
By far the most profitable French possession in the region, and indeed the most productive of all the Caribbean sugar-producing colonies, is the western half of Hispaniola, under French control from 1664 and known as Saint Domingue. By the late 18th century 90% of the people in the colony (numbering some 520,000 in all) are slaves from Africa. The liberty proclaimed in the French Revolution seems to them an excellent idea. In 1791 they rise in revolt. By 1794, after considerable chaos, a capable leader has emerged and the colony is under black control.
The rebellion of the slaves against their French masters in 1791 is not fully successful until Toussaint L’Ouverture and others join an army invading Saint-Domingue in 1793 from the Spanish half of the island (Santo Domingo, forming the eastern end of Hispaniola). Thereafter Toussaint steadily establishes himself as the strongest of the various black leaders. By 1800 he is master of French Saint-Domingue. In 1801 he invades Santo Domingo and achieves control over the entire island.
Toussaint is flexible enough to invite several former French colonists to return to their plantations, and yet strict enough to ensure that their ex-slaves get to work in a disciplined fashion as free labourers.
In December 1801 a French army of 25,000 men arrives in Saint Domingue under the command of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc. The expedition proves a disaster for the French. Within two years most of the soldiers have died of yellow fever. But meanwhile this is a well-armed force too strong for Toussaint and his followers to resist. Early in 1802 they surrender in return for a generous truce offered by Leclerc. In Toussaint’s case this trust is betrayed. He is arrested and sent to France, where he dies in prison in 1803.
On 1 January 1804 Jean Jacques Dessalines proclaims the independence of Saint Domingue under its old Arawak Indian name of Haiti. He massacres those French who still remain on the island and declares himself emperor, as Jacques I. His brutal rule soon provokes unrest and he dies in 1806 when attempting to put down a revolt. His crown is inherited by one of his generals, Henri Christophe, who more modestly calls himself King Henry I.
Boyer rules French-speaking Haiti, and governs Spanish-speaking Santo Domingo as a conquered province, until he is overthrown in a revolution in 1843. The upheaval of that year also gives Santo Domingo the chance to throw off the yoke of Haiti. The eastern half of the island proclaims its independence, as the Dominican Republic, in 1844. Hispaniola, the oldest European colony in the western hemisphere, becomes also the first region to be free.