The island was originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno people, who migrated from South America. The first Europeans arrived on 5 December 1492 during the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, who initially believed he had found India or China. Columbus subsequently founded the first European settlement in the Americas, La Navidad, on what is now the northeastern coast of Haiti. The island was claimed by Spain and named La Española, forming part of the Spanish Empire until the early 17th century. However, competing claims and settlements by the French led to the western portion of the island being ceded to France in 1697, which was subsequently named Saint-Domingue. French colonists established lucrative sugarcaneplantations, worked by vast numbers of slaves brought from Africa, which made the colony one of the richest in the world.
In the midst of the French Revolution (1789–99), slaves and free people of color launched the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), led by a former slave and the first black general of the French Army, Toussaint Louverture. After 12 years of conflict, Napoleon Bonaparte's forces were defeated by Louverture's successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared Haiti's sovereignty on 1 January 1804 — the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the first country to abolish slavery, and the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt. Apart from Alexandre Pétion, the first President of the Republic, all of Haiti's first leaders were former slaves. After a brief period in which the country was split in two, President Jean-Pierre Boyer united the country and then attempted to bring the whole of Hispaniola under Haitian control, precipitating a long series of wars that ended in the 1870s when Haiti formally recognised the independence of the Dominican Republic. Haiti's first century of independence was characterised by political instability, ostracism by the international community and the payment of a crippling debt to France. Political volatility and foreign economic influence in the country prompted the United States to occupy the country from 1915-34. Following a series of short-lived presidencies, François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier took power in 1956, ushering in a long period of autocratic rule that was continued by his son Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier that lasted until 1986; the period was characterised by state-sanctioned violence against the opposition and civilians, corruption and economic stagnation. Since 1986 Haiti has been attempting to establish a more democratic political system.
The name Haiti (or Hayti) comes from the indigenous Taíno language which was the native name[note 2] given to the entire island of Hispaniola to mean, "land of high mountains." The h is silent in French and the ï in Haïti has a diacritical mark used to show that the second vowel is pronounced separately, as in the word naïve. In English, this rule for the pronunciation is often disregarded, thus the spelling Haiti is used. There are different anglicizations for its pronunciation such as HIGH-ti, high-EE-ti and haa-EE-ti, which are still in use, but HAY-ti is the most widespread and best-established. The name was restored by Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines as the official name of independent Saint-Domingue, as a tribute to the Amerindian predecessors.
In French, Haiti's nickname is the "Pearl of the Antilles" (La Perle des Antilles) because of both its natural beauty, and the amount of wealth it accumulated for the Kingdom of France; during the 18th century the colony was the world's leading producer of sugar and coffee.