The region was originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno people. Spain landed on the island on 5 December 1492 during the first voyage of Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic. When Columbus initially landed in Haiti, he had thought he had found India or China. On Christmas Day 1492, Columbus's flagship the Santa Maria ran aground north of what is now Limonade. As a consequence, Columbus ordered his men to salvage what they could from the ship, and he created the first European settlement in the Americas, naming it La Navidad after the day the ship was destroyed.
The island was named La Española and claimed by Spain, which ruled until the early 17th century. Competing claims and settlements by the French led to the western portion of the island being ceded to France, which named it Saint-Domingue. Sugarcaneplantations, worked by slaves brought from Africa, were established by colonists.
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.