A market in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, appears in the above photo, which was taken between 1909 and 1920.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, which makes the devastation caused by yesterday’s earthquake that much harder on an already struggling nation. As death toll estimates continue to rise and other nations flood in to provide aid, we wondered how this small country came to be so poverty-stricken.

Our answer came from Bryan Page, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Miami.

Professor Page:

According to Page, French plantation owners in Haiti became extremely wealthy by literally working their slaves to death while growing everything from indigo to sugar cane. Page says the working conditions were so harsh that it was almost inevitable the slaves would revolt.

Professor Page:

In August of 1791, the Haitian slaves began an violent rebellion that would eventually lead to the nation’s full independence in 1804.

Professor Page:

Page says that post-1804, Haitians were discriminated against by not only the United States, but all the European powers.

Professor Page:

Page says these conditions persisted into the 20th Century, which meant…

Professor Page:

What that isolation essentially meant was that Haiti never had a chance to progress alongside the surrounding civilizations in the region. Complicating the picture even more was a series of despotic rulers that added to the country’s struggles.

Professor Page:

Page says in 1915, the United States — invoking the Monroe Doctrine — occupied Haiti in an attempt to install some order. That experiment lasted until 1936, when the U.S. pulled out. Haiti continued its pattern of despots, dictators and army coups — as did other Latin American countries at the time — but with one big difference…

Professor Page:

Page says that with no help from the elite class in the country to mitigate the situation, we end up with the conditions seen in Haiti today.

Professor Page:

Page says that the Haitian’s high illiteracy rates and lack of marketable skills isn’t for lack of want. He says the roughly 200,000 Haitians living in South Florida are known for being avid utilizers of public education opportunities.

Professor Page:

Photo credit: Library of Congress

UPDATE: anthropologyworks.com has a good post about the demographics of Haiti as well.

  • Haiti Earthquake: How You Can Help The Victims:

  • The American Red Cross is accepting donations by phone. You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to the Red Cross’s efforts, or call 1-800-Redcross or 1-800-257-7575.

  • Interaction, the largest coalition of U.S.-based NGOs focused on the world’s poor, has set up a

  • UNICEF is also accepting donations for the relief efforts in Haiti and the Caribbean region. Visit