In April 1492, Cristobal Colon’s (the Spanish name for the explorer known as
Christopher Columbus in English) conditions for the exploration of trade routes
to India were accepted by the Spanish monarchs, King Fernando and Queen Isabel
(Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile). Columbus was given the
titles of Viceroy, Admiral and Governor of the lands to be discovered, as well
as 10% of the wealth obtained. Shortly after, in August 1492, Columbus left the
port of Palos, Spain in search of a new trade route to India. |
After four months of aimless sailing across the Atlantic, Columbus finally had
hope of making his voyage a success. Their first sighting of land was on 12th
October, one of the islands of what is now the Bahamas. Columbus named it San
Salvador, and then went on to explore Cuba. In December 1492, Columbus and his
three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria landed on an island called
Haiti/Quisqueya (the original Taino names for Hispaniola). This event, and the
ensuing encounter with the island’s indigenous population, was to set off a
chain of events that would affect world history for the next 500 years.
Though the “conversion of the savage peoples” was the justification for
Columbus’s voyages and his eventual treatment of the Taino, his ultimate goal
was to find gold and spices that he could claim for the Spanish crown.
Following his initial meeting with the indigenous tribe that lived on
Hispaniola, the Taino Indians, Columbus proceeded to claim the island for the
Spanish crown. December 12 marked the founding of a temporary settlement called
La Concepcion, and it was during these first moments on the island that Columbus
met the Taino Chieftain Guacanagari, who was to help Columbus in his endeavors.
After exploring the island and meeting the Taino chieftains of Hispaniola,
Columbus decided to head back to Spain, taking back samples that reflected life
in the New World. Along with items like tobacco, pineapples, hammocks and
peppers, which the Taino called aji; Columbus also took a group of Taino Indians
and put them on display for the royal Spanish court, as a symbol of his voyage.
As Columbus departed for Spain in January of 1493, he left behind a group of 39
men who would eventually found the first settlement on Hispaniola, called La
Navidad. La Navidad was built using the shipwrecked Santa Maria, which had sunk
off the north coast, as Columbus returned to Spain.
Columbus would make three more trips to Hispaniola before his death. Each trip
was spent on preparing the island for a full Spanish conquest. On November 2,
1493 Columbus arrived back on his second trip leading 1,500 people in 17 ships
to begin the conquest of the Indies and the mainland.
When Columbus returned in November 1493 he was surprised to learn that the
settlement he had left behind was no longer. Some of the 39 men had clashed with
the Taino Indians, and were killed. Other crewmembers had become sick, unable to
cope with the harsh environment of the Caribbean.
As the underlying justification for the conquest of the New World, religion
became an important practice in the Spanish colonies, and on January 6, 1494 the
first mass in the New World was officiated in an improvised chapel.
As time progressed, small settlements were founded across the island, and the
heart of the Spanish conquest in the New World, Hispaniola, began to develop
accordingly. In April 1493 a settlement on the northern coast called La Isabela
was founded in what is now the province of Puerto Plata, and in 1494 Concepcion
de la Vega was founded.
On March 13, 1494 Columbus opened the first road in the New World called Paseo
de los Hidalgos, and construction of the Fort of Santo Tomas began around the
Janico River, in what is now Santiago province.
In 1496 Bartolome Colon (Bartholomew, Columbus’s brother) settled Nueva Isabela
on the eastern side of the Ozama River on the south coast of the island, but in
1498 a hurricane and subsequent earthquakes destroyed the settlement. This
event, though minor, would come to represent the bad luck that was to plague the
Spanish settlement on Hispaniola. On the heels of the destruction of Nueva
Isabela, Bartolome Colon founded the city of Santo Domingo on the western side
of the Ozama River, on August 5, 1498.
As development of all new settlements continued at a rapid pace, it was the
labor of the indigenous population that built Hispaniola, but at a cost. By 1501
the Spanish crown declared that the natives should not be mistreated, and in
1502 Nicolas de Ovando, the new governor of Hispaniola, and Bartolome de las
Casas, defender of the natives and 'Cronista de Indias' (chronicler of the
Indies) arrived on Hispaniola.
The paradise that Columbus had come across on his first voyage of 1492 was not
to last. The Taino population on the island was quickly decimated by the new
presence of European diseases, like smallpox, which they had no protection from.
On subsequent voyages, in order to gain more funding for his travels, and under
pressure to pay off the creditors who had funded his previous voyages, Columbus
introduced a slave system, which can only be described as brutal. A tribute
system was implemented in which the Taino Indians had to fill a gold quota, and
if the quota wasn’t filled they were punished by having their hands chopped off.
More extreme measures included killing the Indians if they didn’t fill the
The Taino population quickly dwindled, leading to one of the most significant
events in New World history. In 1502, at the insistence of Bartolome de las
Casas, who would later recant his statements, the first set of African slaves
was brought from the West Coast of Africa, marking the start of the Atlantic
Though African slaves were going to supplement the need for labor, it didn’t
change the fate of the indigenous Indians. In December 1511, Fray Anton de
Montesinos cried out his famous sermon in defense of the natives, but this was
all in vain, as history began to take its course.
By 1512, 20 years after the Spanish had landed on Hispaniola, the Taino
population had shrunk to an estimated 60,000 natives. By 1517 the native
population was down to 11,000 and by 1518, after a measles outbreak, the native
population was down to 8,000. The final straw would come in 1542, 30 years after
the first contact; the population was reduced to under 5,000 native inhabitants,
a decline of almost 98% of the indigenous population.
As fewer and fewer indigenous communities remained, war was the only survival
option for the remaining natives. Beginning in 1519, Enriquillo, a Taino convert
to Christianity who had been mentored by Bartolome de las Casas, led what became
a 15-year war against the Spaniards, in the hope of freeing his people and
expelling the Spaniards. By 1534 the Spaniards gave in to Enriquillo’s demands,
but this would be the last Indian revolt on Hispaniola.
1503 marked the building of San Nicolas de Bari, the first hospital in the New
World. In 1505, in order to curb the threat of buccaneers and pirates, Fortaleza
Ozama (the first military fort in the New World) was begun, and completed by
1507. The development of the settlements in the New World was marked by some
great achievements. In the year 1510 construction of the Alcazar (palace) was
begun, and finished in 1512. In 1523 the construction of the Metropolitan
Cathedral was begun in Santo Domingo, and 1538 marked the founding of the first
university of the New World, by decree of a papal bull. Santo Tomas de Aquino
was founded accordingly, later to become La Universidad Autonoma de Santo
Domingo, or La UASD.
Though there were magnificent successes on Hispaniola, the continued presence of
the Spanish on the island was marked by devastating events and tremendous bad
luck. In 1537 French corsairs attacked and burned the village of Azua, leading
to the decision to construct the Santo Domingo city walls in 1541, to protect it
from pirates and corsairs. By 1562 slavery became a large part of the colony’s
economic needs. Corsair John Hawkins was one of the larger human traders,
selling many shiploads of slaves in Puerto Plata.
In 1586 Francis Drake invaded and burned Santo Domingo, and a 1591earthquake
damaged Santo Domingo, leaving the city in ruins. By 1605 the north and western
parts of the island had become totally unpopulated, and this continued through
most of the island. By 1606 San Juan de la Maguana and Neiba (in the south) had
also become unpopulated.
By the late 17th century the Spanish settlement on Hispaniola had become
increasingly unprofitable, unstable, and was consequently neglected by the
Spanish. Slave labor had become a central part of life, as slaves easily
outnumbered the Spanish, and sugar production was the main export from
Hispaniola, but it wasn’t enough for the Spanish Crown to recoup on their
investment. Coupled with the fact that gold had be found in what is now Central
America and Mexico, and that the Spanish crown was bankrupt, the importance of
Hispaniola as the Spanish jewel in the New World quickly diminished.
By 1668, without much opposition from the Spanish, the French began their
occupation of the western side of Hispaniola, or what is now Haiti, and in 1697
the Ryswick peace agreement legalized the French occupation of western
The late 18th century was marked by uncertainty and uprisings. Hispaniola
changed hands between different colonial powers several times, and instability
would come to define this period in the country’s history.
Though Hispaniola had been neglected by Spain, and become a shadow of its
successful past, Haiti blossomed in the 18th century, and this affected the
eastern side of Hispaniola directly. Slavery was eventually abolished in 1793,
and a growing collective of white, black and mulatto soldiers led by a former
slave, Toussaint Louverture, was to define the course of history for all of
The Treaty of Basil was signed in July 1795, and the British began to occupy
Spanish territories, forcing a massive exodus of well-to-do citizens from Santo
Domingo, but the British were eventually expelled from Hispaniola in April 1798,
with the help of Toussaint Louverture.
In 1800 the Haitian revolutionary Louverture used his forces against the
Spanish, and in January 1801 he unified all of Hispaniola as one island. In
January 1802 the French invaded Hispaniola, looking to quell the violence and
return the colony to its status as an economic goldmine. Louverture, however,
was taken prisoner by the French in 1802. Regardless of this, on January 1, 1804
Haiti, under the leadership of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, declared its
independence, and in the following year invaded the Spanish side of Hispaniola.
In 1821 the once vibrant and economic powerhouse known as the Colony of Santo
Domingo began its fight for what is known as the Ephemeral Independence, but
this was not to last. In 1822 the newly independent Haitians were fearful that
the French would use the eastern portion of the island to mount an attack on
Haiti and re-establish slavery. Under the leadership of Jean Pierre Boyer, the
Haitians invaded the eastern side of Hispaniola, outlawed slavery, and once
again unified the island until the fight for independence in 1844.