The Dominican Republic makes up two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, one of the largest Caribbean islands. The history of Hispaniola and of the Dominican Republic is filled with conflict and struggle, from the first Spanish occupation to the present day. But the country is slowly rebuilding itself through elections and a growing tourism industry that promise a brighter tomorrow for this beautiful destination.
Columbus discovered the island he named Hispaniola in 1492 during his first Atlantic voyage. However, the Taíno Indians had occupied the island for some 5,000 years before he arrived. These amerindians are said to have originated from two different tribes, some from Central America around the current Belize or Yucatán peninsula and others from South America, who likely departed from Venezuela.
These tribes combined on the island, which they called Quisqueya, Haití, or Bohío, and lived in political units known as "cazicazgos." Columbus noted that he never saw the Taínos fight among themselves during his stay on the island. Columbus returned to Europe with stories of the island's beauty and the gold found in the rivers of the island and worn by the natives.
Recent estimates suggest that by the time Columbus reached Hispaniola, more than one million Taínos were living on the island. He stayed long enough to explore the island, but when he left, he lost the flagship, whose crew had fallen asleep, when the ship ran aground. The crew of 39 on the flagship were forced to stay behind on the island in a settlement known as Navidad.
Although the Taíno were a peaceful people, the Spanish crew left behind on the island was less so. Conflicts broke out among the Spaniards, sometimes ending in their deaths. However, those weren't the only conflicts that sprung up with the accidental settlers.
The Spanish offended the Taíno when they took Indian women and forced them into labor as servants. The Taíno eventually retaliated, and after months of these strained and unhappy relations, a chief named Caonabó attacked the settlement and killed the settlers. When Columbus returned the following spring, he was shocked to find his former crew members dead and the settlement burned to the ground.
In 1493, the city of Isabella on the island's north coast became the first true colony. Its location, near present day Puerto Plata, was the perfect spot for the Spanish to also exploit the gold found in the Cibao Valley nearby. With armor, animals, and foreign diseases on their side, the Spaniards quickly decimated the Taíno population. They captured the rebellious Caonabó and put the remaining natives to work in Santo Cerro panning for gold under terrible conditions.
While Christopher Columbus left Hispaniola to explore the rest of the region, his successor, Francisco de Bobadilla, was left as governor of the island. The 1496 discovery of gold in the south of the island, which spawned the city of Santo Domingo, helped bring down their leadership.
The Spanish settlers wrote back to Spain complaining of the mismanagement of the island government by Bobadilla, and both Bobadilla and Columbus were sent to Spain to face the Queen in chains. However, Queen Isabella quickly realized that the complaints were exaggerated, and Columbus and Bobadilla were released.
The next governor of the island was Nicolas Ovando. He decided to deal with the Taíno resistance in a brutal manner and eliminate resistance completely. Ovando made arrangements with Caonabó's queen, Anacoana, to have her throw a dinner to welcome his new governorship of the island.
Anacoana was one of the most respected leaders, and she filled her caney, "palace," near what is now Port au Prince with more than 80 of the island's chiefs. It was then that Ovando struck, ordering soldiers to set the building on fire. Few escaped, but those who did were tortured, and Anacoana herself was hanged after a mock trial. Ovando also ordered the chiefs on the other side of the island eliminated in much the same manner, and effectively destroyed Taíno resistance.
Though the Taíno no longer had leadership to help them resist their Spanish conquerors, the Spanish had still more help annihilating the natives. Diseases brought from Europe took their toll on the Taíno, as they did throughout the New World when Europeans landed. The forced labor of the Taíno people also contributed to a famine, and some took to burning crops and abandoning villages to disappear into the less hospitable areas of the island.
These "cimarrón," or runaways, also left the island, heading to the mainland or other islands. However, smallpox also overran the Indians in 1518. Within 25 years, the native population dropped below 50,000. In another generation, the Taíno inhabitants would almost all have mixed ancestry, with Spanish or African roots.
In 1509, Diego Columbus, Christopher Columbus' son, was given governorship of the colony of Santo Domingo. However, he, too, drew negative attention to himself through his ambition and his rich surroundings. It was because of this that Spain created the system of the audencia tribunal in 1511. The audencia was created to check the governor's power, but quickly grew to be the highest court in the region.
Although other resistance took place, the most powerful resistance came from Enriquillo, who led escaped Indians into the Bahoruco mountains near the present border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti and began a guerrilla assault. After 14 years raiding the Spanish and defeating their patrols, Enriquillo signed the first treaty between an Amerindian chief and a European monarch. His followers were given their own charter and city on the island in 1534.
During this time, the inhabitants of the island also found a decline in the riches available and turned their trade toward livestock. The island of Hispaniola lost importance in the mind of the Spanish treasure hunters, who had found riches in Mexico as well. However, others turned their attentions toward the island.
Pirates, including the infamous Henry Morgan, smugglers, and runaways are among the people who began settling on the nearby island of Tortuga. Following a mandate in 1603, the governor of the island moved all of the Spanish settlers to an area southeast of today's San Juan de Maguana. The area around Hispaniola became a hunting ground for Spanish treasure ships. The French, too, began hunting, looking for a piece of the island of Hispaniola, as well as Tortuga.
Once the French took control of the Spanish-vacated northwestern part of Hispaniola, they began a campaign to limit piracy. In fact, the French offered the pirates women, who had been imprisoned for prostitution or thievery. It was in this way that the French began to occupy what they called Sainte Domingue in 1697.
Cane sugar farmed by African slaves quickly made this the most prosperous island in the Caribbean. Toussaint L'ouverture was a French black who led a slave revolt in 1791, inspired by the civil unrest in France at the time. Spain ceded the colony of Santo Domingo in 1795, and the Treaty of Basilea left Toussaint L'ouverture in control of the entire island.
Though L'ouverture and his successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines re-established order in the colony, monarch Napoleon Bonaparte took issue with a black governing a colony. He sent his brother in law, General Leclerc, to re-enslave the blacks on the island. However, the black army defeated the French and claimed control of the western third of the island, establishing the Republic of Haiti.
In 1809, the French relinquished control of the remaining two-thirds of the island to the Spanish, who re-established slavery in Santo Domingo and even rode into Haiti to capture slaves. However, the blacks in Haiti feared that the French would ride through Santo Domingo to once again establish slavery in Haiti, so they went on the offensive, taking over the entire island and once again abolishing slavery in 1822.
For 22 years, the island was controlled by the Haitians, a period Dominicans refer to as the "Haitian Occupation." In the 1830s, Juan Pablo Duarte established a group known as La Trinitaria, and, in 1844, the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola once again returned to Spanish rule of the República Dominicana - Dominican Republic.
For more than half a century, power changed hands often within the Dominican government. From a corrupt government to a brutal dictatorship, many different rulers and governmental styles controlled the Dominican Republic. However, in 1916 the U.S. brought marines into the island, trying to establish their own control of the island.
U.S. occupation only lasted eight years, but during this time the Americans set up a puppet government and took full control of the island. Some changes were made in laws to allow American investors better access to the economy of the island. Many businessmen had troubles because of this, but political violence was all but eliminated during this period.
The Americans also attempted to establish an army, one to match that of Haiti. Put at the head of the army was former telegraph clerk Rafael Trujillo, whose name would soon become infamous on Dominican history. The army was established to help maintain government without violence from the people of the Dominican Republic.
Shortly after the U.S. relinquished control of the government, elections were held, and Trujillo slowly began to gain power. His power was solidified by 1930, and he became dictator of the Dominican Republic.
His dictatorship was known for its cruelty, and many people died during his reign in the small country. However, he was given support by American businessmen because of his permissive attitude toward investors, and by the American government because of his negative attitude toward communism.
He stayed in power for 30 years but killed as many as 17,000 former Haitians who had been living in the Dominican Republic for generations. His stay came to an end in 1961 when his car was ambushed and he was killed. The date of his death, May 30, is now a national holiday on the island.
After this trouble, the people of the island sought peace as best they could. Through a series of elections, some corrupt, order has been established. The U.S. has occasionally influenced the government of the island, and many political leaders were tried and tested by their position.
Corruption has long been one of the most problematic pieces of the Dominican struggle for independence. However, recent elections have shown much promise, and the island's people are working toward both peace and prosperity. Tourism itself has had no small hand in the growing prosperity of the island.
Through a troubled past, the island has worked toward greatness during the past 50 years, and it's easy to see how tourism has become one of the island's most important factors. Its natural resources still offer everything Columbus found beautiful about the island.
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