History of the Dominican Republic

Paintings by John Lewis, a locally well known Dominican painter whom Hispaniola.com commissiond to draw snapshots of the Dominican history.

For at least 5,000 years before Christopher Columbus "discovered" America for the Europeans, the island which he called Hispaniola was inhabited by Amer-Indians. Anthropologists have traced 2 major waves of immigration, one from the West in Central America (probably Yucatan) and the second from the South, descendant of the Arawakan Indian tribes in Amazonia and passing through the Orinocco valley in Venezuela. It is from this second source that the ancestors of the Taino Indians who welcomed Columbus on his first voyage originated.

The word Taino meant "good" or "noble" in their language, and not only were the Indians peaceful and generous in their hospitality, but early Spanish chroniclers document that no Spaniard ever saw Indians fighting among themselves. By the end of the 15th century the Tainos were well organized into five tribes, and are considered to have been of the verge of civilization and central government. Recent estimates indicate that there probably were as many as 200,000 Tainos on the island at the time.

When Columbus crossed the Atlantic with his crew of Spaniards, he first came to islands in the Bahamas and then Cuba before landing on the island of Hispaniola. But this was the place that really got them excited for several reasons. First, his journal is full of descriptions indicating how beautiful was this island paradise he had discovered, with high forested mountains and large river valleys. Furthermore, the inhabitants were very peaceful and docile, and even though they were very generous and cooperative, the Europeans quickly realized that with their lack of iron weapons and European technology, the Indians could easily be conquered and put to work for them. But, more important than anything else, they found out that there were gold deposits in the rivers. Many of the Indians they met, especially the chiefs, had gold ornaments and jewelry. So after a month or so of feasting and exploring the northern coast, Columbus rushed back to Spain to announce his success.

Just before their departure, during the night of Christmas Eve 1492, after returning from 2 days of partying with their Indian hosts, Columbus\' flagship, the Santa Maria, ran afoul on a reef and was wrecked a few miles east of present-day Cap HaÔtien after the crew all fell asleep. Although with the help of the Indians they were able to salvage all the valuables, the ship was lost. So Columbus was obliged to found a small settlement that he named Navidad, and left behind a small group of 39 Spaniards when he departed for Spain.

Within a short time of his departure, these settlers began fighting among themselves, with some of them getting killed. They also offended the natives by forcibly taking 3 or 4 of their wives or sisters each, and forcing them to work as their servants. After several months of these abuses, a tribal chief named Caonabo attacked the settlement and killed the remaining Spaniards. So when Columbus returned to the island the next spring with a large expedition, he and the Spaniards were shocked to find that the settlement they had left behind was empty and had been burned to the ground.

The first permanent European settlement was founded in 1493 at Isabella, on the north coast of the island not far east of Puerto Plata. From there the invaders could readily exploit the gold in the Cibao river a short distance away in the interior. The Spaniards brought with them horses and dogs, and combined with their armor and iron weapons, the Indians were unable to resist them. An expeditionary force was sent to capture Caonabo, which was accomplished by trickery. From the beginning the Indians were forced to work at hard labor panning for gold under conditions that were repressive and deplorable, and many began to die off. During this time the first black slaves were also brought over to work as servants of the Spanish. Most of these later escaped to live in the wild mountain valleys.

Bartholomew Columbus was appointed governor while his brother Christopher continued his explorations in the Caribbean region, and after the discovery of gold in the Ozama river valley