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Home » Culture » Dominican Republic » History » Hispaniola



Hispaniola is a major Caribbean island comprising two sovereign nations; the Dominican Republic, where Spanish is Spoken, and Haiti where is spoken french.

Hispaniola is a Caribbean islandthat consists of two countries; the Dominican Republic, where Spanish is spoken, and French-speaking Haiti. Throughout the past five centuries it has gone through periods of growth and decline.

Columbus’s initial attempts at settlements were La Navidad and then La Isabela, further to the east. The first settlement-proper, however, was Santo Domingo, on the southern coast, an attractive location due to its vast deposits of gold and dense population which would provide a workforce. It was on Hispaniola that the Spanish established the repartimiento system, which used the indigenous natives as labor. The Spanish crown, noting the ineffectiveness of the system, replaced it with the encomienda in 1503, which entrusted natives’ labor in return for protection in the form of food and shelter from their owners. Regardless, due to consistent abuse and the unachievable demands on the natives, their population rapidly diminished to the point that the indigenous Taino tribe disappeared altogether.

By the 1530s, the island had lost its dominance. South America was developing far more quickly due to greater reserves of minerals and a more capable workforce. Agriculture became the Hispaniola’s greatest industry, although this suffered too when much of the population headed to the mainland for work. For the next two and a half centuries Hispaniola languished in the shadows of Mexico and Peru, and was subjected to constant attacks by foreign fleets, particularly the British and French. French attacks began to gather pace in the 1660s, lasting for three decades. The Spanish government was experiencing a period of decline during this period, which, combined with several ongoing wars in Europe and in more important areas of South America, made them particularly ill-prepared to defend Hispaniola. A treaty in 1697 ceded the western third of the island to the French, hence why modern-day Haiti speaks French.

In the early eighteenth century, the Habsburg royal house in Spain was replaced by the modernizing House of Bourbon, who embarked on a series of political, economic and social reforms in both Spain and its colonies. As a result of these largely successful changes, the population of Santo Domingo increased from 6,000 in 1737 to roughly 125,000 fifty-three years later.

In 1821, only recently having declared independence from Spain, Santo Domingo was invaded by the Haitian side of the island. Twenty-three years later the Dominicans reclaimed their territory and sovereignty. Nevertheless, their continued vulnerability to attack led them to voluntarily submit to Spanish sovereignty once again in 1861, lasting for four years, when in the face of much opposition to the presence of Spanish troops, the Queen of Spain granted the country independence, with its capital as Santo Domingo.

Independence brought many challenges to the fledgling nation, principally the constant stream of military leaders who seized power from one another. The turmoil that this created led to military intervention from the United States in 1916, which lasted for eight years and succeeded in stabilizing the country.

In 1930 Rafael Trujillo became president, ruling as a dictator for thirty-one years up to his assassination. His regime was brutal and repressive, but few can deny that he substantially developed the country’s economy. His murder in 1961 gave rise to Joaquin Balaguer, who continued with his predecessor’s murderous policies for twelve years, and who later became president a second time in 1986. Under his presidency, the economy declined considerably, and many fled the country. Balaguer died in 2002, having resigned as president six years earlier as a result of international pressure.

True democracy came to the country as late as 2000, when New York-raised Leonel Fernandez won the election. He presided over strong economic growth, and instilled a degree of confidence into the country’s legal system. Fernandez is largely responsible for the country’s booming tourism industry, for which the Dominican Republic is perhaps now most known. In 2013 the population stands at just over ten million people, 95% of which are Roman Catholic, and a GDP of just over US$100 billion, the world’s 74th largest economy.

Image by Norman B. Leventhal