Hispaniola (or “La Española” in Spanish) is an island in the Caribbean. It’s the most populous island in the zone and the second largest after Cuba. The 76,192 km2 island is divided in two sovereign nations, the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic (48,442 km2) and the French-Creole-speaking Haiti (27,750 km2).
Hispaniola is the site of the first European settlement in the Americas, founded by Christopher Columbus on his voyages since 1492, when he discovered “the new world”.
The Taíno moved into Hispaniola about year 650 of the common era, the main theory says that the ancestors of the Taíno came from the center of the Amazon in south America, they migrated to what is now Venezuela, from there they reached the Caribbean into Trinidad, proceeding along the Lesser Antilles to the Greater Antilles. They displaced “the Carib”, earlier inhabitants that were in the country after the “Igneri”. They spoke the Taíno language (an Arawakan dialect).
The island was called basically by both of the following names by its native people: “Quizqueia” (“Mother of all Lands”) or “Ayiti” (“Mountainous Land”). Although no known Taíno texts exist, historical evidence for those names comes to us through three European historians: Pietro d‘Anghiera, Gonzalo Fernández and Bartolomé de las Casas.
Tainos were governed mainly by male chiefs known as caciques, who inherited their position through their mother’s noble line, they enjoyed the privilege of wearing golden pendants called guanín, living in square bohíos, instead of the round ones of ordinary villagers, and sitting on wooden stools to be above the guests they received.
The men fished and hunted. Their average size dugout canoes could hold about 15 – 20 people. They used bows and arrows for hunting and developed the use of poisons on their arrowheads. The Taíno women were highly skilled in agriculture.
The Spaniards guided by Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus in English) arrived inadvertently on the island to the “Cacicazgo de Marién” on what is now “Cabo Haitiano, Haití” with his flagship, the Santa María, in December 5, 1492, during the first of his four voyages to the Americas. He claimed the land for Spain and named it “La Isla Española” (in Spanish) and “Insula Hispana”(in Latin), both meaning “the Spanish island” due to its diverse climate and terrain which reminded him of the Spanish landscape. The name “Hispaniola” became the most frequently used term in English-speaking countries for the island in scientific and cartographic works.
The estimates of Hispaniola’s population in 1492 vary widely. Determining precisely how many people lived on the island in pre-Columbian times is next to impossible, as no accurate records exist. But a decent average by multiple sources gives us an estimate of 700,000.00 Taínos.
Traveling further east Columbus came across the Yaque del Norte River in the Cibao region, which he named “Rio de Oro” after discovering gold deposits nearby.
A contingent of 36 men were left in present-day “Cabo Haitiano, Haiti” on a settlement that they built with the remains of the Spanish ship, the Santa María, they named that settlement “La Navidad”, which was the first European colony established in the New World during the Age of Discovery.
On his return in November 22, 1493, they found out that all of the 36 men left in La Navidad had been assassinated by the native Taino or the Carib. Columbus quickly established a second compound farther east in present-day Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, naming it “La Isabela”.
In 1496 Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher’s brother, built the city of Santo Domingo, on the island side of the current Dominican Republic, which became Europe’s first permanent settlement in the “New World.” The colony thus became the springboard for the further Spanish conquest of the Americas and for decades the headquarters of Spanish colonial power in the hemisphere.
In the period of 1500 – 1508, large discoveries of gold in the island were made in the Cordillera Central region, Buenaventura, San Cristóbal, La Vega, Cotuí, Bonao and Santiago.
Under Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres’ governorship, the Indians were made to work in the gold mines, where they were grossly overworked, mistreated, and underfed. By 1503, the Spanish Crown legalized the distribution of Indians to work the mines as part of the encomienda system and began to import African slaves, believing them more capable of performing physical labor.
Once the Indians entered the mines, hunger and disease literally wiped them out. By 1508 the Indian population of about 700,000 was reduced to 60,000, and by 1514, only 26,000 remained. In 1516, a smallpox epidemic killed an additional 8,000 in one month. Just 14,000 Taínos survived in 1517. By 1519, both the gold economy and the Indian population became extinct at the same time.
Cristobal Colón brought sugar cane on his second voyage to the island. Molasses was the chief product. Diego Colon’s (son of Cristobal Colón) plantation had 40 African slaves in 1522. By 1526, 19 mills were in operation from Azua to Santo Domingo.
The French arrived to Hispaniola
As Spain conquered new regions on the mainland of the Americas, its interest in Hispaniola waned, and the colony’s population grew slowly. By the early 17th century, the north-west part of the island and its smaller neighbors (Tortuga) became regular stopping points for Caribbean pirates. In 1606, the government of Philip III ordered all inhabitants of Hispaniola to move to the south-east; to the city of Santo Domingo and its surroundings, to avoid interaction with pirates. Rather than secure the island, his action meant that French, English and Dutch pirates established their own bases on the abandoned north and west coasts of the island.
The French knowing about this weakness in the the northwestern coast of Hispaniola sent colonists to settle there. In order to domesticate the inhabitants in the area, the French supplied them with women who had been taken from prisons, accused of prostitution and thieving.
In 1665, French colonization of the island (western part of Hispaniola) was officially recognized by King Louis XIV. The French colony was given the name of “Saint-Domingue”. After decades of armed struggles with the French, Spain officially ceded the western side of the island to France with the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick. Saint-Domingue quickly came to overshadow the east in both wealth and population. France created a wealthy colony there, while the Spanish colony suffered an economic decline. Saint-Domingue; nicknamed the “Pearl of the Antilles” became the richest and most prosperous colony in the West Indies, with a system of human enslavement used to grow and harvest sugar cane, during a time when demand for sugar was high in Europe. Slavery kept prices low and profit was maximized at the expense of human lives. It was an important port in the Americas for goods and products flowing to and from France and Europe.
Battles between the French and Spanish
The French attacked Santiago in 1667. In 1687 the Spaniards captured the fort at Petit-Goave, but the French fought back and hanged their leaders. Two years later Louis XIV (in France) was at war and ordered the French to invade the Spaniards. In 1691 the Spaniards attacked the north West and sacked Cap-François. Island tensions subsided slowly and Spain’s last Habsburg monarch; Charles II, died on November 30th, 1700, being succeeded by the sixteen-year-old Felipe V de España (ironically borned in France).
The colony of Santo Domingo saw a population increase during the 17th century, as it rose to about 91,000 in 1750. Of this number approximately 38,000 were white landowners, 38,000 were free mixed people of color, and some 15,000 were slaves. This contrasted sharply with the population of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti), which had a population of 500,000 inhabitants of which 90% were enslaved (Africans) working on growing sugar and coffee to export. It was the wealthiest colony in the New World. In the other hand the Spanish settlers (from the Santo Domingo colony), whose blood by now was mixed with that of Tainos, Africans and Canary Guanches had the vision and passion of recovering control of wealth and development as they were the first who discovered this land and fought during centuries with sword and blood.
19th century to present
After many battles of the French vs the rebel African slave troops guided by Dessalines, today’s Haiti (the Western part of Hispaniola) conquered its independence in 1804 from the French. In 1844, leaded by Juan Pablo Duarte; today’s Dominican Republic (the Eastern side of Hispaniola) got its independence from the Haitians. Since then (except for a brief period) the island of Hispaniola has been divided in two sovereign, independent countries; Haiti in its left side and Dominican Republic in its right.