The Captaincy General of Santo Domingo was the first colony in the New World and was claimed for Spain. The island was originally named "La Española" (Hispaniola) by Christopher Columbus. In 1511, the courts of the colony were placed under the jurisdiction of the Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo. French buccaneers took over part of the west coast in 1625. French settlers arrived soon thereafter. Spain finally ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697, thus establishing the basis for the later national divisions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

This colony had an important role in the establishment of Spanish colonies in the New World. It was the headquarters for Spanish conquistadors on their way to the conquest of the Americas.

1492-1539: arrival of the Europeans

Christopher Columbus reached the island on 5 December 1492 during his first voyage. He named it La Española. Believing that Europeans were supernatural, the Taíno people welcomed them with honors. Guacanagarí, the chief who hosted Columbus and his men, treated them kindly and provided them with everything they desired. However, the Taínos' egalitarian social system clashed with the Europeans' feudalist system, which had more rigid class structures. The Europeans believed the Taínos to be either weak or misleading, and they began to treat the tribes with violence. Columbus successfully tempered this trend, and he and his men departed from Ayiti, the Taínos' name for the island, on good terms.

After the sinking of the Santa María, Columbus established a small fort to support his claim to the island. The fort was called La Navidad because the shipwrecking and the founding of the fort occurred on Christmas Day. While Columbus was away, the garrison manning the fort was wracked by divisions that evolved into conflict. The more rapacious men began to terrorize the Taíno, the Ciguayo, and the Macorix peoples, which included attempts to take their women. Guacanagarix tried to reach an accommodation with the Spaniards; however, the Spaniards and some of his own people viewed him as weak. The Spaniards treated him with contempt, including the kidnapping of some of his wives. Fed up, the powerful Cacique Caonabo of the Maguana Chiefdom attacked the Europeans and destroyed La Navidad. Guacanagarix was dismayed by these events but did not try hard to aid the Europeans, probably hoping that the troublesome outsiders would never return.

In 1493, Columbus came back to the island on his second voyage and founded the first Spanish colony in the New World, the city of Isabella. In 1496, his brother Bartholomew Columbus established the settlement of Santo Domingo de Guzmán on the southern coast, which became the new capital. An estimated 400,000 Tainos living on the island were soon enslaved to work in gold mines. By 1508, their numbers had decreased to around 60,000 because of forced labor, hunger, disease, and mass killings. By 1535, only a few dozen were still alive.[1]

During this period, the colony's Spanish leadership changed several times. When Columbus departed on another exploration, Francisco de Bobadilla became governor. Settlers' allegations of mismanagement by Columbus helped create a tumultuous political situation. In 1502, Nicolás de Ovando replaced de Bobadilla as governor, with an ambitious plan to expand Spanish influence in the region. It was he who dealt most brutally with the Taíno people.

One rebel, however, successfully fought back. Enriquillo led a group who fled to the mountains and attacked the Spanish repeatedly for fourteen years. The Spanish ultimately offered him a peace treaty and gave Enriquillo and his followers their own city in 1534. The city lasted only a few years. Rebellious slaves burned it to the ground and killed all who stayed behind.

African enslavement

Inspection and sale of African slaves.

In 1501, the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand I and Isabella, first granted permission to the colonists of the Caribbean to import African slaves, which began arriving to the island in 1503. In 1510, the first sizable shipment, consisting of 250 Black Ladinos, arrived in Hispaniola from Spain. Eight years later African-born slaves arrived in the West Indies. Sugar cane was introduced to Hispaniola from the Canary Islands, and the first sugar mill in the New World was established in 1516.[2] The need for a labor force to meet the growing demands of sugar cane cultivation led to an exponential increase in the importation of slaves over the following two decades. The sugar mill owners soon formed a new colonial elite, and initially convinced the Spanish king to allow them to elect the members of the Real Audiencia from their ranks. Poorer colonists subsisted by hunting the herds of wild cattle that roamed throughout the island and selling their hides.

The enslaved population numbered between 20,000 and 30,000 in the mid-sixteenth century and included mine, plantation, cattle ranch, and domestic laborers. A small Spanish ruling class of about 1,200 monopolized political and economic power, and it used ordenanzas (laws) and violence to control the population of color.

The first major slave revolt in the Americas occurred in Santo Domingo during 1522, when enslaved Muslims of the Wolof nation led an uprising in the sugar plantation of admiral Don Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus. Many of these insurgents managed to escape to the mountains where they formed independent maroon communities. By the 1530s, maroon bands had become so numerous that in rural areas the Spaniards could only safely travel outside their plantations in large armed groups. By 1545, there were an estimated 7,000 maroons beyond Spanish control on Hispaniola. The Bahoruco Mountains were their main area of concentration, although Africans had escaped to other areas of the island as well. From their refuges, they descended to attack the Spanish.

One preeminent leader of slave revolts was Sebastián Lemba. By directing a strategy of mobile, hit-and-run warfare, Lemba succeeded in resisting and evading the colonial forces for all of 15 years. Burning and sacking their way from Higüey to Yaguana, Lemba's group of guerrilleros negros evaded the Spanish authorities until 1547, the year in which the troops captured and executed the rebel leader, hanging his severed head from a gateway as an example to others who would dare disobey their white masters. Slave insurrections continued through the mid-century. As accounts indicate, slave revolts in the colony of Santo Domingo anticipated Saint-Domingue's uprisings by some 267 years.[3]


Contemporary map showing the border situation on Hispaniola following the Treaty of Aranjuez

By the 1540s, the Caribbean Sea had become overrun with French pirates. In 1541, Spain authorized the construction of Santo Domingo's fortified wall, and decided to restrict sea travel to enormous, well-armed convoys. In another move, which would destroy Hispaniola's sugar industry, Havana, more strategically located in relation to the Gulf Stream, was selected as the designated stopping point for the merchant flotas, which had a royal monopoly on commerce with the Americas. With the conquest of the Spanish Main, Hispaniola slowly declined. Many Spanish colonists left for the silver-mines of the American mainland, while new immigrants from Spain bypassed the island. Agriculture dwindled, new imports of slaves ceased, and white colonists, free blacks and slaves alike lived in poverty, weakening the racial hierarchy and aiding miscegenation, which resulted in a population of predominantly mixed Spaniard, African, and Taino descent. Except for the city of Santo Domingo, which managed to maintain some legal exports, Dominican ports were forced to rely on contraband trade, which, along with livestock, became the sole source of livelihood for the island dwellers.

In 1605, Spain, unhappy that Santo Domingo was facilitating trade between its other colonies and other European powers, attacked vast parts of the colony's northern and western regions, forcibly resettling their inhabitants closer to the city of Santo Domingo.[4] This action, known as the devastaciones, proved disastrous; more than half of the resettled colonists died of starvation or disease.[5] The city of Santo Domingo was subjected to a smallpox epidemic, cacao blight, and hurricane in 1666; another storm two years later; a second epidemic in 1669; a third hurricane in September 1672; plus an earthquake in May 1673 that killed two dozen residents.[6] San José de Ocoa, the best-known maroon settlement in Santo Domingo, was subjugated by the Spanish in 1666.

In the 17th century, the French began occupying the unpopulated western third of Hispaniola. Intermittent clashes between French and Spanish colonists followed, even after the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick recognized the de facto occupations of France and Spain around the globe. Periodic confrontations also continued despite a 1731 agreement that partially defined a border between the two colonies along the Massacre and Pedernales rivers. In 1777, the Treaty of Aranjuez established a definitive border between what Spain called Santo Domingo and what the French named Saint-Domingue, thus ending 150 years of local conflicts and imperial ambitions to extend control over the island.[7]

The House of Bourbon replaced the House of Habsburg in Spain in 1700 and introduced economic reforms that gradually began to revive trade in Santo Domingo. The crown progressively relaxed the rigid controls and restrictions on commerce between Spain and the colonies and among the colonies. The last flotas sailed in 1737; the monopoly port system was abolished shortly thereafter. Many Spaniards and Hispaniola-born Creoles also then became pirates and privateers. By the middle of the century, the population was bolstered by emigration from the Canary Islands, resettling the northern part of the colony and planting tobacco in the Cibao Valley, and importation of slaves was renewed. Santo Domingo's exports soared and the island's agricultural productivity rose. This progress in the Spanish part was assisted too by the war that broke out in 1762 between Britain and her ally Portugal against France and Spain; for the Dominican Spaniards hastened to resort to a calling with which they were by this time well familiarised,[8] and their privateers soon waged injurious war upon the commerce of the British in the West Indian waters,[8] the prizes they took being carried to Santo Domingo, where cargoes were sold to the inhabitants, or to foreign merchants doing business there. The slave population of the Spanish part by this means was also much increased, as many prisoners were taken from the slavers in those waters.[8] The author of Idea del valor de la Isla Española emphasizes the name of Captain Lorenzo Daniel (Lorencín), and notes that “he was the scourge of the British, whom he deprived of more than 60 ships, those used for trade as well as war.”[Note 1]

French acquisition and the Haitian Revolution

The population of Santo Domingo grew from about 6,000 in 1737 to approximately 125,000 in 1790. Of this number, about 40,000 were white[Note 2] landowners, about 25,000 were black or mulatto freedmen, and some 60,000 were slaves. However, it remained poor and neglected, particularly in contrast with neighboring French Saint-Domingue, which became the wealthiest colony in the New World.[11] As restrictions on colonial trade were relaxed, the colonial elites of St. Domingue offered the principal market for Santo Domingo's exports of beef, hides, mahogany and tobacco. With the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, the rich urban families linked to the colonial bureaucracy fled the island, while most of the rural hateros (cattle ranchers) remained, even though they lost their principal market. Spain saw in the unrest an opportunity to seize all, or part, of the western region of the island in an alliance of convenience with the rebellious slaves. The Spanish governor of Santo Domingo purchased the allegiance of important black leaders and their personal armies.[12] In July 1793, Spanish forces, including former slaves, crossed the border and pushed back the disheveled French forces before them.[12] Although the Spanish had had much their own way in northern Saint-Domingue,[12] such had not been the case in Europe, and on July 22, 1795, the French Republic and Spanish crown signed the Treaty of Basle. Frenchmen were to return to their side of the Pyrenees in Europe and Santo Domingo was to be ceded to France. This period called the Era de Francia, lasted until 1809 until being recaptured by Spain.

See also


  1. ^ During the war of 1762, a packet boat, a brigantine, six sloops, two schooners, and a coastal vessel were brought into port and it was Dominican corsairs, Lorenzo Daniel, Juan Bautista San Marcos, Juan Cueto, and Domingo Alberto Serrano who brought them in.[9]
  2. ^ “Whites” included light mulattoes.[10]


  1. ^ Hartlyn, Jonathan (1998). The Struggle for Democratic Politics in the Dominican Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 25. ISBN 0-8078-4707-0. 
  2. ^ Sharpe, Peter (1998-10-26). "Sugar Cane: Past and Present". Archived from the original on 2008-05-18. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  3. ^ Haitian-Dominican Counterpoint: Nation, State, and Race on Hispaniola. p. 32. 
  4. ^ Knight, Franklin W. (1990). The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-19-505440-7. 
  5. ^ Harvey, Sean (2006). The Rough Guide to the Dominican Republic (3rd ed.). New York: Rough Guides. p. 352. ISBN 1-84353-497-5. 
  6. ^ Marley, David (2005). Historic Cities of the Americas: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO. p. 94. 
  7. ^ Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. p. 422. 
  8. ^ a b c Hazard, Samuel (1873). Santo Domingo, Past And Present; With A Glance At Haytl. p. 100. 
  9. ^ Bosch, Juan (2016). Social Composition of the Dominican Republic. Routledge. p. 101. 
  10. ^ Ricourt, Milagros (2016). The Dominican Racial Imaginary: Surveying the Landscape of Race and Nation in Hispaniola. Rutgers University Press. p. 64. 
  11. ^ "Dominican Republic—The First Colony". U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  12. ^ a b c Scheina, Robert L. (2003). Latin America's Wars: Volume 1. Potomac Books. 

Further reading