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Dominican Republic - Colonial History

Within forty years after its discovery Santo Domingo had passed the zenith of its glory. The vast and wealthy countries discovered and conquered on the mainland of America absorbed the attention of colonists and of the government, and Santo Domingo quickly sank to a position of economic and political insignificance. So little importance was given the island by chroniclers during the ensuing two hundred and fifty years and so few are the records remaining, that not even the names of all the governors and the periods of their rule can be accurately determined. The colony barely existed, the monotony of its life was interrupted only by occasional attacks or menaces of attacks by pirates or other foes.

Every effort was made to prevent decay. Decrees were issued forbidding emigration or the recruiting of troops for expeditions of discovery, but they were evaded. Thus Louis Columbus, the grandson of the Discoverer and one of the most influential men of the colony, fitted out an expedition against Veragua. African slaves continued to be imported to take the place of the exterminated Indians, but as their importation was expensive the mines were abandoned and the number of sugar estates declined.

For the greater part of the period from 1533 to 1556 the government was in the hands of an energetic man, Licentiate Alonso de Fuenmayor, Bishop of Santo Domingo and La Vega, and later first Archbishop of Santo Domingo. He pushed to a conclusion the work on the cathedral and other religious edifices then building, repaired the edifices belonging to the state and constructed the walls and bastions which still surround the city. He was able to ward off the attacks of corsairs, who multiplied in West Indian waters to such an extent that in 1561 the Spanish Government forbade vessels to travel to and from the new world except under convoy.

In 1564 the cities of Santiago de los Caballeros and Concepcion de la Vega were completely destroyed by an earthquake and the few remaining inhabitants reestablished the towns at short distances from the original sites. The entire intercourse of the colony with Spain was reduced to two or three caravels a year and the revenues sank so low that the salaries of state officials were paid and continued to be paid for over two hundred years, from the treasury of Mexico.

The stagnation that prevailed in Santo Domingo for the next 250 years was interrupted on several occasions by armed engagements, as the French and British attempted to weaken Spain's economic and political dominance in the New World. In 1586 the British admiral, Sir Francis Drake, captured the city of Santo Domingo and collected a ransom for its return to Spanish control. In 1655 Oliver Cromwell dispatched a British fleet commanded by Sir William Penn to take Santo Domingo. After meeting heavy resistance, the British sailed farther west and took Jamaica instead.

The French colony immediately entered upon an era of prosperity which soon made it the richest country of the West Indies. Great plantations of tobacco, indigo, cacao, coffee and sugar were established. The country came to be known as the paradise of the West Indies and the wealth of the planters became proverbial. The grave defect was that this prosperity was built on the false foundation of slavery. In 1754 the population numbered 14,000 whites, 4000 free mulattoes and 172,000 slaves.

The Spanish colony on the other hand sank lower than ever. Practically abandoned by the mother country, there was no commerce beyond a little contraband and only the most indispensable agriculture, the inhabitants devoting themselves almost entirely to cattle raising. The ports were the haunts of pirates, and a number of Dominicans also became corsairs. By the year 1730 the entire country held but 6000 inhabitants, of whom about 500 lived in the ruined capital and the remaining urban population was disseminated among the vestiges of Cotui, Santiago, Azua, Banica, Monte Plata, Bayaguana, La Vega, Higuey and Seibo. Such was the poverty prevailing that a majority of the people went in rags; and the arrival of the ship from Mexico, which brought the salaries of the civil officials and the military, was hailed with the joyful ringing of church bells.

To how great an extent this depression was due to trade restrictions is evident from the circumstance that when in 1740 several ports were opened to foreign commerce there was an immediate change for the better. Agriculture expanded, exports and imports increased, money circulated, the cost of the necessaries of life fell, the population rapidly increased and many new towns sprang up. According to an ecclesiastical census the population had in 1785 advanced to 152,640 inhabitants. Of these only 30,000 were slaves, owing to the Spanish laws which made it easy for a slave to purchase his freedom. Many of the freemen were mulattoes.

In 1751 the colony was visited by a severe hurricane, which caused the Ozama to leave its banks, and by a destructive earthquake which overthrew the cities of Azua and Seibo and did much damage to the church buildings of Santo Domingo. Azua and Seibo were reestablished on their present sites. Another earthquake in 1770 destroyed several towns in the French part of the island.

Toussaint l'Ouverture's occupation of Santo Domingo occasioned a new exodus of white families. It is estimated that in the decade beginning with 1795 the Spanish portion lost over 40,000 inhabitants, more than one-third of its population. Most of the persons who abandoned the island during these troublous times settled in Cuba, Porto Rico and Venezuela, where they established coffee and sugar plantations, to the great advantage of these countries. Some of the most prominent families of Cuba to-day are descendants of families which left Santo Domingo at this time.

On July 9, 1809, the French flag was lowered and the country again became a dependency of Spain, and in 1814 Spain's dominion was confirmed by the treaty of Paris. Spain had been busy fighting the French within her own borders, and when normal conditions were restored had her hands full in keeping order and in trying to bring her revolting colonies of America back to obedience. She had little time for affairs in Santo Domingo, and did nothing to ameliorate conditions. The colony was left to vegetate in absolute poverty. This second Spanish era came to be known as the period of "Espana boba," "stupid Spain," as the home government remained so indifferent to the colony's affairs. The only redeeming feature was the return of a number of exiled families.

Declaring that Hispaniola was indivisible, Haitians invaded Santo Domingo, which they occupied from 1822 to 1844. The twenty-two years of Haitian rule marked a period of social and economic retrogression for the old Spanish portion of the island. Most of the whites, especially the more prominent families, the principal representatives of the community's wealth and culture, definitely abandoned the country, some immediately upon the advent of the Haitians, others in 1824, when a hopeless conspiracy in favor of a restoration of Spanish rule was quenched in blood, and others in 1830, when a quixotic demand of the Spanish king for a return of his domain was refused.

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Page last modified: 23-06-2017 14:16:15 ZULU