The island of Hispaniola (La Isla Española) was the first New
World colony settled by Spain. As such, it served as the logistical base
for the conquest of most of the
Western Hemisphere. Christopher Columbus first sighted the island in 1492 toward the end of his first voyage to "the Indies." Columbus and his crew found the
island inhabited by a large population of friendly Taino Indians (Arawaks), who made the explorers welcome. The land was fertile, but of greater importance to the
Spaniards was the discovery that gold could be obtained either by barter with the natives, who adorned themselves with golden jewelry, or by extraction from
alluvial deposits on the island.
After several attempts to plant colonies along the north coast of Hispaniola,
Spain's first permanent settlement in the New World was established on
coast at the present site of Santo Domingo. Under Spanish sovereignty, the entire island bore the name Santo Domingo. Indications of the presence of gold--the life's blood of the nascent mercantilist system--and a population of tractable natives who could be used as laborers combined to attract many Spanish newcomers during the early years. Most were adventurers who, at least initially, were more interested in acquiring sudden wealth than they were in settling the land. Their relations with
the Taino Indians, whom they ruthlessly maltreated, deteriorated from the beginning. Aroused by continued seizures of their food supplies, other exactions, and abuse of their women, the formerly peaceful Indians rebelled- -only to be crushed decisively in 1495.
Columbus, who ruled the colony as royal governor until 1499, attempted
to put an end to the more serious abuses to which the Indians were subjected
prohibiting foraging expeditions against them and by regulating the informal taxation imposed by the settlers. Being limited to this milder form of exploitation
engendered active opposition among the settlers. To meet their demands, Columbus devised the repartimiento system of land settlement and native labor under
which a settler, without assuming any obligation to the authorities, could be granted in perpetuity a large tract of land together with the services of the Indians living on it.
The repartimiento system did nothing to improve the lot of the Indians,
and the Spanish crown changed it by instituting the system of encomienda
in 1503. Under
the encomienda system, all land became in theory the property of the crown, and the Indians thus were considered tenants on royal land. The crown's right to
service from the tenants could be transferred in trust to individual Spanish settlers (encomenderos) by formal grant and the regular payment of tribute. The
encomenderos were entitled to certain days of labor from the Indians, who became their charges. Encomenderos thus assumed the responsibility of providing for
the physical well-being of the Indians and for their instruction in Christianity. An encomienda theoretically did not involve ownership of land; in practice, however,
possession was gained through other means.
The hard work demanded of the Indians and the privations that they suffered
demonstrated the unrealistic nature of the encomienda system, which effectively
operated on a honor system as a result of the absence of enforcement efforts by Spanish authorities. The Indian population died off rapidly from exhaustion,
starvation, disease, and other causes. By 1548 the Taino population, estimated at 1 million in 1492, had been reduced to approximately 500. The consequences
were profound. The need for a new labor force to meet the growing demands of sugarcane cultivation prompted the importation of African slaves beginning in 1503.
By 1520, black African labor was used almost exclusively.
The early grants of land without obligation under the repartimiento
system resulted in a rapid decentralization of power. Each landowner possessed
sovereign authority. Power was diffused because of the tendency of the capital city, Santo Domingo (which also served as the seat of government for the entire
Spanish Indies), to orient itself toward the continental Americas, which provided gold for the crown, and toward Spain, which provided administrators, supplies, and immigrants for the colonies. Local government was doomed to ineffectiveness because there was little contact between the capital and the hinterland; for practical purposes, the countryside fell under the sway of the large landowners. Throughout Dominican history, this sociopolitical order was a major factor in the development
of some of the distinctive characteristics of the nation's political culture such as paternalism, personalism, and the tendency toward strong, even authoritarian,
As early as the 1490s, the landowners demonstrated their power by successfully
conspiring against Columbus. His successor, Francisco de Bobadilla, was
appointed chief justice and royal commissioner by the Spanish crown in 1499. Bobadilla sent Columbus back to Spain in irons, but Queen Isabella soon ordered him released. Bobadilla proved an inept administrator, and he was replaced in 1503 by the more efficient Nicolás de Ovando, who assumed the titles of governor and supreme justice. Because of his success in initiating reforms desired by the crown--the encomienda system among them--de Ovando received the title of Founder of
Spain's Empire in the Indies.
In 1509 Columbus's son, Diego Columbus, was appointed governor of the
colony of Santo Domingo. Diego's ambition and the splendid surroundings
for himself aroused the suspicions of the crown. As a resulted, in 1511 of the crown established the audiencia, a new political institution intended to check the
power of the governor. The first audiencia was simply a tribunal composed of three judges whose jurisdiction extended over all the West Indies. In this region, it
formed the highest court of appeal. Employment of the audiencia eventually spread throughout Spanish America.
The tribunal's influence grew, and in 1524 it was designated the Royal
Audiencia of Santo Domingo, with jurisdiction in the Caribbean, the Atlantic
coast of Central
America and Mexico, and the northern coast of South America, including all of what is now Venezuela and part of present-day Colombia. As a court representing
the crown, the audiencia was given expanded powers that encompassed administrative, legislative, and consultative functions; the number of judges increased
correspondingly. In criminal cases the audiencia's decisions were final, but important civil suits could be appealed to the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies
(Real y Supremo Consejo de las Indias) in Spain.
The Council of the Indies, created by Charles V in 1524, was the Spanish
crown's main agency for directing colonial affairs. During most of its
existence, the council
exercised almost absolute power in making laws, administering justice, controlling finance and trade, supervising the church, and directing armies.
The arm of the Council of the Indies that dealt with all matters concerning
commerce between Spain and its colonies in the Americas was the House of
de Contratación), organized in 1503. Control of commerce in general, and of tax collection in particular, was facilitated by the designation of monopoly seaports on
either side of the Atlantic Ocean. During most of the colonial period, overseas trade consisted largely of annual convoys between monopoly ports. Trade between
the colonies and countries other than Spain was prohibited. The crown also restricted trade among the colonies. These restrictions hampered economic activity in the New World and encouraged contraband traffic.
The Roman Catholic Church became the primary agent in spreading Spanish
culture in the Americas. The ecclesiastical organization developed for
and later extended throughout Spanish America reflected a union of church and state actually closer than that prevailing in Spain itself. The Royal Patronage of the
Indies (Real Patronato de las Indias, or, as it was called later, the Patronato Real) served as the organizational agent of this affiliation of the church and the Spanish
Santo Domingo's prestige began to decline in the first part of the sixteenth
century with the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés in 1521
and the discovery there,
and later in Peru, of great wealth in gold and silver. These events coincided with the exhaustion of the alluvial deposits of gold and the dying off of the Indian labor
force in Santo Domingo. Large numbers of colonists left for Mexico and Peru; new immigrants from Spain largely bypassed Santo Domingo for the greater wealth to
be found in lands to the west. The population of Santo Domingo dwindled, agriculture languished, and Spain soon became preoccupied with its richer and vaster
The stagnation that prevailed in Santo Domingo for the next 250 years
was interrupted on several occasions by armed engagements, as the French
and the English
attempted to weaken Spain's economic and political dominance in the New World. In 1586 the English 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 an English fleet, commanded by Sir William Penn, to take
Santo Domingo. After meeting heavy resistance, the English sailed farther west and took Jamaica instead.
The withdrawal of the colonial government from the northern coastal
region opened the way for French buccaneers, who had a base on Tortuga
Island (Ile de la
Tortue), off the northwest coast of present-day Haiti, to settle on Hispaniola in the mid- seventeenth century. Although the Spanish destroyed the buccaneers'
settlements several times, the determined French would not be deterred or expelled. The creation of the French West India Company in 1664 signalled France's
intention to colonize western Hispaniola. Intermittent warfare went on between French and Spanish settlers over the next three decades; however, Spain,
hard-pressed by warfare in Europe, could not maintain a garrison in Santo Domingo sufficient to secure the entire island against encroachment. In 1697, under the
Treaty of Ryswick, Spain ceded the western third of the island to France. The exact boundary of this territory (Saint-Domingue--now Haiti) was not established at
the time of cession and remained in question until 1929.
During the first years of the eighteenth century, landowners in the
Spanish colony did little with their huge holdings, and the sugar plantations
along the southern coast
were abandoned because of harassment by pirates. Foreign trade all but ceased, and almost all domestic commerce took place in the capital city.
The Bourbon dynasty replaced the Habsburgs in Spain in 1700. The new
regime introduced innovations--especially economic reforms--that gradually
revive trade in Santo Domingo. The crown progressively relaxed the rigid controls and restrictions on commerce between the mother country and the colonies and
among the colonies. The last convoys sailed in 1737; the monopoly port system was abolished shortly thereafter. By the middle of the century, both immigration and
the importation of slaves had increased.
In 1765 the Caribbean islands received authorization for almost unlimited
trade with Spanish ports; permission for the Spanish colonies in the Americas
among themselves followed in 1774. Duties on many commodities were greatly reduced or were removed altogether. By 1790 traders from any port in Spain could
buy and sell anywhere in Spanish America, and by 1800 Spain had opened colonial trade to all neutral vessels.
As a result of the stimulus provided by the trade reforms, the population
of the colony of Santo Domingo increased from about 6,000 in 1737 to approximately
125,000 in 1790. Of this number, about 40,000 were white landowners, about 25,000 were black or mulatto freedmen, and some 60,000 were slaves. The
composition of Santo Domingo's population contrasted sharply with that of the neighboring French colony of Saint-Domingue, where some 30,000 whites and
27,000 freedmen extracted labor from at least 500,000 black slaves. To the Spanish colonists, Saint- Domingue represented a powder keg, the eventual explosion
of which would echo throughout the island.