Where Columbus Landed

By Liz Goldner

The Dominican Republic is the first European settlement in the Americas with the first cathedral and university and the first European-built road and fortress on the continent. Santo Domingo (originally New Isabella), the capital of the country, was also the first colonial capital in the Americas. It was in the Colonial Sector that soil was collected for the Common Ground 191 art project.

Santo Domingo, in the Greater Antilles archipelago on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, occupies the eastern two thirds of the island; the Republic of Haiti occupies the other one-third. Hispaniola lies west of Puerto Rico and east of Cuba and Jamaica.


The history of the Dominican Republic is a story of political turmoil and tyrannical governments. The Tainos, who inhabited the island from around A.D. 600, lived in villages headed by chiefs, calling the island Ayiti or Haiti ("mountainous land"). These early inhabitants engaged in farming, fishing, hunting and gathering.

Christopher Columbus landed at Mole Saint-Nicolas on December 5, 1492, claiming the island for Spain. He returned to Spain, voyaging back to America three more times. After initially friendly relations, the Taínos resisted the Spanish conquest. One of the earliest Tainos leaders was the female Chief Anacaona of Xaragua (who was later captured and executed in front of her people) who married Chief Caonabo of Maguana.

By the mid-1500s, most of the Taíno people had died out from mistreatment, disease, suicide, the breakup of family unity, starvation, forced labor, torture, and wars with the Spaniards.

In 1496, Bartolomeo Columbus, Christopher's brother, built the city of Nueva Isabela (New Isabella), now Santo Domingo, in the south of the island. As Europe's first permanent settlement in the New World, the island became a springboard for European conquest of the Caribbean islands, and of the South American mainland, including modern-day Venezuela and Colombia.

In 1697, Spain ceded the western part of Hispaniola to France in the Treaty of Ryswick. That area eventually area grew into the wealthy colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

French Rule

In 1795, Spain ceded Santo Domingo to France in the Treaty of Basel. At that time, the slaves in the western part (Haiti) were in revolt against France. In 1801 Toussaint Louverture captured Santo Domingo from the French, gaining control of the entire island. However, an army sent by Napoleon captured him and sent him to France as a prisoner. In 1808, following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, Santo Domingo revolted against French rule, and with Britain’s and Haiti's help, returned Santo Domingo to Spanish control.

In 1861, Santana signed a pact with the Spanish Crown and reverted the Dominican nation to a colonial status. Opponents launched the War of Restoration in 1863. After two years of fighting, the Spanish troops abandoned the island, and restoration was proclaimed in August 1865.

In the following years, warlords ruled, military revolts were extremely common, and the nation amassed great debt. In the 1880s, General Heureaux came into power. The despotic ruler, who put the nation deep into debt, was assassinated in 1899.

From 1902, the country was inhabited by many short-lived governments, while the national government was bankrupt and facing the threat of intervention by France and other European powers.

U.S.-Dominican Convention for Assistance in Governing

In the early 20th century, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made a small military intervention to ward off the European powers, proclaiming his famous Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. In 1906 the Dominican Republic and the United States entered into a 50-year treaty, giving control of customs administration to the United States. In exchange the United States agreed to use the customs proceeds to help reduce the immense foreign debt of the country.

In 1914, Ramon Baez Machado was elected provisional president. In 1916, U.S. Marines landed on the island, establishing effective control of the country, while keeping intact most Dominican laws and institutions.

While the Marines restored order throughout most of the republic, the country's budget was balanced, and economic growth resumed. Meanwhile, infrastructure projects produced new roads that linked all the country's regions for the first time in its history.

After World War I, public opinion in the United States was against the occupation. In June 1921, United States representatives presented a withdrawal proposal, called the Harding Plan (named after President Harding) which called for Dominican ratification of all acts of the military government, approval of a loan of US $2.5 million for public works and other expenses, the acceptance of United States officers for the constabulary — now known as the National Guard — and the holding of elections under United States supervision.

Moderate Dominican leaders used the plan as the basis for further negotiations, resulting in an agreement allowing for selection of a provisional president to rule until elections could be organized. Under the supervision of High Commissioner Sumner Welles, Juan Bautista Vicini Burgos assumed the provisional presidency on October 21, 1922. In the presidential election of March 15, 1924, former President Horacio Vasquez Lajara defeated Francisco J. Pewynado. With his inauguration on July 13, control of the republic returned to Dominican hands. He gave the country six years of good government, in which political and civil rights were respected and the economy grew.

1930 to 1980

The Dominican Republic was ruled by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. In 1937 Trujillo ordered the Army to kill all Haitians on the Dominican side of the border. Still, the Trujillo government was supported by the USA the Catholic Church, and the Dominican elite.

A democratically elected government under leftist Juan Bosch took office in 1963, but was overthrown later that year. In 1965. after nineteen months of military rule, a pro-Bosch revolt took place. US Marines arrived in the Dominican Republic to restore order in Operation Powerpack, and were later joined by forces from the Organization of American States. They remained in the country for over a year and left after supervising elections, in which they ensured the victory of Joaquin Balaguer.

Balaguer, who remained as president for 12 years, repressed civil liberties, presumably to prevent pro-Cuba or pro- communist parties from gaining power. Balaguer's rule was accompanied by a growing disparity between rich and poor.

In 1978, Balaguer was succeeded by opposition candidate Antonio Guzman Fernandez, of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). From 1978 to 1986, the Dominican Republic experienced a period of relative freedom and basic human rights. Balaguer regained the presidency in 1986 and was re-elected in 1990 and 1994. The national and international communities viewed these elections as a major fraud, leading to political pressure for Balaguer to step down. Balaguer scheduled another presidential contest in 1996, but Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Liberation Party won. In 2000, Hipolito Mejia won the electorate. In 2004, Leonel Fernandez Reyna was elected again, defeating then-incumbent president Mejía.

Demographics and Climate

The Dominican Republic has three mountain ranges, Cordillera Central, Cordillera Septentrional, and Cordillera Oriental, and the rich, fertile Cibao valley. The country has the highest peak in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte, and the biggest lake, Lake Enriquillo. The Dominican Republic has many rivers, including the navigable Soco, Higuamo, Romana (also known as 'Rio Dulce'). The Yaque del Norte is the longest and most important river in the country.

The Dominican Republic is a tropical, maritime nation with a wet season from May to November, and periodic hurricanes between June and November. The annual temperature ranges from 21 °C in the mountainous regions to 25 °C on the plains and the coast. The average temperature in Santo Domingo in January is 25 °C and 30 °C in July.

Agriculture and Tourism

Agriculture is the most important form of work in terms of domestic consumption and is in second place (behind mining) in terms of export earnings. Tourism accounts for more than $1.3 billion in annual earnings.

Ethnic Composition

The ethnic composition of the Dominican population is varied, with 73 percent of the people of mixed composition, 16 percent white and 11 percent black. Other ethnic groups include Haitians, Germans, Italians, French, Jews, Spaniards, Chinese, Americans, East Asians and Middle Easterners.


More than 95 percent of the population is Christian, mostly Roman Catholics. Smaller numbers follow the Spiritist, Buddhist, Baha’I, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

Castilian, commonly known as Spanish, is the official language, and the word for “peace” in Spanish is “paz..” Other languages spoken are Haitian Creole, English, French, German and Italian.

The Dominican Republic is known for the creation of Meringue music, lively, fast-paced rhythm and dance music, based on drums, brass and chorded instruments.


The Dominican Republic also has its own baseball league which runs its season from October to January and includes six teams: Tigres del Licey (Licey's Tigers), Aguilas Cibaeñas (Cibao's Eagles), Gigantes del Cibao (Cibao's Giants), Toros Azucareros del Este (Eastern Sugar-Mill's Bulls), Estrellas Orientales (Oriental Stars), and Leones del Escogido (Escogido's Lions). Olympic gold medalist and world champion over 400 m hurdles, Felix Sanchez, and NFL Football player Luis Castillo are from the Dominican Republic.

Top | Back




All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved