The island of Hispaniola (La Isla Española), which today is occupied by the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was one of several landfalls Christopher Columbus made during his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Columbus established a makeshift settlement on the north coast, which he dubbed Navidad (Christmas), after his flagship, the Santa María, struck a coral reef and foundered near the site of present-day Cap Haïtien. The Taino Indian (or Arawak) inhabitants referred to their homeland by many names, but they most commonly used Ayti, or Hayti (mountainous). Initially hospitable toward the Spaniards, these natives responded violently to the newcomers’ intolerance and abuse.
Second Settlement Established
When Columbus returned to Hispaniola on his second voyage in 1493, he found that Navidad had been razed and its inhabitants, slain. But the Old World’s interest in expansion and its drive to spread Roman Catholicism were not easily deterred; Columbus established a second settlement, Isabela, farther to the east.
Hispaniola, or Santo Domingo, as it became known under Spanish dominion, became the first outpost of the Spanish Empire. The initial expectations of plentiful and easily accessible gold reserves proved unfounded, but the island still became important as a seat of colonial administration, a starting point for conquests of other lands, and a laboratory to develop policies for governing new possessions. It was in Santo Domingo that the Spanish crown introduced the system of repartimiento, whereby peninsulares (Spanish-born persons residing in the New World) received large grants of land and the right to compel labor from the Indians who inhabited that land.
Columbus, Santo Domingo’s first administrator, and his brother Bartolomé Columbus fell out of favor with the majority of the colony’s settlers, as a result of jealousy and avarice, and then also with the crown because of their failure to maintain order. In 1500 a royal investigator ordered both to be imprisoned briefly in a Spanish prison. The colony’s new governor, Nicolás de Ovando, laid the groundwork for the island’s development.
During his tenure, the repartimiento system gave way to the encomienda system under which all land was considered the property of the crown. The system also granted stewardship of tracts to encomenderos, who were entitled to employ (or, in practice, to enslave) Indian labor.
The Taino Indians
The Taino Indian population of Santo Domingo fared poorly under colonial rule. The exact size of the island’s indigenous population in 1492 has never been determined, but observers at the time produced estimates that ranged from several thousand to several million. An estimate of 3 million, which is almost certainly an exaggeration, has been attributed to Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas.
According to all accounts, however, there were hundreds of thousands of indigenous people on the island. By 1550 only 150 Indians lived on the island. Forced labor, abuse, diseases against which the Indians had no immunity, and the growth of the mestizo (mixed European and Indian) population all contributed to the elimination of the Taino and their culture.
Several years before the Taino were gone, Santo Domingo had lost its position as the preeminent Spanish colony in the New World. Its lack of mineral riches condemned it to neglect by the mother country, especially after the conquest of New Spain (Mexico). In 1535 the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which included Mexico and the Central American isthmus, incorporated Santo Domingo, the status of which dwindled still further after the conquest of the rich kingdom of the Incas in Peru. Agriculture became the mainstay of the island’s economy, but the disorganized nature of agricultural production did not approach the kind of intense productivity that was to characterize the colony under French rule.