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A Brief History of Santo Domingo Dominican Republic, history of Santo Domingo - Indian Chief Travel
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC  |  Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic Travel Guide
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A Brief History of Santo Domingo

A Brief History of Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo, the first European city in the Western Hemisphere, has a turbulent history that extends more than five centuries. Founded in 1498 by Christopher Columbus’ brother, Bartholomew, after earlier attempts at settlement on Hispaniola had collapsed, Santo Domingo started as a few wooden structures on the east bank of the Ozama River, where it meets the Caribbean Sea. The settlement – first called Nueva Isabela after the queen of Spain – moved to the west bank of the river after a hurricane swept through a few years later. The architect of that move, and the driving force behind the construction of the emerging new city – now called Santo Domingo – was Nicolás de Ovando, who became the colony’s first governor in 1502. A year after that, the first city walls began to rise, for protection against pirate raids and other hostile attacks.

By the time Christopher Columbus’ son, Diego Colón, became governor of the colony in 1509, Santo Domingo was already flourishing as the center of Spanish power in the New World. Construction had begun or would soon begin on the first fortress, first hospital, first church, first monastery, first stone house, and first paved road in the Americas. The first cathedral, university, and convent would follow. Many of these historic structures – some now restored, others lying in ruins – can still be viewed in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.

In the early decades of the 16th century, explorers and conquistadors used Santo Domingo as a base for expeditions to Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Colombia, and Jamaica, all of which were claimed for the Spanish Crown. The Royal Houses here held the offices of the powerful Audiencia Real, a panel of judges that functioned as the unquestioned Supreme Court for the entire West Indies and Caribbean basin, ranging as far away as Mexico and South America.

Ironically, though, these very expeditions led to Santo Domingo’s rapid decline in power as the 16th century progressed. Mexico and Peru, rich in silver and gold, became far more precious to the Crown than Hispaniola, whose pomp and prominence faded with the failure to find mineral wealth there. Even the Colón (Columbus) family, whose fortunes were so intimately tied to the colony, eventually returned to Spain.

A series of natural and man-made disasters – earthquakes, hurricanes, and raiding parties – also befell Santo Domingo. After a severe earthquake ripped through the city in 1562, English buccaneer Sir Francis Drake pillaged and burned much of what remained 24 years later. Local ladies of wealth were forced to buy off Drake with a ransom of their finest jewelry.

In 1655, the English returned in the form of an invasion force led by William Penn – an attempt that was beaten back by the locals, led by Count de Peñalba. But by then Santo Domingo had become a virtual backwater. And at the dawning of the 19th century, in an event that still sticks in the craw of the national psyche, Haitian Toussaint L’Ouverture marched into Santo Domingo with an army of ex-slaves and took the city virtually unopposed. Thus began four decades in which Santo Domingo was occupied by a series of foreign powers. The French, British, and Spanish took turns over the next 20 years driving out the Haitians and each other, but, by 1822, Haitian forces had regained the upper hand throughout Hispaniola, and ruled over Santo Domingo for the next 22 years.

In early 1844, three conspirators – Juan Pablo Duarte, Ramón Mella, and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, known as the Trinitarians – successfully led a revolt against the Haitians, which began in what is now Plaza Independencia in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial. Dominicans still celebrate February 27, 1844, as their Independence Day. And Duarte, Mella, and Sánchez have remained national heroes.

Like the rest of the country, though, Santo Domingo remained roiled in political turmoil for another century after that, as a succession of caudillos grabbed power. (One, General Pedro Santana, even tried to give the country back to Spain in 1861.)

In 1936, an iron-fisted form of “stability” finally came to the capital, when Rafael Trujillo seized power. Besides brutally eliminating his enemies, the dictator changed the name of Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (Trujillo City). It remained that until 1961 – when Trujillo was assassinated. Over the next few years, a reformist government, followed by a military coup and a civil war, set the stage for a temporary American military occupation in 1965.

Politically, at least, things have been much quieter in the capital since, as a series of elected presidents have come and gone, presiding over a period of explosive growth in size and population. Most notable among them was Joaquín Balaguer, who built some of the grandest – some would say most pretentious – monuments in the city today. Industrialization, combined with economic desperation in the rural areas of the country (caused in part by a crisis in the sugar industry), have brought huge influxes of campesinos into the city, which is now a city both of great wealth – more Mercedes Benzes per capita than any other city in the Americas – and great poverty.

A series of 20th-century hurricanes – most recently Hurricane Georges in 1998 – has altered the modern landscape here as well. But in the midst of it all, Santo Domingo has also been busy restoring its Colonial City, giving it new life and helping to enhance its status as one of the great historic and cultural treasures of the world.

Last updated October 7, 2008
Posted in   Dominican Republic  |  Santo Domingo
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