History and Culture
The Dominican Republic has a rich indigenous and colonial history. It was “discovered” by Columbus in December, 1492, during his first voyage. At that time, there were five indigenous Taíno chiefdoms on the island, with up to 1 million inhabitants, according to some estimates; however, Columbus claimed the island for Spain, calling it La Isla Española (later Latinized to Hispaniola).
The colonial history of the island began in La Isabela (now Puerto Plata) in 1943 – it was the first European colony established in Latin America, and although it nearly failed due to hunger and disease, the Spanish colonists persisted. In 1496, the Spanish built a colony in Santo Domingo, and it became the new capital – they also build the Cathedral of Sant María la Menor, the first Cathedral in the New World, which sits in the historic Colonial zone of the city, a must see for architecture and history buffs, alike.
While the Taíno attempted to fight the Spanish colonizers, and launched some successful attacks, they eventually succumbed to the superior weapons of the Spanish. The remaining Taíno were brutally enslaved to work in the gold mines, but due to starvation, small pox, and mass killings, the Spanish eventually needed more man power and began bring African slaves to the island, at the same time, starting sugar cane plantations. But armed slave rebellions started occurring by 1521, and many slaves escaped, beginning ongoing insurrections that disrupted the economy of the island, and led many Spanish colonizers to leave for other places in the New World. This destabilization of the colony led to intermixing of remaining Taíno, freed slaves, and Spanish colonizers, and set the stage for development of the current culture that exists in the Dominican Republic.
It also led to further turbulence on the island of Hispaniola, as French and English pirates and buccaneers continually attached, and French began developing settlements on the western side of the island, now Haiti. The stronger French eventually took over the entire island leading to 22 years of turbulent rule, but in 1844 a rebel group declared independence for the Dominican Republic. During the next century, the independent country returned briefly to Spanish rule, regained independence a second time, was occupied by the USA, and finally in 1922, regained final independence.
This turbulent Dominican History has left its mark to the present day. Visitors can see some of the Taíno culture in Las Caritas National Park, Los Haitises National Park, and Manatee Park. The National Museum of History and Geography in Santo Domingo, and the Regional Museum of Archaeology in Altos de Chavón in La Romana are both great places to learn more about pre-colonial history and see Taíno artifacts, and the Museum of Man in Santo Domingo offers both Taíno artifacts as well as exhibits on slavery, voodoo, and carnival.