Slave Routes - Americas and Carabbean Print

The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two thirds of the island called Hispaniola (Little Spain), which it shares with Haiti. In 1496 it became the site of the first European colony in the Western Hemisphere, with the city of Santo Domingo as the Spanish administrative capital for all the Americas. The early settlers enslaved many of the indigenous Taino people to work in their gold mines and brutality and disease all but wiped out a population of around one million in 50 years. With local labour in short supply, the gold hungry colonists made Santo Domingo the first destination for enslaved Africans in America, a substantial 'cargo' of 5000 arriving in 1511.

The discovery of gold and silver in Mexico (1520) and Peru (1533) sparked a massive flight by Spanish colonists in the 1520s, as slaves were being forced to work Santo Domingo's gold deposits to exhaustion. The Spanish abandoned the island almost overnight, the exodus leaving only a few thousand white settlers and their slaves to raise livestock and supply passing ships. Buccaneers gradually began to arrive in the west, in what is now Haiti followed by French colonists, eventually forcing Spain to cede the area to France in 1697.

The French territory, Saint Domingue, developed into the worlds largest sugar producer, while Spanish towns in what is now the Dominican Republic continued to stagnate. By 1790 the colony's 125,000 residents broke down into 40,000 white landowners, 25,000 black freemen, and 60,000 slaves, whereas in St. Domingue half a million enslaved Africans constituted 80% of the total population. The sugar industry did grow during the 18th Century, but it was mostly terminated by the slave revolt in Saint Domingue in 1791.

In 1801 Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture invaded the east of the island, liberating some 40,000 slaves, and prompting most of the slave owning elite to flee to Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Spanish re-established slavery when they regained control of the east in 1809, and began sending slavers (slave ships) on expeditions into the newly independent Haiti. The Haitians invaded again in 1821, freeing all the slaves and the Dominican Republic finally declared its independence in 1844


The proximity of gold and numbers of indigenous Tainos led the Spanish to settle in what they named 'Isabella' on the north coast of Hispaniola, in 1493. Over the next five years the local population was worked to death building the town, and looking for gold in the nearby river. The Spanish already had slaves (largely from North Africa) who they brought with them to Santo Domingo. Many managed to escape to the mountains, and the settlement was abandoned in 1498.

The City of Santo Domingo

After they abandoned Isabella, the colonists established a new city at Santo Domingo in 1496, which they inaccurately named as the 'First City of the Americas'. It became the seat of the colonial government for the Americas, and the early site of the royal treasury. Its Governor Nicolás de Ovando ordered the first importation of Spanish speaking slaves of African descent (ladinos) into the Americas in 1501. Many of the Spanish elite ordered small numbers of slaves to work as servants in their homes, and Ovando ordered 3 in 1503.

laves played a central role in the construction of Santo Domingo. The buildings developed off the back of African enslavement included the Americas oldest Cathedral, its first nunnery, first hospital and the Alcazar ('Columbus Palace', built by his son Diego). The authorities ordered enslaved Africans to construct a wall in the 1540s to defend the city from the pirates who plagued the islands colonists, as well as other features such as the Puerta de la Misericordia (Gate of Mercy) pictured below.

Around 10,000 enslaved Africans passed through the port of Santo Domingo in the first 20 years of its heyday, alongside the infamous European 'conquerors' and 'explorers'. Hernan Cortes set off from the port in a mission to invade and conquer the indigenous Aztecs in Mexico in 1519 and this fuelled a gold rush that shifted Europe's interest away from Santo Domingo. Havana in Cuba rapidly overtook it as the main port in the region, but without the ships to transfer its perishable cargoes of sugar, the industry and slavery did not increase in Santo Domingo. John Hawkins was England's first slave trader and he arrived on the island with 300 enslaved Africans in 1562.

Hispaniola Slave Revolt

The first major recorded demonstration of African resistance in the Americas took place on Christmas Day, 1521, when 20 enslavedWolofs (Africans from Senegal and Gambia) rose in rebellion on aningenio (sugar factory) 100 km north west of Santo Domingo. Africans continued to resist their enslavement and the colonists faced many uprisings. Before 1550 enslaved African leaders such as Juan Vaquero, Diego de Guzmán, and Diego del Campo led rebellions across the island. They inspired many Africans to escape their oppression and many runaway communities in the South West, North and East were established. This caused some panic amongst the slave holders and helped to speed up the Spanish exodus.

Sharing Hispaniola

After the Treaty of Renswyk confirmed French dominance in the west of the island in 1697, two very different systems co-existed on Hispaniola. Saint Domingue developed as an essential part of France's economy, with numerous slaves driven ruthlessly to feed a world market for sugar. However Santo Domingo did not play such an important role in Spain's economy. Spanish law provided for a slave to purchase his freedom and often his family's, for a relatively small sum and therefore the proportion of freed men was generally higher in Spanish colonies than elsewhere. In the Dominican Republic it was particularly high since the island did not develop into a plantation society. This set in place a divide between the two countries and left a legacy, which still impacts on the peoples of Haiti and the Dominican Republic today.

  • Friday, 30 May 2014


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