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History and Culture Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo Origins

Historically speaking, Santo Domingo is of huge importance when considering the European discovery of the Americas. Christopher Columbus arrived in the Dominican Republic in 1492 and his brother Bartholomew founded Santo Domingo in 1496, making Santo Domingo the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas. Taíno Before this, the area had been inhabited by the Taíno people. Christopher Columbus named the land Hispaniola (the land included what is now the separate Republic of Haiti) and his brother gave the name Nueva Isabela after another settlement in the North. It was shortly after renamed Santo Domingo after Saint Dominic and it became an area of high importance due to its location close to the coast making it essentially a gateway to the Caribbean. Many future expeditions into the Americas would be organised from here, including those that had Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico as their final destinations.

Santo Domingo suffered a large hurricane in 1502, a drawback to its pleasantly tropical climate, which left it completely devastated and largely destroyed. The settlement was then rebuilt on the opposing side of the Ozama River. The remains of the original site can still be seen today in the old historic centre and was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990.

Wars and Woes

Despite the importance of Santo Domingo as a stop off or set out point, many people in search of a place to settle preferred to move on to Mexico or further into South America, leaving Santo Domingo stagnating amidst a severe lack of development. This left the city wide open to an easy occupation by Francis Drake in 1586, followed by an occupation of around one month, before receiving the ransom he demanded for the release of the city and took off just about everything including the kitchen sink (and the church bells). Santo Domingo was left in a very sorry state.

The next woeful state of affairs to transpire in the Dominican Republic involved the French, who, seeing Spanish weakness following the ransacking of Santo Domingo by Francis Drake, invaded the western half of the island and named it Haiti, bringing in African slaves to populate and work there. Then, in 1795 the French proceeded to take over the whole island, including Santo Domingo, due to the result of the wars between France and Spain following the French Revolution back in Europe. But, French glory was not to be everlasting and in 1791 the African slaves began to revolt and by 1804 had thrown the French occupiers out of the Western half of the island, proceeding to recapture the Eastern half too by 1822. Finally, in 1844, the Dominicans managed to push the Haitians back to the Western half and the Dominican Republic was free, thanks to the leadership of the national hero, Juan Pablo Duarte, a liberal thinker and promoter of democracy.

This tempestuous background undoubtedly set the scene for the troubled relations that were to come between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A lot of unrest and fighting took place over the years and the the Dominican Republic was even reoccupied by the Spanish for a period. There were a series of different presidents and general instability reigned supreme. Colonial buildings were falling to ruins and increased US involvement following the construction of the Panama Canal and their fear of European invasion led to a period of US occupation from 1916 until 1924. Trujillo This was followed shortly afterwards by the beginning of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who was in power from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. During this period Santo Domingo was renamed Ciudad Trujillo in his honour (by him). Following his death many suspects and opponents were detained and tortured and there were uprisings and general social and political unrest. In the end, a more liberal leader emerged called Juan Bosch, a radical liberal and polar opposite to Trujillo. He and his party were a novelty to the Dominican people. They were unused to a man with concerns for the welfare of the people, introducing radical reforms and openly advocating rights for homosexuals and the right to divorce. Needless to say the Catholic church and elite classes feared a Communist influence creeping in and a loss of their land and riches and so a civil war commenced in 1965. The United States deployed troops to restore order and to avoid the emergence of a 'second Cuba'. In the end, a truce was called and Bosch was defeated by Juaquin Balaguer, a much more America-friendly candidate for presidency, who had oppressive methods but who did manage to create political stability in the country for many years to follow.


Santo Domingo today shows little sign of its previously unstable past and misfortune. What it does show signs of is an increasingly booming tourist industry and a lot of reconstruction and renovation of the Colonial buildings that had been falling into disrepair. The old historical quarter is a true delight to see and experience and the rest of the city is no different. The oldest Catholic Cathedral in the Americas was constructed here and the city's university is one of the oldest in the Americas as well. All of this combined with dozens of quaint cafes and restaurants serving up traditional fayre, makes Santo Domingo a must see in Central America.