Dominican Republic — History and Culture
The ancestry of most Dominicans is a combination of Taino Indians, Spanish colonists, and African slaves. Several original Taino words and meals have managed to survive in this melting pot nation, where family, food, and music are at the heart of the nation. Most Dominicans may not be rich, but they are always friendly and willing to share what they have.
The Dominican Republic’s first residents were friendly Tainos and cannibalistic Caribs, both of whose populations were dramatically diminished during the six years after Christopher Columbus’ famous 1492 voyage. The tiny island Columbus named La Hispaniola became home to both the New World’s first formal European settlement, La Isabela, and the starting point of Spain’s vast conquest of much of the southwestern hemisphere.
La Isabela, near present-day Puerto Plata, was shortly abandoned after its settlers endured three years of hunger, disease and mutiny. The remains of La Isabela are exhibited at the La Isabela National Historic Park (La Isabela), which includes the New World’s first Christian cemetery, the remains of Columbus’ modest home, and an ancient guayacán tree which has grown in the area since before Columbus’ time.
The next settlement Columbus founded, Santo Domingo, remains very much alive as the Dominican Republic’s modern national capital. Centuries of history are found within the small square mile known as the Colonial Zone, including Catedral Primada de América (Calle Arzobispo Merino, Santo Domingo), the New World’s oldest cathedral. In 1596, Sir Francis Drake used the church as his headquarters after he captured Santo Domingo and collected ransom to return it to Spanish rule.
The first African slaves were brought to the Dominican Republic in 1503 to replace hundreds of thousands of Taino who lost their lives to starvation, disease, massacres, and hard gold mining work. In 1605, the Spanish forcibly relocated their settlers on the west end of La Hispaniola closer to Santo Domingo to stop them from illegally trading with the Dutch, whom the Spanish were fighting at the time. Over half of these resettled colonists perished from disease or starvation. Spain ceded La Hispaniola’s west end, which would later become Haiti, to France in 1697.
Shortly after the 1791 Haitian Revolution, France seized control of all of La Hispaniola in 1795. Although the French were expelled from the eastern region in 1809, the newly independent nation of Haiti occupied the entire island from 1821 to 1844. The Dominican Republic gained its own freedom after the 1844 Dominican Independence War.
The Dominican Republic’s road to independence has been shaky. The territory briefly reverted to Spanish rule during the 1860’s and was twice occupied by the United States. The first lasted from 1916 to 1924, while the second was from 1965 to 1966 and several volatile dictatorships ruled in between these periods.
Ever since Joaquin Balaguer’s 30-year term as president came to an end in 1996, the country’s future has never been brighter or more stable. The Dominican Republic’s economy is now growing faster than nearly any other in the western hemisphere.
Family, music, and food are the three main cornerstones in this melting pot nation where 80 percent of residents have Taino, Spanish, and African roots. Several Taino words still survive in this predominantly Spanish speaking country. African influence is most evident in the merengue music which is loudly played in most Dominican homes, shops, streets, and guagua buses.
Most Dominicans are poor and live paycheck to paycheck. Locals always share their wages with family and take care of their neighbors. Each day ends with dancing in front of neighborhood convenience stores called colmados. Hip hop and reggae have joined merengue and bachata as the Dominican Republic’s most commonly played music. Baseball is the most popular sport, and many Major League baseball players are Dominican. The town of Sosua was founded by Jewish immigrants encouraged to settle in the Dominican Republic during WWII.