Taínos, conquistadores, gold diggers, pirates and rebels…

Delving into Hispanolia’s history, we found out that the island was once populated by Taíno people, who had come from the mainland. They were living a happy island life, enjoying the sea and sun, painting some caves, making intricate pottery designs until Christopher Columbus laid eyes on the island in 1492. The first contacts were friendly, Christopher being a nice guy and all. But after him came the conquistadores. To put it mildly, the ambitions of the conquistadores did not fit with those of the Taíno. The Taíno chiefs bundled forces and put up a good fight. They managed to obtain an autonomous enclave on the island. At least for a while.

One can’t tell the history of Dominican Republic without discussing the Columbuses involvement:

  • Christopher discovered the island and claimed it for the Spanish crown. Christopher wasn’t one for settling down and went off to explore some more.
  • His brother, Bartholomew’s talents and interests lay elsewhere. He basically built the city of Santo Domingo, with lots of the public buildings still standing till this day. This first permanent settlement was the Spanish headquarters in the New World and the springboard for the further Spanish conquest of America.
  • Columbus’s cousin Giovanni, did not like exploring or settling, he was into gold digging. He played a vital role in the discovery and exploitation of Dom Rep’s gold mines. The country has two major mining areas and a true mining boom and a gold rush ensued. Great for the Spaniards, but less so for the Taíno. Being sent to the mines often equaled a death sentence for the local Indians. Banished to the bowels of the earth, with lack of light and clean air, starved and overworked, in dense conditions where disease was rife, they withered.

As usual, this is only the start of the story. The foreigners did not only bring strange ideas and brutal mentalities, they also imported smallpox, measles, and other European diseases. In a matter of a few decades the Taíno population took a knock and was drastically decimated over the following centuries.

The last recorded pure Taínos in Dom Rep date from 1864. Luckily, due to intermixing, Taíno biological heritage survived to an important extent up to today. In the early days 40% of Spanish men in Santo Domingo were married to Taíno women.

During the gold rush the Spanish started to import more hardy African slaves to take out the riches.

Having dug up most of the gold, with the royal treasure replenished, Spain’s focus shifted to the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas. As the iron grip relaxed, local unrest brewed as unhappiness with the Spanish rule grew. Any sign of dissent was quickly extinguished. Meanwhile, from the outside, the competition was lurking… The French had been eyeing the fertile, rich island of Hispaniola with great envy and sent over colonists to settle the northwestern coast of Hispaniola. They offered a French solution to the resident buccaneers and won their favor by sending them wanton women taken from French prisons, accused of prostitution and thieving.

The next century the French and Spanish fought over the island. At the end of the 17th century, Spain ceded the western coast of the island to France. France created a wealthy colony there, while the Spanish colony suffered an economic decline.

Bit by bit the crown relaxed the rigid controls and restrictions on commerce between Spain and the colonies and among the colonies. The last Spanish fleet sailed in 1737. The monopoly port system was abolished shortly thereafter. By the middle of the 18th century, the northern part of the colony was resettled by emigration from the Canary Islands. They took up tobacco plantations and imported more slaves.

Shortly after, the war between Spain and Britain broke out. Spanish privateers, chiefly from Santo Domingo, played a crucial role in this. They trolled the Caribbean Sea until the end of the 18th century. They would sail into enemy ports looking for ships to plunder. The bonus for the sea raiders was the plunder, consisting of merchandise, ships, enslaved persons, to be sold in Hispaniola’s ports. The bonus to the Spanish crown was to upset commerce of Britain and New York as well as replenishing their own stashes. The revenue acquired in these acts of piracy was invested in the economic expansion of the colony and boosted repopulation from Europe.

In November 1821, the Dom Rep people had enough of the Spanish rule, and declared independence. After a few months Haiti invaded and annexed them. They had to fight 22 years to regain independence, followed by another 72 years of domestic disagreements and civil wars. 

Origin of gringo

A nice trivia is that the word ‘gringo’ actually originates from the 1965 United States military occupation of the Dominican Republic to end the last civil war.

Dom Rep. had a dictator named Trujillo, who was backed by the military, and had been in power for decades. The Dom Reps got tired of their tyrant and Trujillo was assassinated in 1961. A democratically elected left government took office but was overthrown a few months later, much to the dismay of the left. More unrest was brewing, and in 1965, a leftist civil war ensued. But with the cold war at its peak, the new red danger elicited a green response from the US. President Johnson wanted to prevent another Cuba and sent the Marines, the 82nd Airborne Division and other elements of the 18th Airborne Corps, in Operation Powerpack. They did not cherish any communists setting up government in their backyard. The troups remained in the country for over a year, during which the US-backed military junta engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the northern, industrial part of Santo Domingo. The Dominican death toll for the entire period of civil war and occupation totaled more than three thousand, many of them black civilians.

The Dom Reps were opposed to this US interference and let their unhappiness with the green uniforms in their country be known by shouting, manifesting, protesting: ‘green go, green go’, referring to the green uniforms the Americans were wearing. ‘Green go’ or ‘gringo’ was later on adopted by other Hispanics in the Caribbean and the Americas to describe whiteys.

The Americans supervised the elections in 1966. When they were sure the right guy ‘won’ (i.c. Joaquín Balaguer, who was Trujillo’s last puppet-president and continued an authoritarian rule) they left.

Impact of mass tourism

In the kids blog you have been able to read (or seen the pictures) about all the nice spots to visit in the Dominican Republic. One look at the pictures in the blog testifies we had a good time there. Exodus chiefly roamed in a triangle between Bayahibe, Isla Catalina and Isla Saona. Picture perfect white beaches, lined by coconut palms, turquoise water with great visibility, plenty of tropical reef fish, wonderful snorkeling spots… We enjoyed exploring the different snorkeling spots and walking in the Isla Catalina reserve, chasing colourful lizards.


But… the flip side of the coin is not to be ignored. In the superlatives (previous post) we mentioned that tourism is one of the biggest industries on this island, and the impact thereof leaves big scars. Apart from the beautiful beaches and tropical islands, we will also remember the daily flotilla of party catamarans, each one taking in between 30 and 60 tourists. Each party cat offers all-inclusive day trips, with the majority of the menu consisting of Rum and Sprite.


The chaos starts at 10 am when busloads of tourists are dropped off in Bayahibe and stowed on motorboats, carted off to their catamaran which already has the music pumping and life entertainment going. Drinks are served as soon as the day trippers set foot on board. The Bayahibe Bay is boiling at that time with all the motor boats running up and down, creating big uneven swells. The flotilla of party catamarans subsequently motor sails to their destination: Isla Saona or Isla Catalina. From 16h to 17h the anchorage turns into a beehive of activity once more, now even louder than before and creating even more rough sea effects, as the severely roasted and rum filled tourists attempt to disembark and are shipped back to the port and loaded onto their buses in various stages of dishevel.


If you are anchored out on the islands, you have the whole place to yourself before 11 am and after 3 pm. That is the best time for snorkeling and exploring the island in all solitude.


If you go in the late afternoon, at specific spots you might have to share this piece of paradise with a bunch of permanently inebriated (and therefore aggressive) sand flies and mosquitos…

The mass tourism did not stop us from having fun, and it only takes one day to realise which are the times to be on the land and when to stay around the boat. One thing that did bother us was that the  day trip tourism has not discovered an ecofriendly version yet. Plastic cups, plates, forks, spoons are collected as much as possible by the party cats and driven to Bayahibe on the trash boat (picture below) or on one of the fast local motor boats that drops off and picks up the staff. A fair amount stays behind on the islands, safely out of sight of the tourists. Once in Bayahibe, tons and tons of plastic are offloaded and there are no recycling or waste processing facilities. At night the locals set fire to all that plastic trash, sending toxic fumes all over Bayahibe Bay…

Smog in paradise

Dominican Republic will stay in our minds as boasting beautiful beaches on the islands, great snorkeling spots, clear skies and sun on tap, cheap rum and friendly people. But the smell of burning plastic serves as a reminder of how developing countries struggle to deal with the side-effects of mass tourism.


From Tainos to Tourism – Dom Rep

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