From Paradise Island to Slave Colony, Revolutionary Heroism to Homicidal States: Hispaniola has seen it all

Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former President of Haiti, looks finally set to appear in court on charges of crimes against humanity whilst the leader of his country. After quarter of a century in exile, “Baby Doc” returns to face the justice of a country his family ravaged and sent into depravity.

Such an experience is hardly surprising given that Haiti forms, along with the Dominican Republic, part of Hispaniola, one of history’s more intriguing islands.


Hispaniola was the site of the first Columbian colony after the explorer’s famous voyage of 1492. Columbus’s first impression of Hispaniola was one of paradise. Praising the tropical vegetation, the muscular natives and the supposedly abundant gold, he deemed it the perfect location for Spain’s New World headquarters.

Columbus saw Hispaniola as a healthy and prosperous island
Columbus saw Hispaniola as a healthy and prosperous island

By 1500, however, Columbus was returning to Spain in chains after a brutal governorship in which his early expectations had been proved almost entirely false. The natives had been reduced to slavery and by 1520 most of the indigenous Taino people were extinct on Hispaniola; the promised gold had scarcely materialised; and the climate had bred pestilence and exhaustion in the European colonists whose numbers had also dwindled. Hispaniola, the birthplace of the New World, had seemingly run its course. With the conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in South America, Spanish attention diverted from the devastated Hispaniola.

The introduction of African slaves to the island did little but to hasten the decimation of the Taino as more foreign diseases were brought across the Atlantic. For the majority of the sixteenth century, Hispaniola remained a colonial outpost whose primary importance was as a transhipment base for luxury goods from Spain’s other New World colonies.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Hispaniola attracted the piratical attentions of Spain’s enemies, particularly the French, Dutch and English. By the early seventeenth century, the remaining Spanish colonists (numbering under 1,000 by this point) had retreated to the capital, Santo Domingo. This served little purpose, except for providing the French with forward bases on Hispaniola and by 1697 the western third of the island had been ceded by Spain.

Saint-Domingue (as the French called their colony) showed the economic potential of Hispaniola. It relied on a brutal system of slavery, yet the French overshadowed their Spanish predecessors by developing a plantation-dominated economic base that propelled the western part of Hispaniola into the modern world. The eastern segment of the island, still under Spanish control in Santo Domingo, remained a cultural and economic backwater whose inhabitants enjoyed a life equal in its barbarity to the slaves of Saint-Domingue.

In 1795, during the Revolutionary Wars that saw Napoleon rise to power, Spain gave Hispaniola up for good and the French took control of the entire island. Just when the island seemed set for a secure future, the slaves of Saint-Domingue rebelled in what came to be known as the Haitian Revolution. Rumblings of discontent and protest had begun as early as 1791 and by 1804, with the European resources overstretched and manpower reduced by disease, Haiti was an independent republic.

The Haitian Revolution shocked the European world as slave power told
The Haitian Revolution shocked the European world as slave power told

The only slave revolt to lead to the founding of a state, the Haitian Revolution was one of Hispaniola’s most heroic moments. But, as has typified the island’s history, the honeymoon would not last long. Unrecognised by the global powers, Haiti was reduced to an impoverished hinterland debilitated by trade embargoes, forced to prey on its vulnerable neighbour for sustenance. It was not until the American occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) that modern infrastructure was introduced and this under working conditions of virtual slavery for the Haitians.

In 1957, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier became President of Haiti. Bringing stability and economic development to his country, “Papa Doc” was revered by millions who were enthralled by the personality cult that surrounded him, yet those opposing his regime were brutally silenced. His reign coincided with the final years of the fearsome Rafael Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, on the eastern side of Hispaniola.

"Papa Doc's" bookish appearance hid a cold and calculated manipulator
“Papa Doc’s” bookish appearance hid a cold and calculated manipulator

The collapse of Napoleon’s global ambitions had seen Santo Domingo return to Spanish control in 1808. The next century would be one of peaks and troughs for the beleaguered population. After attempting independence in 1821, Santo Domingo was overrun by Haitian forces and endured occupation by its Hispaniolan neighbours until 1844. Glorious wars of independence followed, interspersed by Spanish and Haitian attempts to reduce Santo Domingo to a colony. Finally, in 1916, like Haiti, Santo Domingo came under American control.

Emerging from the post-American occupation, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo became President of the new Dominican Republic in 1930. His brutal rule – characterised by the infamous “Parsley Massacre”, in which all suspected Haitians in his country were murdered to prevent further intervention from the Dominican Republic’s neighbour – would last for thirty-one years. Staunchly anti-communist, Trujillo enjoyed early American patronage and transformed the Dominican economy into the finest in the Caribbean. Living standards rose gloriously for the complicit majority yet the anti-Trujillistas and their associates were ruthlessly suppressed.

The meticulously-appareled Rafael Trujillo dominated Dominican life
The meticulously-appareled Rafael Trujillo dominated Dominican life

Trujillo’s assassination in 1961 rid the Dominicans of an increasingly erratic dictator, who had by then burnt his bridges with the Americans. Yet, such was his control over daily life, that the Dominican population struggled to cope in a post-Trujillo era and, crippled by years of trade embargoes, many fell into impoverishment and destitution which is only now being alleviated.

The Duvalier hereditary dictatorship in Haiti continued until 1986 when, with the country increasingly destabilised by drug wars provoked by “Baby Doc’s” narcotics patronage, the leader was forced to resign under American pressure. Exiled in France, he was only returned to Haiti in 2011, a year after a massive earthquake killed over 300,000 Haitians and left thousands more in disease-ridden refugee camps.

It is hoped that “Baby Doc” is found guilty of the excesses he committed. His father, like Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, initially brought a degree of self-esteem to his people that, after centuries of catastrophe and destabilisation, had seemed impossible. Yet both leaders’ power was unbounded and they abused it for personal gain, still convinced they were serving their country to the full.

Who knows what will lie in store next for Hispaniola, a truly tragic island.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

One thought on “From Paradise Island to Slave Colony, Revolutionary Heroism to Homicidal States: Hispaniola has seen it all”

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