Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #2 from September 1998

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC (cont.): The people of La Vega, Dominican Republic, are a very noble and proud lot. And at the top of their “Proud of” list is the fact that they reside in the beautiful valley Christopher Columbus discovered in 1492. Back in Mrs. Zinks’s second-grade class, I had memorized the ditty “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” But in the interim it has taken years of meandering around the earth, which has indeed been proven to be round in shape, to finally observe for myself where Columbus landed. Almost from the minute I arrived in Santiago, my hosts began talking about their heritage and how privileged they are to live in the finest city in America. 

Being somewhat of a history buff myself, I responded by asking lots of questions about Columbus, Spain, and early life in the original and real America. So following our visit to the geriatric center, Cesar Abreu and Dr. Miguel asked if I would like to visit the original city Columbus founded. How could I refuse? 

While riding down the road, I received a post-graduate degree in Spanish American history. The large island of Hispaniola wasn’t always divided in two, with Haiti possessing about one-third and the Dominican Republic possessing the other two-thirds. First the Arawak and Taino natives had free run of the entire paradise. In 1492, Columbus landed somewhat confused. He believed he had discovered a new trade route to India. Seeing later that he had, in fact, landed on an island, his navigators pretty much convinced him that he had landed in what we know now as Japan. 

Columbus left the island to deliver his report to the queen of Spain. His charge had been to discover gold and find a way to mine it and return it to Spain. His report included the fact that he had located gold and that his Indians would be able to mine the treasure. So he was given permission to return again in 1496. While in Spain, though, he spoke of his new Americana as being the most beautiful spot in the whole world. 

On his second trip to the island, Columbus brought horses, implements, and eventually one thousand Spaniards and started building the town of Santo Domingo. Spain had dreams that from that stronghold they would be able to set out and conquer all of the Americas. 

Cesar showed me the original site of the city and remaining structures. I was able to photograph the brick fortress, with round vaults or turrets designed for defense. I learned that the ships coming from Spain often carried Spanish-made bricks in the ship’s hold to be used as ballast for the voyage. Once at their destination, they used the bricks to construct the main buildings.

Eventually an earthquake leveled the entire city, which had grown to a population of twenty thousand. The Spanish inhabitants felt that the earthquake had been directly sent by God because of the cruel way the Spaniards had been treating the Indians by working them in the mines. So they moved the city, totally abandoning the old structures and building once again farther out into the flat valley. 

Additionally, because of their assumed guilt regarding their treatment of the Indians, the Spaniards went back to the queen and convinced her that they should begin importing black workers from West Africa to do the work in the mines and sugarcane fields and on the cattle farms. Thus, the introduction of black slaves into the Americas. 

By 1801, the black slaves revolted and established Haiti as the first independent country in Latin America. But the graft, corruption, and heavy-handed cruelty of the black Haitians drove the Dominicans to declare independence in 1844. Today there is still a high degree of strained relations and mistrust between the Haitians and the Dominicans. Spain occasionally stepped back into the history of the Dominican Republic, and after the US Marines occupied the island from 1918 to 1924, a constitutional democratic government was established in the Dominican Republic.

It really sounds funny to hear the Dominicans talk about a constitutional democracy, since from 1930 to 1961, a virtual dictator, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, ruled the Dominican Republic. But the people’s hatred for the dictator grew during this time, and he was assassinated in 1961. Then, once again, in 1965 the US Marines stepped in and restored a degree of civility to the region until the democratic system could again have a fighting chance.

While visiting the Santo Cerro location high up on a mountain overlooking the original city developed by Columbus, we were able to sit in on Mass at a beautiful and picturesque Catholic church. Just outside the church was a small memorial garden with a tree growing, which is supposed to be a direct descendant of the tree Christopher Columbus planted there. Inside the church was a metal grate that covered a “sacred hole,” also dating back to Columbus’s time. 

I was told a story about how Columbus and his men retreated to the mountain for safety and to defend against the Indians, who were determined to kill all the intruding Spaniards. As the Indians were fighting their way uphill and were just about to close in on Columbus and his friends, Columbus had some of his men dig a hole. He constructed a crude cross and dropped the cross base into the hole. As the lower end of the cross dropped with a thud into the hole, Columbus gazed upon his thousand men about to be killed by over ten thousand Indian warriors.

Immediately, a blinding light flashed, and the Virgin Mary herself appeared and delivered the Spaniards from certain death. Traditionally the grated hole inside the church is exactly the same hole into which Columbus placed the cross. When confronted with the seeming unfairness of the whole episode to the Indian natives, the pat answer was that obviously the Virgin Mother was decidedly on the side of the Spaniards because they had come to bring the gospel of Christ and the Catholic church to the island. The subjects of old- and new-world domination seem to take somewhat of a secondary or clandestine position during such lofty discussions.

Next Week: Bombero (fire brigade) 

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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