Hispaniola (also Española), the island, named by Christopher Columbus, between Cuba and Puerto Rico; its western half became Haiti and eastern half the Dominican Republic. The island may have been called Bohío by its native Taino inhabitants, the same name the exploring Spaniards attributed to house compounds occupied by extended families throughout the West Indies. After his first voyage, Columbus left behind on Hispaniola a group of men who settled a garrison town known as Navidad. Upon returning to Hispaniola, late in November 1493, Columbus found the settlers dead and Navidad in ruins. So ended the first recorded colonization by Europeans of the Americas.
Undeterred, Columbus sailed back eastward along the coast of Hispaniola, and on 1 January 1494 laid out the town of Isabela, named in honor of his patron queen. Other settlements, for the most part as ephemeral if not as unfortunate as Navidad, were established throughout the island, but it was not until the founding of Santo Domingo, in August 1496, that the Spaniards secured a permanent, functional base of operation. For the next two decades Santo Domingo served as a strategic port from which to explore, conquer, and colonize the surrounding islands and mainland. It was from Santo Domingo that Ponce de León set out for Puerto Rico, Velásquez and del Campo for Cuba, Esquivel for Jamaica, Balboa for Panama and the Pacific, and Pizarro for Peru.
If Santo Domingo was successful as a point of embarkation, it had a far less distinguished role in putting its own house in order. Hispaniola's woes began early. The relatively peaceful Tainos, unlike their Carib neighbors, at first offered no great resistance to Spanish intrusion. They were so abused and exploited, however, that an uprising took place in 1494. Mismanagement by Columbus in his fever for gold set a crippling trend no reforms could reverse. Within scarcely a generation Hispaniola was gutted. The native population, which numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 before contact, was depopulated to extinction in a tragedy that would be enacted again and again elsewhere, if not always to the same fatal degree. Spanish interest in Hispaniola dwindled as fast as its native groups perished, to such an extent that a rival European power (France) was able to establish a colony on its western perimeter, while other imperial nations (the British and Dutch foremost among them) filled in the surrounding islands' vacuum.
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W. George Lovell