Punta Cana History


Retro-architecture Basilica in the historic town of Huguey, Punta Cana History

Retro-architecture Basilica in the historic town of Huguey; credit MRDU08

Punta Cana History

Taino Indians are estimated to have arrived on the island around 1000 AD. Christopher Columbus arrived here on 5 December 1492 during his first voyage to the New World. The friendly Taino (meaning “the good”) Indians who greeted him called the island “Quisqueya.” Christopher Columbus renamed the island “Hispaniola”, which persists today. Historians estimate the population to have been 600,000 at the time.

Columbus and crew of Spaniards grew fond of Hispaniola, as he describing the island in romantic terms in his Captain’s journal. Columbus’ admiration for Hispaniola coupled with his crew’s discovery of gold deposits in the island’s rivers led to the establishment of European settlements. Throughout history, a gold strike changes power relationships between different groups of people. So European settlers quickly arrived to found La Isabela in 1493 and used their guns to put Taino Indians into slavery mining it. Italian navigator Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1492.

Disease and torture imported by the Europeans eventully wiped out the poor Tainos. As the colony grew, some business-minded Europeans established cash crop plantations to feed markets in Europe. In need of new laborers to replace the Taino Indians, Europeans imported African slaves to work their plantations.

By 1515, the easy to locate gold deposits of Hispaniola were significantly exhausted. Then Cortez discovered silver deposits in Mexico. Upon hearing of the next lucky strike, most Spanish residents of Santo Domingo left for Mexico, leaving only a few thousand settlers behind. Because of the predominance of livestock, initially introduced by Columbus, these settlers sustained themselves by providing food and leather to Spanish ships passing Hispaniola.

In the late 1600s, France took control of the western half of Hispaniola. Thousands of Africans were soon brought to work the land of what was renamed Haiti. France’s control of Hispaniola, however, was short-lived. African military general Toussaint L’Ouverture, who was one time enslaved, led large groups of other enslaved Blacks in a war against the French and captured control of most of the island. For decades following L’Ouverture’s liberation of the Africans, Haiti fought against France and Spain.

In 1791, a slave revolt broke out in Saint Domingue. For fear of losing their colony to the slaves, the French abolished slavery in 1794. With calm in Saint Domingue, the French focused their soldiers on overwhelming the Spanish on western Hispaniola. In 1804, that western part of the island became the French-owned Republic of Haiti. Eastern Hispaniola next fell into contention between Spaniards and French.

In 1809, the eastern side of the island returned to Spanish rule. In 1821, the Spanish settlers declared an independent state, but weeks later, Haitian forces invaded the eastern portion of the island and incorporated Santo Domingo. For the next 22 years the entire island came under Haitian control. However, fueled by their loss of political and economic control, the former Spanish ruling class developed an underground resistance called “La Trinitaria.” After several attacks by La Trinitaria on the Haitian army, the Haitians retreated across the border.

On 27 February 1844, the eastern side of the island declared independence and gave their land the name “Dominican Republic.”

The 70 years that followed were characterized by political unrest, civil war and government power struggles by Dominican strongmen. Disputes continued with Haiti and power returned to the Spanish for a short period of time. Turmoil in the early 1900s led the United States to intervene.

In 1916, U.S. troops occupied the country and stayed until 1924 when a democratically elected Dominican government was put into place. However, the head of the army during the American occupation, Raphael Leonidas Trujilo, was a crooked repressive dictator. With America’s withdrawal, Trujilo rule lasted until 1961 until his motorcade was ambushed. The anniversary of his death is a public holiday in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic went through another series of leaders until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. troops to occupy the country again. Johnson intervened due to Cold War politics to prevent the Russians from gaining influence over another Caribbean island, like Cuba. Thus, a rigged election in 1966 put Dr. Joaquin Balaguer, a member of the Partido Reformista Social Cristiano (PRD), in power for a reign that lasted until 1978.

Dominicans elected more members of the PRD, albeit with legitimate eleactions until 1996, when the other party was finally elected. In summary, the Dominican Republic endured zig-zag travels to free Democratic elections like most of the Caribbean today.

To increase Dominican Republic revenue and jobs in sleepy fishing and agricultural La Altagracia Province of eastern Dominican Republic, the government built Punta Cana International Airport and more roadways there in 1984. That is when beach tourism took off in Punta Cana. The beach resort town formula was similar to Mexico building international airport and roadways in Cancun to spark beach resort tourism.

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