One might expect that a relatively small island such as Hispaniola (from Spanish 'Isla Espanola' the Spanish island) lying in the heart of the Caribbean would be occupied by one nation, or at least that its people should demonstrate ethnic and cultural similarities. This is not so. Hispaniola, with an area of just over 75,800 sq km, not much more than half the size of Cuba, is shared by two very different countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The original indigenous name for the island, Quisqueya, is still used in the Dominican Republic as an 'elegant variation'. Hispaniola is mountainous and forested, with plains and plateaux. Haiti, with 27,700 sq km, has a population of 6.6 million increasing at an annual rate of 1.7%. The Dominican Republic is much larger in area, 48,443 sq km, including some offshore islands, but its population is not much more at 7.8 million, growing at 1.9% a year. In the Dominican Republic, 65% of the population is urban, yet only 31% in Haiti live in towns.
Columbus visited the N coast of Hispaniola, modern Haiti, on his first visit to the West Indies, leaving a few men there to make a settlement before he moved on to Cuba. Columbus traded with the native Tainos for trinkets such as gold nose plugs, bracelets and other ornaments, which were to seal the Indians’ fate when shown to the Spanish monarchs. A second voyage was ordered immediately. Columbus tried again to establish settlements, his first having been wiped out. His undisciplined men were soon at war with the native Tainos, who were hunted, taxed and enslaved. Hundreds were shipped to Spain, where they died. When Columbus had to return to Spain he left his brother, Bartolomé, in charge of the fever-ridden, starving colony. The latter sensibly moved the settlement to the healthier S coast and founded Santo Domingo, which became the capital of the Spanish Indies. The native inhabitants were gradually eliminated by European diseases, murder, suicide and slavery, while their crops were destroyed by newly introduced herds of cattle and pigs. Development was hindered by the labour shortage and the island became merely a base from which to provision further exploration, being a source of bacon, dried beef and cassava. Even the alluvial gold dwindled and could not compete with discoveries on the mainland. Sugar was introduced at the beginning of the sixteenth century and the need for labour soon brought African slaves to the island. In 1512 the Indians were declared free subjects of Spain, and missionary zeal ensured their conversion to Christianity.
The Haitians are almost wholly black, with a culture that is a unique mixture of African and French influences. Haiti was a French colony until 1804 when, fired by the example of the French Revolution, the black slaves revolted, massacred the French landowners and proclaimed the world’s first black republic. Throughout the 19th century the Haitians reverted to a primitive way of life, indulging in a succession of bloody, almost tribal wars. Even today, nowhere else in the Caribbean do African cults, particularly voodoo, play such a part in everyday life. The standard of living is the lowest in the Americas.
The Dominicans are a mixture of black, Amerindian and white, with a far stronger European strain (see Introduction to the Dominican Republic). Their culture and language are hispanic and their religion Roman Catholic. Economically, the country is much more developed, despite a stormy political past and unsavoury periods of dictatorship, particularly under Generalísimo Trujillo (1930-61). Nevertheless, in a material sense the country prospered during the Trujillo era and the standard of living is much higher than it is in Haiti.
The climate is tropical but tempered by sea breezes. The cooler months are between Dec and March.