The island of Hispaniola (La Isla Española) was the first New World colony settled by Spain. As such, it served as the logistical base for the conquest of most of the Western Hemisphere. Christopher Columbus first sighted the island in 1492 toward the end of his first voyage to “the Indies.” Columbus and his crew found the island inhabited by a large population of friendly Taino Indians (Arawaks), who made the explorers welcome. The land was fertile, but of greater importance to the Spaniards was the discovery that gold could be obtained either by barter with the natives, who adorned themselves with golden jewelry, or by extraction from alluvial deposits on the island.
After several attempts to plant colonies along the north coast of Hispaniola, Spain’s first permanent settlement in the New World was established on the southern coast at the present site of Santo Domingo. Under Spanish sovereignty, the entire island bore the name Santo Domingo. Indications of the presence of gold–the life’s blood of the nascent mercantilist system–and a population of tractable natives who could be used as laborers combined to attract many Spanish newcomers during the early years. Most were adventurers who, at least initially, were more interested in acquiring sudden wealth than they were in settling the land. Their relations with the Taino Indians, whom they ruthlessly maltreated, deteriorated from the beginning. Aroused by continued seizures of their food supplies, other exactions, and abuse of their women, the formerly peaceful Indians rebelled- -only to be crushed decisively in 1495.
Columbus, who ruled the colony as royal governor until 1499, attempted to put an end to the more serious abuses to which the Indians were subjected by prohibiting foraging expeditions against them and by regulating the informal taxation imposed by the settlers. Being limited to this milder form of exploitation engendered active opposition among the settlers. To meet their demands, Columbus devised the repartimiento system of land settlement and native labor under which a settler, without assuming any obligation to the authorities, could be granted in perpetuity a large tract of land together with the services of the Indians living on it.
The repartimiento system did nothing to improve the lot of the Indians, and the Spanish crown changed it by instituting the system of encomienda in 1503. Under the encomienda system, all land became in theory the property of the crown, and the Indians thus were considered tenants on royal land. The crown’s right to service from the tenants could be transferred in trust to individual Spanish settlers (encomenderos) by formal grant and the regular payment of tribute. The encomenderos were entitled to certain days of labor from the Indians, who became their charges. Encomenderos thus assumed the responsibility of providing for the physical well-being of the Indians and for their instruction in Christianity. An encomienda theoretically did not involve ownership of land; in practice, however, possession was gained through other means.
The hard work demanded of the Indians and the privations that they suffered demonstrated the unrealistic nature of the encomienda system, which effectively operated on a honor system as a result of the absence of enforcement efforts by Spanish authorities. The Indian population died off rapidly from exhaustion, starvation, disease, and other causes. By 1548 the Taino population, estimated at 1 million in 1492, had been reduced to approximately 500. The consequences were profound. The need for a new labor force to meet the growing demands of sugarcane cultivation prompted the importation of African slaves beginning in 1503. By 1520, black African labor was used almost exclusively.
The early grants of land without obligation under the repartimiento system resulted in a rapid decentralization of power. Each landowner possessed virtually sovereign authority. Power was diffused because of the tendency of the capital city, Santo Domingo (which also served as the seat of government for the entire Spanish Indies), to orient itself toward the continental Americas, which provided gold for the crown, and toward Spain, which provided administrators, supplies, and immigrants for the colonies. Local government was doomed to ineffectiveness because there was little contact between the capital and the hinterland; for practical purposes, the countryside fell under the sway of the large landowners. Throughout Dominican history, this sociopolitical order was a major factor in the development of some of the distinctive characteristics of the nation’s political culture such as paternalism, personalism, and the tendency toward strong, even authoritarian, leadership .
As early as the 1490s, the landowners demonstrated their power by successfully conspiring against Columbus. His successor, Francisco de Bobadilla, was appointed chief justice and royal commissioner by the Spanish crown in 1499. Bobadilla sent Columbus back to Spain in irons, but Queen Isabella soon ordered him released. Bobadilla proved an inept administrator, and he was replaced in 1503 by the more efficient Nicolás de Ovando, who assumed the titles of governor and supreme justice. Because of his success in initiating reforms desired by the crown–the encomienda system among them–de Ovando received the title of Founder of Spain’s Empire in the Indies.
In 1509 Columbus’s son, Diego Columbus, was appointed governor of the colony of Santo Domingo. Diego’s ambition and the splendid surroundings he provided for himself aroused the suspicions of the crown. As a resulted, in 1511 of the crown established the audiencia, a new political institution intended to check the power of the governor. The first audiencia was simply a tribunal composed of three judges whose jurisdiction extended over all the West Indies. In this region, it formed the highest court of appeal. Employment of the audiencia eventually spread throughout Spanish America.