A Short History of the Island of Hispaniola
Divided Past...Shared Future?
Although Haiti and the Dominican Republic both share the same island-Hispaniola-the two countries have surprisingly different, but closely interwoven, histories. The island first became known to the western world when Columbus landed there in 1492, though it had been home to the native Arawak and Carib peoples for many years before that. Meanwhile, French and British buccaneers made use of the northern and western shores as ports (hence the infamous "pirates of the Caribbean'). As time passed and power changed hands many times, Haitians became bound to the fortunes of the French, while the Dominican people were more heavily influenced by Spain. This divergence is most evident today in the countries´ languages; Haitians primarily speak Creole and French, while most Dominicans speak Spanish. The colonizing countries took different approaches to their "prize,' however, and while France enthusiastically took advantage of Haiti´s abundant resources to create a booming export business, Spain was more focused on interests elsewhere and for the most part, left the settlers to their own devices.
The geography of Hispaniola also contributed to the evolution of two distinct cultures. The Dominican side, with its long valleys and wide plains, was better suited to vast sugar cane and tobacco plantations, while the more mountainous Haitian territory was valued for its forests and rich topsoil. Capitalizing on these natural resources, the French imported African slaves to work their sugar cane plantations. When the slaves organized themselves and revolted against the French in 1804, Haiti became the world´s first black republic and the second nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States) to win its independence. This was not the end of Hispaniola´s many power shifts, and throughout its colorful history, parts of the island have been variously controlled at one time or another by the native Arawak people, the Spanish, the French, the Haitian slaves, the Haitian elite, the Dominicans, and American and U.N. military forces.
Despite the many differences, there are a number of similarities. Both countries have had political and economic unrest over the years and have suffered under the rule of ruthless dictators. Poverty remains widespread among both peoples. The United States has invaded and occupied each country at least once in its history. Catholicism is the primary religion for Haitians and Dominicans, although people on both sides of the border have incorporated aspects of spirit faiths, like voodoo and santeria, into their Catholic practices. There is a long history of tension and struggle between the two neighbors, and wars and atrocities are unfortunately frequent throughout their shared history. In today´s world, both are considered developing countries, though the Dominicans in recent years have been able to hold free and fair elections to form a stable, democratic government, an accomplishment Haiti still hopes and strives for.
Without question, the island of Hispaniola has a fascinating and, at times, heartbreaking history. New efforts at cooperation like the bi-national TB initiative could be a major step toward healing some of the divisions of the past and moving toward a more united future.