Santo Domingo, the capital city, was founded in 1496 by Columbus’ older brother Bartholomew. It was the first permanent European settlement anywhere in the New World. (Columbus had created a small fort at La Isabela on his first voyage, but when he returned, all its inhabitants were dead.) It was also the first city in the Americas to import slaves from Africa. The first boatload arrived just 10 years after Columbus, in 1502.
Surely, none of those slaves or the newly arrived colonists (or even their royal patrons in Europe) could ever have imagined that more than 11 million Africans would follow that first boat’s path to slavery in the New World. Traders called Santo Domingo the Gateway to the Caribbean. It might as well have been called the Gateway of the Slaves.
Santo Domingo has an unmistakably Spanish flair, its architecture in the Zona Colonial recalling Spain, but Spain with a tropical ease and flavor. My hotel was near the center of town, in a grand square with a majestic, Spanish-style cathedral at one end and an enormous statue at the other. Though I was tired, dusty and thirsty when I landed, I asked the driver to pull over and let me take a look. He told me that this was Columbus Square and that the church, the Catedral de Santa María de la Encarnación, was the first cathedral in the Americas.
I stepped out to get a closer look at Columbus’ imposing statue. There he was, looking regal and well fed, pointing a finger toward new horizons. No surprise here. But as I thought about it, I found it a bit odd that the central square of the capital of a Caribbean country was dedicated to the European who colonized it. (Curiously enough, in 1986, at the time of the overthrow of Baby Doc Duvalier, a Haitian crowd actually knocked over a statue of Columbus in Port-au-Prince and threw it into the sea.)
Perhaps I was overreacting. Still … I wondered if there were any monuments to the Dominican Republic’s black heroes. I looked around hopefully, but I saw nothing suggesting a connection to blackness in this quasi-Spanish square.
(Of course, in the United States, we celebrate all those early European ancestors because we believe that the Native Americans don’t count as much, having been driven off their land or killed, and because we believe that we are all descended from those early Europeans in an almost cosmic sense. I think that even African Americans share a version of this, though of course they interpret the story of colonial America through a filter of slavery, and — unlike the way Mexicans and Peruvians might see their relationship to the conquistadors — most African Americans don’t see themselves as having been colonized.)
I asked my driver, Adolfo Guerrero, if he could take me to such a monument. He turned his head one way and then the other, looked back at me and shrugged. The quizzical expression on his face spoke volumes. I did find a statue eventually, honoring Lemba, a great leader of the Maroon slaves in the 16th century. It was positioned not in the central square but at the entrance of the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo. But that discovery was still in the future.