History of the Independence of the Dominican Republic

History of the Independence of the Dominican Republic

February 27th is a grandly celebrated Independence Day in the Dominican Republic. Contrary to popular belief, however, the Dominican Republic does not celebrate its independence from Spain as most Latin American countries do. Moreover, it had to fight for its sovereignty three times.

What is behind the date of February 27th? What was the long struggle for independence and why did Dominicans have to fight for it three times? Let’s explore the complicated but fascinating history of the Dominican Republic’s independence, which is also another chapter in the story of relations between Hispaniola’s neighbors.

Historical background and first independence

First, let’s recall that since the times of European colonization, the island of Hispaniola has been divided between French influences in the west (present-day Haiti) and Spanish influences in the east (the Dominican Republic). You can read more about this in one of our previous articles: A History of the Two Nations of Hispaniola: The Divergent Paths of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Today’s text is largely another chapter in the history of relations between the neighbors.

At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, while the Haitian Revolution was underway in the west of the island, leading to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 and the abolition of slavery, the Dominican Republic was the arena of French-Spanish skirmishes. In 1795, as a result of the Treaty of Basel, which ended the war between France and Spain at the Pyrenees border, the previously Spanish part of the island (the Dominican Republic) was handed over to the French. However, as a result of Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, the Spanish population of Hispaniola soon began an anti-French uprising with significant English support. The French forces, having little chance, surrendered in 1814, and the Dominican Republic once again became a Spanish colony.

“Foolish Spain”

This began a 12-year period called España Boba (“Foolish Spain”). As a result of the war with the French, the country was destroyed, depopulated and poor, and Spain, fighting difficult battles with Napoleon, had neither the will nor the money to help the island across the ocean. Its governance was incompetent and extremely disappointing for the Spaniards born on the island (Creoles), who identified more with the Dominican land than with the overseas homeland of their ancestors, causing numerous anti-Spanish uprisings. On December 1, 1821, the colonial administration was expelled, ending more than three centuries of Spanish rule over the country (at least for a while…). The independent state takes the name Estado Independiente del Haití Español (Independent State of Spanish Haiti).

Ephemeral independence and Haitian occupation

The country’s independence lasted less than 2 months and is often referred to as ephemeral. With the return of Spanish rule in 1814, slavery was reinstated. In the years leading up to the first independence, the black and mulatto population increasingly looked across the western border with sentiment. Haiti was then a symbol of heroic and effective fight against slavery, and the face of liberation movements was President Jean-Pierre Boyer, who would receive numerous appeals from black communities to intervene in Dominican territory. Haiti’s response did not take long. Haitian troops marched into the Dominican Republic, which was torn between resentment of Spanish rule and newborn independence. There was little resistance in the country devastated by previous rebellions, and part of the community welcomed the “liberators” with open arms. Thus began 22 years of controversial Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic.

Under the Haitian Rule

Boyer definitively ended the era of slavery in the Dominican Republic and portrayed himself as the country’s liberator. Although the black slaves were indeed freed and sometimes received lands taken from the Spanish crown or the church, they had no real chance for significant economic improvement. Many were forced to conscript into the Haitian army, while plantation workers were subject to new, harsh labor laws that weren’t so different from slavery. Boyer also imposed draconian taxes on the country. Economic policy was conducted with an iron fist, as the president, fearing a French invasion of Haiti, agreed to predatory reparations for the lost colony. The first pillar of the upcoming rebellion was then the misery and poverty of the Dominicans who were forced to pay someone else’s debt.

The second pillar was repression and cultural differences. Due to the long Spanish colonization, Dominicans were mostly devout Catholics, while Haitians practiced animistic religions and did not really respect institutions such as marriage or conservative approaches to male-female relations. The nations were divided by language, religion, traditions, and customs, and any disputes that arose were resolved in favor of Haiti. That’s because almost all of the country’s structures, including the judiciary, were occupied by influential Haitians who instituted sweeping repressions against the use of the Spanish language or the celebration of Catholic holidays. Haitian rule thus resembled an occupation rather than a “liberation” and was perceived as such by the vast majority of Dominicans.

Fathers of the nation: God, Country and Freedom!

Social unrest grew throughout the island, including in the Haitian territories, as the people suffered more and more from Boyer’s authoritarian style of government and especially from the deep economic crisis that resulted from his acceptance of the debt to the French. On both sides of the island, the black plantation workers, who were ruthlessly exploited by the wealthy landowners favored by Boyer, suffered the most. This led to a wave of peasant riots and eventually a military uprising, resulting in Boyer’s shameful flight from the country in 1843. Seeing Haiti’s weakness, the oppressed Dominicans began to hope for independence.

La Trinitaria

In Santo Domingo, anti-Haitian sentiment had been growing for several years. In 1838, young rebels and idealists – Juan Pablo Duarte, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez and Matías Ramón Mella – founded the secret organization La Trinitaria. All three are now called the “Fathers of the Nation” by Dominicans and are credited with developing revolutionary consciousness in society after years of political lethargy. The organization’s motto is Dios, Patria y Libertad (God, Homeland, and Liberty), which still appears on the flag of the Dominican Republic.

The young, passionate idealists quickly and easily spread the revolutionary spirit throughout the community, which had grown tired of the “liberators” from the west. Taking advantage of the political chaos in Haiti after Boyer’s escape, La Trinitaria launched a rebellion against the Haitian occupation in Santo Domingo on the night of February 27, 1844. The symbolic call to begin the uprising was the famous El Trabucazo, a shot fired by Matías Ramón Mella at the gate of the Puerta de la Misericordia in the Zona Colonial. Although the Haitian authorities had previously announced the mobilization of the army, the pro-independence Dominican community refused to supply the army, which was crucial for the rapid progress of the uprising. On the same day, the birth of the new state of the Dominican Republic was proclaimed. It is a joyful day that is celebrated with great festivity in the Dominican Republic, although it was not the last act in the struggle for independence.

The birth of the state and the last fight for independence

Unfortunately, February 27, 1844 did not put an end to the unrest in the Dominican Republic. The following decades were marked by great political turmoil, the battle for power between influential wealthy individuals, the exile of the national hero Juan Pablo Duarte and, above all, two Haitian military campaigns in 1849 and 1855 that bled the state dry. The Dominicans resisted Haiti’s attempts to regain control, but the country was at the end of its tether. 17 years of political chaos and fighting ended with the Dominican Republic’s re-annexation to Spain in 1861 – this time at the request of then Dominican Republic President Pedro Santana, who was counting on the Spaniards to bring order to the country. However, the Spaniards made the same mistakes as before: predatory tax policies, corruption, and treating the locals as second-class citizens ended up the same as before. Support for the Crown waned as quickly as support for independence movements grew. A guerrilla war began, with heroes such as Gregorio Luperón and Santiago Rodríguez Masagó. Finally, in 1865, after suffering defeat after defeat, the Spanish Crown capitulated and by royal decree recognized the independence of the Dominican Republic. This time for good.

Triple reason to celebrate

As you can see, the Dominican Republic could celebrate three independence days. The emergence of an independent state in 1821, the throwing off of the Haitian yoke in 1844 and finally the definitive capitulation of Spain in 1865. However, Dominicans celebrate the most important day of glory: February 27, and they do it long and loud! The festivities last the entire month, starting on January 26 in honor of the birthday of the hero and Father of the Nation, Juan Pablo Duarte. The Independence celebration coincides with Carnival, making Dominican Independence Day one of the most splendid in the world! On February 27th, at the Puerta de la Misericordia, where the fight for independence began, the President of the Dominican Republic delivers the traditional speech in honor of the Fathers of the Nation, which is watched on television by all Dominicans. Throughout the country, flags are displayed on balconies and windows, and traditional dishes such as are enjoyed. Colorful carnival parades march through the streets of all the cities, with the largest and most famous taking place in La Vega, north of Santo Domingo. Patriotic sentiments, pride, joy and carnival fun make February 27th in the Dominican Republic one of the most wonderful days of the year and an experience to remember.