La Isabela in the Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic was one of the first European settlements in America. La Navidad, established by Christopher Columbus a year earlier and just slightly to the west of La Isabela, in what is present day Haiti, is considered the first in the New World. The only earlier European settlements in America were settlements by the Vikings in Greenland and Newfoundland which dated from 500 years earlier.
Founded by Columbus during his second voyage in 1493, it was named after Queen Isabella I of Castile. Having initially discovered the Fort of La Navidad, which had been constructed during his first trip, it had been totally destroyed by the native Taíno people upon his return. The settlement was established to search for precious metals. When little gold was found, Columbus proceeded to enslave the people of the island.
Hunger and disease soon led to mutiny, punishment, disillusion, and more hunger and disease. It reached the point where a group of settlers, led by Bernal de Pisa, attempted to capture and make off with several ships and go back to Spain. La Isabela barely survived until 1496 when Columbus decided to abandon it in favor of a new settlement, now Santo Domingo.
History of the colony
After his first voyage to the New World, Columbus returned to Hispaniola with seventeen ships. Columbus' settlers built houses, storerooms, a Roman Catholic church, and a large house for Columbus. He brought more than a thousand men, including sailors, soldiers, carpenters, stonemasons, and other workers. Priests and nobles came as well. The Spaniards brought pigs, horses, wheat, sugarcane, and guns. Rats and microbes came with them. The settlement took up more than two hectares.
Some estimates of the Taíno population are as high as one million. They lived on fish and staples such as pineapple, which they introduced to the Spaniards. The food that they provided was important to the Spaniards. Columbus said that there were no finer people in the world.
In March 1494, Columbus's men began to search, with Taíno Indians, in the mountains of Hispaniola for gold and small amounts were found.
In June 1495, a large storm that the Taíno called a hurricane hit the island. The Taíno retreated to the mountains while the Spaniards remained in the colony. Several ships were sunk, including the flagship, the Marie-Galante. Cannon barrels and anchors from that era have been found in the bay. Gelatinous silt from rivers and wave action has raised the level of the bay floor and covers any parts of wrecks that may remain.
Caves on the island where the Indians may have sheltered depict pictures of the sun, plants, animals, strange shapes, people, bearded faces, and sailing ships.
Although historical records mention neither women nor Africans, skeletal remains in graves found at least one European woman and indicated African origin for others, but whether the latter were sailors or slaves is as yet undetermined.
Repeated expeditions into the mountains found only small amounts of gold. The expedition resorted to kidnapping at least 1600 of the Taíno. Many were taken away to Spain as slaves. Others were forced into slavery in the colony. To raise even more money, the Spaniards also imposed a tax on all male Taíno over fourteen who were still free. Each was required to bring a certain amount of gold. This was the first known tax by Europeans in the New World. Soon, battles broke out between the colonists and the Taíno.
Bones from the colony show that the colonists were young and used to heavy labour. They were generally healthy. Most were under thirty and few were over forty-five. However, 20% of them died within four years. None of the bones found show signs of trauma.
By 1496, the foreign crops had failed and the colonists were living on small amounts of rationed wheat, bacon, and dried beans. The people became hungry and desperate. The colonists failed to adapt their food sources and at least 50% of them had scurvy. They began to die of scurvy or acute diseases that killed quickly, such as influenza. By 1498 the colony was abandoned by the Europeans. Columbus returned to Spain with a damaged reputation.
The Taíno suffered more acutely. The Europeans brought smallpox, measles, and typhus, which were deadly to the native peoples. Murder, slavery, and disease wiped out the Taíno within a generation.
- Thibodeau, A. M.; Killick, D. J.; Ruiz, J.; Chesley, J. T.; Deagan, K.; Cruxent, J. M. & Lyman, W., "The strange case of the earliest silver extraction by European colonists in the New World", PNAS: 3663–3666, doi:10.1073/pnas.0607297104, PMC 1805524, PMID 17360699
- National Geographic Television. "Columbus's Cursed Colony." Viewed 2013-01-13.
- National Geographic Television. "Columbus's Cursed Colony," quoting the letters of Bartolomé de las Casas. Viewed 2013-01-13.
- Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1601–1615), Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano [General History of the deeds of the Castilians on the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea], Madrid.
- Chiarelli, B. & Luna Calderón, F. (1987), "The excavations of La Isabela, the first European city of the New World", International Journal of Anthropology 2 (3): 199–210, doi:10.1007/BF02442230
- Boscolo, A. (1987), "Christopher Columbus and La Isabela", International Journal of Anthropology 2 (3): 211–214, doi:10.1007/BF02442231
- Deagan, Kathleen A. & Cruxent, Jose (2002), Archaeology at La Isabela: America's First European Town, New Haven: Yale University Press
- Deagan, Kathleen A. & Cruxent, Jose (2002), Columbus's Outpost Among the Taínos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493-1498, New Haven: Yale University Press
- National Humanities Center: “The First in the Indies”: Columbus establishes the Town of Isabella on Hispaniola, 1493