La Isabela in Puerto Plata Province, Dominican Republic was one of the first European settlements in the Americas. The site is 42 km west of the city of Puerto Plata, adjacent to the village of El Castillo. The area now forms a National Historic Park.
La Isabela was founded by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage in December 1493, and named after Queen Isabella I of Castile. The first settlement, the fort of La Navidad, established by Columbus a year earlier to the west of La Isabela, in what is present day Haiti, had been totally destroyed by the native Taíno people when he returned. The only earlier European settlements in the Americas were settlements by the Vikings in Greenland and Newfoundland which dated from 500 years earlier.
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. 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. The Spaniards brought pigs, horses, wheat, sugarcane, and guns. Rats and microbes came with them. The settlement took up more than two hectares.
The first Mass was celebrated on 6 January 1494. The town included 200 thatch huts, a plaza, and Columbus' stone house and arsenal.
The Taíno were local natives living in the mountains near La Isabela. 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.
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. Mostly disease, but also murder and slavery wiped out the Taíno within a generation.
Christopher Columbus was absent from Isabela from 24 April until 29 September 1494, on an exploratory trip to Cuba during which time he also discovered Jamaica. Christopher left his brother Diego Columbus as president of the island, with Fray Bernardo Buil and Pedro Fernandez Coronel as regents. During his absence, his brother Bartholomew Columbus arrived, the Tainos revolted, and Captain Pedro Margarit fled back to Spain. On 24 March 1495, Christopher Columbus, allied with Guacanagari, marched against the other caciques with 200 men, 20 horses and 20 hounds. He killed or captured many, including the principal cacique Caonabo. It was Caonabo who was responsible for the Navidad massacre. He was sent to Spain as a prisoner. By then, only 630 Christians remained, "most of them sick, with many children and women among them." Christopher Columbus himself departed for Spain on 10 March 1496 with 225 Christians and 30 Indians aboard the Santa Cruz and Nina. By then, the native Taínos suffering from a "shortage of food and such a variety of plagues" were reduced in numbers by two thirds.
Within a year of Christopher Columbus' departure, "with their provisions running short and suffering and sickness growing, they became discontented with their present lot and despaired of the future." The alcalde mayor, Francisco Roldán, formed a secret faction, and "disdaining to be ruled by a foreigner," plotted to kill Christopher's brothers Bartholomew and Diego. First plotting to capture the town and fortress of Concepcion in the province of Cibao, Roldan eventually moved his rebels to Xaragua, where the land was fertile and the women were the "best-looking and best-natured in the country." When Christopher entered Santo Domingo on 30 August 1498, he found many of the people he had left behind two and a half years ago were dead, some 160 were sick, while many more had joined Roldan's rebellion. The two-year rebellion finally ended on 3 August 1499, when Christopher agreed to "restore Roldan to his office of perpetual alcalde mayor," allow 15 to return home to Spain, made grants of houses and land for those who stayed, and then "publicly proclaim that all that had happened was caused by false testimony of a few evil men.":191–214:35–43
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- National Geographic Television. "Columbus's Cursed Colony." Viewed 2013-01-13.
- Floyd, Troy (1973). The Columbus Dynasty in the Caribbean, 1492-1526. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. p. 22.
- National Geographic Television. "Columbus's Cursed Colony," quoting the letters of Bartolomé de las Casas. Viewed 2013-01-13.
- Columbus, Ferdinand (1959). The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand. New Brunswick: Rutgers, The State University. pp. 130–131, 145–149, 169.
- 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
Media related to La Isabela at Wikimedia Commons
- Official website (in Spanish)
- National Humanities Center: "The First in the Indies": Columbus establishes the Town of Isabella on Hispaniola, 1493