On the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic, about four hours north of Santo Domingo, lie the ruins of an abandoned town — scattered stones the only trace of a former settlement next to the Bajabonico River. The casual visitor would never guess that this modern-day national park was once planned as the seat of Spanish colonial power in what Europeans called the New World. This is La Isabela, Columbus’ first permanent settlement in the Americas. While it survived for a mere four years, its story foretold the eventual outcome of European colonization. The hunger, violence, genocide and lust for glory that animated La Isabela would provide a blueprint for Spanish reign in the Americas for centuries to come.
In December 1492, Christopher Columbus was a pretty big deal. He had just “discovered” a new sailing route to India, or so it seemed, leaving some of his men behind in Haiti to search for gold while he journeyed back to Spain to regale the royals with tales of his accomplishments.
Settling in the New World turned out to be harder than anyone anticipated — and no one could imagine the scale of the disaster that loomed in La Isabela.
The Spanish crown was duly impressed and agreed to fund a return trip to establish a colony that would keep the cache of riches in Iberian hands. But when Columbus sailed to Haiti on Nov. 28, 1493, he found that the crew he’d left behind had all perished. He was quick to blame the indigenous Taíno people, with whom relations were already strained, and abandoned the area, choosing to sail northward. On Jan. 2, 1494, he made landfall on the site that would become La Isabela — named for Spain’s queen — and four days later, a special Mass consecrated the settlement as the first in the “New World.”
The next to reach Columbus’ colony: 17 ships loaded with 15,000 male settlers, livestock and materials for building and trade with the local Indians. Among their ranks: Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish nobleman and explorer who later quested for the elusive Fountain of Youth, and Bartolomé de las Casas, a missionary and social reformer nicknamed the “Defender” of the Indians. But settling in the New World turned out to be harder than anyone anticipated — and no one could imagine the scale of the disaster that loomed in La Isabela.
Envisioning La Isabela as a European town in the New World, the colonists transported everything they needed to construct and sustain a lifestyle similar to what they’d left behind in Spain. Besides sailors and priests, Columbus had brought over carpenters and stonemasons who set to building a town wall, storerooms, hundreds of thatch huts, a Catholic church — and a very large house for him. The Spaniards also arrived with horses, pigs and other livestock, plus wheat, melons, chickpeas and sugarcane, although the list is based on archaeologists’ best guesses since none of the original documentation survives.
Unfortunately, despite high expectations, tremendous preparation and ample supplies, the major harvest at La Isabela was a catastrophe. A staggering number of settlers took sick almost immediately, which Columbus used as an excuse when questioned about the gold he’d promised the Spanish crown: “If only the majority of the people here had not fallen ill,” he lamented, according to John Parry and Robert Keith’s New Iberian World.
The reason for the sudden illness is disputed. Some modern experts believe it was swine flu, while contemporary accounts, including one from Las Casas, hypothesized syphilis. Whatever the diagnosis, death rapidly depleted the colony’s human resources — but at the same time allowed the survivors to stretch their supplies longer than expected. But with their comrades dying at an alarming rate, colonists began to rebel against Columbus, and within the first month of settling La Isabela, there was an attempted coup. It failed and its organizers were either jailed or executed, but the ill will and desperation that spurred the uprising continued to fester. Then, in June 1495, a hurricane hit the island. While the native people retreated to safety in the mountains, the Spaniards watched from their shoreline colony as four of their precious ships sank.
With the situation in La Isabela deteriorating — crop failure, battles between the settlers and the Taínos, more disease — Columbus considered his options. Returning to Spain empty-handed, with neither gold nor a well-established settlement, was out of the question. Instead, he looked to the town of Santo Domingo, founded in 1496 after a gold mine was discovered. As his travels took him farther away, the less he returned to La Isabela. Columbus, along with everyone else, had given up on the colony, which was all but abandoned by 1498. Matt Bokor, a journalist who has written about La Isabela, calls the island “a fascinating site that silently speaks volumes about the struggles Columbus faced in establishing a European settlement in the Americas.”
More than 500 years later, the most striking feature of La Isabela is the number of gravestones — honoring the settlers who succumbed to deadly illnesses. Unmarked, but deeply connected, are the graves of those who died as a consequence of this colonial experiment: Taínos who perished from European diseases like smallpox and measles, and other indigenous people who were murdered in conquest. Graves, not gold, are La Isabela’s legacy.
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