Island of Hispanola: Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The island of Hispaniola has played a major role in world history. In this lesson, we'll talk about this island and look at its history and impact throughout the world.


The Caribbean has a pretty nice reputation. Between the white sand beaches, clear waters, and fruity tropical drinks with little umbrellas, it's not hard to see why. But, believe it or not, the Caribbean has a history beyond the tourist trade. In fact, for a while it was the center of the most lucrative international trade routes in the world. This made it a pretty important place and a lot of eyes were on the Caribbean. One of the most important islands within the Caribbean Sea is the island of Hispaniola. We don't always call it that today, but you've probably heard of it through other names. It's still a center of the world in many ways, and not just for those beaches.

Hispaniola in the 15th century


The island of Hispaniola is actually the second-largest of the Caribbean, just behind Cuba. At roughly 29,000 square miles, which makes it just larger than West Virginia. Actually, some of its geography isn't that different from West Virginia either. Yes, Hispaniola has beaches, but also a series of mountain ranges and valleys. In fact, the highest point on the island, Duarte Peak, is over 10,000 feet in elevation. By contrast, the lowest point of elevation on the island is about 150 below sea level. So, the island offers a diverse landscape.

Politically, the island is shared by two nations. There is no country called Hispaniola. On the western side of the island is the nation of Haiti. On the eastern side is the Dominican Republic.

Pre-Columbian History

So, who used to live on the island of Hispaniola? The Taíno people, originally inhabited this island, and many others of the Greater Antilles island chain. By most accounts, they called the island Quisqueya, although some accounts also claim that the Taíno were the first to use the name Haiti. The Taíno were a tribe of the greater Arawak ethnolinguistic group, who loaned such words to modern Caribbean culture as tobacco, hammock, and canoe. Some researchers claim that there may have been up to three million Taíno living on Hispaniola in the mid 15th century.

Hispaniola in the Age of Empires

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You've probably heard that rhyme before, but where did he end up? Columbus sailed into what is now the Caribbean, and landed on a large island full of Taíno people. He called this La Isla Española, the little Spanish island. That name was later Anglicized to Hispaniola. Due to its strategic location, this island quickly became the center of Spanish expansion into the Western Hemisphere.

Columbus lands on Hispaniola, watched over by the Spanish monarch

Columbus began trading with the Taíno, and soon Spain had established its first permanent city, called Santo Domingo. For the next few centuries, most would refer to the island by this name. Columbus served as royal governor of the colony until 1499, and Spain started bringing in Spanish customs, agriculture, and cities. Generally due to a series of greedy business owners and reckless adventurers who entered the island, the Taíno population was decimated by disease and slave-like treatment. Starting in 1503, Spain started importing African slaves to work in the growing sugar cane industry developing on the island.

Hispaniola's importance to Spain's global empire was not lost on other nations. English privateer Sir Francis Drake captured the colony once and held it ransom, returning it to Spain for a handsome fee. British ruler Oliver Cromwell later attempted to seize the entire island but failed. The French were even more troublesome.

French buccaneers created a base on Tortuga Island just off of the colony's coast, from which they launched raids on Spanish ships. Eventually, France managed to overpower Spanish troops on part of the island, and half of Hispaniola was transferred to France in 1697, becoming the French colony of Sainte-Domingue. To this day, the eastern 2/3 of the island speaks Spanish, while the western 1/3 speaks French.

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