Thick red brick walls towered over me as I entered the 16th-century ruins of the San Nicolás de Bari Hospital, in the heart of the colonial city of Santo Domingo, listed by Unesco. My guide, Maribel Nuñez, activist and leader of Acción Afro-Dominicana, a non-profit organization based here in the capital of the Dominican Republic, began to tell Micaela’s story – “la negra del hospitalOr the black woman who lived here in the early 1500s and who inspired then Spanish governor Nicolás de Ovando to build this historic first hospital in the Americas.
“There was a black woman healing the sick in her humble hut, which was located right where the Bari hospital was built,” Nuñez said. “She used her knowledge of natural medicine to save lives.”
The story of this faceless and nameless Afro-Dominican heroine – whom Nuñez decided to call “Micaela” to humanize her story, as part of the dehumanization of slavery was to erase people’s names – is documented in a 16th-century manuscript that scholars at the Institute for Dominican Studies at the University of the City of New York transcribed when researching the first African presence in the Dominican Republic. In a letter to the Spanish Crown about the new hospital, the Archbishop of Santo Domingo described her origins as being linked to “a pious black woman who sheltered all the poor as she could and healed them as much as she could. she could”.
Let there be a sign telling the story of this heroic black woman!
Outside the ruins, I took a look at the newly installed tourist plaque, the description of which recognized the city’s former Spanish governor for its creation, but omitted Micaela – his dark muse and the first person to be established. and to manage a hospital in the Americas.
“Let’s pay tribute to Micaela and keep her memory alive!” Said Nuñez. “May the National Congress and the whole nation recognize it! Let there be a sign telling the story of this heroic black woman!
She then turned on a portable speaker and a traditional African song known as Ogun Balenyó, dedicated to an African deity, began to resonate over the surrounding ruins. Within seconds, a handful of Afro-Dominican women, including Nuñez, began dancing in the scorching sun. They shook their hips, hands on their waists, as the circle widened at the foot of the old hospital.
Few realize that the Dominican Republic was home to the first blacks of the Americas, originally brought here from present-day Senegal and Gambia in the 1490s by Christopher Columbus. This is also where the Atlantic slave trade began in 1503 – 116 years before the first slaves arrived in the American colonies. And, next to Haiti, it was the next nation to abolish African slavery in 1801.
The Dominican Republic was home to the first blacks of the Americas, brought here by Christopher Columbus
The story of the country’s colonial past began where I was that morning and where women danced in remembrance of their ancestor. In an effort to boost tourism, the colonial city in 2014 underwent more than $ 100 million in renovations over a three-year period. The facades of the buildings have been repainted and restored, turning into bistros, art galleries and shops. Yet to this day, the Zona Colonial, as locals call it, reveals little about its African past. Visitors who flock here leave after learning only one side of the Dominican Republic’s history: that of Spain.
Billed as “a city of the firsts,” the colonial city is the oldest permanent European urban colony in the Americas, and there is no doubt that this 10-block neighborhood is a historical and architectural gem. The ancient walled city – its original fortified entrances remain standing – has the first paved roads and the first military fort, cathedral, convent and university built in the New World. Its narrow cobblestone streets are lined with colonial Spanish-style architecture, including pastel pink, green and yellow stone buildings, many of which retain their original metal doors, arched entrances and windows, stucco walls and their wrought iron balconies. Vast squares remain punctuated with statues and busts of Spanish colonialists.
The Spanish chose this location on the west bank of the Ozama River after the failure of two initial settlements on the north coast of the island. The arrival of Columbus in 1492 and his search for the island’s gold for the Spanish crown had led to the enslavement and extermination of over 400,000 indigenous Taino people over a period of two decades. As the Spaniards shifted their focus from gold to sugar cane, they imported African slaves to work on the first sugar cane plantations of the New World. The history of the city is linked to more than 28 African tribes who were brought to the island over a period of three centuries. Yet walking around the colonial city today, it’s easy to think that the Spaniards were the only protagonists of Santo Domingo’s rich heritage and past.
We must give our heroes faces. It’s about honoring us
That is why, every year, Nuñez, with the support of the University of Santo Domingo, and Afro-Dominican activist groups like Afros RD and Reconodi.do, plans a Jornada de Visibilización del Cimarronaje, or a ” Maroon Awareness Tour ”- a regional term referring to escaped African slaves who established free communities in isolated areas of the Caribbean. The two-day event, held each October, attracts university students, locals and expats like myself curious about the city’s little-told African past. The tour stops at historic locations in Santo Domingo, revealing the contribution of Africans to the history of the Dominican Republic.
“We have to give our heroes faces,” Nuñez said. “It’s about honoring us.”
After leaving the hospital, Nuñez took our group 24 km southwest of Santo Domingo to the small town of Nigua, once the heart of the sugar cane plantations and mills run by Spain. This is also where, on October 30, 1796, 200 enslaved Africans led one of the island’s largest rebellions at the Ingenio Boca de Nigua mill.
They wanna keep silencing what happened here
“Boca De Nigua has been the most significant expression of African resistance to slavery in the Spanish part of the island,” said Dario Solano, an Afro-Dominican history expert and native of Nigua, who sits in Dominican Republic Committee of the Unesco Slavery Route. “[It was] the first rebellion which had a political dimension, with the aim of abolishing slavery and creating a government representing the ethnic diversity that existed on the island.
Part of the strategic attack involved seizing the property’s ammunition and burning down the sugar cane fields and the plantation owner’s house. Nuñez revealed that the leaders of the uprising included a woman: Ana María, who was crowned “queen of freed slaves” during the rebellion.
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Although Boca de Nigua is mentioned in the UNESCO Places of Remembrance project on the Slave Route in the Latin Caribbean, the significance of the site remains “relatively unknown” at the national level, according to Solano. There is no interpretation center, no signs here – only ruins. “It is paradoxical, for a country like the DR where tourism is fundamental,” he said. “There is a silence; they want to continue to silence what happened here.
Every year on October 30, Solano hosts an official Festival del Cimarronaje, or “Maroon Festival” at this site, to commemorate the Boca de Nigua rebellion. Nigua is the only city in the Dominican Republic that honors the abolition of slavery and the contribution of enslaved Africans to Dominican history. “This year, we will formally propose to the National Commission for Unesco and the Ministry of Culture that Boca de Nigua be presented as a candidate for World Heritage Site status,” said Solano. Other plans include designating October 30 as “Día de la Africanidad(African Heritage Day) in Nigua, which Solano is certain will become a national event in the future.
History reveals that black resistance in the Americas actually started here in the Dominican Republic.
While the Boca de Nigua rebellion was inspired by the Haitian revolution of 1791, history reveals that black resistance in the Americas actually started here in the Dominican Republic. The first rebellion of the sugar cane plantations took place in Nigua in 1522 at a mill owned by the eldest son of Christopher Columbus. “The men who rebelled were of the Wolof ethnic group, from Senegambia [the former confederation in West Africa between Senegal and The Gambia]Said Solano. “In two years, we will be commemorating the 500th anniversary of this first black rebellion in the New World.”
Another important moment in the Dominican Republic’s resistance movement came courtesy of Juan Sebastian Lemba, who was a child when he was forcibly brought to Santo Domingo from present-day Congo in the early 16th century. In 1532, Lemba escaped slavery and began a heroic 15-year journey through the Dominican Republic, developing an army of 200-400 abandoned Africans who joined him in liberating slaved communities across the country. The statue of Lemba – the only one in the country to honor an African – sits outside the entrance to the Dominican Man Museum, a 15-minute drive east of the colonial city.
The last stop of our Maroon Awareness Tour took us 20 minutes north of Santo Domingo to the town of Villa Mella, an area that is home to secular brotherhoods formed by enslaved Africans from the 16th century onwards. Their descendants have preserved the drumming traditions and syncretic religions of their ancestors. Among these groups is Los Morenos de Villa Mella.
A turquoise-colored wooden house with a zinc roof serves as the church and seat of Los Morenos. As I entered the structure, I saw a group of three men at the altar, with large drums covered in goatskin tucked between their thighs and tied at their lower waists with a thin rope. They were surrounded by other members of the community and greeted us with spiritual song and drums. The sun was setting and a downpour followed, but the drums and tambourines and the call and answer dominated the rain splashing above his head.
Our group took to the empty ground facing Los Morenos – waists bent, hips shaking, and arms moving side to side. I asked Solano about the big drums that I rarely heard in the city center.
“It’s the palo or atabales – it’s our original musical expression in the Dominican Republic, ”he said. “Merengue became official at the time of Trujillo, like an imposition, but the African palo was already there. Palo is our national music.
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