This Thursday (26th January) is a very important day in the Dominican calendar. It is the birthday of Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the founding fathers of the Dominican Republic.
To better understand the reasons why this man is so celebrated, requires a short delve into the very colourful (and very painful) history of this country.
Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola on Christmas Day, 1492. (Incidentally, at the time he was looking for – and thought he’d found, Japan – so perhaps he wasn’t the great sailor we all learned about in history classes). He thought (somehow) that the island was shaped like Spain, named the island Hispaniola and claimed it for Spain (ignoring, of course, the claim that any of the native Tainos might have had to the land). Since that day the island of Hispaniola (now split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) has endured centuries of strife, civil war, occupation, massacre and tyranny.
By the late 18th century the wealth of the country was entrenched with the ruling elite (and still is today). Their wealth was based on farming, sugar and slaves. At this time the country was under French control (boo), and the population broadly divided into three broad groups, all of whom hated the French (yippee): the plantation owners who resented paying taxes to the French, the mulattos (a large minority who were desperate to win more rights) and the African slaves (who had the most to complain about – their life expectancy on the plantations was less than two years)
During the next decades into the early 19th century, Hispaniola was tossed around between France and Spain and the now powerful Haitians. I’ve read several narratives on this period and still can’t work out who was on whose side, who was winning and who wasn’t. It’s a tale of greed, invasion, duplicity, retreat, Napoleon (of course) and massacre. Then in 1821 the whole island was conquered by the Haitians, who ruled a dis-unified and increasingly restless country for the next quarter-century.
Into this conflagion was born Juan Pablo Duarte y Díez (January 26, 1813 – July 15, 1876). His parents were merchants whose business had been destroyed by the Haitian occupation and subsequent reforms. He was a visionary and liberal thinker (as well as poet, philosopher, writer, actor and soldier) who is widely considered one of the architects of the Dominican Republic and its independence from Haitian rule in 1844. His life’s-goal was to help create a self-sufficient nation established on the liberal ideals of democratic government.
By 1838 he was the leader of the Trinitarian Movement, devoted to the creation of an independent Dominican state and the restoration of all confiscated properties to the Catholic Church (I knew the church would be involved in this somehow). The efforts of the Trinitarians led in 1843 to a military coup and subsequently to elections – although, and in a way that has parallels the world over – when the election result went against the army’s preferred candidates they siezed power back again and clung on to it for as long as they could.
Duarte was forced to flee into exile in Venezuela, but the seeds of independence had been sown. On 27th February 1844 a popular uprising led swiftly to the capitulation of the Haitians who ceded the eastern half of the island to the Dominicans. (Now I understand why so many streets across the country are named Calle 27 de Febrero).
Juan Pablo Duarte died in Caracas at the age of 63 having never seen Dominican soil again. His remains were transferred to Dominica in 1884and he is entombed in the Altar de la Patria, alongside his compatriots and other Founding Fathers, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez and Matías Ramón Mella. His birth is commemorated by Dominicans every January 26.
The more recent history of the Dominican Republic continues this tale of strife, rivalry, dictatorship and internecine warfare. I’ll leave that story for another post.
(With due credit to wikipedia, Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide for the background material)