Dominicans at home and abroad marked an important date in their country’s history recently: the declaration of independence from neighbouring Haiti 173 years ago. Kreol Magazine attended a reception at the embassy of the Dominican Republic in London to raise a glass and hear more about this country’s fascinating history.

The ambassador of the Dominican Republic to the UK, HE Federico Cuello Camilo, and his wife, Mrs Natalia Federighi de Cuello, welcomed fellow ambassadors, dignitaries and invited guests to the embassy in London to mark the country’s 173rd anniversary of independence. Describing his country’s history as “very unique”, the ambassador gave a brief account of the Republic, highlighting some of the key dates since independence was declared from neighbouring Haiti on 27th February 1844.

The ambassador pointed out that in fact 23 years earlier, on 1st December 1821, the country first declared independence from colonial ruler Spain. This had been a routine affair, he said: “We told Spain that from now we were going to be independent – the problem for us was that our neighbours Haiti didn’t like it.” This first period of independence was short-lived as Haiti annexed Santo Domingo, in 1822.

Ambassador Cuello Camilo diplomatically described the following 22 years as a period of “light and shadows” but eventually the shadows became unbearable for the country’s patriots. In 1844, the Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer was overthrown and Santo Domingo declared the Dominican Republic. Although this important date marks the birth of the nation as a free and independent state, there have been other periods of ‘light and shadows’ in the years ahead, including two further occupations by Haiti (see adjacent column for a brief history). The ambassador was quick to point out, however, that relations with their neighbours were much better now! “We are getting along very well with Haiti these days,” adding “we like to get along with everyone.”

The reception at the embassy also included an exhibition of various items, including photographs and a collection of carnival masks that help to tell the story and traditions of the islands. Carnival Dominicano is the oldest carnival in the Caribbean and dates back to the 15th century and the days of Spain’s colonial rule. Each of the island’s provinces is represented by a different mask and each mask has its own significance. The ambassador then proposed a toast and invited guests to raise their glasses to mark this important milestone in the history of the Dominican Republic.

Dominican Republic: a brief history

In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the island and named it Hispaniola (Little Spain); the first Spanish colony was established at Santo Domingo in 1496 and served as the capital of all the Spanish colonies in the Americas. In 1697, the western part of the island (Haiti) was ceded to France under the treaty of Ryswick and in 1795, Spain gave its part of Hispaniola to France; Spain then retook Santo Domingo after a revolt, in 1808. In 1821, following an uprising, independence from Spain was declared, but this period lasted less than a year as, in 1822, Santo Domingo was annexed by Haiti.

Following the overthrow of Haiti’s President in 1844, the Republic was born, in 1861, and after struggling to cope as an independent nation, the Dominican Republic put itself under Spanish rule again. This status was maintained until 1864, when Spain annulled annexation and, in 1865, the second Republic was declared.

The country’s often turbulent history continued throughout the 20th century. Following a 50-year treaty signed with the US that took on the country’s debts in return for control of the Republic’s customs department, US troops occupied the country (1916-24) after internal disorder. 1930 saw the overthrow of President Vazquez by General Rafael Trujillo in a coup, and instituted a dictatorship that would last until 1961, when Trujillo was assassinated in Santo Domingo. Democratic elections were held in 1962 although the elected President, Juan Bosch, was ousted in a coup in 1963. Two years later, in 1965, US troops invaded after an uprising in support of the former president. In the same year, Joaquin Balaguer was elected as President. Since then, democratic rule has been the norm in Dominican Republic.

Independence day celebrations

Such is the diaspora of Dominicans that Independence day celebrations on 27th February can be seen in many parts of the world, including the US and throughout the Caribbean. The country’s flag of red, white and blue are displayed with pride and in honour of the country’s liberators and festivities include parades, street parties and concerts. It’s also traditional to enjoy some typical Dominican dishes on this day such as mangu – mashed plantain with various savoury toppings – and bacalao, a codfish stew which has ingredients of chillies, tomatoes and olives added.