Tuesday, 26 June 2012
The Most Historical Spot in America
The Most Historical Spot in America
By A. Hyatt Verrill
ALMOST at our doors, yet practically unknown to the majority of Americans, lies the island of San Domingo, the most historically interesting spot in all the western hemisphere.
On this large and fertile island Columbus, in 1493, founded the first European settlement in America, at a point on the northern coast between the modern towns of Monte Christi and Puerta Plata. This settlement, which was called Isabella, in honor of the Spanish queen, survived but a few years, owing to disease, and is now nothing but a scarce-distinguishable pile of ruined walls and buildings overgrown with vines and tropical vegetation.
Sailing further to the eastward, the great navigator entered the beautiful Bay of Samana, and a landing-party being attacked by the natives, the first blood was shed by the Spaniards in the New World, and the first Spaniard killed in battle on American soil.
In their insatiable thirst for gold the Conquerors found no obstacle too great to be overcome and toiling over mountains and struggling through forests, penetrated far into the interior of the island and established towns. One marvels how the old Dons ever accomplished the feat, loaded down with mail and heavy arms, for even today, with roads and villages where in those bygone days stretched unbroken forest, it is no joke to make the trip. There, on the high, level, Vega Real, Concepcion de la Vega and other towns were built, mines were worked and the land tilled, while a steady stream of gold flowed from this rich new land to the coffers of the King of Spain.
A series of disastrous earthquakes swept the smiling valley, however, and one may still trace the ruins of the ancient buildings, and find among them, old Toledo blades, bits of armor and old coins. It is the capital of the modern Dominican Republic—quaint old Santo Domingo City—that is the most interesting spot, however. Here, it is said, Columbus moored his caravels to a giant ceiba or silk-cotton tree on the banks of the Ozama river and the same tree, although scarred and broken by the storms of centuries, still stands, a prominent landmark and an object of interest to all visitors. Although the town was founded by Bartholomew Columbus (brother of Christopher), in 1496, it is so closely identified with the career of the discoverer himself as to lose nothing of interest, and as the admiral lived, and was imprisoned in the city, it is not improbable that he may have actually made fast his vessels to the old ceiba.
The first buildings erected at Santo Domingo City were on the eastern bank of the river, where a fortress was built which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1502. Soon after this the settlement was removed to the western bank of the river.
Passing through the narrow entrance of the harbor, the visitor's attention is attracted to a grim and time-worn fortress which crowns a jutting headland at the river's mouth. This fine old masonry citadel, with its Moorish tower, was erected in 1509, and although the natives firmly believe that within its dungeon Columbus was imprisoned, there is no foundation for the story, for the date of his incarceration was in 1500, and he was confined in a smaller tower in the old settlement on the other side of the river. The present tower, or "homenaje," is now usually filled with political prisoners, who occupy the same old stone cells wherein the adventurous conquerors thrust their prisoners four centuries ago.
A little farther up the river and close above the modern custom house, stands a large, well-preserved ruin, towering above the smaller modern houses. This was the residence of Diego Columbus (son of the admiral), who was for some time viceroy of the colony. His palace was so strongly fortified and defended with walls and cannon as to alarm the Spanish king, who recalled the governor to explain his actions.
On every hand, as we look shoreward, loom the half-ruined churches and monasteries of the almost-forgotten past and one is filled with a sort of awe at thus standing so near the scenes of Columbus's life. As we step ashore the centuries seem to have rolled back, and as we pass beneath the great arched gateway in the city wall we half expect a challenge from a mail-clad sentinel within the dusky shadow.
This massive wall entirely surrounds the city and even after a lapse of nearly half a thousand years is yet firm and strong and well able to withstand a siege of any but modern artillery.
Passing up the main street, between old houses with their ornate doorways bearing the coats of arms of many such famous old families as Balboa, Alvarado and Ponce de Leon, the plaza is reached, where stands a magnificent statue of Columbus, with his bronze arm pointing ever westward.
On the southern side of the plaza is the massive old fortress-cathedral, begun in 1514 and completed in 1500 (?), and within whose walls repose the bones of Christopher Columbus.
The ancient bells of this cathedral are hung outside the walls in towers built for the purpose, instead of being placed within the building itself. Beneath these queer old bell towers we enter the broad stone portal, with the painted saints on either hand, almost as fresh as when first completed by the artists over three centuries ago.
Within the cathedral our attention is immediately drawn to a most beautiful monument of Italian marble, the last resting place of Columbus. Here, in an ornamental urn, flanked by imposing sculptured lions, and with delicate bass-reliefs portraying his appearance before Ferdinand and Isabella, lie the bones of America's discoverer. Many will be surprised at this statement, as it is commonly supposed that the ashes of Columbus were buried in Havana. The Italian government, which presented the monument to the Dominicans, was thoroughly convinced that such was not the case, however, and our own ex-minister to the republic, the Hon. T. C. Dawson, investigated the matter thoroughly. From Mr. Dawson's extensive researches there can be no doubt whatever that the bones reposing in the cathedral in Santo Domingo are those of Christopher Columbus, while those removed with pomp and ceremony, and taken by the Spaniards to Havana in 1795, were the remains of Don Diego Columbus, son of the admiral.
Although the most interesting, the cathedral is by no means the oldest building in Santo Domingo City. This honor probably belongs to the Church of San Nicolo, built in 1509. Larger than San Nicolo, and almost if not quite as ancient, is the convent of San Francisco, just behind and above the house of Don Diego Columbus. Within the entrance of this famous old pile is buried the great soldier Ojeda, while beneath the pavement of its aisles lie the remains of many another famous old Don, among them being Bartholomew-Columbus, the founder of the town.
Santa Barbara, San Miguel, La Merced, Santa Clara, La Regima and San Anton are all ancient and beautiful churches built 350 years or more ago, although several of them have been restored and are now in daily use. The most famous of all the churches in the city, however, is the old convent church of Santa Domingo, to which is attached the remains of the first university established in America, and over which ministered the great La Casas, one of the few whose career was not marred by blood and greed and who ever was an ardent advocate of education, Christianity and peace. It was he who wrote the only reliable history of those old days in the new lands of the west and here in his beloved Santo Domingo he taught and preached in a university which had passed the century mark when the Pilgrims first trod our shores at Plymouth Rock.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.