Hell on Hispaniola?: Intercultural interactions at “Conception de la Vega” (1494-1564): Research by Pauline Kulstad

Hell on Hispaniola?: Intercultural interactions at “Conception de la Vega” (1494-1564):  Research by Pauline Kulstad

By Pauline Kulstad

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The phrase “Hell on Hispaniola” is often used to describe the Spanish colonial period on the island of La Española in non-Spanish histories around the world. Its validity and its use has been contested by Spanish scholars for over a century, many claiming that it is part of the “grand historical narrative” of the Black Legend, based in large part on Bartolome de Las Casas’s book – A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

In the 450 years after this book was published, many differing accounts of what happened on Hispaniola in that early colonial period have been presented. Starting in 1892, archaeology became another means through which to try to ascertain what happened. For the 1992 Quincentenary, Historical Archaeology  research presented another possibility – the organization of the colony using the Spanish Colonial Pattern. This hypothesis, first developed by Dr. Kathleen Deagan (1983), argues that Indigenous cultural lifeways survived the early colonial period through intermarriage of Indigenous women with Spanish men. This intermarriage was the result of either a lack of Spanish women and/or the extermination of Indigenous men. This resulted in a mestizo or mixed society where the Indigenous elements were restricted to the female and/or lower visibility activity areas, while male and upper class/high visibility activities were performed with European artifacts. Later, African elements were hypothesized to fall in the female/low visibility categories. This was in contrast with the settlements of other European powers (mainly English and Dutch) which did not incorporate Indigenous elements into their everyday lives.

Now, NEXUS1492 is confronting these ideas. Historical accounts and archaeological theories have been challenged through the identification of the colonial biases of these “grand narratives,” and their refutation or confirmation based on new analysis of previously gathered data.

For this study we have chosen Concepcion de la Vega, a city founded in 1494, barely 2 years after the arrival of the Spanish, and destroyed by an earthquake 70 years later, almost simultaneous to when Spanish command was transferred to Havana, Cuba.

Given that both the Black Legend and the Spanish Colonial Pattern deal with interactions, these had to be identified. The first step involved recording those found in the historical records. The second step involved creating proxies of interaction based on the temporal and spatial distribution of artifacts found on the site. These varying combinations of artifact assemblage distributions came from two excavated areas  known to be primarily inhabited by men, namely the military fort and the Franciscan monastery.

The resulting interactions contradicted both the Spanish Colonial Pattern and the Black Legend. First, unlike what was postulated by the Spanish Colonial Pattern, Indigenous/locally-made ceramics are present, questioning the idea that Indigenous artifacts were linked solely to female/low visibility activities. At the same time, there does not appear to be a distinct segregation between Indigenous/local and European/non-local artifacts questioning the Black Legend’s portrayal of complete and quick extermination, and little contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples.

Finally, this research could not have been undertaken without the help and collaboration of the Ministerio de Cultura and Patrimonio Monumental of the Dominican Republic. Special thanks go to Pierre Denis, Frank Coste, Pablo Coste, Hipolito Abreu, Junior, Cisco and Domingo.