Dominican Independence

La Trinitaria

On July 16, 1838, the secret society La Trinitaria was founded with the goal of disseminating independence ideas and effectively attaining the country’s independence.  The young Juan Pablo Duarte, son of traders and part of the small middle class of the city of Santo Domingo, was the leader of this liberal association, which embodied the highest ideals of the Dominican Republic. 

The oath written by Juan Pablo Duarte, which sealed the foundation of La Trinitaria, expressed the following: 

“In the name of the Holy, most August and Indivisible Trinity of Almighty God: I swear and promise, on my honor and my conscience, in the hands of our President Juan Pablo Duarte, to cooperate with my person, life and property to the final separation of the Haitian government and to establish a free, sovereign and independent republic, free from all foreign domination, that will be called the Dominican Republic, represented by its tri-colored flag in crimson and blue quarters traversed by a white cross. 

In the meantime, we will be recognized as the Trinitarians, with the sacred expressions of God, Country and Freedom.  I promise this before God and the world.  If I do this, may God protect me, and if not, may he take it into account; and may my associates punish me for perjury and treachery if I betray them.” 

Founding Members. There were nine founding members of la Trinitaria: Juan Pablo Duarte, Juan Isidro Pérez, Félix María Ruiz, Felipe Alfáu, José María Serra, Juan Nepomuceno Ravelo, Jacinto de la Concha, Pedro Alejandrino Pina and Benito González. 

Organization. As they acted secretly, to avoid betrayal, they structured the group in cells of three people each, called iniciados.  Each one of the members responded to a pseudonym, and they communicated among each other with a cryptic alphabet created by Juan Pablo Duarte. 

Work of Dissemination. The Trinitarians developed a powerful educational effort on nationalist and independence ideals.  They created two cultural societies to this end (La Filantrópica and La Dramática) that brought theatrical works to the stage that represented the struggle against the oppression of other peoples. 

The Trinitarians and the Overthrow of Boyer.  While the Trinitarians established and strengthened the group in old Spanish Santo Domingo, the Haitian side was building strong opposition to President Boyer under the “Society of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, also known by the name La Reforma.  The Trinitarians collaborated with this movement, which brought Charles Hérard to power in early March 1843.  Ramón Matía Mella and Juan Nepomuceno Ravelo (members of La Trinitaria) served as special emissaries for the coordination of the conspiracy between both sides of the island, while Juan Pablo Duarte organized popular groups for the election of new local authorities in various towns.

Other Separatist Groups.  The removal of Boyer intensified the activity of the separatist groups that had been forming on the eastern side of the island: 

  • Pro-Spanish group, led by priests Gaspar Hernández y Pedro Pamiés in Santo Domingo, and General Andrés López Villanueva in Puerto Plata.  They sought a return to Spain. 
  • Pro-English Group, headed by a landowner of the Matas of Farfán named Pimentel.  It sought the help of England in the fight for separation from Haiti in exchange for trading preferences. 
  • Pro-French group, the majority of which occupied administrative positions in the Haitian government.  They sought French support in exchange for political, customs and territorial privileges, like the cession of perpetuity of the Bahía de Samaná.  Buenaventure Báez, landowner in Azua, and lawyer and trader Manuel Joaquín Delmonte were its key figures.

Triumph of the Trinitarians in the Popular Councils.  As a foundation for the establishment of a new group that would reform the Haitian Constitution, the government of Charles Hérard planned elections for the Popular Councils, in order to then form the corresponding electoral colleges.  The triumph of the Trinitarians in all of the districts of the Dominican side in June 1843 caused the Haitian government to decree the persecution of the political party: the government ordered the imprisonment of its known members (Ramón Matías Mella, José Joaquín Puello, Juan Nepomuceno Ravelo, Pepillo Salcedo and Esteban Roca, among others, were jailed).  Juan Pablo Duarte was forced into exile in Venezuela. 

The Separatist Manifesto of January 16, 1844.  Despite their momentary dissolution, the Trinitarians regrouped under the leadership of Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, Vicente Celestino Duarte, and Ramón Matías Mella, released a short time after his imprisonment.  They took advantage of Hérard’s oversight and the new Haitian authorities, who had the attention focused on the consolidation of their power in Haiti.  But they also were urged on by the pro-French group’s actions, supported by the French consul in Puerto Príncipe, M. Levassuer, to acquire the “protection” of France and start a coup against the Haitians on the eastern part of the island, on April 25, 1844. 

After the group led by Buenaventura Báez and Manuel María Valencia presented a manifesto that justified their intentions to separate the Dominican people from Haiti, placing it under French protection, the Trinitarians hurried to issue, on January 16, 1844, their “Manifesto of the people of the East of the Island formerly known as Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, on the causes of its separation from the Haitian Republic”.   In this act of independence, they cited essential cultural characteristics of dominicanness and the basic principles of the new State were established on the basis of the fundamentals stated in the Trinitarian oath: 

  • Democratic government.
  • Abolition of slavery.
  • Citizen equality, without distinction due to origin or birth.
  • Protection of Catholicism and its establishment as an official religion, without persecution of other religions.
  • Freedom of press.
  • Responsibility of public officials.
  • Prohibition of the confiscation of goods.
  • Promotion and protection of education.
  • Reduction of taxes.
  • Amnesty for stated political opinions.
  • Preservation of military rank.
  • Protection for agriculture, trade, the sciences and the arts.
  • Issuance of money with a real guarantee. 

Written with the participation of Tomás de Bobadilla, a Dominican that had been an official in the Haitian government during the Boyer period, the Manifesto of January 16, 1844 sealed the pact between the Trinitarians and a significant portion of the conservative Dominican forces, which would foster the imminent declaration of independence.


Proclamation of Independence

The Trinitarians proclaimed the independence of the Dominican Republic on February 27, 1844, with a shot fired by Ramón Matías Mella in the Puerta de la Misericordia in the city of Santo Domingo.  Immediately afterward, they went to the Puerta del Conde, where Francisco del Rosario Sánchez lifted the national flag and where the Constitutive Act of the Dominican State was read and sworn. The next day, February 28, the Haitian authorities surrendered. 


The Republic in Chaos.  The conspiracies

Consolidation of the Independence

The first Haitian attacks against the new state were carried out in early March.  The Generals Pierrot and Agustín Souffront and President Hérard advanced simultaneously over Dominican territory, the former in the north and the others in the south. 

The Dominican resistance was organized under the command of a cattleman from Seibo, Pedro Santana, the colonels Manuel More and Feliciano Martínez, Ramón Matías Mella and Francisco Antonio Salcedo, Antonio Duvergé, Vicente Noble and many others. 

The key conflicts that served to establish the new sovereign state were the battles of Fuente del Rodeo (first armed conflict, March 3, 1844), the battle of Azua (March 19, 1844), the battle of March 30, El Memiso (April 13, 1844), the battle of la Estrelleta (September 17, 1845), the battle of Beller (October 27, 1845), El Número (April 17, 1849), Las Carreras (April 21, 1849), Battle of Santomé (December 22, 1855), Battle of Sabana Larga (last confrontation with the Haitians, January 24, 1856).


Political Predominance of the Conservative Annexationists

The conservative forces were indispensable for the declaration and first military support of the independence, and they proved to be decisive in internal politics from the first days of the Republic.  The representatives of the predominant economic sectors, with little faith in the possibilities of the new country, quickly rejected the liberal nationalist current embodied by the Trinitarians. 

The presidency of the Governmental Central Board established on March 1, 1844 fell into the hands of Tomás Bobadilla, a former official of Boyer’s government, with great prestige among the upper class of the city of Santo Domingo. One of the first measures of the Board was to try to concretize the famous “Plan Levasseur”, which earned the protection of France. 

While the Trinitarians carried out a coup d’état to avoid the implementation of the Plan (June 9, 1844), they did not control the situation for long, as Pedro Santana deposed the Governing Board led by Juan Pablo Duarte, reinstating the previous government on the condition that he would assume the presidency. 

Santana then persecuted the Trinitarians.  He declared many of them traitors, unfaithful to the country, and exiled them forever, including Juan Pablo Duarte, Ramón Matías Mella, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, Pedro Alejandrino Pina, Gregorio del Valle, Juan Evangelista Jiménez, Juan José Illas and Juan Isidro Pérez.  

The triumph of the conservatives during this first stage of the Republic was recorded in the text of the first Dominican Constitution.


Constitution of November 6, 1844

It was the first Magna Carta of the Dominican Republic.  It was called the Constitution of San Cristóbal, as it was written and ratified there.  Though in principle, it established the separation of powers and the preeminence of the Legislative Power over the Executive Power, Santana, who arrived with a battalion of soldiers to the constituting assembly, forced them to include an article in the text that gave the president of the Republic all power to carry out his will, without institutional counterbalance.  In effect, article 210 expressed the following “…during the current war and while a peace has not been signed, the President of the Republic can freely organize the army and navy, move the nation’s guards; and is therefore able to give all orders, provisions and decrees necessary, without being subject to any responsibility.”


The Search for Protectorates

The successful, though arduous, rejection of the Haitian troops, which often attempted to enter Dominican territory, was not an obstacle to part of the political leadership, who continued to garner the favor of powerful countries: Haiti was seen as a threat.  In 1846, President Santana sent Buenaventura Báez on a diplomatic mission to Spain, France and England to negotiate the recognition of the Dominican Republic as an independent state and at the same time, attempt to sign a treaty of protection with the power that offered the greatest benefits.  Even if Santana did not achieve his desired objective, he encouraged these countries, as well as the United States, a country he also appealed to for support, to gravitate strongly around the political life of the nation.   

France, the United States and England showed the most interest in the Dominican offer.  In the case of the first two, the possibility of possessing the bay and peninsula of Samaná represented a large incentive.  England, on the other hand, to maintain or increase its level of commercial exchange with the Dominican Republic, supported the nation by signing the Treaty of recognition, peace, friendship, trade and navigation between the two countries in 1850, which sought to diminish the influence that the other two countries planned to wield (including the possession of Samaná).  The country’s interest in preventing the Dominican Republic from needing the protection of another world power led it to attempt to hamper Haiti’s attacks on its neighbor to the east for a while.  Consequently, between 1851 and 1855, inhabitants of the Republic enjoyed relative tranquility. 

As Spain still considered that it maintained rights to the eastern part of the island of Santo Domingo, it denied, on principle, recognition of Dominican independence.  But in 1855, it was forced to change this policy.  Advances in the United States negotiations with the Dominican government to rent the Bahía de Samaná encroached on Spain’s maritime interests in the Antilles, which motivated the country to sign a Treaty of recognition, peace, friendship, trade, navigation and extradition with the Dominican Republic (February 18, 1855).  Likewise, Spain assigned Antonio María Valencia as consul in Santo Domingo with the mission to offer political support to all enemies of President Santana and to those that opposed the agreement with the United States, registering them as Spaniards and consequently protecting them from Dominican government persecution.


Annexation and Restoration

Crisis.  The first period of the Republic, dedicated to defending against Haitian attacks and struggles for internal political organization, was marked by a permanent economic crisis.  Productive activities were subjected to the needs of defense; exportation and importation levels decreased significantly and in some moments, were paralyzed.  To defray military and government costs, the authorities resorted to the small businesses of foreign and local traders and to the issuance of paper money without backing.  The losses caused by these issuances, especially for the productive and commercial sectors developed around tobacco in the Cibao region, paved the way for a civil war in 1857 that eventually resulted in two simultaneous governments (one in Santo Domingo and another in Cibao, which would further impoverish the country. 

Annexation to Spain. In 1858, a possibility loomed on the Dominican horizon that the United States would take advantage of the political weakness and economic crisis to do what it had done in Nicaragua, that is, overthrow the government and occupy the country.  Alarm grew when, in 1860, the Dominican government was forced to capture a group of U.S. adventurers that had “taken possession” of the island adjacent to Alta Vela to exploit its guano deposits.  After the incident, negotiations with Spain for protectorate status changed.  The Dominican President at the time was Pedro Santana, who decided to request an agreement of reincorporation or annexation of the country to Spain.  The conditions that Spain was required to follow for the annexation were: 

  • Preserve individual liberty and not reestablish slavery in Dominican territory.  
  • Consider Dominican territory a Spanish province, allowing it to enjoy the same rights as others.  
  • Use the services of the greatest possible number of Dominican public and military officials in the new Spanish government.  
  • Pay out all circulating paper money.  
  • Recognize as good and valid all of the acts of the Dominican governments from 1844 to date. 

With these measures, the conservative political elites (especially those that followed and had benefited from Santana) planned to guarantee for themselves the enjoyment of the privileges that a possible U.S. occupation or the strengthening of the liberal forces would endangered. 

On March 18, 1861, the annexation to Spain was proclaimed in the esplanade of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. 

First reactions.  The people  began to manifest their reactions against the annexation a few days after its proclamation.  There were towns that attempted to mutiny, General José Contreras rose up in arms, and Francisco del Rosario Sánchez (exiled years earlier) formed an expedition that, entering through Haiti, attempted the “Regeneration of the Republic”.  All of these patriotic expressions were smothered and their leaders, shot.


Measures and Attitudes of the New Colonial Government

  •  Santana’s demotion.  In spite of being named Captain General of the Province of Santo Domingo, Pedro Santana depended on the Captain General of Cuba and his functions and decisions were subject to the supervision and authorization of his superiors in the Spanish bureaucratic hierarchy.  
  • Replacement of all officials and military personnel supporting Santana.  Despite the commitment made by the Spanish Crown to use the largest number of Dominican officials and military possible in its government in Santo Domingo, the reality was that many Dominicans in positions of public and military administration were replaced at the time of the annexation for Spanish officials, generally from Cuba and Puerto Rico.   
  • Discrimination against the mulatto and black Dominican population.  As Spain continued to support slavery, the authorities and families that arrived to the Province of Santo Domingo treated the Dominican population in an offensive and discriminatory manner, as the majority was mulatto.
  • Delayed payment of Dominican reserve soldiers’ salaries and prohibition of the use of the Spanish uniform by Dominicans.  The salary paid to Dominican military men was inferior to that of the Spanish.
  • Baggage System.  Put into practice by the Spanish army, it consisted in requisitioning, without guarantee of return, all beasts of burden the Spanish troops needed for their military missions, even if said animals were being used at the moment of requisition.
  • Imposition of higher taxes on the non-Spanish goods and boats that arrived to the Province.
  • Attempt to establish a monopoly on tobacco production in favor of metropolitan interests.
  • Attempt to obligate the Dominican population, who generally cohabitated or had common-law marriage, to obtain ecclesiastical marriage.
  • Confrontation of the new Archbishop from Spain, Bienvenido de Monzón, with the Dominican clergy, as the Dominican priests often had children or were Masons.  He also wanted to require priests to receive a fixed monthly salary of only fifty pesos and to give the rest of the offerings received from ecclesiastical services to the Church.  The clergy, accustomed to giving a minimal portion of their income to the Church, rejected the idea. 

Restoration War.  From the start, the Dominican people expressed the deep discontentment with the annexation.  They rejected the discrimination and oppression from Spanish authorities.  Consequently, the provincial period did not last long, as the uprisings began in early 1863 (in Neiba and in Santiago), and by August 16, the War of Restoration broke out, when a group of 14 men, commanded by Santiago Rodríguez, raised the Dominican flag over the hill of Capotillo. 

Provisional Restoration Government and the Act of Independence.  On September 6, some 6000 men expelled the Spanish from the city of Santiago in a fierce battle that resulted in the burning of the city.  The following day, the liberators formed a Provisional Restoration Government, electing General José Antonio Salcedo as President.  This Government proceeded to write an Act of Independence that was signed by 10,000 Dominicans residing in the Cibao region. 

Restoration Leaders.  During the war, which lasted almost two years and cost Spain more than 10,000 casualties and 33 million pesos, Santiago Rodríguez, General Gaspar Polanco, General Gregorio Luperón, Benito Monción, Pedro Francisco Bonó, Benigno Filomeno Rojas, Ulises Franco Espaillat, José Antonio Salcedo and Gregorio de Lora were some of the heroes.


Factors in Favor of the Dominican Victory

  • All Dominicans supported the Restoration War. 
  • Use of the guerrilla war tactics of attack and hide.  Each of the country’s communities organized its own forces in small independent groups that harassed and pursued the Spanish troops.  
  • The Dominican occupation of the mountain passes of the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Septentrional, such that the Spanish had to cross them in other ways.  These difficult passages caused them to contract serious diseases that killed 1,500 per month.
  • Decree of the Spanish Crown.  March 3, 1865, the Kingdom of Spain signed the decree repealing the annexation and the following July 10, Spanish troops began to leave.  The Dominican Republic had recovered its independence.
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