The shot at the mercy gate

Juan Pablo Duarte’s progressive vision for the Dominican Republic sparked the February 1844 insurrection. But, as James Ferguson recounts, it was quickly thwarted by the forces of history

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

The Haitian Revolution, a titanic thirteen-year struggle that ended slavery in the Caribbean’s most prosperous colony, has rightly been seen as an epoch-defining event. The demise of French-owned St Domingue and the birth of independent Haiti in 1804 changed the way people thought about the region and its history. Yet a mere forty years later, another national liberation struggle reached its successful climax, only to be widely ignored. In February 1844, a new nation, the Dominican Republic, declared its independence — in a striking instance of historical irony — from the very same state of Haiti.

The creation of the Dominican Republic, whose 170th anniversary is celebrated in February 2014, was achieved with little fanfare. It also occurred without the massive upheaval, bloodshed, and foreign intervention that accompanied the Haitian Revolution. But it was not without drama and heroism, and it certainly produced an iconic and semi-tragic leader whose name is now revered in the Dominican Republic in much the same way as Toussaint L’Ouverture’s is in Haiti.

From its early colonisation, the island of Hispaniola had contained two territories. To the west, the French part quickly became an industrial-scale producer of sugar and other tropical commodities, fuelled by an intensive and inhumane system of African slavery. To the east, the Spanish colony was a sparsely populated and undeveloped expanse of ranches and small towns, where most of the population was, in part at least, descended from the original Iberian colonisers.

When the Haitian Revolution triumphed, its leaders rightly feared that the Spanish part of the island might be used to launch a counter-revolution. In 1822, after a confused period of French occupation and half-hearted Spanish rule, the Haitian army crossed the border and laid claim to the whole island. What happened in the ensuing two decades is hotly disputed. Modern-day Dominican historians have tended to paint the period as one of repression, in which the Haitian authorities expropriated land, persecuted the Catholic Church, and bullied locals into paying high taxes or doing forced labour. Others see it as a time when slavery was abolished and land distributed to the needy.

There is no doubt, however, that a significant section of the Spanish-speaking population, especially in the city of Santo Domingo, resented the imposition of what they saw as a foreign occupation. In 1838, a secret political society, named La Trinitaria, was formed. Its name referred to its Christian allegiance to the Holy Trinity, to the fact that it was comprised of a network of cells of three activists (so that anyone arrested and tortured could confess only two co-conspirators’ names), and in honour of its three founding members. These were Matías Ramón Mella, Francisco del Rosario Sánchez, and Juan Pablo Duarte.

The last of these was the charismatic leader and ideologist of La Trinitaria. Born in 1813, the son of a Spanish merchant and a local woman, Duarte was sent by his family to be educated in Europe, where he was exposed to ideas of political liberalism and nationalism, and to the United States. On returning to Santo Domingo in 1833, he was convinced that an independent state in the former Spanish colony could embrace these progressive values.

The problem was that few others shared his beliefs. Beyond his small, tightly knit group, many Spanish-speakers had emigrated to Cuba or Puerto Rico, while others had decided to co-operate with the Haitian occupying forces. The most powerful individuals, apart from the Haitian forces, were the traditional large landowners whose feudal methods were hardly compatible with Duarte’s democratic liberalism.

Nonetheless, Duarte and his sympathisers continued to plot against the Haitians. Their breakthrough came early in 1843, when they sided with an apparently liberal group in Haiti that was planning to overthrow President Jean-Pierre Boyer, the man who had ordered the invasion of the Spanish territory. Boyer was indeed toppled, but the new Haitian government, now aware of La Trinitaria’s existence, turned on the conspirators, and Duarte was forced to escape on a schooner to the Danish colony of St Thomas.

Despite Duarte’s exile, events now moved quickly. With various rival groups planning to appeal for French or Spanish intervention, and Haiti in a state of near civil war, the Trinitarios decided to act. Enlisting the help of a powerful rancher named Pedro Santana, who controlled a private army of peasants, they planned to seize Santo Domingo’s Ozama fortress and expel the Haitian garrison on the night of 27 February, 1844. Duarte, meanwhile, had fallen victim to a mysterious illness in Curaçao, and could not be relied upon. Amid fear, confusion, and the late arrival of Santana’s men, a loud blunderbuss shot from Matías Ramón Mella at the ancient Puerta de la Misercordia (the Mercy Gate) ended the indecision, and forced the insurgents into action. Apparently caught unawares, the Haitian garrison surrendered meekly, and within two days the remaining Haitian forces had left the city.

The new state of La República Dominicana was proclaimed by Francisco del Rosario Sánchez on that same night, and the country’s flag flew for the first time. On 14 March, Duarte returned home from Curaçao to a tumultuous welcome and joined the governing junta, which was drawing up a liberal constitution. Ever modest and true to his convictions, he declined an offer to become president, insisting on elections.

It was perhaps no time for such principles. As the Haitians threatened to reinvade, Pedro Santana and his hard-bitten peasant cavalry became the real power in the land. A series of military successes against Haitian forces cemented Santana’s influence. As the historian Ian Bell puts it, “Duarte had been offstage too long. He had missed the second act; and in coming back for the third, he found himself in the wrong play.” Santana, the classic caudillo or military dictator, had little time for Duarte and his idealistic colleagues. All were arrested, and Duarte found himself dispatched to Venezuela as a minor diplomat. He died there in poverty in 1876, and was repatriated in 1884 to be buried in a patriotic mausoleum at the sport where Mella fired his famous blunderbuss.

With the Trinitarios sidelined, the brief flowering of democracy was over. Santana declared himself president on three occasions, and even invited the Spanish to re-annex the Dominican Republic in 1861. A tradition of authoritarianism was established. For some years, Haiti harboured ambitions to take back the eastern part of the island, but political instability and an eventual period of US occupation ended any such schemes.

Today, much of the animosity existing between Haiti and the Dominican Republic can still be traced back to those distant events. Dominican hostility takes many, often unpalatable forms — not least the current controversy over the nationality of Haitian-descended people born across the border. Quite what Duarte would have made of present-day tensions is hard to guess, but history might have been very different if he had been allowed to realise his dream of a liberal, democratic nation.