Courtesy Reuters

ON his first voyage to the American Indies, shimmering on the western horizon, Christopher Columbus discovered a Caribbean island which he called Hispaniola, meaning "Little Spain." He set foot on what is now Haiti on December 6, 1492, shortly after his first landfall at Watling Island in the Bahamas. Hispaniola was -- and is -- an exceptionally curious place, and it has had as curious a history as any area in the Western Hemisphere. Today it is divided into two independent states strikingly different from each other, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti occupies the western third, and the Dominican Republic (often called Santo Domingo) the rest.

On the poinsettia-fringed shores of Hispaniola, Columbus -- the most imaginative, the vainest, the luckiest, and the most persistent sailor the world has ever known -- pitched his first camp and built his first fortress, La Navidad. It was in Hispaniola that he lost his caravel, the Santa Maria; here that he picked up his first naked Indians and screaming parrots for delivery to Seville; here that his men grumbled and almost mutinied as he lay sick for five months. In Hispaniola Spain created its first colony in the new world -- which Columbus still thought to be the kingdom of Cathay -- founded its first university, and erected its first cathedral, which still stands. In this cathedral Columbus still lies buried, after exhumation from his first burial in Spain. Columbus crossed the Atlantic after, as well as before, his death.

When Columbus first arrived in Hispaniola it was inhabited by mild-mannered, friendly Indians whom his men promptly butchered. Hardly an Indian survived fifty years after his coming. As early as 1506 sugar cane was introduced, and by 1512 the Spaniards were bringing in Negro slaves to work the new plantations. These slaves proliferated as did the crops they grew -- spices, indigo, tobacco, as well as sugar. The island became rich, and the slaves survived the violently hard labor to which they were subjected. As a result

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