Book III, Chapter X
Of the governorate of First Knight Commander Don Frey Nicolás de Ovando, and of how the location of this city, which had been on the other side of the river, was moved to where it is today, and of the churches and prelates that have been and are now on this island of Hispaniola, and of the buildings in this city of Santo Domingo and other notable things about this island.
Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert
Since the second part of these histories will continue the narrative of discoveries by particular captains, I will only say here that in the year 1504 Juan de la Cosa and his companions traveled to the coast of the Mainland in four ships, and there and on other islands loaded their ships with brazilwood and slaves. Meanwhile, another captain named Cristóbal Guerra had fitted out a ship and gone to the Mainland to pillage what he could, and one and the other’s ill luck will be told in its appropriate place; as we will tell of the unfortunate death of Captain Diego de Nicuesa and of the first discovery of the Southern Sea by Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and of the bad way and bad name in which his days came to an end. But since this all belongs to the subject matter of the second part of this Natural and General History of these Indies, these stories will appear where they fit best and most suitably. So instead I will return to this island of Hispaniola and city of Santo Domingo, where First Knight Commander Don Frey Nicolás de Ovando arrived on the 15th day of April of 1502 (while the city was still on the other side of the river), and Knight Commander Bobadilla left with the fleet, as has been told, and on that same year the Admiral Don Christopher Columbus came to discover Veragua and part of the Mainland and found port in Jamaica, where his lost caravels remained, and came here in the month of September 1504. But the truth is that the Admiral had come earlier on that same year, shortly after the First Knight Commander’s arrival, since Bobadilla was returning to Spain in the same ships that brought Ovando here; the very same ships that were lost as a consequence of having disregarded the Admiral’s advice, as I have said.
So that, returning to the story, I will say that after Columbus’ arrival on his return from Jamaica, there was a storm, which the Indians call huracan, on the 12th day of the month of September, that brought down all the houses and bohíos in this city, or the greater part of them. But since there were two stronger storms or hurricanes several years later of which I will speak in more detail below, I will say no more of this particular hurricane here. By then, the First Knight Commander had already moved the city to its present location and had begun to build and construct houses and buildings of stone, with strong walls. But I am not of any mind to praise him for having moved the city here, or for having removed it from the opposite bank or shore of this river, where it was first founded; because in truth it would be healthier to live on the other side than on this one, because the Ozama River is between the sun and this city, so the morning fog, after the sun rises, falls upon the city, deranging it. Besides this problem, which is a big one, the water on which the population of the city depends comes from a very good source, which is, however, on the other side of the river, and those who do not want to drink water from the wells, which are not good, or do not have water brought from more distant parts, go there for fresh water. And since this river is very deep, there is no bridge; and because of this, although there is a regular boat paid by the city that must take across anyone crossing in either direction on foot or horseback, there is a need to have a slave or other servant whose sole occupation is that of providing water from the said fountain. Another reason for moving the city to its new site could have been a new governor’s desire to change the things done by previous ones, or to make people forget what their predecessors on the post accomplished in order to eclipse their reputations.
But despite the inconveniences I have mentioned about this city’s new location, it has other advantages. The first is that we have a cathedral here, built by the Catholic King Don Ferdinand and our Most Serene Queen Doña Juana, his daughter, our lady; and its first bishop was Friar Don García de Padilla of the Order of St. Francis, who never made it to these parts since he didn’t live long after being named bishop; and the second was Master Alexandro Geraldino, who was Roman and a good prelate with pure intentions. The third bishop of this holy church and bishopric of Santo Domingo is Don Sebastián Ramírez de Fuente Leal, who was president of the Audiencia Real established here, who is also bishop of the church of the city of Concepción de la Vega, in this same island of Haiti or Hispaniola, the two cities being about thirty leagues distant one from the other.
So that the union of these two churches and bishoprics could be better understood, it should be known that when the first bishop of this city, Friar García de Padilla, was named, Don Pero Suárez de Deza was named first bishop of Concepción de la Vega. And the latter was the first bishop to arrive in these Indies and these parts; and after his days in office, they did not name anyone else bishop. And the two churches being vacant, that of la Vega after its first bishop, Don Pero Suárez de Deza, and this church of Santo Domingo after its second bishop, Master Alexandro Geraldino, His Imperial Majesty wished to join the two cathedrals under one sole miter and one sole bishop, since the income divided between two prelates was not much, but with the two churches together it was a good thing. And thus, His Majesty provided a prelate to hold the two bishoprics; and this was Friar Luis de Figueroa, prior of the Monastery of la Mejorada, of the Order of the Hieronymites or Saint Jerome, which is a league from the city of Olmedo. And the bulls being approved and dispatched by the Pope in the year 1524, before the orders arrived from Rome, the bishop-elect died in his monastery, which was the one of La Mejorada; and after this His Imperial Majesty conferred this same mercy on Don Sebastián Ramírez de Fuente Leal, our present bishop, under which the two churches were united under one prelate, together with the presidency of the Real Audiencia and Chancellery established here. And after spending just a short time in this city, His Imperial Majesty commanded him to move on to New Spain to occupy the same posts and reform that land. And this should suffice as to the prelates and we can speak about the church itself, which, in addition to all the necessary dignitaries and canons and prebendaries, and everything else needed for divine service, is very well built so far, and once finished, will be sumptuous and will have nothing to envy some of the Spanish cathedrals; because its stonework is beautiful and strong, there being plenty of quarries and rock deposits near the city, on the banks of the river, as much as needed. And so is this city so well built that there is no town in Spain, point by point, as well built generally, leaving aside the notable and very noble city of Barcelona; because in addition to the large supply of stone I have mentioned, and all the excellent limestone needed for construction, there is excellent sand and lime for making a very strong mortar. Therefore, that are here very many good principal houses in which any gentleman or nobleman could live; and even some of them are such that can be favorably compared to some where I have seen His Imperial Majesty stay in some towns in Spain.
This city is as flat as a table, and the Ozama River flows down the length of the city from north to south; the Ozama is navigable, deep, and very beautiful due to the estates and gardens and farmlands on its banks, with many orange and cassia trees and many types of fruit orchards. The portion of the city to the south is pounded by the sea, so that the river and the sea circle half or more than half of the city. There’s land to the west and the north, towards which beautiful, broad, and well-ordered streets extend, with very attractive fields and meadows. In short, that in beauty and setting and in what I have written above there is no more to wish for; since it is not now as populated or as crowded as it was in the year 1525, when I wrote an account of this city for His Majesty in that Sumario or report I wrote about matters of the Indies, what they have and what they lack; and many who have become quite rich have returned to Spain, and others have gone to populate other islands and the Mainland, since from here the Indies have been discovered, populated, and provided for, with the city as head and mother, and nurturer of this empire. Another great cause for people having left this island has been the great news of grand discoveries in Peru and other parts; and since men are eager for novelties and wish to enrich themselves quickly, many of them (especially those who had already settled here) have managed to impoverish themselves by not remaining in place.
This city’s port is twelve or fifteen steps from the land at the point the ships can reach; the houses on the banks of the river are therefore as close to the ships as in Naples, or Rome’s Tiber, or the Guadalquivir in Seville and Triana. And large two-masted ships have come as close to land as I have mentioned in four fathoms of water, and somewhat smaller ones come so close to land that they can extend a plank and without a dinghy, using the plank, can unload barrels and casks and take in cargo. From the point where the ships are sighted to the mouth of the river and the entry to the port there’s the distance of a rifle shot and a half, more or less; and entering the river, alongside the port, there is a very strong castle to guard the port and the city; it was built by First Knight Commander Don Frey Nicolás de Ovando during his governance. But so that this notable singularity is not forgotten, nor those who merit thanks for having been the first builders lose the gratitude owed to them, I will say that the first one to build a house of stone in the manner of Spain in this city was Francisco de Garay, and after him Frey Alonso del Viso, of the Calatrava Military Order, and the third was Roldán, the pilot, in Cuatro Calles, and the fourth was Juan Fernández de las Varas: afterwards, and after those I have mentioned, they started building the fortress and other buildings, and they continue to be built every day because of the great abundance of materials that can be found here for their construction.
Image retrieved from John Carter Brown Library at Brown University