First Blacks in The Americas

The African Presence in The Dominican Republic

An almost total lack of iconography

One of the most challenging, and somewhat frustrating, circumstances in the study, research, and learning about the earliest black peoples that inhabited the colony of La Española during the centuries of modernity is the near-total lack of known visual records or representations of that population produced at the time they lived.  It is a circumstance affecting virtually the entire field of early colonial studies of Dominican society in general.

Almost no visual representations, in the form of engravings, paintings, drawings, sculptures or other graphic works, have survived from the century-long colonial times of what is today the Dominican Republic that might give us an idea of the appearance of these early ancestors of Dominicans, including those of black and mixed-race Dominicans. 

In the absence of such materials, the scholarship on blacks in colonial La Española has often resorted to using images depicting black people of other, often non-Spanish, European colonies in the Caribbean region, for the most part from the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. When trying to imagine the early black inhabitants of La Española, therefore, these images have always to be used and studied with the understanding that they belong to local realities that were not necessarily identical to those of La Española but probably were determined by the specific socio-historical conditions of the places where they were produced.

At the same time, it may be argued that those images reflect at least some conditions related to the overall historical period as such that they belong to, likely shared by the society of La Española at the time. These commonalities can be drawn from our general historical knowledge of the black peoples of the Caribbean in general as evidenced by archival documents and published research, together with a basic dose of historical common sense.

The black inhabitants of La Española, in varying degrees and depending upon the period we look at, came mostly from the same black Africa as those that populated the rest of the Caribbean, and it was probably the diversity of peoples within black Africa itself and the evolution and adaptation within peculiar local conditions that explains whatever differences might be found between La Española’s blacks and those of the rest of the region. The social order of slavery and enslavement, on the other hand, and all its socio-cultural consequences, had some basic elements that were common to its various manifestations regardless of which particular national-ethnic European power was predominant in any particular territory.

So our lack of images specifically depicting (or pretending to depict) black people of La Española during the 16th to the 18th centuries needs to be counterbalanced by a sharp and thorough look at the written historical record and the archaeological and monumental vestiges that reflect not how the looked but the kinds of sites they resided at and worked in, and the kinds of artifacts they used. Through those, we may also learn about the kinds of experiences they probably lived as human beings of their respective times.