Tour Of The Caribbean - San Domingo
( Originally Published 1925 )
THE city of San Domingo lies on the south side of Espanola, the same being a gracious-looking island, mountainous and green. The city stands upon a mud-coloured cliff at the mouth of a small river. The ship anchors at a cautious distance, and as she rolls to the great " swell and scend of the sea " which is met with in the bay it is possible to take a view of the oldest existing settlement in the New World, of " the brave city of San Domingo," which was founded by Columbus 410 years ago.
Every foot of ground in and about the capital has some memorable interest. There on the right, for instance, the river comes forth to the sea by way of a ravine like that at the mouth of the Dart in Devonshire. On the shore of that stream Hawkins in 1562 bartered slaves for gold dust and spicesóa notable piece of business, for it was the first traffic of the English in West Indian waters. A certain object on that river bank caught the eye of Francisco de Bobadilla, when he came from Europe to inquire into the alleged misconduct of Columbus. The object was a gibbet, from which the bodies of several Spaniards were hanging, and was to him a sign that Spain was making progress. Away to the west, where the cliff is low, is the beach upon which Drake landed his men when he made his famous assault on the city.
It was about " the time of lauds," as the Spaniards would have said, that we anchored off the capital. The eastern sun fell full upon the town, lighting up the great wall of defence that crowns the southern cliff and encloses the city all the way round by the north. At one spot, where there was a gap in the wall, it was possible to look down a straight street, to see the long shadows thrown across the road, and the just-awakened townfolk moving dully about.
Within the city wall is a medley of buildings and huts, of palm trees and banana fans, of house-fronts that look like squares of white or yellow cardboard, with here and there a black buttress or a frayed parapet. Above the heap of roofs there rise into the sun magnificent domes of brown masonry, cupolas, a lofty gable in grey that may belong to a palace, the tower of a church, the dense green of trees.
Those who would land at San Domingo must row ashore in small boats, and make for a quay some little way up the river. This river entry to the town is most romantic and picturesque On the headland, at the very mouth, is an ancient castle with heavy outworks, which would seem to be built of blood-coloured stones. This is the castle of Homenaje, a fortress with which Drake had dealings. It was probably built at the same time as the city walls, viz. in 1509. It is a wizened, rascally-looking, old place, whose seaward defences are as jagged as the cliff they spring from. Capping the stronghold is a great square tower, almost windowless, but brave with battlements of a very defiant type. It has at one angle a staircase tower, while below is a paved platform heavily embrasuredójust such a one as might have been visited by the ghost that Hamlet saw. Creepers and green bushes are scaling the outworks from the sea-front, and seem likely, in course of years, to take the aged donjon by gentle assault.
The river bank beyond the castle is steep with cliff and wall. By the water's edge is a contented stretch of plantains and low trees. On the summit of the wall are ancient houses. Some have balconies that overhang the stream ; others boast of turrets, fragments of terraces, water-gates where grandees once lingered, but which are now mere portals for filth.
The wall that defied Drake and so many other marauders still encircles the city. It is not less than eight feet thick in places, is of imposing height, and is strengthened by bastions at intervals. There are still on the western front the gates through which the British entered when they seized the city in 1585. Ruin more or less disastrous has befallen the wall along its whole traverse, although its scars and seams are hidden by trailing green. Now is it put to various base uses, being convenient to throw rubbish over, to shelter midden heaps, as well as form a backing for a horde of parasitic hovels and evil-smelling sheds.
The entrance to the city is through the River Gate, a noble structure of stone, with classic pillars on either side of it, well daubed with the red and green programmes of music halls.
The town itself affords a spectacle of bygone magnificence and present squalor. The pride of San Domingo, once " the city of glorious fame," has fallen into sordid depths. Its superb buildings are left to crumble and decay. It has no past to revere, no prestige to maintain. It has indeed exchanged " old lamps for new," the carved stone city of mediaeval Spain for the stuccoed town of the tawdry builder.
The main streets of San Domingo smell ; the small streets stink. Rubbish is thrown into the road and left there to ferment and stew in the sun. The chief thoroughfare in the city is a way of ruts, pits, and trenches, having a bed not unlike that of a mountain torrent. Electric wires are slung along it on rough, unsteady poles straight from the backwoods, while a few dangling strands here and there seem to cause no uneasiness. In places on the side paths are fragments of pavement, with intervals of well-trampled mud, inlaid with castaway paper and banana skins. The number of gambling rooms and of brazen-faced taverns along the way give the High Street an air of unembarrassed dissipation which would have pleased the early buccaneer.
The folk in the street are, for the most part, mulattoes, with an admixture of pure negroes, and of white men of doubtful whiteness. They are, on the whole, a picturesque people, not always of pleasing countenance, it is true, but with a certain theatrical air about them which is encouraged by the broad-brimmed sombrero, by silk sashes worn as belts, by dark eyes and wild black hair. The least attractive of the men are represented by certain black soldiers in butcher-blue blouses. They slouch about the streets with lethargic insolence, and serve to demonstrate to what depths even loafing may sink when the loafer is degenerate.
There are many old and stately houses of stone in the place, with fine balconies, heavily barred windows, and massive doors. Many more, however, are new and braggart buildings of surpassing vulgarity. Here is a gracious fabric with windows and gateways of delicately sculptured stone. It may have been a convent or a university. It is now a lumber store, and its sensitive carved work is daubed over with barbarian whitewash. An alley leads into a paved courtyard where must have stalked in old days some arrogant Castilian ; but it is choked with rubbish, its many-pillared arcade is in ruins and its walls green with weeds. Balustrades of noble iron-work are crumbling into rust ; huge doors, which might have been battered upon by Drake's seamen, are falling off their hinges ; the dainty patio has become a place for the drying of clothes.
There are some most picturesque churches still standing in this tragic city. Conspicuous among them is the rare church of Santa Barbara with its domed roof, its ancient windows, its curious tower of a long-forgotten fashion, and its sorry evidences of past magnificence. To the north of the city are the superb ruins of the San Francisco monastery, the walls of which are almost buried in green. Bushes and weeds fill the roofless aisles, but the main gateway, with its lofty arch and columns, is as perfect as it was centuries ago.
Still, in spite of it all, San Domingo remains one of the most fascinating and most inspiring cities in these waters. It is perhaps none the worse for being out at elbows or for proclaiming in its streets the last scenes of the " Rake's Progress." To walk through its highways and its alleys is to turn over the pages of an old missal illumined with faded gilt and precious colours, the incense-perfumed leaves of which are patched with shreds of gutter journals and interbound with gaudy prints, ballad sheets, and play bills.
Near the River Gate is a sturdy ruin made up of two square towers joined by a central block. The whole structure is black and roofless. It has ample windows, and retains, in spite of the squalor which surrounds it, great dignity and assertiveness, for it was once "a magnifical and prince-lyke house." It is called the Almirante, and is claimed to be the castle which Columbus built, and in which he was confined when a prisoner and in chains.