The Changes to the Border on the Island of Santo Domingo


During the first half of the XX century the original limits between the Dominican Republic and Haiti went through profound changes. These changes created the Dominican-Haitian border as is known today. What many Dominicans and foreigners don’t know is that the Spanish part of the island of Santo Domingo had an area of 54,642 km2 (72% of the island). That was the original territory that the Dominican Republic inherited on February 27, 1844, the day the country became independent. 92 years after the independence was acheived, the Dominican territory suffered a land loss that reduced the territory today’s 48,442 km2 (64% of the island).

The 1697 Treaty of Ryswick

On September 20, 1697; Spain and France signed the Treaty of Ryswick (the treaty has the name of the Dutch town where it was signed) where, among other things, Spain officially recognizes the French presence on the western coast of Hispaniola. With this treaty the Spanish control of the entire island that initiated in 1492 comes to an end (205 years of islandwide Spanish rule). There is an important detail in the Treaty of Ryswick which is that it only recognizes the French presence on the western coast of the island, but it doesn’t designates where exactly the Spanish territory ends and the French territory begin.

The Immigration of Spanish Families from the Canary Islands to Stop the French Expansion

The lack of a definite limit between Spain and France on the island of Santo Domingo, the French took the liberty of constantly penetrating and settling Spanish territory. In effect, via settlements the French pretended to expand its domain on Hispaniola, gradually expanding away from the original western coasts that Spain had recognize as French territory. In order to stop the constant French expansion, Spain decides to incentivize the immigration and settling of Spaniards from the Canary Islands. With this immigration Spain intended to increase the population of Spanish Santo Domingo in order to make it more difficult for the French to penetrate and settle further into Spanish territory.

The 1776 Treaty of Atalaya and the 1777 Treaty of Aranjuez

While the immigration of thousands of Spanish families from the Canary Islands greatly helped in slowing down the French expansion, Spain still felt the need to formalize the border limits with two treaties. The first treaty was signed on February 29, 1776 in San Miguel de la Atalaya (then a Spanish town on the frontier, but in 1929 the town was ceded to Haiti; today its formal name is Saint-Michel De L’Atalaye), hence the name Treaty of Atalaya. The second treaty was signed on June 3, 1777 in the Aranjuez, a town 45 kilometers from Madrid, Spain; and, as happened with the first treaty, this treaty also takes the name of the town where it was signed.

Haiti Claims Frontier Territory 

When the Dominican Republic gains its independence in 1844, the Dominican territory was comprised of the old Spanish part of the island of Santo Domingo and its border limits were those agreed upon in the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1777. However, as soon as the Dominican Republic becomes independent, Haiti begins to claim many km2 on the Dominican frontier. Officially, Haiti pretended to take over the Dominican towns of San Rafael de la Angostura, San Miguel de la Atalaya, Concepción de Hincha, San Gabriel de Las Caobas, and other Dominican towns on the frontier. All these towns were founded int he XVIII century by hundreds of Spanish families from the Canary Islands. Due to the claims made by Haiti, which were always rejected by the Dominicans, the Dominican-Haitian frontier was often the scene of much social and military friction.

The 1929 Frontier Treaty 

On January 21, 1929 the Dominican Republic and Haiti signed a border treaty that meant to put an end to the border disputes. The border line dictated in the treaty was detrimental to the Dominicans, but accepted in order to put an end to 85 years of turbulent frictions with Haiti. The treaty was signed by Dominian president Horacio Vásquez. On that day, the Dominican Republic ceded 8% of its original territory to Haiti.

The 1936 Revision to the 1929 Frontier Treaty

On March 27, 1936 the government of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo signed a revision of the 1929 Frontier Treaty. The revision implied ceding to Haiti an additional 3% of Dominican territory. With this revision the modern Dominican-Haitian border is created. 160 years after for the first time an official border is created between the Spanish and the French territories on the island of Santo Domingo, another delimitation is acheived, albeit to the detriment of the Dominican Republic.

Some Factors in the Modification of the Frontier Limits

There are some factors that influenced the modifications of the border.

  • In 1929 Haiti was militarily intervened by the United States (from 1915 to 1934). While it has been written in history books that the 1929 Frontier Treaty was signed between the Dominican and Haitian governments, there is a very possibility that there was some American pressure to make this treaty a reality.
  • United States military generals had proposed putting an end to the Dominican-Haitian border frictions due to the Haitian claims of Dominican territory. According to the logic applied by the Americans, the new border needed to be designed along areas where the Haitian population had little presence and the Dominican population had greater presence.
  • The originally Dominican valleys of Guaba, La Miel, and other smaller ones were lost basically by a desire of the Haitian political class of gaining possession of them. The massive pacific but illegal incursions of hundreds of Haitian country people into the Dominican side of the frontier and settling there, unquestionably complicated the matter for the Dominicans. With the passage of time, those illegal Haitian settlements grew until the Haitian political class was able to use their presence as a reason for illegitimately claiming what was Dominican territory as theirs.
  • The Guaba Valley, currently known in Haiti by the name of Plateau Central, was considered one of the most fertile valleys on the island. Due to a massive deforestation that the valley has suffered after it was transferred to Haiti, the quality of those lands has degraded to the point that the valley no longer is among the most fertile. In fact, now the valley is threatened by an increasing desertification.

The Spanish (Dominican) Territory 

  • 1492-1697 (205 years)
    76,192 km2 (100%  of the island)
  • 1697-1777 (80 years)
    55,654 km2 (73%)*
  • 1777-1801, 1802-1822** y 1844-1929 (129 years)
    54,642 km2 (72%)
  • 1929-1936 (7 years)
    50,070 km2 (66%)
  • 1936-today (83 years in 2019)
    48,442 km2 (64%)

The French (Haitian) Territory 

  • 1697-1777 (80 years)
    20,538 km2* (27%)
  • 1777-1801, 1802-1822** y 1844-1929 (129 years)
    21,550 km2 (28%)
  • 1801-1802*** y 1822-1844**** (23 years)
    76,192 km2 (100%)
  • 1929-1936 (7 years)
    26,122 km2 (34%)
  • 1936-today (83 years in 2019)
    27,750 km2 (36%)

Dominican Territory Ceded to Haiti

  • 1929 Frontier Treaty
    4,572 km2 (8% of Dominican terriory)
  • 1936 Revision of the 1929 Frontier Treaty
    1,628 km2 (3%)

XIX Century Map of the Island of Santo Domingo with the Original Border Limits

* Our estimate.

** From 1802 until 1809 the Spanish part was governed by France, while the French part was under Haitian control. Considering that the French control of the Spanish part was not the equivalent of Haitian control, and the French government allowed Dominican leaders in various parts of the Spanish part; for these reasons we count the Spanish part as Spanish territory during those years.

***  This was the year when the island was under the rule of Toussaint Loverture. He gained control of the Spanish part after invading it in 1801 and uniting it with the French part, against the desires of the Dominican people.

****  The 22 years of Haitian oppression of the Dominican people after the invasion of Jean Pierre Boyer in 1822. Boyer’s government was hated islandwide. Among the Haitians his policies were very unpopular. Among the Dominicans Boyer’s unpopularity was due to his soldiers treating the Dominicans as if they were a conquered people, destroying everything that the Dominicans considered sacred and hurting their patriotic sentiments.