La Isabela - Columbus's First Colony in the Americas

Hurricanes, Crop Failures, Mutinies, and Scurvy: What a Disaster!

Dominican Republic, La Isabela Bay, remains of colonial settlement, part of archaeological park
Dominican Republic, La Isabela Bay, remains of colonial settlement, part of archaeological park. Jon Spaull / Getty Images

La Isabela is the name of the first European town established in the Americas. La Isabela was settled by Christopher Columbus and 1,500 others in 1494 AD, on the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola, in what is now the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Sea. La Isabela was the first European town, but it was not the first colony in the New World--that was L'Anse aux Meadows, established by Norse colonists in Canada nearly 500 years earlier: both of these early colonies were abject failures.

History of La Isabela

In 1494, the Italian-born, Spanish-financed explorer Christopher Columbus was on his second voyage to the American continents, landing in Hispaniola with a group of 1,500 settlers. The primary purpose of the expedition was to establish a colony, a foothold in the Americas for Spain to begin its conquest. But Columbus was also there to discover sources of precious metals. There on the north shore of Hispaniola, they established the first European town in the New World, called La Isabela after Queen Isabella of Spain, who supported his voyage financially and politically.

For an early colony, La Isabela was a fairly substantial settlement. The settlers quickly built several buildings, including a palace/citadel for Columbus to live in; a fortified storehouse (alhondiga) to store their material goods; several stone buildings for various purposes; and a European-style plaza.

There is also evidence for several locations associated with silver and iron ore processing.

Silver Ore Processing

The silver processing operations at La Isabela involved the use of European galena, an ore of lead probably imported from ore fields in the Los Pedroches-Alcudia or Linares-La Carolina valleys of Spain.

The purpose of the exportation of lead galena from Spain to the new colony is believed to have been to assay the percentage of gold and silver ore in artifacts stolen from the indigenous people of the "New World". Later, it was used in a failed attempt to smelt iron ore.

Artifacts associated with ore assay discovered at the site included 58 triangular graphite-tempered assaying crucibles, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of liquid mercury, a concentration of about 90 kg (200 lbs) of galena, and several deposits of metallurgical slag, mostly concentrated near or within the fortified storehouse. Adjacent to the slag concentration was a small fire pit, believed to represent a furnace used to process the metal.

Evidence for Scurvy

Because historical records indicate that the colony was a failure, Tiesler and colleagues investigated the physical evidence of the conditions of the colonists, using macroscopic and histological (blood) evidence on the skeletons excavated from a contact-era cemetery. A total of 48 individuals were buried in La Isabela's church cemetery. Skeletal preservation was variable, and the researchers could only determine that at least 33 of the 48 were men and three were women.

Children and adolescents were among the individuals, but there was no one older than 50 at the time of death.

Among the 27 skeletons with adequate preservation, 20 exhibited lesions likely to have been caused by severe adult scurvy, a disease caused by a sustained lack of vitamin C and common to seafarers before the 18th century. Scurvy is reported to have caused 80% of all deaths during long sea voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries. Surviving reports of the colonists' intense fatigue and physical exhaustion on and after arrival are clinical manifestations of scurvy. There were sources of vitamin C on Hispaniola, but the men were not familiar enough with the local environment to pursue them, and instead relied on infrequent shipments from Spain to meet their dietary demands, shipments that did not include fruit.

Indigenous People

At least two indigenous communities were located in the northwestern Dominican Republic where Columbus and his crew established La Isabela, known as the La Luperona and El Flaco archaeological sites. Both of these sites were occupied between the 3rd and 15th centuries, and have been the focus of archaeological investigations since 2013. The prehispanic people in the Caribbean region at the time of Columbus's landing were horticulturalists, who combined slash and burn land clearance and house gardens holding domesticated and managed plants with substantive hunting, fishing, and gathering. According to historic documents, the relationship was not a good one.

Based on all the evidence, historical and archaeological, the La Isabela colony was a flat-out disaster: the colonists did not find any extensive quantities of ores, and hurricanes, crop failures, disease, mutinies, and conflicts with the resident Taíno made life unbearable. Columbus himself was recalled to Spain in 1496, to account for the financial disasters of the expedition, and the town was abandoned in 1498.

Archaeology

Archaeological investigations at La Isabela have been conducted since the late 1980s by a team led by Kathleen Deagan and José M. Cruxent of the Florida Museum of Natural History, at which web site much more detail is available.

Interestingly, like at the earlier Viking settlement of L'anse aux Meadows, evidence at La Isabela suggests that the European residents may have failed in part because they were unwilling to fully adapt to local living conditions.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "La Isabela - Columbus's First Colony in the Americas." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/la-isabela-columbus-first-colony-171383. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, February 27). La Isabela - Columbus's First Colony in the Americas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/la-isabela-columbus-first-colony-171383 Hirst, K. Kris. "La Isabela - Columbus's First Colony in the Americas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/la-isabela-columbus-first-colony-171383 (accessed December 17, 2017).