Protected on its southern side by an elongated strip of land that breaks apart into a series of small islands, SANTA BÁRBARA DE SAMANÁ possesses a remarkably safe harbour. Naturally shaped to blunt the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms and with shoals and breakers allowing entry via only one small bottleneck, it’s the perfect spot to ward off unwelcome intruders. Strangely, this tremendous strategic potential has never been fully realized, despite five centuries of international political wrangling.

Looking out over the harbour today, you can still get an idea of the great city Napolean envisaged. A flotilla of sailboats stands behind the palm-ridged island chain; the port and the wide-open promenade that borders the water bustle with activity; and in place of the impenetrable French fortress that was to jut atop the rocky promontory across from the town is the whitewashed, newly renovated Gran Bahía Principe Cayacoa resort. Beyond it, a narrow bridge extends to the two nearest cays. This is due in part to French-descended President Joaquin Balaguer’s own failed act of hubris – the transformation of this sleepy town into the largest resort complex on the planet, its design mirroring Napoleon’s to the letter. In the early 1970s he tore down the city’s remaining Victorian architecture, widened the streets, built three large resorts and secured a World Bank loan to construct several more hotels and an international airport. A bridge was constructed that extended from the eastern point across two of the small islands, in line with the vision of Napoleon, and a restaurant was built on the second. When Balaguer lost the election in 1978, though, the project was scrapped and the tourism complex was moved to Playa Dorada near Puerto Plata. The restaurant never opened and the bridge leads merely to its ruins. Today, the bridge seems like an apt symbol for the town itself, which has a distinctly half-finished and neglected look to it – part neatly maintained holiday town, part forgotten backwater.

Brief history

Before European colonization the harbour was one of the settlements of the Ciguayos – an initially distinct ethnic group that was ultimately assimilated into Taino culture – that dotted the peninsula’s south coast. The Ciguayos lived near the Caribes and borrowed some aspects of Caribe culture, including the bow and arrow, elements of their language and black and red body paint. When Columbus landed at Playa Las Flechas just east of town in January 1493, the Ciguayos greeted his men with a flurry of arrows that forced the Spaniards back to their ships. A week later, the admiral met Chief Cayacoa aboard the Niña, repaired their differences and formed an alliance; the Ciguayos later assisted in subjugating the remaining four Taino caciques, only to be pacified themselves in the early sixteenth century.

Spain officially founded Santa Bárbara de Samaná in 1756 with transplants from the Canary Islands. In 1795, though, Spain handed the entire island over to Napoleon Bonaparte, in exchange for territory he controlled in Spain. Bonaparte quickly had blueprints drawn up of his dream New World capital, to be located in Samaná, but widespread chaos on the island – including a revolution in Haiti, two British invasions and civil war among the French commanders – prevented Bonaparte from taking control of the Dominican Republic for almost a decade. When the French finally received their colony in 1802, they were besieged by both a well-organized Haitian force and another British invasion and they soon capitulated.

The United States, too, went to some effort to acquire Samaná, inadvertently toppling two regimes in the process. In 1855, General Pedro Santana entered into formal negotiations with the Americans to allow for the annexation of the peninsula and its harbour, a move that proved fatal to his government as Haiti – eager to prevent the US from gaining a foothold here – invaded and Spain sent aid to local rebels. Santana’s successor, Buenaventura Báez, reopened negotiations in 1870 with President Ulysses S. Grant, who wanted Samaná to become the US’s main Caribbean port, finally agreeing to annex the island for US$150,000. The treaty was rejected by the isolationist US Senate, so the desperate Báez turned instead to private American investors, who signed a 99-year lease with him that gave them total political control over Samaná. Before the Americans were able to take it over, though, Báez was deposed and the contract rescinded.

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