Maríñez on Eller, 'We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom'

Anne Eller
Sophie Maríñez

Anne Eller. We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 400 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-6237-1.

Reviewed by Sophie Maríñez (Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY) Published on H-Haiti (September, 2018) Commissioned by Grégory Pierrot (University of Connecticut at Stamford)

Printable Version:

Published in 2016, Anne Eller’s We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom offers a welcome contribution to the surge in scholarship on Dominican studies published in the United States over the past few years. Within this context, Eller excavates invaluable archival material located in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States to bring forth a thorough, panoptic study of the sociopolitical dynamics at work in the Dominican Republic during the first republic (1844-61), the annexation (1861), and the War of Restoration (1863-1865). In dialogue with the content and methodologies of some of the most rigorous works of history of the Caribbean, such as Carolyn Fick’s The Making of Haiti and Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror,[1] for example, Eller’s study is systematically fleshed out with perspectives from the various groups that constituted Dominican society in the mid-nineteenth century: wealthy families, the church, the military, politicians, women, peasants, prominent businessmen, small merchants, diplomats, writers, city residents, and rural populations across different regions of the country.[2] It also examines the transnational networks that were forged across the Caribbean, as actors sought alliances to push forward common goals or interests, be they the restitution of colonial power or the emancipation of the nation. 

In this impressive contribution, Eller explores the peculiar case of an emerging republic torn between a section of the elite that sought to revert its status back to that of a colony and the indomitable forces that helped the young nation emancipate itself again. It recounts the perplexing story of Pedro Santana, the president of a sovereign state who, in his desperation to remain in power at all costs, was capable of doing just about anything, including—oddly enough—renouncing his presidency and becoming subject and employee of the Spanish Crown. In her introduction, Eller begins with a careful definition of key terms of her narrative: though it is today labeled the “Ocupación Haitiana” (with all the negative connotations these terms involve), the 1822-44 period was known as “Unificación” of the island, the former Spanish colony of Santo Domingo becoming a slave-free society as soon as it became part of Haiti in 1822. Likewise, what the dominant national narrative calls today “Independencia” was known at the time as “Separación.” It was not until much later, during the War of Restoration, that revolutionaries began to recast the 1844 Separation as the “Independence,” with the intent to call popular attention to the nation’s past emancipation they all needed to restore. Certainly, for reasons Eller’s book helps us understand, today’s dominant national narratives tend to emphasize 1844 as the foundational moment for the Dominican Republic and to downplay or efface the 1863-65 War of Restoration. Eller’s book redresses this imbalance and shows (albeit somewhat implicitly) the contrast between the two historical movements: while the 1843-44 Separation moment was fundamentally a struggle for political power among various factions of the upper and middle classes, the 1863-65 war offered a resistance against the frightening prospect of a return to enslavement. 

To be sure, slavery, or re-enslavement, was the fundamental issue at stake. Those who supported Santana in Cuba and Puerto Rico and acted as intermediaries with the Spanish Crown were slave-owners who feared the expansion of abolition into their own territories and wanted Santo Domingo to stop being the refuge it had been since 1822 for their own slave fugitives. Likewise, those who opposed annexation did so primarily because being the colony of Spain—which had not yet abolished slavery—meant that the liberty and equal treatment of Dominicans (the majority of whom were of African descent) remained precarious. Thus, the restoration of the republic was less about power among factions than about the liberty and equality of a population that had already enjoyed freedom for forty years. 

Written in a highly enjoyable style, We Dream Together helps readers understand this particularly dense moment with a vigorous and compelling narrative. The strength of the scholarship is astounding: 1867 footnotes (averaging 207 per chapter, including the introduction and epilogue) point to the formidable breadth of research that backs each sentence in the book with archival material from six different countries and the lucid analysis of periodicals from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. 

Having established in the introduction the geopolitical context of the Caribbean and Latin American region that serve as the backdrop for her study, Eller focuses chapter 1 on the first republic (1844-61), the multiple political and economic interests that characterized much of Dominican society at the time, and the various movements that led to the 1844 Separation. These movements, which involved actors from both sides of the island who were discontented with Boyer’s regime, brought forward various proposals as alternatives to the Unification, including a reform or renegotiation of its terms; a plan for a French protectorate; and an outright full separation. Those who sought reform saw the problem in Boyer, not in the Unification itself, and went as far as drafting a Haitian-Dominican constitution that granted more power to the legislative branch, reduced the army, abolished presidency for life, and proposed a trilingual national school. By contrast, the faction that sought the French protectorate, led by Buenaventura Baez, was confronted with the specter of slavery reinstitution and the fact that French officials demanded that Santo Domingo keep paying Haiti’s indemnity for the losses France claimed to have suffered during the Haitian Revolution. Finally, separatists, who included members of the Trinitaria Society (an independentist organization) as well as anti-Boyer Haitian residents, plotted to take the capital by force and were supported by an entire Haitian regiment that deserted Boyer, forcing him into exile in 1843. 

As soon as the Separation took effect, however, political turmoil took over the new nation. New strife did not necessarily oppose “liberals” against “conservatives,” as traditional historiography would have it, but rather, as Eller mentions, socioeconomic interests that went along class and race lines. In other words, the main difficulty that political leaders had to contend with was the fear of the reestablishment of slavery. There may have been discontent with the Boyer regime (especially regarding his imposition of a tax to pay the indemnity demanded by France), but the African-descendant population, which was the majority, was happy about abolition and would not have hesitated to return to unification should their current freedom be in peril. As president, Santana kept appearances of maintaining abolition, but he protected slave-owners who arrived from Cuba in search of slave fugitives. As a result, he betrayed one of the tenets of the abolition that made the entire island a sanctuary for fugitives. Clearly, the freedom they had enjoyed since 1822 was precarious, subject as they were to the threatening presence of slave-owning powers rivaling among themselves in schemes with local leaders for the reappropriation of Santo Domingo, be it through a protectorate, annexation, or other forms of territorial cession. 

Chapter 2 examines the process by which Santana and Spanish officials in nearby Cuba and Puerto Rico pushed the annexation project forward. They resorted to multiple strategies at once. On the one hand, they had to convince the Spanish Crown of the necessity of recovering a former colony that, in the Crown’s view, had little profitability. Implicit in Queen Isabel II’s initial refusal was the fact that Santo Domingo did not have slaves; it would be difficult to force free blacks to labor, and this would render the annexation project more onerous than profitable. Santana and his allies resorted to two arguments: the first was that Haiti could take over Santo Domingo and become a major threat to nearby slave-owning elites in Cuba and Puerto Rico. The second, and most convincing from a Spanish imperialistic point of view, was the threat posed by the increasingly formidable US expansion. As they claimed, the United States could not take away from Spain what was “rightfully” hers. But Spain, which was in the midst of losing its colonies in the Americas, was weary of yet another war with Santo Domingo, should it decide to become independent, too. To persuade the Crown, Spanish consul Mariano Alvarez, Santana’s vice president, Antonio Abad Alfau, and Cuban governor Francisco Serrano concocted a new narrative on Dominicans, casting them as eternally loyal to Spain, “half-white,” “noble and hospitable, proud of being Spanish,” or having “deep affinity for Spain” (p. 69).

In Santo Domingo, however, annexation plans had to assuage fears of re-enslavement. As public opinion in Spain remained divided about the legitimacy of such a plan, Serrano instructed Santana to collect signatures to make it look like a consensual affair and prove to the Crown that the Dominican people truly wanted to give up their freedom and sovereignty. With four thousand signatures, or less than 2 percent of the population, the annexation took place with the promise that the laws of the republic and the abolition would be respected. Santo Domingo would thus have a different status than neighboring Cuba and Puerto Rico and officially remain a slave-free territory. Still, according to an observer, the annexation act was proclaimed in complete silence, with people crying. Indeed, it was a sad day for Dominicans. 

Chapter 3 examines everyday life under the annexation, as Spanish authorities intended to reorganize the way residents lived and worked. Hundreds of Spanish troops and officers flocked from Spain and nearby Cuba and Puerto Rico to implement the new regime, and a new bureaucracy emerged to impose new laws and restrictions. As Eller points out, although authorities reminded them that slavery did not exist in Santo Domingo and that all people of color were to be treated with equal deference and respect, mentalities were not easily transformed—these troops and officers coming from slave-owning societies found it difficult to accept that men of color could occupy positions of authority in government and the military. At the same time, authorities aimed at turning Dominicans into “productive” subjects, the much-needed labor component of small and grand-scale public works projects and various agricultural and industrial ventures. A number of wealthy Dominican elites, co-authors of the annexation, were eager to benefit from these Spanish plans for investment and labor control. Since slavery was officially abolished, thinly disguised forms of forced labor would be put into place, including the importation of indentured labor from Asia and Africa and the inducement into work of so-called vagrants. Prisoners, too—many of whom were detained for petty crimes for months and years without trial—made ideal candidates for forced labor. To supervise them, white immigrants from Spain would be called in through large-scale immigration plans. Residents who had worried about the reestablishment of slavery saw with consternation how, despite a ban against bringing slaves into the colony, Cuban and Puerto Rican wealthy families who arrived to benefit from the annexation snuck in their slaves using false documentation. 

Chapter 4 provides minute details of the difficulties met by Spanish authorities, including anticolonial resistance and Haitian opposition to the annexation. They also had to contend with Santana himself, whose brutality shocked them, as when he ordered the execution of the rebels—including Trinitario Francisco del Rosario Sánchez—without due process. As Eller points out, besides the few wealthy families who benefited from the Spanish presence, the population across the country hated it. They resented the absurd fines, fees, and restrictions imposed on small businesses and activities, the racist attitude of the authorities, the military presence, the dismissal of Dominican officers, and the expulsion and humiliating demotion of black military officers. Not surprisingly, Dominican loyalists treated dissidence as a treasonous quest for a return of the “Haitian hordes.” In addition, some Spanish authorities boasted about plans to take over all of Hispaniola. Alarmed by such rumors, Haitian president Geffrard condemned the annexation and offered support to Dominican rebels in a short initial expedition, but Santana quickly defeated them. 

Chapters 5 and 6 describe the grievances held by the population against the occupation, initial forms of resistance, and what became known as the War of Restoration. Chief among these grievances was the fear of re-enslavement, a much-justified fear considering that Spain was still a slave-owning power, slave vessels still lurked in nearby waters, and several officers casually bragged about reimposing slavery. While Spanish authorities responded with much repression, Dominican loyalists dismissed resistance as mere factionalism, banditry, and treason. Loyalist poets and writers such as Manuel de Jesús Galván condemned the rebellions while military leaders such as Dominican general José Hungría, Antonio Alfau, Eusebio Puello, Juan Suero, and Santana himself assaulted and killed hundreds of insurgents. 
Contrary to the 1844 Separation movement, the War of Restoration swept the entire country, mobilizing great numbers of poor country residents. In Eller’s account, the resistance’s leadership fell into two major political tendencies that would come to characterize subsequent Dominican politics. The first comprised prominent, wealthy men from the Cibao region, who had participated in the reform movements of the first republic. They sought a return to the republic but were silent on racism and slavery. The second group, which eventually led the war, included Gregorio Luperón, Ulises Espaillat, and Gaspar Polanco, who were not only from modest origins but had more radical goals and were clearly against slavery. These leaders sought Haiti’s support, but the neighboring country was in a bind. On the one hand, the Haitian population gave support in the form of ammunition, supplies, trade, housing, and protection of refugees, and even participated in some of the expeditions; on the other, authorities could not express official support, given the threat of Spanish military retaliation should they take the side of the rebels. Still, despite an official position of neutrality from the Haitian government, Haitian-Dominican alliances and collaboration continued to grow in the center of the island and the north, especially in the area of Cap-Haitien. As Espaillat and other leaders expressed, both peoples were deeply united by their common political, anticolonial struggle.

Finally, chapter 7 examines the attempt made by Spanish authorities to control news about the war. Despite censorship, news spread quickly and reactions varied widely. Some observers remained silent, rivals to Spain expressed glee, and yet others, namely Spanish authorities in Cuba and Puerto Rico, expressed much fear that the defeat of Spain would set a dangerous precedent. While Dominican rebels won the war without formal alliances, they did garner support from networks they forged with Caribbean neighbors. Distant Latin American countries, such as Peru, forcefully condemned the annexation. Closer neighbors, such as Venezuela and the British islands, provided arms. Anticolonial solidarities were created among thinkers and leaders, with Puerto Rican independentist and abolitionist Ramón Emeterio Betances, for instance, meeting with Dominicans Meriño, Serra, Delmonte, Luperón, and Cabral. Solidarities in the United States, especially in New York, were also mobilized. Meanwhile, Spanish soldiers suffered from lack of supplies, yellow fever, and massive desertion, until the Crown finally ordered evacuation. 

The War of Restoration devastated the country. As Eller recounts, “the injured, widowed, and homeless numbered in the thousands” (p. 227). Still, as indicated in the epilogue, hope and enthusiasm also emerged, as writers, thinkers, and leaders throughout the territory offered a wide range of proposals for political reform. A new constitution was drafted in Moca that proposed a radical clause: the provision of jus soli, or birthright citizenship, a provision that redefined the nation, lasting throughout multiple constitutional changes all the way through 2004. Despite all this, old hierarchical political networks reemerged. Buenaventura Baez returned, assumed power, and immediately pushed for another annexation plan, this time to the United States. Rejected by the US Senate, the proposal created much alarm and political unrest. 

At this point, Eller observes, two narratives about the nation emerged that would plague it for much of its future: the progressive view that hoped for collaboration with Haiti and saw strength in a political alliance of both republics, and the conservative view infused with anti-Haitian rhetoric that went as far as accusing Gaspar Polanco and Luperón of being “pro-Haitians,” conspirators, and anti-Dominicans. In my view, here lies one of the initial sources of what constitutes to this day an internal conflict among Dominicans over what it means to be Dominican. To be sure, the conservative, anti-Haitian strain of this 150-year-old internal quarrel makes any sympathetic reference to Haiti, its contributions to the Dominican Republic, and possible alliances between the two nations tantamount to a desire for an ancestral enemy, a traición a la patria. Furthermore, the obfuscation of Haiti in collective memories and imaginaries also serves now, as it did then, to blind the population in regard to more immediate, real threats created by the ruling elites. In this sense, the War of Restoration is as much the story of a fight between the Dominican Republic and Spain as it is of the struggle of the pueblo against a ruling elite intent on maintaining its economic prosperity and political power at the expense of the larger population, including, if need be, through evident acts of treason such as the annexation. It is no wonder, then, that this War of Restoration, which was a revolution against the elites’ treason, has been so downplayed and effaced in dominant narratives of the nation. In this context, We Dream Together is thus a crucial contribution to current debates over nationhood, sovereignty, and national identity. 

In sum, Eller offers a page-turning text, filled with extensive, animated quotes from the writers of the period that give life to the dynamics under scrutiny and the interests that motivated actors on all sides. Equally valuable in We Dream Together is how it opens up the field for further inquiries on issues that could not possibly be explored in this already dense work. For instance, Eller mentions various proposals for alternative models of transnational cooperation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including several Haitian-Dominican federation and alliance proposals put forward by 1843 reformers and 1865 Restoration progressive leaders. Likewise, a discussion of what happened after the 1865 War of Restoration is still open to those interested in expanding current scholarship on Dominican history from the perspectives of class and socioeconomic interests as well as on the transnational networks and dynamics that characterized much of the Caribbean geopolitical landscape at the time. Lastly, the translation of Eller’s stellar work into other languages, particularly French and Spanish, could help disseminate its contribution, benefiting non-English-speaking populations in the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America, and contributing to a larger understanding of the complexity that characterized sociopolitical dynamics on the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as its Caribbean neighbors during this formative period.


[1]. Carolyn E. Fick’s The making of Haiti: the Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990) offers a “history from below” of the revolution of Saint-Domingue as an alternative to traditional historiography that had focused on the leader figures; Ada Ferrer’s Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) focuses on the immediate impact of the Haitian revolution and abolition of slavery in the Caribbean, especially Cuba and Santo Domingo.

[2]. Dominican historians, such as Roberto Cassá, Franklyn Franco Pichardo, Raymundo González, and Quisqueya Lora, among others, also share this approach, as they have broken from traditional, conservative Dominican historiographies to examine history through a class- and race-oriented lens.

Citation: Sophie Maríñez. Review of Eller, Anne, We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom. H-Haiti, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.