Commentary No. 060
Theme: Somewhere between 1497 and 1501, a black woman in the early village of Santo Domingo established the first hospital-like healing site of the colonial Americas.
Source: PARES, Portal de Archivos Españoles — Archivo General de Indias,SANTO_DOMINGO, 93, R.6.
Besides the presence of a black young man named Juan Prieto in La Española accompanying Christopher Columbus on several of his transatlantic expeditions in the 1490s, the next documented case of blacks residing in the colony is that of a Black woman just known as “the black woman of the hospital” (“la negra del hospital”).
This black woman, mentioned for the first time in a report by Santo Domingo’s archbishop to the Crown in 1695, went into the collective memory of the inhabitants of Santo Domingo as being the first person known to have rendered hospital services to the inhabitants in the capital city somewhere between 1497, year of the foundation of the town, and 1501, year of the arrival of the large colonizing expedition lead by colonial governor Nicolás de Ovando, who soon supervised an accelerated push to construct some of the first stone buildings of the city. The archbishop mention the issue in his 1695 report precisely in response to a question received from the king as to how the main and oldest known hospital of the city (and the Americas), San Nicolás de Bari, an impressive structure some of whose walls still stand today, had been erected.
According to the archbishop, at the same spot where a chapel to Our Lady of Altagracia stood in 1695, next to where the stone building of the hospital had been constructed, there was first a hut “of a pious black woman that gather the poor she could afford and healed them according to her possibilities, because there was no hospital in this city”. With private donations the referred chapel was built, which became the first church of the city, and under governor Nicolás de Ovando’s leadership the stone building for the hospital was erected, the structure then been name Saint Nicholas on his behalf.
Given that governor Ovando arrived in La Española in1501, it seems prudent to infer that, in order to develop the social acceptance for establishing a medical healing site at the referred location that, “the black woman of the hospital” must have arrived in Santo Domingo at least some time before 1501, when the city had just been established as a conglomerate of colonizers’ huts west of the mouth of the Ozama River. And it seems also reasonable to assume that, in order to have been allowed to take such an initiative on her own, it is likely that she was as well a free black woman.