A Note on Tainos: Whither Progress?

By José Barreiro, from Northeast Indian Quarterly, pp. 66-77
Fall, 1990

Author's note: An appreciation is due John Mohawk, who contributed to an early version of this article. References in the body of the text refer to the Select Bibliography which follows this article. All ilIustrations except the photograph on page 76 are taken from Onelio Jorge Cardoso, Los Indocubanos. Havana: Gente Nueva, 1982.

Christopher Columbus, whose name literally means "Christ-bearing colonizer," wrote in his diary shortly after the landfall that he and his sailors saw "naked men" (there were also women), whom they found "very healthy-looking." Landing at Guanahani, in the Bahamas, and sailing on to Cuba and Bohio (Haiti/Santo Domingo), renamed Española, Columbus soon noted a widespread language and system of beliefs and lifeways. Conferring with various caciques (chiefs), he heard them call themselves "Taino." (Tyler 1988)

Taino culture was dominant throughout the Caribbean, a sea and island world that was in turn cradle of Taino civilization. In agriculture, seafaring and cosmology, Ciboney and Guanahatabey (western Cuba), Macorix and/or Ciguayo (Bohio) and even Carib (Lesser Antilles) all followed the material and much of the psycho-spiritual framework of the Taino. The original Caribbeans spoke Arawak. The people of the Arawak language family still comprise one of the more widespread American Indigenous cultures, with relatively large kinship nations in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins of South America. Throughout the Caribbean, usually in remote mountain ranges and coastal promontories, remnant groups and communities of Taino-Arawak and Carib descendants survive to the present. Aspects of the animistic and material culture of the Taino-Arawak have been adopted by the mestizo populations of the Caribbean and are interwoven into the Euro-African fabric of the islands' folk universe.

The word Taino meant "men of the good," and from most indications the Tainos were good. Coupled to the lush and hospitable islands over millennium, and a half, the indigenous people of "La Taina" developed a culture where the human personality was gentle. Among the Taino at the time of contact, by all accounts, generosity and kindness were dominant values. Among the Taino peoples, as with most indigenous lifeways, the physical culture was geared toward a sustainable interaction with the natural surroundings. The Taino's culture has been designated as "primitive" by western scholarship, yet it prescribed a lifeway that strove to feed all the people, and a spirituality that respected, in ceremony most of their main animal and food sources, as well as the natural forces like climate, season and weather. The Taino lived respectfully in a bountiful place and so their nature was bountiful. (Jane 1930)

The naked people Columbus first sighted lived in an island world of rainforests and tropical weather, and adventure and fishing legends at sea. Theirs was a land of generous abundance by global terms. They could build a dwelling from a single tree (the Royal Palm) and from several others (gommier, ceiba), a canoe that could carry more than one hundred people.

The houses (bohios) were (and are today among Dominican and Cuban Cuajiros) made of palm tree, trunk and thatch lashed together in a rectangle or sometimes a circle pattern. The islands still have millions of royal and other useful palm trees, from which bohios by the hundreds of thousands could be built. The wood of the Royal Palm is still today considered the most resistant to tropical rot, lasting untreated as long as ninety years. 1

The Tainos lived in the shadows of a diverse forest so biologically remarkable as to be almost unimaginable to us, and, indeed, the biological transformation of their world was so complete in the intervening centuries that we may never again know how the land or the life of the land appeared in detail. What we do know is that their world would appear to us, as it did to the Spanish of the fifteenth century, as a tropical paradise. It was not heaven on earth, but it was one of those places that was reasonably close.

The Taino world, for the most part, had some of the appearance that modern imaginations ascribe to the South Pacific islands. The people lived in small, clean villages of neatly appointed thatch dwellings along rivers inland and on the coasts. They were a handsome people who had no need of clothing for warmth. They liked to bathe often, which prompted a Spanish royal law forbidding the practice; "for we are informed it does them much harm," wrote Queen Isabella. Their general physical appearance was consistent with the appearance of other Indians of the Americas. They were rarely taller than five feet six inches which would make them rather small to modern North American eyes. They painted their bodies with earth dyes and adorned themselves with shells and metals. Men and women chiefs often wore gold in the ears and nose, or as pendants around the neck. Some had tattoos.

From all early descriptions the Tainos were a healthy people who showed no signs of distress from hunger or want. The Tainos, whose color was olive-brown to copper, reminded Columbus of the people of the Canary Islands, who were neither white nor black. He noted their thick, black hair, short in front and long in back, and that it fell over muscular shoulders. On some islands, the women wore short cotton skirts after taking a permanent man but in others all the people went naked. In parts of Cuba and Santo Domingo, some of the caciques, village or clan and nation chiefs, wore a type of tunic on ceremonial occasions, but they saw no apparent need to cover their breasts or genitals and they were totally natural about it. The Taino had plenty of cotton, which they wove into mats, hammocks and small sails and numerous "bejucos" or fiber ropes. (Tyler 1988)

The Taino islands provided a vast array of edible fruits. The Arawaks made specific use of many types of trees and plants from an estimated floral and faunal range of 5,800 species. The jagua tree they used for dyeing cotton, the jocuma and the guama for making rope, the jucaro for underwater construction, the royal palm for buildings and specific other trees for boats, spears, digging tools, chairs, bowls, baskets and other woven mats (in this art they flourished), cotton cloth (for hammocks), large fishing nets and good hooks made of large fish bones. Inspecting deserted seashore camps, Spanish sailors found what they judged to be excellent nets and small fishing canoes stored in water-tight sheds. Further upriver in the villages, they saw large fields of corn, yucca, beans and fruit orchards covering whole valleys. They walked through the squares of villages, all recently swept clean, where they saw many kinds of drying tubers, grains and herbs, and sunlight-tight storage sheds with shelves packed with thousands of dried cassava (casahe or cazabi) torts. In one village, sailors found large cakes of fine wax, a local product. (Rivero 1966)

The Taino were a sea-going people and took pride in their courage on the high ocean as well as their skill in finding their way around their world. They visited one another constantly. Columbus was often astonished at finding lone Indian fishermen sailing in the open ocean as he made his way among the islands. Once, a canoe of Taino men followed him from island to island until one of their relatives, held captive on Columbus's flagship, jumped over the side to be spirited away.

Among Tainos, the women and some of the men harvested corn, nuts, cassava, and other roots. They appear to have practiced a rotation method in their agriculture. As in the practice of many other American Indigenous eco-systemic peoples, the first shoots of important crops, such as the yucca, beans and corn were appreciated in ceremony, and there are stories about their origins. Boys hunted fowl from flocks that "darkened the sun," according to Columbus, and the men forded rivers and braved ocean to hunt and fish for the abundant, tree-going jutia, the succulent manati, giant sea turtles and countless species of other fish, turtles and shellfish. Around every bohio, Columbus wrote, there were flocks of tame ducks (yaguasa), which the people roasted and ate. (Cassa 1974)

Father Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish friar who arrived on Columbus's heels and lived to denounce the Spanish cruelty toward Indians into the next century, wrote (exaggeratedly but impressively) about "vineyards that ran for three hundred leagues," game birds taken by the tens of thousands," great circular fields of yucca and greater stores of cassava bread, dried fish, corn fields and vast gardens of sweet yams. Tainos along the coasts of Española and southern Cuba kept large circular corrals made of reeds which they filled with fish and turtles by the thousands. In parts of Puerto Rico and Cuba, Jivaro and Cuajiro fishermen used this method into the 1950s. The early Taino and Ciboney of Cuba were observed catching fish and turtles by way of a remora (suction fish) tied by the tail. (Fernandez Mendez, Eugenio, Los Corrales de Pesca Indigenas de Puerto Rico, Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña, Oct. 1960).

The Taino world of 1492 was a thriving place. The Taino islands supported large populations that had existed in an environment of Carib-Taino conflict for, according to archeological evidence, one and a half millennia, although the earliest human fossil in the region is dated at 15,000 years. Tainos and Caribs may have visited violence upon one another, and there is little doubt they did not like each other, but there is little evidence to support any thesis that genocidal warfare existed in this world. A Carib war party arrived and attacked, was successful or repulsed, and the Tainos, from all accounts, returned to what they were doing before the attack. These attacks were not followed up by a sustained campaign of attrition. The Taino existence was not threatened, from these accounts, more than a modern American's existence is threatened by street crime. (Tabio y Rey 1985)

Bohio was the Taino name for Españiola, now Santo Domingo/Haiti. It means "home" in Taino, was in fact home to two main confederated peoples: the Taino, as predominant group, with three cacicasgos, and the Macorixes, with two cacicasgos. There was also one small cacicasgo of Ciqueyo Indians on the island when Columbus arrived. The three main Taino caciques were named Bohequio of Jaragua; Guacanagari of Marien, and Guarionex of La Vega. The two Macorix caciques were Caonabo, of Maguana, at the center of the island and his ally, Coyacoa of Higuey. Mayabanex, also a good friend of Caonabo, was cacique of the Ciguayo country. The three Taino caciques were relatives and allies and had good relations. The Taino of Jaragua had a particularly good agriculture, with efficient irrigation systems that regularly watered thousands of acres of all manner of tubers, vegetables and grains. The Macorixes and Ciguayos were strong warriors, known for a fierce dexterity at archery. They balanced the scale with the peaceful Tainos, who often fed them, and for whom in turn the Macorixes and Ciguayos fought against the more southern Carib. Caonabo, a Marorixe cacique was married to Anacaona, a Taino and sister of Behechio.

It is true that Caribbean Indian peoples fought with each other, taking prisoners and some ritually eating parts of enemy warriors, but even more often they accommodated each other and as "discovery" turned to conquest, they allied as "Indians," or, more properly, as Caribbean Indigenous peoples against Spanish troops. As a peaceful civilization, the Taino caciques apparently made diplomatic use of their agricultural bounty to appease and tame more militaristic groups. (Vega 1980)

Indian Vision/Spanish Mission

The Tainos had many cosmological stories and fundamental cultural principles. High among these was the organization of people to produce food and the value of feeding everyone in each community. Whatever else can be said of their ancient way of life, it contrasted starkIy with the Spanish idea of economics in 1500. As Las Casas and others have attested, the migrations to America occurred because no such principle was at work in Europe during the same and later times. Even the earliest encounters between Iberians and Tainos provide evidence of the fundamental American Indigenous thinking about this human value, which is found throughout the continent and continues to be one of the contrapuntal arguments between the American Indian civilization and European civilization as fueled by Judeo-Roman-Christian precepts.

A telling event occurred when the Spanish were pressing against Guaironex's Indians in Santo Domingo. Guarionex was one of the main five caciques of La Española. His territory in the Valley of La Vega was highly esteemed for its agricultural productivity. In 1494-95, after Columbus imposed a tribute of gold to be paid by every Taino man, woman or child, Guarionex went to the first colonizer with a counter offer. Ctiaironex's main chiefs gathered over one thousand men with coas (planting sticks) in hand. They offered, if Columbus would drop the gold tribute, to plant all the food the Spanish would ever want to eat. They said to Columbus: we will feed you here on the island and also all of your people back in Castile. You don't even need to work. But of course, the colonizers wanted gold or, in lieu of it, slaves and precious woods. This documented event where chiefs offer men with planting sticks to appease Spanish hunger focuses the value of land as equalizer, with the provision of basic sustenance as fundamental right of everyone. (Tyler 1988)

By all descriptions, Taino life and culture at contact was uniquely adapted to its environment. Population estimates vary greatly but put the number of inhabitants in Española (Santo Domingo/Haiti) at approximately half a million to seven million. Estimates for Cuba vary from 120,000 to 200,000, with newer estimates pushing that number up. Whether one takes the low or the high estimates, early descriptions of Taino life at contact tell of large concentrations, strings of a hundred or more villages of five hundred to one thousand people. These concentrations of people in coastal areas and river deltas were apparently well-fed by a nature-harvesting and agricultural production system whose primary value was that all of the people had the right to eat. Everyone in the society had a food or other goods producing task, even the highly esteemed caciques and behiques (medicine people), who were often seen to plant, hunt, and fish along with their people. In the Taino culture, as with most natural world cultures of the Americas, the concept was still fresh in the human memory that the primary bounties of the earth, particularly those that humans eat, are to be produced in cooperation and shared.

Comparison of the life-style described by the early chroniclers and today's standard of living in Haiti and Dominican Republic for the majority of the population, as well as the ecological degradation caused by extensive deforestation, indicates that the island and its human citizens were better fed, healthier and better governed by the Taino's so-called primitive methods than the modern populations of that same island. (Tyler 1988)

Like all American indigenous peoples, the Taino had an involved economic life. They could trade throughout the Caribbean and had systems of governance and beliefs that maintained harmony between human and natural environments. The Tainos enjoyed a peaceful way of life that modern anthropologists now call "ecosystemic." In the wake of recent scientific revelations about the cost of high impact technologies upon the natural world, a culture such as the Taino, that could feed several million people without permanently wearing down its surroundings, might command higher respect. As can be seen throughout the Americas, American indigenous peoples and their systems of life have been denigrated and mis-perceived. Most persistent of European ethnocentrisms toward Indians is the concept of "the primitive," always buttressed with the rule of "least advanced" to "most advanced" imposed by the prism of Western Civilization-the more "primitive" a people, the lower the place they are assigned in the scale of "civilization." The anti-nature attitude inherent in this idea came over with the Iberians of the time, some of whom even died rather than perform manual labor, particularly tilling of the soil. The production and harvesting of food from sea, land and forests were esteemed human activities among Tainos. As with other indigenous cultures, the sophistication and sustainability of agricultural and natural harvesting systems was an important value and possibly the most grievous loss caused by the conquest of the Americas. The contrast is direct with the Spanish (and generally Western) value that to work with land or nature directly, as a farmer and/or harvester, is a lowly activity, thus relegated to lesser humans and lower classes. This attitude is ingrained in popular thinking in most Western countries through jokes about the "country bumpkin" and the "city slicker" which invoke superior attitudes about "dumb" farmers. In that tradition, the least desirable thing is to work with your hands.

In the Spanish annals, Española is described as the most "advanced" of the greater Antilles. Tainos in Espanola were known for their good communications and productive agriculture. Espanola was the center of Taino culture, which appears to have traveled from there to Cuba and the outer islands. Gardens, ballcourts, and huge areitos (roundances) with speaking forums and poets characterized that lush island, which was confederated into five main cacicasgos or kinship nations.

There was little of no quarreling observed among the Tainos by the Spaniards. The old caciques and their councils of elders, were said to be well-behaved, had a deliberate way of speaking and great authority. Las Casas wrote, "the Indians have much better judgement and maintain much better public order and government than many other nations which are overwhelmingly proud of themselves and which hold Indians in contempt." The peoples were organized to the gardens ("conucos") or to the sea and the hunt. They had ball games played in bateyes, or courtyards, in front of the cacique's house. They held both ceremonial and social dances, called areitos, during which their creation stories and other cosmologies were recited. Among the few Taino-Arawak customs that have survived the longest, the predominant ideas are that ancestors should be properly greeted by the living humans at prescribed times and that natural forces and the spirits behind each group of food and medicinal plants and useful animals should be appreciated in ceremony. (Las Casas 1971)

Contrary to popular imagination, the Tainos were a disciplined people. Particularly during their spiritual and healing ceremonies, natural impulses were limited. In those important instances, strong abstinence over sexual activity and eating were demanded, even under penalty of death. The local cacique and his medicine man, the Taino behique, had the task of calling the ceremonial times. Among these were the famous "areitos" reported by Pane. These were round dances and recitation ceremonies, where thanksgivings were made for various natural and plant spirits, and the ancient stories were told. They included the most ancient of Creation time stories, of Deminan and his three skydweller brothers, the four Taino cosmological beings (four sacred directions) who walked on clouds and blue sky over the spirit world of the Caribbean. Orphaned by their virgin mother at birth, the sacred beings, called Caracaracolesin Taino, wandered the sky islands, here and there receiving creative powers from ornery old shamans who carried it from even farther back. This way, out of gourds (jicaras), they created the oceans and fish; out of a turtle, the islands; from spirit babies, toads; and from toads, the rains and waters; from clay and stars, men; from jobo trees, their prayer statues; and, from the river manatee, exquisite source of sustenance, women. 2 (Arrom 1989)

At the areito, carved wooden statuettes, called cemis, representing the various forces, were polished and addressed, fed and smoked for. A tribal meditation and vision took place, often with the use of the sacred herb, cohoba, a hallucinogenic snuff compounded from the seeds of anadenanthera peregrina. In the areito, elements of the plant and animal life were remembered. There were areitos and cemis for the season of Huracan, singings for the four beings, for the origin of the sun and moon, the ocean and fishes, the snake and jutia, for the guayaba, the ceiba, the corn, the name and the yucca. Yucca, a tuber and their main food, was the special gift, and singularly represented by the Yucahu, the Taino's identification for the Supreme or Original Being.

Columbus and His Trajectory

To Christopher Columbus, and the Spanish Catholic kingdom behind him, the voyage to the American lands sought a "discovery." The Grand Mariner was among a handful in Europe to suspect that strong wind currents blew across the great ocean, going west farther south and back east on the northern latitudes. Why he knew this, how he came to be the first to ascertain it for a major European power, what he sought and how he was thinking about potential "discoveries" defines the true story, not only of Columbus, but of the thinking and tenets that guided (and justified) the colonization of the American Indian continent. It is a fact that Columbus knew that conquest and Spanish political hegemony would follow a promising discovery. He hoped to and did get very rich by his "discovery."

On August 3, 1492, Columbus sailed south to the Azores (a route he knew well and where he would turn west) out the port of Palos, in southern Spain. Thousands of Jews sailed out of Spain, mostly from the same port, on the previous day. The inquisition was at its zenith in Spain in 1492; all remaining Jews were to convert or die. Executions by fire were still common. It was a pious, "Christ-bearing" Columbus who went forth with the Catholic King's mandate, carrying the mission of conversion to fuel his drive to "discover."

Landing in Guanahani (renamed San Salvador), Columbus planted a Spanish flag, ordered a Catholic Mass and proclaimed himself Viceroy over the new lands. For days, large dug-out canoes full of curious Lucayo-Arawak men paddled out to the strange, giant ships. The large canoes glided quickly over the water. Caciques (chiefs) went out with warriors carrying bows and arrows and lances, but also food and other gifts. Cdumbus sought information about larger land falls and about the source of golden amulets he received as presents. From his log, we know what Columbus thought about these new people and how he analyzed their worth. One can only wonder what thoughts crossed the Tainos' minds at this first encounter, what interpretation their unique cosmology could give these events.

The Tainos thought Columbus and his men strange enough to be gods, possibly representatives of the four Skydwelling brothers in their Creation Story. The bearded men with hairy, sand-color faces, with ships of many sails and booming sticks that could cut across a swath of trees were thought to come from the sky. Mystically overwhelmed and naturally friendly, the Arawaks' first idea was to make peace. What they had a lot of, food and simple ornaments, they gave freely. Columbus soon re-provisioned his ships' holds with fresh water, dried fish, nuts, calabashes, and cazabi (yucca) bread. During all of Columbus's first trip, in numerous encounters with Tainos, both in Cuba and Santo Domingo, the clothed visitors were welcome and the Tainos attempted to appease all their hungers. Wrote Columbus in his ship's log, "They are so ingenious and free with all they have that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it. . ." (Jane 1930).

There is never any sense in Columbus's writing that the Tainos are incapable, only that they were innocent and well-intentioned. He would come to know that they were completely honest, as if the ability to deceive was not a developed value among them. Columbus wrote that the young men wondered at the shiny things, grabbing sabers by the edge and cutting themselves for lack of experience, but that otherwise they were quick-witted, knew their geography and expressed themselves well. The Indians referred to more than "one hundred islands by name," Columbus said. Later writings of Columbus, Las Casas, Pedro Martir de Angleria and other Caribbean chroniclers gave many instances of Taino quick-wittedness and eloquence of expression. "They are a very loving people and without covetousness," Columbus wrote. "They are adaptable for every purpose, and I declare to your Highnesses that there is not a better country nor a better people in the world than these." And also: "They have good memories and inquire eagerly about the nature of all they see." Columbus noted that after eating, the caciques were brought a bouquet of herbs with which to wash their hands prior to washing in water.

Everything seemed exotic to the Admiral and in fact he was witness to a culture and a way of life arising from a totally different civilization-and a quite logical and compelling culture, one with a significant sense of time and existence but consistently relegated to "primitive" status on the ladder of stages of civilization elaborated by Western scholars. Only leaving aside the ascendancy view of civilization can one envision that Taino civilization was also in a developmental process - one with its own definitions, but just as genuine and important and universal as the European process.

Among the islands, Columbus asked directions to the court of the Great Khan, of whom he had read in Marco Polo's journals. Captive Lucayo-Arawaks, in the classic first of many future cross-cultural miscommunications, guided his way toward their "Khan," the island of Cuba, which they called Cubanakan. it would take a full season for the Tainos, happy people of paradise, to lose their essential good will for the Spanish, who increasingly demanded women, continued to take captives by surprise, and virulently announced their hunger for the yellow metal the Indians called guanin-the Spanish "oro" or English "gold."

At the entrance to the Bay of Bairiay, in eastern Cuba, the three Spanish ships hove to through a night of thick tropical rain before awakening to a "beauty never before seen by the eyes of man," according to the ship's log. That same day Columbus told his log about "green and gracious trees, different from ours, covered by flowers and fruits of marvelous flavors, many types of fowl and small birds that many with great sweetness."

However, though he waxed poetic, the Admiral's main task was sizing up the real estate and its inhabitants. He did so with a banker's eye. Columbus's venture was financed by powerful investors who wanted a return and his ship's log betrays three major concerns: finding the court of the Great Khan (for trade), finding gold in quantity, and estimating the resource exploitation value of land, slaves, precious woods, woven and raw cotton, and fruits. "Our Lord in his mercy," Columbus wrote, "Direct me where I can find the gold mine." (Tyler 1988)

Conquest of Española

The conquest of Española began in earnest with Columbus's second trip. Fifteen hundred adventurers, ex-prisoners and ex-soldiers with experience in the final campaigns against North African Moors came back with Columbus. They came seeking their private fortunes and would be ruthless in this pursuit. The Spanish (Castillian, Aragonese, and Extremaduran) soldier of 1494 was a deadly foe. He had good steel armor and swords, arquebuses, cross-bows, trained mastiffs, and excellent cavalry.

One battle had already been fought. During Columbus's first trip, his flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground and was wrecked. As a result, a fort, called Fort Navidad, was built and some forty men volunteered to stay behind. They were charged with maintaining good relations with the Taino and with searching for the source of gold. They were true to the later mission though not to the former.

Almost immediately the men broke into factions, fought each other and proceeded to harass the Taino population, hoarding as many as five women apiece. While Guacagarani, the local cacique, remained loyal to his promise to Columbus that he would care for the men, a band of conquistadors carried on their terror campaign deep into the territory of another cacique, Caonabo, who had made no promises. Caonabo would not tolerate the depredations and ordered attacks first on the intruding band and later on the fort itself. All the Spanish were killed but the attack became justification for retribution upon Columbus's return with seventeen ships.

The Spanish mounted almost immediate military campaigns against Indian villages. For several years the fights went back and forth and by 1496, according to Las Casas, only one third of Indian Española was left. Other historians assert that the pace was not quite as quick, that it took until about 1510 for that kind of extermination. Plagues played a big role in the decimation of the Indian population, first in Espanola, later in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas, and good parts of Florida. A type of biological warfare that followed human migration from Europe into the Indian populations was an immediate factor at the time of contact and it contributed greatly in the decimation of Indian resistance.

Gold mines had been discovered. Well-armed Spanish patrols captured Indians as needed to work gruelingly in the gold mines. The wanton cruelty and disregard for human life by the fifteenth century Spanish in the conquest of the Indies is darkly legendary. Often, Indian miners died of starvation, though food could be had easily. As many Indians were easily enslaved through raids during the early years, the life of an Indian had little value.

Caonabo, the most respected cacique in Española persisted a few years until captured by trickery and punished by a Columbus lieutenant, Alonso de Hojeda. Columbus ordered Caonabo decapitated but later sent him on to Spain as a slave (the cacique was lost at sea, in the same disaster that claimed Guaironex). Hojeda himself sliced off the cacique's brothers' ears. These types of actions precipitated general insurrection among the Taino Indians.

In 1496, Columbus led an assault later known as the Battle of the Vega and called by his followers the principal battle against paganism, in part to punish a cacique, Guatiguanax, who had killed ten Spaniards and burned forty others. Guatiguanax had taken revenge for the killing of one of his own elders, who had been torn to death by a Spanish mastiff commanded by two Spanish soldiers. Columbus captured many Indians that he sold into slavery during this campaign. (Fernandez-Armesto 1974)

One immediate factor of the invasion of the Caribbean is that Spain immediately shipped out increasing numbers of transmigrants to the newly "discovered" islands. A transmigration took hold that was similar to the Amazonian one of present-day Brazil. It is contended here that this initial migration to the Indian country of the Americas was caused by mostly the same factors that cause the transmigrations today-the landlessness and general poverty of the European peasant after displacement from land as land production became increasingly measured for its commodity value rather than its people-feeding value.

After 1502, when the gold foretold by Columbus was found in Española, migrants came by the thousands. Las Casas complained later: "Nobody came to the Indies except for gold-in order to leave the state of poverty which plagues all classes in Spain." The roads to the mines were like ant hills with arriving Spanish, wrote de Angleria. Many in the first wave were poor Spanish nobleman with parasitic ways and their even poorer servants. The Indians complained that the Spanish ate too much and worked little.

In time, the Spanish commendadors realized that they had brought too many people to the island. But it can be safely asserted that the immediate process of transmigration precipitated itself because of the misery of the inhabitants of Spain in their homeland. It will remain a consistent theme in the process of peopling the Americas with Europeans. Wrote Las Casas: "Allowing too many people to emigrate from Spain has always been one of the principal reasons behind the devastation of the Indies."

The Last Spanish Crusade

Once military superiority was established, the persecution of the Indian people by the Spanish was characterized by unimaginable cruelty The Indian had no personhood, the Spanish conquest allowed no regard whatsoever for the human life of an Indian.

"It was a general rule among our Spaniards to be extraordinarily cruel to the Indians," Las Casas wrote. The Spanish men relished working their steel swords on the Taino flesh, often cutting hands off at the slightest offense. They would test their swords and manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow," Las Casas told.

In a single act of revenge after an Indian attack, the Spanish soldiers captured 700 villagers and stabbed them all to death. The war cacique they hanged, as this was an abhorred form of death to the Tainos. Angleria records that during this incident some soldiers attempted to protect children. One soldier took a young boy in his arms, but the boy was stabbed by another soldier who came from behind with a lance. Another good soldier had a boy by the hand, and a passing soldier cut the boy's legs with his sword. When lsabella's successor, Queen Juana (the protectress) heard about this massacre, she was moved to order an investigation. Fray Nicholas de Ovando, then governor, held a posthumous trial for the slaughtered caciques and cacicas. As witnesses, he brought in the men who did the killings.

There were many pitched battles where Indians routed the Spanish soldiers, and organized resistance persisted for fifty years, but Spanish cannon, steel swords, horses and dogs overwhelmed the Indians. One by one, Spanish captains approached the ruling nucleus of the tribal leadership. The techniques used to lure and trap the sincere Taino were strictly Machiavellian. The Spanish would sue for peace and start negotiations at which the caciques would put on large feasts. Then the Spanish would attack.

One Spanish governor, Ovando, did this to destroy the powerful woman cacique, Anacaona, whose people he sought to "encommend" to new Spanish arrivals. He chose Christmas day, after three days of generous feasting, dancing, storytelling, and games. Anacaona had arranged a large areito, where her councilors were singing of the ancestors. At a signal from Ovando, Spanish soldiers seized Anacaona and all her nobles. The nobles were burned in a pile. Anacaona, the Taino queen, was hung. (Tyler 1988)

One by one, the caciques of Española fell and their peoples were given over to Spanish masters, or "encomendados," who literally worked the majority of them to death. Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica followed. In Puerto Rico, Caribs and Tainos joined battle against the Spanish and later migrated together to the islands in the Lower Antilles. In Cuba, the Tainos allied with the Ciboneys to mount several major rebellions. They were aided by the warnings of Hatuey, a cacique from Espaflola, who had seen the Spanish system in his own land. Hatuey was joined by a Cubano cacique, Guamax, to initiate a general warrior resistance that would carry on to the 1530s. Hatuey, who warned other Indians that gold was the only god of the Spanish, was captured and ordered burned alive. The story of Hatuey's execution, recorded by Las Casas, is still told to children in eastern Cuba.

A Spanish friar attempted to convert this first Cuban national hero, tied and ready as soldiers with lit torches approached. The friar explained about conversion, baptism and the Catholic concept of heaven and hell. He offered to baptize Hatuey, thus cleansing all of his sins against the Christian God. Hatucy is said to have requested time to think on the offer. In the Taino culture, the dead are carried by the living and ongoing generations. They live in a parallel world and must be recognized and fed. A great deal of ceremonial attention is given this fundamental human responsibility by the Caribbean and Meso-American Indian cultures. No doubt a traditionalist such as Hatuey carried his own peoples' medicines and song into his final moment.

Hatuey finally responded: "And the baptized, where do they go after death?"

"To Heaven," said the friar.

Hatuey: "And the Spanish, where do they go?"

Friar: "If baptized, of course, they go to heaven."

"So the Spaniards go to heaven," Hatuey responded. "Then I don't want to go there. Don't baptize me. I prefer to go to hell."

The story of Hatucy's execution is a persistent oral telling in Camaguey and Oriente provinces in Cuba. There is a tradition of pilgrimage to the site of the deed, a place called Yara, near the city of Bayamo. The tradition refers to the "light of Yara" that appears to visitors. The power of physical vigor is associated with this belief. Indeed, a major Cuban rebellion against the Spanish, called the Cry of Yara, started in the same area near the City of Bayamo in 1868. (Cruz 1988)

The Greater Antilles region was settled slowly over the next two hundred years. Smallpox decimated large numbers of Tainos, and malaria, brought in by African slaves, also played a role. Many Indians fled west and south. During the conquest, many of the Taino ceremonial materials were transferred to western Cuba, hidden and found decades later. (Rivero 1966)

Small veins of gold were finally found in Cuba, but the discoveries coincided with Cortez's expedition to Yucatan and his "discovery" of the Aztec and Mayan mainland. The great quantities of the precious yellow metal in meso-America obviated the urgency to settle Cuba, as Española turned to sugar cane (Cuba would follow), and Havana became a port of call for African slavery and the shipment of gold and other treasure from the Spanish Main.

Many Puerto Rican Tainos or Boriquas, among a total number of perhaps 50,000-100,000, with a dozen caciques, and of indistinct religion and customs from the Cubeflos or from Española Tainos, appear to have migrated to-the islands of Lesser Antilles and possibly back to the South American mainland. Several Carib settlements to the east of them had been traditional enemies, but helped organize withdrawal of many Tainos to the Lesser Antilles. The Spanish never penetrated the wall of Carib resistance beyond the Taino territories. As many as a third of Borinquen Tainos fled into the mountains and disappeared and much the same can be said for Indians in Cuba and Santo Domingo.

Among the first conquistadors and among the new Spanish arrivals, particularly the men from the Canary Islands and Galicia, many were known to take one or more wives among the Indian villages. There were noted alliances and nuclei of mestizajes stemming from these early intermarriage's. In Santo Domingo, they settled along the Yaque River and into the Marien region. This "nascent, native feudalism . . . claimed hegemony over whole tribes. and was a subtle breakaway from Columbus's factoria system." (Floyd 1973)

The concubinage system set up by the old chiefs and some new Spanish men, both in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the"guatiao" (exchange of names ceremony) in Santo Domingo created a few somewhat ordained mestizajes, one that would sustain a core of indigenous traditions to modern times.

There were incidents of sympathetic individual Spanish men marrying Indian women and thus removing the cacicas and their particular tribes from the encomienda system. The Spanish did this mostly to gain labor and advantage and at times as a way to remove themselves from the central authority all together. For the remaining indian caciques, it was a way to marry their remaining people and take status as one of the new people, neither white nor pure Indian Taino, but with at least the ability to establish families and hold land. The comendadores took after this practice when they could. One Cristobal Rodriguez (nicknamed "La Lengua") a well-known Spanish-Indian interpreter, was exiled for arranging the marriage of a cacica to a Juan Garces, "probably with the intent to remove her tribe from the encomienda system. (Floyd I 973).

A very few Indian communities, deep in the highest mountain valleys, did manage to survive in isolation in cuba for nearly five hundred years. These are the communities of Caridad de los Indios and others in the Rio Toa region.

In Cuba's Camagucy province, Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa, a particularly vigorous lieutenant from Narvaez's army took dozens of Indian wives and spawned a generation of more than a hundred mestizos. Rather than continue to fight, Camagucybax, the old cacique of the savanna organized marriages from among his people and Porcallo's children. Later, Porcallo invited some fifty Spanish families to send young men and women to settle in Camaguey where he coupled his mixed offspring to the new arrivals. They named the new mixed generation "Guajiro," a Taino word possibly coined by the cacique Camagucybax and meaning "one of us" or "one of our countrymen."

Porcallo and his fellow conquistadores provided no gentle model of "pater familias." Powallo's rule was so brutal that many Taino families in the region committed suicide rather than submit to his encomienda. Near Baracoa, Cuba, at a coastal village named Yumuri, a promontory stands in mute tribute to the many Taino families who, according to local oral history, jumped to their deaths off its cliffs while taunting their Spanish pursuers. (Wright 1916)

Whither progress?

Did the Spanish (read the West) represent progress to the Indian peoples? Did Indian people advance as a result of the great encounter? Or was there possibly something the West might have learned from the American indigenous peoples? The Indian populations had little opportunity to teach their culture to the newcomers. The encomienda system, which distributed whole tribes outright to conquistadores for working gold mines and tilling soil, destroyed the Tainos and surrounding peoples with genocidal tempo. Swept aside, the Indian populations retreated to remote areas as their civilization was truncated and their ancient communal patterns were destroyed. Five hundred years later, it might be appropriate to appreciate what more we might have now known, had their humanity been respected and their social-cultural knowledge intelligently understood.

That the Tainos (the term actually describes the sachem families from among the island Arawaks) could keep their quite numerous people strong and well fed, yet prescribe both agriculture and fisheries of a reduced scale, and using the softest of technologies, reaped sufficient yet sustainable yields of food, housing, and other resources, is a significant achievement. Labeled as "primitive" and "backward," even today, it has boen arguably not improved upon.

The label "primitive" is almost always a denigrating assignation. In academic historical thinking, the so-called "primitive peoples," whether in their "savage" and "barbaric" stages, were of a lesser time (the past) from which we (the humans) are thought to have progressed. however, in contemporary development theory, the most "advanced" thinking uniformly incorporates "scale" and the concept of "appropriate technologies." Such new fields as "sustainable agriculture" and "eco-systems management," and the theoretics of "no growth" are establishing themselves in colleges and universities. Their applicability and practicability in a world of fragile ecologies are increasingly accepted. Taino life, in fact, most of what heretofore has been branded as "primitive" and thus not worth emulating about indigenous cultures, is viewed in a totally different light as humankind enters the twenty-first century. "Primitiveness" which should only define a people's "primary" relationship with nature, might be seen as a positive human value and activity in these ecologically precarious times.

The history of the European contact with America and its subsequent conquest has been written and rewritten but seldom from an indigenous perspective and never from the continuity of an Indian survival over that history Western historians have had a tendency to disregard the Indian oral sources and many a fundamental lie about Indian culture has been carried from early written texts into the modern day. Not a few Indian elders have told their children, upon sending them to the western school: "Remember your culture. Don't forget who wrote the history."

To the American indigenous peoples, members of a unique civilization, first sight and first contact with Columbus and his caravels could only mean that a new and yet incomprehensible manifestation had arrived. Most of the early contact stories throughout the hemisphere confirm that the indigenous response was almost uniformly friendly, curious, and extremely respectful. What came back, uniformly and abruptly, was arrogant interrogation and a superior attitude. unrelenting brutality followed, one exploding in sexual temper and blood furies never before imagined, certainly not by the Tainos, and never equalled in all the (often questionable) annals of Sun sacrifice, cannibalism and inter-tribal warfare.

The actual brutality imposed on Indians by the European conquest is now more or less accepted history. What has not decisively changed is the notion that it was, after all, justifiable. Throughout the hemisphere, the average non-Indian American is early infused with the notion that Europe brought "civilization" to the Americas, that Amerindian peoples were mired in an early, "primitive" version of the universal historical process, that they were savages, pagans, and, most damningly, cannibals. But one still needs to wonder Iabout the nature of savagery between two peoples, one of whom worked for and provided food as an uncommercialized staple to its members, and another which could shed copious blood for the gold of the earth.

In his ship's log, the Admiral recorded how well formed and muscular the Taino men and women were, with "no bellies, and good teeth." He noted, too, what good servants they would make, reminding King Ferdinand that slavery has been justified historically many times. To King Ferdinand, as a justification for enslavement, Columbus wrote: "Many other times it has already happened men have been brought from Guinea . . .They (the Tainos) will make excellent servants." Columbus speculates that a few Spanish soldiers could enslave the Tainos: "They are all naked and neither possess weapons nor know of them. They are very well fitted to be governed and set to work to till the land and do whatever is necessary. They also may be taught to build houses and wear clothes and adopt our customs With fifty men, all could be subdued and made to do all that is desired." Time would prove the battle more difficult than expected, though the end result would ultimately be as Columbus predicted.

This fifteenth century Spanish idea that non-Christian peoples could be oppressed at will is rooted in the thesis of the Cardinal bishop of Ostia, Henry of Susa, in the thirteenth century, who successfully postulated that, "heathen peoples had their own political jurisdiction and their possessions before Christ came into the world. But when this occurred, all the powers and the rights of dominion passed to Christ, who, according to doctrine, became lord over the earth, both in the spiritual and temporal sense." (Tyler 1988)

Guacanagari, a Taino cacique who befriended Columbus and was in turn sold into slavery for his trouble, twice sent Columbus face masks made of gold. I think he meant to say: "Gold is such your interest that it is what you are. Your face must be of gold; gold must be the identity your eyes look through."


  1. In the middle of a housing shortage, current planning in Cuba discourages the building of bohios. They are considered symbols of the "past" and associated with "under-development." In Cuba, for many years, the bohio-dwelling Guajiro was isolated and subject to harsh and arbitrary mistreatment at the hands of the Rural Guard. Eastern Guajiros in Cuba today have more access to modern conveniences but complain about government regimentation over their agricultural practices and market. They still build many bohios, some quite comfortable, out of the Royal palm. Return
  2. Page note: Friar Roman Pane', who wrote the earliest Native cosmology in the Americas, (Macorix field work commissioned by Columbus: Winter, 1493) uses the term, "anguilas," or eels, to describe what his informants spoke of as a large, slippery, river animal "with a form similar to a woman. Given the centrality and abundance of the manatee for the peoples of the Greater Antilles, it might be assumed that the old story refers to the manatee, rather than the eel, in this fecund context. Return

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