Today, October 12, is the Day of Indigenous Resistance, at least in Venezuela and in the hearts of millions of people in other lands. In Costa Rica, it’s the Día de las Culturas. But in many places, it’s still called Columbus Day or the Día de la Raza. In Canada, the date is mostly ignored. Here, I am sharing the lightly-edited text of a piece I wrote in 2011.
Now, 529 years have passed since Chris got lost in the Greater Antilles and was found by the Taíno Indigenous people.
At La Caleta, near the entrance to the Santo Domingo airport, there is a park that contains an ancient burial ground of the Taíno people, the original inhabitants of Quisqueya or Ayiti (the island the Spanish called Española).
Within 50 years of the Spanish arrival, the Taíno people had been wiped out. We have many of their words: names of places and rivers, along with words (some shared with other First Nations languages) that found their way into Spanish and English, including: barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), kanoa (canoe), tabaco (tobacco), juracán (hurricane), plus the names of the staple of the Taíno diet, cassava or yuca.
The history of Taíno resistance is not lost
The story of one woman, Anacaona, stands out. My friend Félix Posada of the Latin American Centre for Popular Communication (CEPALC) in Colombia wrote about her in the January-March 2010 issue of CEPALC’s magazine, Encuentro. (Wikipedia has some accessible articles too, but the best source is the work of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the priest who wrote everything that he saw and heard over the first 50 years of the 16th century.)
When Columbus showed up in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms (cacicazgos) and territories on the island, each led by a principal cacique (chieftain).
Anacaona, born in 1464, was chief of Jaragua, the territory on the southwest part of island. Her husband Canoabo was chief of neighbouring Maguana. They had a daughter, Higuerota.
From the time Anacaona was small, she distinguished herself by her intelligence and talent for composing and memorizing poetry that she recited in festivals, in the areitos (party, song, dance, and rhythm, all at the same time).
When the Spanish arrived, they were received with a certain sympathy. But disillusion came quickly. Columbus left a group of men in what was called “Fort Navidad” (located between the mouth of the Guarico River and Picolet Point on the northwest coast of what is now Haiti) while he returned to Spain to report on his discovery.
The 39 men left behind stole from the Indigenous communities, mistreated and raped the people, and tried to destroy the local culture. Anacaona convinced Canoabo and other chieftains to attack and destroy the Spanish fortress and the soldiers who lived there. The attack was devastating: the soldiers were killed. Canoabo was eventually captured and shipped to Spain, dying in a shipwreck during the journey.
Conflict, negotiation and treachery
Columbus visited Anacaona and her brother Bohechío in Jaragua in late 1496. Columbus successfully negotiated for a tribute of food and cotton for the settlers under his command. Months later, Columbus arrived with a ship to collect part of the tribute. Anacaona and Bohechío sailed briefly aboard the ship in the Gulf of Gonâve, near today’s Port-au-Prince.
Very quickly, Española became the centre of European colonization in the Americas. Santo Domingo, the city that Columbus founded on the south coast of the island, became home to civil servants, soldiers, missionaries and investors who took the best land, sought to enslave the Indigenous people and imported African slaves.
As the Spanish presence grew, rumours of rebellion swept the island. Anacaona was a leader of the resistance movement, and her efforts became known to the Spanish governor, Nicolás de Ovando. Ovando sent a message to Anacaona that he would visit her in a spirit of friendship. He arrived at Yaguana with 350 soldiers. Received as a guest with feasts and dances, he ordered his men to burn the community and to make its leader his prisoner.
Anacaona managed to escape together with her daughter Higuemota, grand-daughter Mencía, and also with the cacique Hatuey.
But Anacaona’s freedom did not last long. She was captured by Ovando and, at age 39, was hanged in 1504.
The administration of Ovando was a cruel one. When the Spanish arrived in 1492, the Indigenous population was estimated at 500,000. According to a census taken in 1507, the Indigenous population had been reduced to 60,000.