"I found very many islands filled with people without number, and all
of them I have taken possession for their Highnesses...
As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might
learn and might give me information on whatever there is in these parts" Christopher Columbus
On December 5 or 6 1492 a fateful wind led Christopher Columbus to the
island of Haiti that he renamed Española
thinking that it looked like Spain. Guacanagaric, the cacique of the Marien in the northern part of the island, warmly welcomed
Columbus. He thought the Taino looked coward and could easily be defeated and enslaved:
"They...brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other
things... They would make fine servants... With fifty
men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
On Christmas night, his biggest ship, the Santa Maria sank on a harbor
of the island. With its remnants, Columbus built the fortress
of the Navidad. He left thirty-nine men at the fortress and sailed to Spain on January 16, 1493 taking with him six Taino captives
and a cargo of parrots, plants and gold. The purpose of Columbus’s second voyage was to colonize, control and exploit the island. His
goal was to bring to the Spaniards "as much gold as they need...and as many slaves as they ask." His fleet thus comprised 17 ships
and 1,300 men as well as 20 horsemen to terrorize the native people.
When Columbus returned to Española, he found that the thirty
men he had left on the Navidad were all dead, killed by the Indians
after they had invaded the kingdom of the Maguana governed by the intrepid Caonabo. Guillermo Coma who had accompanied
Columbus wrote that "bad feeling had arisen and had broken out in warfare because of the licentious conduct of our men towards
the Indian women, for each Spaniard had five women to minister to his pleasure." Columbus then built a new town, Isabella, forty
leagues east of Navidad, near the river where Pinzon had found gold in the Cibao. After Isabella was built, Columbus set out for
the gold mines of Cibao with his horsemen and infantry. Several forts were built on the way, especially in the plains of the Yaque
River, which he named Vega Real. During their invasion of the interior of the island, thousands of Indians were killed. By the end
of 1494 the Taino were in open revolt. Columbus had hoped to put down the resistance by kidnapping Caonabo the chief of the
Cibao region and making an exemplary spectacle of him.
Columbus sent troops to occupy the north east of the island and had
more forts built in the Cibao region. He immediately instituted
a system requiring a quarterly tribute in gold from the Taino, which was calculated according to the number of people over the age
of fourteen. He introduced Indian slavery suggesting that it would be lucrative enough to compensate for the meager supply of gold
found. In 1495, he and his men went on a raid in the interior of Española capturing as many as fifteen hundred Taino, men, women
and children. Columbus picked the 500 best specimens and sent them to Spain. Two hundred of these five hundreds Taino died en
route to Spain. Columbus’s reaction was to exclaim: "Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."
Columbus and his brother Bartholomew as well as Alonso de Hojeda undertook
a series of military expeditions all over the island.
Villages that could not pay the tribute imposed on the Taino were brutally repressed. Las Casas charged that two thirds of the
population was thus wiped out. On July 22, 1497 the Crown authorized the distribution of lands to the Spanish colonists (Repartimiento)
to sow grain and plant gardens. This land was designed to encourage permanent Spanish settlers in Espanola who were expected to
establish small farms with Spanish labor. Columbus on the contrary instituted a Repartimiento where native communities were allocated
to Spaniards for their own use. This system was the first concrete measure to colonize and annihilate the Taino population of Española.
The colonization of Haiti
The arrival of Nicholas Ovando in 1502 with some 2500 Spaniards infused
a new dynamism to Española. No sooner had they arrived
that they rushed to the gold mines. There, the close contact between large number of Europeans and native workers provided a propitious
environment for diseases to set in. Both groups died in large numbers. Ovando set out to pacify the island more completely than Columbus
had. He instituted more efficient and coercive systems to control the Taino. He brought his cruelty to highest levels in dealing with the
caciquat of the Xaragua and their lovely queen Anacaona. Anacaona was the sister of Behecchio, and widow of Caonabo whom had fallen to
Columbus in an earlier campaign. He requested a meeting with Anacaona. In 1503 Ovando marched into the Western part of Xaragua where
he and Anacaona met. Queen Anacaona and chieftains of the province entertained him and his men. She and her brother Behecchio had earlier
offered to Bartholomew Columbus and Roldan friendship and tribute. In the midst of festivities in the royal house, Ovando gave the signal to
massacre the Indians; he brought his hand to his Alcantara cross on his chest. Immediately, the Spanish soldiers seized the Xaraguayans,
attached them to poles and put fire on them. Men, women and children were cut to pieces. Queen Anacaona herself was taken to Santo
Domingo where she was hanged. Thus perished the Xaraguayans.
In 1504 Juan de Esquivel and Ponce de Leon committed a similar deed
on the Higuey, governed by Cotubanama. By 1508 there were as
many as fifteen towns in Española. Ovando organized a system where a council (Cabildo) consisting of those who held encomiendas and
repartimientos governed each Spanish town.
The boom in the mining of gold in Espanola was short-lived. The decline
in the supply of gold paralleled the decline in population. The Spaniards
soon left the island for the richer lands of Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba. Upon Ovando’s retirement in 1509, Columbus’s son Diego Columbus
became governor of Española.
Resistance and Revolts of the Taino
Although a peaceful people, the Taino did not simply sit around waiting
for the Spaniards to bring about their destruction. In fact, it did not
long after Columbus’s arrival for the Haitian Taino to revolt against the Spanish conquest of the island. The first offensive reaction of the Taino
against their invasion was carried out as early as in 1492 by the destruction of the Fort Navidad following Columbus’ return to Spain.
When Columbus left his men in charge of the Navidad, he had no doubt
that they would be safe for he perceived the Taino as "a friendly and
amiable race". Besides, If the native did become hostile he was certain that his men would overcome them, for the indigenous population was
"destitute of weapons, go naked and very cowardly". When he returned to the Navidad, he learnt that the Taino had killed all his men in a revolt
led by Caonabo,chief of the Maguana, a caciquat in the center of the island. Theft of their property, the rape of their women as well as an
awareness that the powerful strangers intended to remain in their island were the main reasons the Taino turned to hostility.
A number of events confirmed the fear of the Taino. Following the destruction
of the Navidad fortress in the western tip of the island, Columbus
and the Spaniards moved their settlement to the eastern section of Española where they built the town of Isabella. A succession of forts was also
built onward to the gold fields of Vega Real in the center of the island. The Spaniards themselves had no intention of remaining friendly in their
relations with the Taino. The incident at the Yaque River in April 1494 in which Alonso de Hojeda humiliated Indian caciques by cutting off the
ears of a chief was a grim indication of future relations. The Spaniards and Columbus dreaded a Taino uprising all the time. Columbus had not
forgotten the destruction of the fort of Navidad and wanted to obtain retribution for the affair on Caonabo and his followers. Rumors indicated
that Caonabo’s headquarters were near Fort St Thomas and the gold fields of Vega Real. Columbus thus sent a plan to Pedro Margarite,
commander of Fort St Thomas to capture Caonabo by deception: "Treat him with words until you have his friendship, in order to better seize him".
Margarite did not carry out Columbus’s plan, but Hojeda did. With nine
men he marched across the central range to Caonabo’s capital, Niti.
Hojeda bestowed gifts and words of friendship to Caonabo and requested a peace treaty with the Taino leader. Hojeda persuaded the
cacique that he must accompany him to Isabella to sign the peace treaty. To carry the cacique to their destination in a shorter time, Hojeda
furthermoreconvinced the leader to ride with him on his horse. He additionally tricked him into accepting handcuffs as if they were ceremonial
bracelets. With this shameful stratagem, Hojeda seized Caonabo. The imprisonment of the Taino leader at Isabella led to the first large scale
Native American uprising on the continent in late 1494. His brother, Manicatex, rallied a force of more than seven thousand Taino with the
intention of attacking the Spaniards and rescuing Caonabo.
However, the Taino were not familiar with organized warfare. Although
in larger numbers, They had to contend with 200 well-armed harquebusiers,
20 horsemen and 20 starved dogs as well as a few cannons. Very, quickly, the native army was routed. They had never seen horses before and
thought that the cavaliers were gods. Aided with the noise of canons, the guns and the dogs, the Spanish led by Hojeda turned the Vega Real plain
into a scene of massacre. Caonabo’s brother and other Taino leaders were imprisoned. It was decided that Caonabo and his brother were to be
sent to Spain. Caonabo was deported to Spain but his ship sink at sea and he died not far from the coast of Espanola. According to the legend, The
Taino deliberately sank the ship deporting their leader to Spain in a last attempt to resist the oppression of Columbus and the Spaniards. To escape
death, Caonabo’s wife, Anacaona, had to leave the Maguana to settle in the western region of the Xaragua where her brother Behecchio was cacique.
Following the overwhelming defeat of Caonabo and his brother by the
Spaniards, the remaining Taino chiefs adopted a more realistic attitude
Spanish aggression and their demand for tribute in gold. The caciques of the Xaragua, in the western part of the island, Behecchio and Anacaona thus
proposed to give cotton and cassava bread to Bartholomew Colon since they had no gold in their region. Other leaders adopted a similar attitude,
which they hoped would preserve their authority and autonomy.
Guarionex, cacique of the Magua, which included the Vega Real, a region
heavily involved in the mining activity, practiced this policy. Nonetheless,
some Taino did not agree with this policy and they advocated for another uprising against the Spaniards. Meanwhile, a division within the Spanish
camp between the rival supporters of Francisco Roldan and Columbus made the current situation different from 1494 and gave hope to those who
argued for insurrection. Since the Spaniards had divisions within their ranks, it was perhaps possible for the Taino to successfully carry out a revolution.
Guarionex, indeed, received support from Roldan who pressed him to attack the fort of Conception with assistance from his troops. Guarionex quickly
massed his army near Vega Real. But Columbus’s brother, Bartholomew, who had quickly assembled four hundred men, marched to meet Guarionex.
Bartholomew Columbus and the Spaniards decided to attack the Taino by
surprise and caught the Taino off guard with a nightly offensive on the
surrounding villages. Taino culture prohibited battles to be fought at night. Hence, Fourteen of the leaders, including Guarionex, were easily captured.
Guarionex was released when the Taino came to Bartholomew in tears. Guarionex learned from this experience to steer his policies clear of the
Spanish. After a year this delicate political situation proved too difficult to manage. He fled with his family first to Vega Real and then to the North
where Mayobanex, chief of the northern mountain region, hid him. Bartholomew Colon fearing that the natives might rally around him in another
insurrection pursued and captured him.
The defeat of Guarionex did not mean the end of native resistance in
Española. The struggle of Cotubanama to preserve theautonomy of
province of Higuey against the brutality of Juan Esquivel was proof of that. Cotubanama was ultimately hanged. Throughout the Americas the Indians
had revolted against Spanish domination. However the revolt of Enriquillo was unique in that it worried the Spaniards for 18 years and only ended in an
agreement between the rebel and the Spaniards; agreement that was sanctioned by Charles V. This was the first agreement in the Americas between
Europeans and Native Americans as equals.
Enriquillo or Guarocuya was raised in a Franciscan monastery. He returned
as a cacique to his native village in the Baoruco, region on the southern
coast of Española. He and his wife Mencia were married in the Christian fate. However, Enriquillo’s life like that of any slave was not easy. He was
repeatedly humiliated by his encomendero (master), Valenzuela who ultimately raped his wife. He complained to the governor but was threatened
with imprisonment. He carried his complaints to the court system of Santo Domingo and was given the run around. Enriquillo got tired of being
ignored and fled to the mountains of the Bahoruco in the south of the island where he led a full-scale rebellion from 1519 to 1538.
In the mountains, Enriquillo and his followers returned to a purely
Indian style of life. For more than a dozen years, he withstood every Spanish
contingent sent against him. With every victory, his troops became stronger and more Taino joined the ranks of the new cacique. He grew a
strong army out of arms stolen from the Spanish. He protected the old and women, encouraged a mode of agriculture with shifting crops. Straw
huts built in patches ten or twelve leads apart over a surface of approximately 40 leagues. In these huts he sheltered women, the old and
children, moving their location every time he judged it threatened by a Spanish attack. Enriquillo and his Indians were the first maroon communities
of Espanola if not of the New World.
News of Enriquillo’s revolt reached Charles V and he saw in it the possibility
of Spain losing Española. The king sent Captain Francisco Barrio-Nuevo
to negotiate with Enriquillo in order to find an issue to the crisis. In Española, Barrio-Nuevo presented Enriquillo with letters bearing the agreement
of Spain and the court system of Santo Domingo allowing Enriquillo and his men to live free on themountains of the Bahoruco. Enriquillo accepted
the peace treaty. He died a year after the agreement. According to Las Casas, this peace treaty between the Taino and the Spaniards lasted for all
but four to five years before the Spaniards broke it.
The Annihilation of the First Haitians
One of the main consequences of the invasion of the New World was the
genocide of the Taino on Espanola. Estimates of the native population
of Espanola before 1492 vary greatly. Bartholomew de Las Casas assessed the numbers of Taino living on the island to as high as 3 million. Other
less trustworthy sources put the population ca. 1492 at one million. However, as early as the second voyage, Columbus had undertaken a census
of the population for the allocation of the Taino to the Spanish for labor and tribute. Conducted by Bartholomew Colon in 1496, this result of this
census was surely known to the archbishop of Seville, Las Casas's superior. Therefore, Las Casas must have based his estimates on the records
of that archbishop if one realizes that the figure of 1,100,000 that the census claimed did not include children under 14, the aged nor the sick. In
addition, by 1496, the Spaniards had only occupied half of the island. Sherburne F Cook and Woodrow Borah thus agree that the Indian
population in 1496 was closer to Las Casas’s estimate, between 2 500 000 and 5 million. Since the colonization process and its human consequences
actually began in 1493 in Española (3 years before the census), the native population then must have been larger then. In any case, most sixteenth
century writers agree that Española was densely populated at the time of the conquest.
This reality was to dramatically change as the island was converted
into a Spanish colony beginning in 1496. The enormity of the Taino tragedy
Española becomes simply overwhelming by looking at these population counts which illustrate more than words could, the intensity and radicalism
of the genocide of the Indians in Espanola (Haiti).
Taino Population on Española from 1496-1570
The population timidly surged upward between 1510 and 1520 due to the
importation of Indians from the Bahamas by the Spaniards in a desperate
attempt to palliate the inexorable loss of the original Haitians. The Taino population thus increased from 61,600 in 1509 to 65,800 in 1510 and again,
from 26,700 in 1512 to27,800 in 1514.
A lot of reasons have been advanced explaining the disappearance of
the original Haitians. Many scholars explain the annihilation of the Taino
pointing to the introduction of European diseases in the Americas. Indeed, the introduction of small pox, measles, whooping cough, bubonic plague,
typhoid, influenza, Malaria, and yellow fever wiped out an important section of the Taino population whose immune system was not accustomed
to those diseases. For example, the outbreak of the small pox epidemic in Espanola in Dec 1518 extinguished about one third of the native population
in a few weeks. What must however be understood is that the decline of the population also occurred in years when there was no epidemic.
The main factor in the Taino population reduction directly results from
Spanish obsession for gold and the establishment of the Encomienda and
Repartimiento, which destroyed the rhythm of their lives, and their social structure. The Taino family structure was broken up as the men were sent
to work on gold mines all over the island. They suddenly faced the obligation to spend most of their day working for a master whose cruelty and
punishments were swift and justified by greed. Malnutrition quickly developed and the Taino suffered from protein deficiency and overwork. Another
factor was the deliberate cruelty the Spaniards displayed towards the Indians. In their inexorable march for conquest in the island, the Spanish
destroyed and burned entire villages. The treacherous massacre of the Taino of Xaragua was one of the most cruel and complete mass killings of
Taino on the island.
An Indian chief who was being executed was about to be baptized. The
priest promised him that if he did get baptized, he would go to paradise.
asked the priest:"Are there any Spaniards in your heaven?". The priest responded that only good ones go to heaven. At those words, the chief refused
the baptism retorting that "even the best one of them is worth nothing; I do not want to go to any heaven where I stand to meet one"