Tribes of the West Indies and Northern Provinces of South America

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Indians of Jamaca

In the month of May 1494, the island of Jamaica was first discovered by Columbus. The native inhabitants appeared to be of a very different character from the timid and gentle islanders with whom former intercourse had been held. A crowd of canoes, filled with savages gaudily adorned with plumes and paint, opposed the landing of the Spaniards. These were pacified by the Indian interpreters on board; but upon landing, the next day, the throng of natives on shore exhibited such decidedly hostile intentions, that it became necessary to intimidate them. A few discharges from the Spanish cross-bows sufficed to put them to flight. The ferocity of a savage dog, brought on shore by the whites, added greatly to their terror.

Cruise Along the Southern Coast of Cuba

There was no difficulty in allaying the apprehensions of these Indians, and the usual friendly intercourse was soon established. During a cruise along the southern coast of Cuba, which occupied the succeeding months of June and July, the islanders seen were as gentle and tractable as those upon the northern shores of the island. The means of communication now afforded by the Indian interpreters gave new interest to every conference. The wondering crowd of natives would gather with the most eager interest around these their fellow-countrymen, to listen to the tales of gorgeous spectacles and unheard-of wonders witnessed by themselves in the distant country of the whites. There was enough of the novel and wonderful before the eyes of the ignorant islanders, in the ships, appearance, conduct, and costume of the Spaniards, to prevent incredulity, as they listened to the narrations of the interpreters. The performance of the religious services of the Catholic Church, struck the natives with awe, particularly when the purport of these ceremonials was explained to them. In testimony of their natural intelligence and perceptions of right and wrong, Mr. Irving gives us, from Herrera, the following speech of an aged counselor of one of the Cuban caciques, after witnessing the celebration of the mass:

“When the service was ended, the old man of fourscore, who had contemplated it with profound attention, approached Columbus, and made him an oration in the Indian manner.

“This which thou hast been doing, said he, is well; for it appears to be thy manner of giving thanks to God. I am told that thou hast lately come to these lands with a mighty force, and hast subdued many countries, spreading great fear among the people;* but be not therefore vain glorious. Know that, according to our belief, the souls of men have two journeys to perform after they have departed from the body; one to a place dismal and foul, and covered with darkness, prepared for those who have been unjust and cruel to their fellow-men; the other pleasant and full of delight, for such who have promoted peace on earth. If then thou art mortal, and dost expect to die, and dost believe that each one shall be rewarded according to his deeds, beware that thou wrongfully hurt no man, nor do harm to those who have done no harm to thee. ”

From Cuba the admiral visited the southern shores of Jamaica. All the first distrust and opposition of the inhabitants had vanished, and nothing but gentleness and kindness characterized their demeanor. At one place a cacique came out to the ship with his whole family, “consisting of his wife, two daughters, two sons, and five brothers. One of the daughters was eighteen years of age,” beautiful in form and countenance; her sister was some what younger; both were naked, according to the custom of the islands, but were of modest demeanor.”

This chief professed himself ready to go, with all his train, in the Spanish vessels, to visit the king and queen of Spain, and acknowledge himself their vassal, if by so doing he could preserve his kingdom.

Difficulties at the Fortress of St. Thomas

During the absence of Columbus, the dissolute and unprincipled Spaniards at the fortress of St. Thomas, so grossly abused their power among the natives, that an extensive spirit of hostility was roused up against them. Caonabo was unwearied in his efforts to excite the other island caciques to a union against the intruders, and the faithful Guacanagari alone seems to have been proof against his persuasions, in revenge for which non-compliance, the Carib and his brother-in-law, Behechio, committed numberless indignities and injuries upon him and his people. Serious difficulties soon arose; a number of Spaniards were put to death by Guatiguana, a subordinate cacique under the celebrated Guarionex, in punishment for outrages committed upon his people; and Caonabo besieged the garrison at St. Thomas with a force of many thousands of his warriors. After thirty days of ineffectual attempts to reduce the place, he gave up the undertaking, and drew off his army. The stratagem, by which the person of this noted chief and warrior was secured by the commandant at St. Thomas s, will be detailed hereafter. Columbus, upon his return to Hispaniola, made use of every effort to check the ruinous disorders, which had become prevalent. He punished Guatiguana by an invasion of his dominions and the destruction of no small number of his people. An interview was then brought about with his superior, Guarionex, a peaceable and well-disposed chief, who readily consented to the establishment of a Spanish fort in the very ^heart of his domains.

The crushing system of oppression had now fairly commenced, and was promptly followed up by the shipment of five hundred Indians to be sold as slaves in Spain. This was directly the act of Columbus himself, and historians only offer, as his excuse, the argument that such was the ordinary custom of his age in all wars with savages or infidels. The interposition of the kind-hearted Isabella prevented the consummation of this proposed sale. By her orders, the prisoners were sent back to their homes, but, unfortunately, not until the state of affairs upon the islands was such that the poor Indians might have been better situated as slaves in Spain.

A general combination of the island chieftains against the Spaniards finally induced Columbus to commence an active campaign against them. In the dominions of the captive, Caonabo, his brother, Manicaotex, his brother-in-law, Behechio, and his beautiful wife, Anacaona, were the most prominent in authority, and the most active in rousing up hostilities. The Spanish force consisted of a little over two hundred men, twenty of whom were mounted, and twenty blood-hounds, an enemy as novel as terrible to the naked savages. Guacanagari lent his feeble aid, with that of his followers. Of the number of the hostile Indians in the district of the Vega, the historians of the time gave exaggerated accounts. They speak of an array of one hundred thousand hostile savages. Manicaotex was leader of the united tribes. Near the site of the present town of St. Jago, a decisive battle was fought, in which the vast army of the Indians was utterly routed. The Spanish commander did not hesitate to divide his little battalion into several detachments, which fell upon the enemy simultaneously, from different quarters. Torn to pieces by the savage dogs, trampled down by the cavalry, and unable to affect any thing in turn against the mail-clad whites, the poor Indians were overwhelmed with confusion and terror. The rout was as complete, although the massacre was not so cruel, as when Pizarro attacked the Peruvian Inca, with an almost equally disproportionate force.

“The Indians,” says Mr. Irving, “fled in every direction, with yells and howling; some clambered to the top of rocks and precipices, from whence they made piteous supplications and offers of complete submission; many were killed, many made prisoners, and the confederacy was, for the time, completely broken up and dispersed.”

Great Rising of the Indians of Hispaniola

Nearly the whole of Hispaniola was speedily reduced to subjection; Behechio and his sister, Anacaona, alone of all the natives in authority, secluded themselves among the unsettled wilds at the western extremity of the island. All the other caciques made conciliatory overtures, and submitted to the imposition of a heavy and grievous tribute upon them and their subjects. A hawks-bell filled with gold-dust, or twenty-five pounds of cotton, was quarterly required at the hands of every Indian over the age of fourteen; from the chiefs a vastly larger amount was collected. The contrast between the former easy and luxurious life of the islanders, their gayety and content, their simple pleasures, and unfettered liberty, with the galling servitude and wearisome tasks now imposed, is most touchingly and eloquently described by Irving. Unable to endure the unwonted toil and hopeless labor, the Indians vainly endeavored to escape to the mountains, and, subsisting upon the crude products of the forest, to evade the cruelty of their en-slavers. They were hunted out, and compelled to return to their homes and to their labors. The unfortunate Guacanagari, receiving no favor from the suspicious Spaniards, and being an object of the deepest hatred to his countrymen for the part he had taken in their struggle for freedom, died in neglect and wretchedness among the mountains.

In 1496, Bartholomew, a brother of Columbus, then exercising the office of adelantado at Hispaniola, visited Behechio at his remote western province of Xaraguay. He was received with hospitality and kindness by this chief and his sister Anacaona, and entertained in the best manner the country could afford. The object of the expedition was to induce the cacique to comply peaceably with the Spanish requisitions of tribute. Behechio had learned by sad experience the power of the European arms, and, as the adelantado agreed to receive the tribute in such articles as his country produced, instead of gold, he readily consented. Bartholomew’s judicious policy towards these illustrious islanders gained him their highest esteem. Behechio and his sister paid the tribute required cheerfully and promptly; and upon the occasion of a visit from the adelantado to receive it, they both took occasion to visit the caravel in which he had arrived. Anacaona, especially, was filled with delight at the sight of the vessel, and at witnessing the ease and certainty with which its movements were controlled.

The females of Xaraguay were of most remarkable beauty, but preeminent among them was the widow of Caonabo. Her queenly demeanor, grace, and courtesy, won the admiration of the Spaniards.

Insurrection in the Vega

In the following year (1497) another insurrection broke out among tribes of the Vega and the vicinity. The immediate cause of this outbreak was the execution, at the stake, in accordance with the barbarity and bigotry of the age, of a number of Indians, for the offense of sacrilege.

Guarionex, the principal cacique, had been an object of special interest with the ecclesiastics to whom was committed the work of converting the islanders. His easy and pliable disposition caused him to listen patiently to their instructions, and to comply with numerous forms of their enjoining. Some one of the Spaniards having committed an outrage upon his wife, Guarionex refused to listen further to the doctrines of a religion whose professors were guilty of such villanies. Shortly after this, a chapel was broken open, and images enshrined within it were destroyed by a number of the natives. For this offense, those implicated were burned alive, as above-mentioned. The adelantado suppressed the consequent uprising by a prompt and energetic seizure of the leading chiefs. Two of these were put to death, but Guarionex and the others were pardoned.

By the persuasions and influence of the rebellious Roldan, the unfortunate cacique was, in 1498, drawn into a second conspiracy of the natives. The plot was prematurely developed, and Guarionex fled from the plains of the Vega into the mountains of Ciguay, and joined his fortunes to those of the cacique Mayonabex. This generous and noble chief received him, with his family and a few followers, under his protection.

From this retreat, with the assistance of Ciguayan warriors, the fugitive was enabled to molest the Spanish settlements of the low country with impunity, until the Adelantado Bartholomew invaded the mountain district, dispersed the armies of Mayonabex, and took both him and his guest prisoners. The conqueror was more placable towards a fallen foe than most of his countrymen, and, upon the sub mission of the Ciguayans, was ready to accord them protection and favor. Guarionex perished, in 1502, on his passage for Spain, in the same vessel with Bobadilla and Roldan. The ship foundered at sea in a terrible hurricane, which arose immediately after the departure from Hispaniola.

Cruelties Practiced on the Indians

It was under the administration of Bobadilla that the Indians of Hispaniola were reduced to a more complete and systematic condition of slavery than before. They were regularly parceled out to the Spanish proprietors of the mines, by whom they were compelled to labor far beyond their powers of endurance, and whose wanton cruelties excited the strongest indignation in the mind of the benevolent Las Casas one of the few historians of his age and nation, who possessed the inclination or courage to paint the cruelties of his countrymen in their true colors. This truly benevolent man devoted the greater portion of his life to efforts for ameliorating the condition of the natives of the New World, but in his sympathy with their sufferings and oppressions, he unfortunately lost sight of what was due to another scarcely less unfortunate race. He was among the earliest to advocate the substitution of Negro slavery for that of the Indians, under the impression doubtless in itself just that a state of servitude was less intolerable to the one than the other. It is to Las Casas that we are indebted for the most frightful detail of wrong and cruelty in the settlement of the West Indies that ever disgraced human nature. His descriptions of the manner in which the native population was annihilated to minister to the luxury and avarice nay, far worse, to the depraved and wanton cruelty of the Spaniards are frightful in the extreme. We can share in the honest indignation of old Purchas, from whose “Pilgrimage” we cite the following items:

“In the Island Hispaniola the Spaniards had their first Indian habitations, where their cruelties drove the Indians to their shifts, and to their weak defense, which caused those enraged lions to spare neither man, woman, nor child. They set up gibbets, and in honor of Christ and his twelve apostles (as they said, and could the devil say worse?) they would both hang and burn them. The nobles and commanders they broiled on gridirons, they had dogs to hunt them out of their coverts, which devoured the poor souls: and because sometimes the Indians, thus provoked, would kill a Spaniard, if they found opportunity, they made a law that an hundred of them should for one Spaniard be slain.”

He elsewhere remarks:

“Here [in Cuba] was a cacique named Hathuey, which called his subjects about him, and showing them a box of gold, said that was the Spaniards God, and made them dance about it very solemnly; and lest the Spaniards should have it, he hurled it into the river. Being taken and condemned to the fire, when he was bound to the stake, a friar came and preached heaven to him, and the terrors of hell. Hathuey asked if there were any Spaniards in heaven; the friar answered, yea, such as were good. Hathuey replied, he would rather go to hell than go where any of that cruel nation were. I was once present, saith Casas, when the inhabitants of one town brought us forth victuals, and met us with great kindness, and the Spaniards without any cause slew three thousand of them, of every age and sex. I, by their counsel, sent to other towns to meet us, with promise of good dealing; and two and twenty caciques met us, which the captain, against all faith, caused to be burned.”

In Hispaniola, under the administration of Ovando, successor to Bobadilla, the sufferings and oppressions of the over tasked natives reached their climax. It would be but a wearisome repetition of barbarities to enumerate the wrongs perpetrated against the submissive inhabitants in the vicinity of the principal Spanish settlements, but the expedition against the province of Xaraguay merits a more particular attention. This was in the year 1503. Behechio was dead, but his sister Anacaona still maintained her influence over the natives of that district. Upon pretense of an intended insurrection, Ovando determined to reduce Xaraguay to a condition as miserable and hopeless as that of the eastern districts. He started upon this expedition with three hundred well-armed infantry, and seventy mounted men. The army entered the dominions of Anacaona with the appearance of friendship, and the queen, with her associate caciques, was not backward in rendering to her visitors all the hospitalities of the country. Troops of young girls, dancing and waving branches of palm, ushered them into the principal village, where they were received and entertained with every token of kindness and good will.

Administration of Ovando

It is impossible to conceive of any adequate motion on the part of the ferocious Ovando for the treacherous cruelty of his conduct towards his hosts. He affected to believe that a conspiracy was on foot among the natives, to massacre him and his followers, but, judging from what we can learn of the transaction, there existed no possible ground for such a suspicion. The course taken to avert the supposed danger was as follows. All the caciques were invited to attend, with their people, at a grand festival or exhibition of Spanish martial exercises. When the unsuspecting Xaraguans had gathered in eager curiosity to behold the scene, at a given signal, the armed Spaniards fell upon the crowd, and a scene of horrible carnage en sued. Forty of the chiefs, it is said, were taken prisoners, and after being subjected to the most cruel torments to extort from them a confession of guilt, the house where they were confined was set on fire, and the whole number perished in the flames.

Anacaona was carried to St. Domingo, tried, adjudged guilty of an attempt at insurrection, and hanged! Her subjects were remorselessly persecuted; hunted from their retreats among the mountains, slain like wild beasts, or brought into the most servile and hopeless bondage, they attempted no resistance, and submitted to the cruel yoke of their tyrants.

Reduction of Higuey

The reduction of the eastern province of Higuey, and the execution of its noble and gigantic chief Cotubanama, completed the Spanish conquests on the island of Hispaniola. The details of the barbarities attendant upon this last warfare, as given by Las Casas, are too horrible and disgusting for minute recital. It is sufficient that, not content with the destruction of the conquered people, without regard to age and sex, the Spaniards tasked their ingenuity, to devise the most cruel and lingering torments in the murder of their prisoners.

By such a course of atrocities were the “West India islands depopulated of their original inhabitants. The summary with which Purchas concludes his enumeration of various scenes of Spanish cruelty, is too quaint and forcible to be omitted. ” But why do I longer trace them in their bloody steps; seeing our author that relates much more than I, yet protests that it was a thousand times worse. How may we admire that long-suffering of God, that rained not a flood of waters, as in Noah s time, or of fire, as in Lot’s, or of stones, as in Joshua’s, or some vengeance from heaven upon these models of hell? And how could hell forbear swallowing such prepared morsels, exceeding the beastliness of beasts, inhumanity of wonted tyrants, and devilishness, if it were possible, of the devils.”


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MLA Source Citation:

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 30 March 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes-of-the-west-indies-and-northern-provinces-of-south-america.htm - Last updated on Jan 30th, 2013


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