The People Before Columbus

Kim Johnson goes in search of the people who lived in the Caribbean before Columbus' caravels sailed over the eastern horizon

  • Illustration by Sally A. Davies

The story of the Arawaks, the Caribs and the Spaniards is well known to every Caribbean child. We all, from the least educated to the most widely read, assume that there were, before the Europeans landed on these islands, a peaceful and gentle tribe of Amerindians called the Arawaks who inhabited the Caribbean archipelago. So generous and defenceless were they that they embraced the Spaniards and provided every comfort for them, and were repaid by being mercilessly slaughtered; so that within a few decades not one Arawak was alive.

Another tribe (the story goes), a ferocious one called the Caribs, kept pouncing on the Arawaks and putting them to an even more horrible end than the Spaniards.

These Caribs were supposed to be eaters of human flesh. Following hard on the heels of the Arawaks, they had eaten their way up the Caribbean archipelago, settling on each island like a swarm of locusts. By the eve of Columbus’s arrival, the Caribs had eaten their way through the Lesser Antilles and were on their way to Puerto Rico.

The distastefulness of this story makes it difficult to swallow. It represents the final indignity of the first Caribbean people, already victims of the first holocaust unleashed on the world by European civilization. Is that what really happened?

Who were the Arawaks?

When Columbus arrived in Hispaniola there were no people called Arawaks, and there never have been. If you go to Santo Domingo today, people will tell you that their Amerindian ancestors were the Taino. Actually, Indians of the Greater Antilles did not call themselves Taino: that name was given them in 1935 by Sven Loven, the Swedish archaeologist, from the word describing, in the Indian language, the ruling class of their societies.

The people of the Greater Antilles were not Arawaks; nor did they passively accept Spanish depradations. Most of us know the story of Hatuey, the chief who organised to fight the Spanish and who was burnt at the stake. Repent and go to heaven, they told him as they lit the fire. “If there are Spaniards in heaven I would rather go to hell,” he replied.

Nor was Hatuey the only defiant one. There were several others, men like Guarocuya (Enrique) in Hispaniola, Uroyoan in Borinquen (Puerto, Rico) and Guama in Cuba, who confronted the terrifying European weapons-the man-eating dogs, the guns, the mounted soldiers, the naval galleons – with great courage and determination.

As we all know, these Indians of the Greater Antilles eventually lost their war against the invaders. The labour in the mines, starvation, suicide, diseases against which they had no immunity – all of this extinguished the Indians on Hispaniola. They were outmatched. It was difficult for them to abandon their crops and wage guerilla warfare. And the Spanish quickly learnt how to capture and kill their leaders by trickery. Thus the peaceful Arawak, on closer inspection, turns out to he a dead Taino.

But what about the name Arawak? After all, even the 16th century chroniclers refer to the “Aruacs“. There are people living in Guyana today called Arawaks, though they call themselves Lokono (which, in their language, means “the people many”, perhaps most, of these tribes call themselves “the people” in their own language)

Who are these Lokono? Why are they called Arawaks if, when the Europeans first came, they called themselves something else?

In the 15th century the Lokono were just another tribe living in villages scattered throughout the northern Guianas, the Orinoco delta and Trinidad. In Trinidad alone, in addition to the Lokono, there were the Nepoio, the Yao, the Shebao, the Carinepagoto, and others. Later tribes to migrate to Trinidad included the Kalipunians, the Chaimas and the Chaguanes.

There was one distinctive feature about the Lokono, however (shared by the Nepoio, a Cariban-speaking tribe): they had a close relationship with the Spanish. They exchanged food and slaves for metal tools such as hatchets and came to be known as “friends of the Christians.” One particular Lokono town, described by Oviedo y Valdez as “a famous place, praised by the Indians of the coast,” was called Aruacay.

In those days the Spanish were very interested in the pearl fisheries at Margarita and Cubagua, and they needed slaves to work there. Girolamo Benzoni, an Italian like Columbus, participated in these raids and described them in his Historia del Mondo Nuovo (1555): “All along the coast, the Indians came down from the hills to the shore to fish. We therefore used to hide ourselves in places where we could not be seen. We often used to wait all day hoping to take prisoners. When the Indians arrived, we jumped out like wolves attacking so many lambs and made them slaves.”

Nobody was safe from the Spanish, except, for a while, those “friends of the Christians” who dwelt in Aruacay. So while it is true that none of the early chroniclers explain why the Lokono began to call themselves “Aruacas“, the answer seems to stare us in the face: it was a way of saying to the Spanish, “give us a break”

Needless to say, the break did not last. Antonio Vasquez de Espinoza in 1620 reported: “These Aruacas used to be very friendly and loyal dependents of the Spaniards; but they apportioned them unwisely, without their receiving any benefit or catechism for Christian doctrine, but instead much abuse and ill treatment, which forced them to run away; for these and other well-grounded reasons they cancelled their fealty to the Spaniards, who had sad need of them; indignant over past abuses, they rebelled; and not a Spaniard dares enter their provinces, under risk of no less than loss of life.”

So there were in Spanish eyes two groups of peaceful Indians: the dead Taino and the friendly Arawaks. It took the genius of later centuries to equate the two and label the erstwhile in habitants of the Greater Antilles Arawaks.

If there were no peaceful Arawaks, what about the warlike Caribs? Who were those Indians from the Lesser Antilles, the ferocious ones with the famous appetite for barbecued human flesh? Certainly they created a greater impact on the European imagination than the so-called Arawaks. From them came the words Caribbean and cannibal, and, by anagram, Shakespeare’s “Abhorred slave/Which any print of goodness wilt not take/Being capable of all ill”: Caliban.

The Caribs first enter the picture as a rumour Columbus heard from the Taino. “All the people I have met here,” he wrote in his diary, “have said that they are greatly afraid of the ‘Caniba’ or ‘Canima’.” Ovideo y Valdez suggested that the word meant “brave” in the Taino language. As much as a century later, the word Carib was still sometimes used as an adjective to describe different tribes. Thus, in 1620, Vasquez de Espinosa could say: “The island of Granada . . . is thickly peopled with Carib Indians called Camajuyas which means lightning from heaven, since they are brave and warlike.”

By then, Columbus’s Caniba were being called Caribe or Cannibales. The English spoke of Caribbees, Charibs or Caribs, the French referred to Caraibes and, for those on the mainland, Galibis. Fr. Raymond Breton, who lived amongst the Indians in Dominica from 1641 to1655, said that the men called themselves Callinago, and the women called themselves Callipunam. Today among, anthropologists, the favoured name is Kalina.

Such was the impression created by these Lesser Antilleans that the Spanish and other Europeans took the matter of their eating humans quite seriously. For instance, the story was spread in the 16th century that some Dominican Caribs, after eating a Spanish friar, all fell ill; thereafter the Spanish, whenever they stopped off at Carib islands, made sure to dress their sailors in monastic sackcloth, just in case. The Caribs, it was thought, found Spaniards stringy and grisly, as opposed to the French who were rather delicious, and the Dutch who tended to be fairly tasteless.

For all its seeming detail, Spanish knowledge of Kalina culinary habits was actually negligible. It is true that the Kalina and the Lokono raided each other’s settlements for captives or revenge. And it seems likely that both tribes practised some degree of ritual cannibalism. In the 17th century account of Adriaan van Berkel, who lived with Lokono in Berbice, and the 16th century account of Luisa Navarrete who was a Kalina “slave” in Dominica, both tribes after successful raids killed one or two male captives in a victory ritual and put pieces of their flesh into the pot. An arm or a leg was preserved to remind them of their hatred of the enemy. That was more or less the extent of it.

No archaeological evidence has ever been found to indicate widespread and systematic cannibalism; no scorched human bones, bones with knife or saw cuts, bones unnaturally fractured or widely scattered.

“If they were cannibals in those days,” wondered the French pirate-priest Père Labat (1722), who knew the Kalina of Dominica intimately, “why are they not cannibals now? I have certainly not heard of them eating people, whether Englishmen with whom the Carib are nearly always fighting, or Allouages Indians of the mainland near the Orinoco with whom they are continually at war.”

But such niceties were not appreciated at the time. Queen Isabella in 1503 prohibited any man “to arrest or capture any Indians … or to do them any harm or evil to their persons or possessions,” but she also made one exception: “a people called Cannibales … (who) waged war on the Indians who are my vassals, capturing them to eat them as is their custom.” Slaves were much needed. It was convenient, then, to discover as many Cannibales as there were Indians.

What really remains? What was it all about? Did it mean that Spain got a few less gold trinkets and pearls, were the smaller islands preserved for the English and the French to turn them into sugar plantations and slave societies? Did it merely mean that the word “anthropophagi” could be replaced by “cannibal”, and the memory of the past linger on only as a foolish story about Arawaks and Caribs?

The Lokono and the Kalina can still be found in the Guianas, but their memory has been covered with calumny.

But there is another story to be told. We pick up the trail in the writing of Thomas More, who set his fictional island of Utopia in the Caribbean, where Erasmus’s Fortunate Isles were also located. It was inspired by the courage and egalitarianism of both “Arawaks” and “Caribs”. It first found expression in the startling idea of Las Casas that “the inhabitants (of Cuba) hail the right to wage war on the Admiral and his Christians in order to rescue their neighbours and compatriots.” It was the French, who colonised the Carib islands, who took it up next – Montaigne, Voltaire and then Rousseau with his noble savage. By 1776, the year of the American Revolution, when Abbe Raynal picked up the thread, the Indians had been replaced by Africans. “The slave, an instrument in the hands of wickedness, is below the dog which the Spaniard let loose against the American,” he wrote. “A courageous chief only is wanted.”

Those lines were closely read, over and over, by a middle-aged black slave in Ste Domingue who shared the same dream. His name was Toussaint L’Ouverture, and his dream was no less than the dream of freedom.

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