Columbus and the Taíno

When Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in 1492, he was locked into a geographical view of the world which did not anticipate a continent between Europe and Asia. He had set sail for India-a 15th century concept which referred to southern China and southeastern Asia-so when he landed on some islands he assumed that he was off the coast of Asia. On behalf of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, he claimed the land and the people for Spain, conveniently ignoring native government and native ownership of the land.

The population of the Americas in 1492 is estimated to be 100 million, as compared with 70 million in Europe.  

Europeans were not known for their religious tolerance. The day before Columbus left Spain, all of the Jews in Spain were required to leave. During the time that Columbus was preparing for his voyage, an estimated 30,000 Spanish Jews were burned at the stake for their failure to convert to Catholicism.

The Taíno were the first Native Americans to encounter the Spanish. Columbus recorded in his diary that the natives “would easily be made Christians because it seemed to me that they had no religion.”

After Columbus had returned to Europe and word of his discoveries reached the royal courts of Portugal and Spain, there were heated debates over the ownership of the new lands. Pope Alexander VI stepped in to solve the dilemma. Papal bulls by Pope Alexander VI granted Spain and Portugal all of the lands in the Americas which were not under Christian rule. Thus began the European assumption that the native people of the area did not really own the land because they were not Christian. The Pope decreed that

“barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

The Inter Caetera papal bull by Pope Alexander VI stated:

“We trust in Him from whom empires, and governments, and all good things proceed.”

This laid the legal foundation for assuming that government comes only from the Christian god and therefore Christian nations have a legal right to rule over non-Christian nations. The late Vine Deloria in his “Afterword,” for America in 1492: The World of Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus wrote:

“Thus armed with a totally bogus title issued by God’s representative on earth, the Spaniards then began a brutal conquest in the Americas which virtually obliterated the native populations in the Caribbean within a generation.”

The discovery of Indians presented some problems for Europeans since they were not mentioned in the Christian Bible: the Native Americans did not fit within orthodox Christianity’s explanation of the moral universe.

At the time of first contact with the Spanish, the Taíno world stretched across the Caribbean Islands for more than a thousand miles. The Taíno, part of the Arawak language group, had arrived on the islands more than 2,000 years earlier from South America. By 700 CE, they occupied the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico. They then pushed into the Greater Antilles-Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba.

In South America, the Arawak-speaking ancestors of the Taíno had a lifestyle that centered around the growing of manioc and other root crops, hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. This lifestyle adapted to the islands and the sea, rather than separating them, seemed to unite them. They had ocean-going canoes which could hold as many as a hundred people. Voyages between the islands were common place. Intermarriage among the lineages of the different islands was also common and helped build a unifying network of kinship relations.

Another unifying element among the Taíno was the ball game. The game, which was also found in Mesoamerica and part of South America, was played using a rubber ball on courts with stone or earthen embankments. As in Mesoamerica, the ball was struck primarily with the hips. For the Taíno, the game was the focus of religious festivals, feasting, trade, intermarriage, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The political power of Taíno leaders stemmed from: (1) the mother’s lineage (very different from that of European monarchs), (2) having a special relationship with the supernatural, and (3) political acumen. A “chief” (this is a European leadership term) could be deposed by his brothers or nephews.

When Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola, Guarionex was one of the five most powerful Taíno leaders with followers numbered in the tens of thousands scattered over hundreds of square miles.

By 1495, the Spanish who had originally been welcomed by the Taíno, had managed to alienate their hosts. Guarionex and the other Taíno leaders decided that they had had enough and tens of thousands of Taíno warriors (some reports claim a hundred thousand) gathered to do battle with 200 Spaniards. The battle was unlike anything that the Taíno had ever experienced. It began with twenty Spanish warriors, fully armored and riding warhorses through their ranks inflicting great damage with their swords and lances. Then foot soldiers fired their guns, a terrifying weapon to those who had never encountered it. Finally, the Spanish set loose their large dogs, trained to kill humans, upon the Taíno warriors. The Spanish goal seemed to be to kill as many Taíno as possible, a goal that was unheard of in the traditional warfare on the islands.

Following their defeat, the Taíno accepted their status as Spanish subjects. They agreed to pay tribute in the form of food, cotton, and gold. The Spanish demanded that every man over the age of 14 provide them with a little copper bell filled with gold every three months. Providing gold, however, was not the greatest hardship on the Taíno: the Spanish were eating them out of house and home. Not only did the Spanish seem to eat far more than the Taíno, but they also ate the manioc that wasn’t ready to be harvested. The result was food shortages and starvation for the Taíno.

Columbus viewed the Taíno themselves as a way to amass his personal wealth. He selected 500 to be exported to Spain as slaves, and 500 to serve as slaves to the Spanish on the Island. Columbus proudly boasted to the Spanish monarchs about the slave potential and its economic benefits. Columbus would capture and export more Indian slaves-about 5,000 — than any other single individual. In addition to capturing the Indians as slaves, the Spanish also hunted the Indians for sport and slaughtered them for dog food. The Spanish also viewed Taíno women as their sex slaves.

By 1497, the combination of starvation, European diseases, and Spanish brutality had reduced the Taíno numbers. Christopher Columbus was neither a good leader, nor particularly charismatic. Many of his men hated him. As a result, the Spaniard Francisco de Roldán led a small army of anti-Columbus soldiers. He encouraged the Taíno leaders, including Guarionex, to join with them in defeating the other Spanish.

Don Bartolomé Colón, the brother of Columbus, was a better leader and had, in fact, learned to speak some Taíno. Bartolomé moved against the incipient rebellion by staging a midnight raid on the Taíno villages, a serious breach of Taíno war etiquette, and capturing as many Taíno leaders as possible. They killed the leaders in the traditional Spanish style: they burned them alive.

Traditionally, Taíno leaders not only directed their warriors in battle, but more importantly they mediated with the spirit helpers to ensure victory. Without their leaders, the Taíno warriors were in chaos and soon surrendered.

The destruction of the Taíno political system, coupled with the demands for tribute and the devastating impact of disease and starvation, led to the virtual extinction of Taíno society on Hispaniola by 1500.

While there are some historians and pseudo-historians who point to Christopher Columbus as an example of perseverance, courage, and Christian faith, there are others who feel that his legacy, from a Native American viewpoint, is one of genocide and slavery.

Aborignial Puerto Rico

( – promoted by navajo)

The aboriginal Taíno name for the island that is today called Puerto Rico is Borinquen and thus people from the island are Boricuas. While the Taínos were the dominant aboriginal group on the island when the Spanish arrived in 1493, they only arrived on the island in the seventh century. They replaced an earlier island culture and by the year 1000 had become the dominant political, economic, and cultural power on the island.  

When the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean they found the native people there to be friendly. The Spanish had come to the Caribbean in search of great wealth: wealth from gold and silver; and wealth from agricultural crops such as sugar. Since it takes a great deal of labor to produce wealth from these things, they simply enslaved the Taíno. The impact of forced labor coupled with European diseases and deliberate murder soon decimated the Taíno population.

In 1511, the Taíno under the leadership of Urayoán and Agueybaná revolted. The revolt, however, was quickly put down by Ponce de León and the superior Spanish weaponry. By 1520, the Taíno population on Puerto Rico was considered almost extinct.

Like the other indigenous people in the Caribbean, the Taíno in Puerto Rico had an agricultural based economy. In addition, they engaged in trade with the people on the other islands, with the American Indian tribes in Florida, and with the people in Mesoamerica.

The Taíno culture emphasized creativity in pottery, basket weaving, cotton weaving, and stone sculpture. Both men and women painted their bodies and adorned them with jewelry made from bone, shell, stone, and gold. The presence of this gold jewelry encouraged the Spanish quest for wealth.

Feasts and dances were a part of the social, ceremonial, and religious life of the Taíno people. The Taíno drank alcohol which they made from fermented corn. Like Native Americans in other parts of the Americas, they also used tobacco in their religious ceremonies.  We don’t know a great deal about Taíno religion as the Spanish were not interested in recording it: they simply assumed that the Taíno didn’t have any religion.

One of the gifts from the Taíno to the rest of the world was the hammock. The term “hammock” is derived from the Taíno term “hamaca.” Hammocks were readily adopted by sailors all over the world as a convenient means to increase the crew capacity of ships. They also improved the sanitary conditions of the sleeping quarters. Today they are found in many American backyards.

In 1898, the United States decided that it wanted to become an imperial power so it acquired Puerto Rico as well as other colonies. Ignoring Puerto Rico’s aboriginal past, most Americans think of Puerto Ricans as hispanics in terms of both language and culture. Genetically, the Taíno DNA continues in many Puerto Ricans. More importantly, the memories of the aboriginal Borinquen have not been forgotten and many still call themselves Boricua and relate to this earlier culture.

The United Confederation of Taíno People (UCTP) was created in 1998. Its purpose is to protect, defend, and preserve the Taíno cultural heritage and spiritual tradition. Taíno cultural heritage and spiritual tradition includes but is not limited to the protection and maintenance of ancestral remains, sacred sites, artifacts, and religious practices which involve the use of ceremonial objects such as sacred plants and various feathers.  

In spite of suppression by both the Spanish and the Americans, some of the Taíno language has managed to survive.

Contrary to what has been thought and taught by some, the Taíno language was not completely extinguished. Portions were absorbed over time into the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Spanish spoken in Boriken retains over 600 Taíno words.

Among words of indigenous origin are objects, geographical names, personal names as well as flora and fauna. A few contemporary cities and towns in Boriken include Yabucoa, Bayamon, Coamo, Ceiba, Caguas, Guanica, Areciboetc.

Many Taíno words are used as adjectives and verbs. For example, the phrase “dar mucho katei” and “joder la pita” means to be very bothersome. “Duro como el guayacan” refers to a person in good shape and “tiene unos macos bonitos” means having pretty eyes.


Some Taíno words:

Ana: flower

Caona: gold

Ector: sweet soft corn (maize)

Ita: don’t know

With regard to religion, the Caney Circle has kept alive a modern version of the shamanic traditions of the Taíno.

At the heart of our belief in the vitality of spiritual experience is the knowledge that Cosmic wisdom exists within the concept of the sacred circle. This concept is similar to the concept of the North American Indian belief in the “Medicine Wheel” and Asian belief in the “Mandala”.