Rebellion and Anti-colonial Struggle in Hispaniola: From Indigenous Agitators to African Rebels.

AuthorOzuna, Ana
PositionEssay

Ana Ozuna earned her Ph. D. from University at Buffalo in Spanish Literature and currently serves as Assistant Professor at Hostos Community College, and teaches Black and Caribbean Studies courses. Her current research and publications examines racial identity politics in the Dominican Republic and maroonage throughout the Caribbean.

The long-standing campaigns against Moorish rulers in the Iberian Peninsula fostered a crusading zeal that legitimized the persecution of Muslims, Jews, and other non-Christians for over seven centuries and continued after Spanish monarchs toppled the last Moorish stronghold in 1492. Enamored by this triumph, the Spanish Crown granted Christopher Columbus the necessary funding to explore lands west of the Iberian Peninsula with the objective of enriching Spanish coffers and extending their genocidal campaign in lands across the sea. The Bull Inter Caetera, one of three bulls issued in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, sanctioned the imperial extension of Portugal and Spain, and laid out an agenda of territorial domination, the acquisition of precious metals, and the subjugation of non-Europeans. In the document, the Pope boasts of the "recovery of the kingdom of Granada from the yoke of the Saracens," denoting it as the final campaign that eradicated Moorish rule from the Iberian Peninsula, and mandates the Iberian monarchs to extend their geopolitical power and dominate non-Europeans in the name of the Christendom.

The indigenous inhabitants of Hispaniola, the Tainos, originally numbering 1 million on the island according to Spanish census of 1496, initiated a legacy of resistance in defense of their autonomy against the Spanish that attracted the participation of enslaved African collaborators upon their arrival during the first decades of the sixteenth century (Roorda, Eric, Lauren Hutchinson 2). Christopher Columbus evinced his awe of the island's natural environment during his first voyage noting, "that the best land of Castile could not be compared with it" and, furthermore regarding it as "the most pleasant place in the world" in his December 13th journal entry (Columbus 178). Columbus likewise lauded the magnanimity of the Tainos during this first encounter, particularly after cacique Guacanagari of the northwestern region of the island, Marien, and his people collectively wept for the loss of the Spanish flagship Santa Maria, and assisted the Spanish crew in storing salvaged goods in Taino homesteads. Directly addressing the Spanish Crown in his December 25th entry, Columbus exalted their compassion, generosity, and naivete: "They are a loving people, without covetousness, and fit for anything; and I assure your Highnesses that there is no better land nor people" (Columbus 201).

In his ensuing December 26 account, Columbus again lauded Guacanagari for graciously safeguarding their possessions from the Santa Maria vessel, bestowing gifts of gold, and preparing a lavish meal of indigenous fare "three or four kinds of ajes, with shrimp and game, the other viands they have, besides the bread which they call cazavi" (Columbus 202). During this meeting, Guacanagari confirmed the location of gold mines in the Cibao region to Columbus' extreme satisfaction since he promised the Spanish Crown the extensive acquisition of this valuable commodity. The Admiral ordered the construction of La Navidad fort and settlement, and confidently left 39 men, asserting that upon his return, they would have gathered "a tun of gold collected by barter [...] would have found the mine, and spices in such quantities that the Sovereigns would in three years, be able to undertake and fit an expedition to go conquer the Holy Sepulchre" (Columbus 205).

After a ten-day stay as a guest of Guacanagari, Columbus and his men headed east to reconnoiter the island before departing to Spain, and experienced their first instance of indigenous defiance and resistance. According to Columbus' account, island natives attacked his crew on January 13th after they persistently demanded indigenous bows, arrows, and other weapons (Columbus 224). Nonetheless, Columbus dismissed this initial act of self defense, stating "They [the Tainos] would have fear of the Christians, and they were no doubt an ill-conditioned people, probably Caribs, who eat men" (Columbus 224). Evidently, Columbus underestimated the Hispaniola natives and left the island three days later on January 16 with an idyllic vision of his New World hosts.

Indigenous Resistance to Spanish Colonization

During Columbus departure, Taino chief Caonabo and his brother, Mayreni of the Maguana kingdom in the Cibao region, ordered the destruction of La Navidad settlement and death of the 39 men in 1493 by "ritually mutilating them to ensure that they would be sent back to Coaybay, the land of the dead, where they thought these evil men originally [came] from" for unrelentingly demanding gold, raping Taino women, and committing other truculent acts (Roget 175). A letter written by the ship's physician, Dr. Diego Alvarez Chanca, expressed the disillusionment and utter shock experienced by Columbus and the Spanish crew as they surveyed the destroyed fort and dismembered bodies upon their returned to the island in November 1493. (1) While Taino monarch Guacanagari pledged his continued allegiance to Columbus other native cacique rulers formed an alliance to protect the Taino body politic against the foreign sojourners (Deagan and Cruxent 59).

Taino leaders actively contested the Spanish conquest on several levels. In 1495, Guatiguara evaded capture after he attacked Spanish soldiers at the fortress of Magdalena; nonetheless, over a thousand Tainos were captured and enslaved, "initiating the first open enslavement of Caribbean Indians" (Deagan and Cruxent 60). Caonabo retaliated by attacking the fortresses of Magdalena and Santo Tomas, waging a month long attack at the Santo Tomas fort, which resulted in his capture and eventual death en route to Spain (Francisco 64-65; Deagan and Cruxent 61). That same year, Tainos took flight to the mountains when forced to "cultivate large cassava plantations to feed the Spaniards" (Moya Pons 31). Concomitantly, Magicatex, the cacique of the Bahoruco, and his brother Guaroa formed the first maroon community in the Bahoruco Mountains to escape Spanish subjugation.

With the objective of destroying the Taino alliance, Columbus waged war in the Magua and the Maguana chiefdoms aided by Columbus' brother, Bartholomew, and approximately 3000 of Guacanagari subjects, as well as two hundred heavily armed Spanish troops with horses and dogs in March 1495 (Francisco 65; Guitar 119). Taino forces aggressively combated Columbus' army, although Spanish military capability undermined Taino warriors.

When both sides retreated after the Santo Cerro Battle, Taino caciques considered this mutual act an unofficial concession and end to the war since, "[f]ighting to the death was not the indigenous way" (Guitar 119). Nonetheless, the treaty agreed upon by Guarionex, Taino cacique from Magua, declared the Spaniard victors of the war and required a punitive periodic tribute in gold from all Tainos over the age of 14 (Guitar 119; Rouse 152). Although Taino monarchs agreed to enforce the tribute payment among their subjects, insurrections and other acts of recalcitrance ensued. In 1497, Taino monarchs, led by Guarionex, planned to attack Spanish forces but were subdued during a clandestine Spanish night raid (Deagan and Cruxent 68). Another cacique leader, Cotubanama of Higuey, repelled Captain Juan de Esquival's army for two months before being ambushed on Saona Island in 1504.

Pre-colonial Presence of African People in Hispaniola

Early Taino resistance galvanized Black people to join them in combating the Colombian project and asserting their freedom. Forced to mutually toil side by side in mines, farms, construction projects, and private homes, Tainos and Black people formed tightknit alliances throughout the first half of the sixteenth century.

Interestingly, although Dominican historiography dates African and Amerindian contact to the fifteenth century owing to the Columbian enterprise, scholarship signals prior interaction. Historian Ivan Van Sertima corroborates ancient African trans-oceanic voyages achieved by Egyptians and Nubians as early as 1200BCE with botanical, metallurgical, navigational, skeletal, and linguistic evidence. These successful transatlantic travels prompted European mariners, geographers and cartographers to study the nautical knowledge generated by African navigators and shipbuilders (Van Sertima 14). In the fifteenth century, Iberian monarchs launch their colonial expansion in the Americas employing African navigational knowledge.

According to Van Sertima, Portuguese King Juan II enthusiastically received Columbus in his court curious to learn about his undertakings abroad after his first return voyage from the Americas in 1493. During this meeting, Columbus confirmed encountering islands inhabited by natives after more than two months of travel. King Juan II expressed disappointment "recognizing clearly the greatness of the lands discovered and their riches" and consequently urged Columbus to sway the Spanish Crown to partition the new lands (Van Sertima 5). The King also related his knowledge of African transatlantic travel to the Americas: "Africans, he said, had traveled to that world. It could be found just below the equinoctial line, roughly on the same parallel as the latitudes of his domain in Guinea" (Van Sertima 8). When Columbus, returned to Hispaniola during his second voyage, the Tainos corroborated the monarch's account of African travel to the Americas. Tainos related their commercial interactions with African people and demonstrated the spears made of "guanin" composed of gold, silver, and copper (Van Sertima 13). (2)

Seeking verification, Columbus sent samples of the "guanin" to Spanish metallurgists who...

To continue reading

Request your trial