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Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

Hispaniola: Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

by Samuel M. Wilson

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In 1492 the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taino, an Indian group whose ancestors had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from lowland South America more than 1,500 years before. They were organized politically into large cacicazgos, or chiefdoms, comprising 70 or more villages under the authority of a paramount cacique, or chief. From the


In 1492 the island of Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taino, an Indian group whose ancestors had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from lowland South America more than 1,500 years before. They were organized politically into large cacicazgos, or chiefdoms, comprising 70 or more villages under the authority of a paramount cacique, or chief. From the first voyage on, Columbus made Hispaniola his primary base for operations in the New World. Over the subsequent decades, disease, warfare, famine, and enslavement brought about the destruction of the Taino chiefdoms and almost completely annihilated the aboriginal population of the island.

This book examines the early years of the contact period in the Caribbean and in narrative form reconstructs the social and political organization of the Taino. Wilson describes in detail the interactions between the Taino and the Spaniards, with special attention paid to the structure and functioning of the Taino chiefdoms. By providing additional information from archaeology and recent ethnography, he builds a rich context within which to understand the Taino and their responses to the Europeans.

The Taino are especially important in a New World context because they represent a society undergoing rapid sociopolitical change and becoming more complex through time. The early contact period on Hispaniola gives us a rich ethnohistorical glimpse of the political processes of a complex New World society before and during its destruction brought about by the arrival of the Europeans.


Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An important contribution not only to the literature of the contact period and to Caribbean anthropology, but also to the refinement of multidisciplinary efforts in the social sciences to understand the past."
—American Anthropologist

"Samuel Wilson has brought together a wealth of extremely valuable information concerning the proto-historic contact period on Hispaniola.....An impressive book." --William F. Keegan, The Florida State Museum

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Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus

By Samuel M. Wilson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1990 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8100-4



In the autumn of 1492 a Genoese merchant captain and ninety sailors attempted to find a more profitable route to Japan by sailing west across the Atlantic. The expedition was financed by the royal courts of Castille and Aragon, and to a large extent by the participants in the voyage. They all hoped to amass the kinds of personal and national fortunes that Portuguese traders had found on the west coast of Africa in the decades before. There was no question about falling off the edge of the earth: educated Europeans had known for centuries that the world was spherical. There was, however, considerable disagreement about how far it was from Spain to Japan. Even the highest estimates were less than half of the actual distance.

Three small ships sailed from Spain to the Canary Islands, and from there they were carried west by the trade winds and the north equatorial current of the Atlantic. They sailed out of sight of land for about a month. Instead of the marvelous eastern kingdoms described by Marco Polo and other European travelers, they found a vast archipelago of tropical islands that stretched 2,700 km (1,700 mi) from end to end. The islands were inhabited by people who were alien to them in appearance, customs, and language.

These "Indians" (the name itself connotes their misidentification) were the descendants of mainland South American people who had migrated into the Caribbean in the last centuries B.C. In fifteen hundred years they had colonized nearly all of the archipelago from Trinidad to the northern Bahamas. Their migration into the Caribbean had not been gradual but instead had proceeded as a series of rapid leaps followed by consolidation of the occupied territory. In the process they replaced or incorporated smaller groups of inhabitants who had lived in the islands for several thousand years B.C.

In the five hundred years before the European explorers' arrival, elaborate and complex social and political institutions had developed in the Caribbean societies, especially in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (the island containing the modern countries Dominican Republic and Haiti; see figure 1). The sociopolitical organization of these islands was similar in structure to mainland South American sociopolitical systems, with whom they shared an ancestry, and yet in a great many ways it was unique to the Caribbean. From archaeological evidence it is apparent that the complex sociopolitical institutions emerged in place in the islands, rather than being transported from the mainland. These people called themselves Taíno, from a root word meaning "noble" or "prudent" (Arrom 1975).

The Taíno Indians were the first group the Europeans encountered in their exploration of the New World. Hispaniola was the first foothold for the Spanish colonization and remained the most important base of operations in the New World for thirty years. The Indians of Hispaniola were thus the first in the New World to experience the avarice of the Europeans, their violent character and overwhelming military superiority, and the devastating assortment of diseases they carried. The Taíno were the first New World population to be quickly and completely eradicated as a consequence of the European discovery.

This book examines the contact period on Hispaniola, the short span of years between the first encounters with the Europeans in 1492 and the collapse of the indigenous chiefdoms. The data used are predominately historical and ethnohistorical; they are taken from the letters, accounts, journals, court cases, and histories of the conquest of the Caribbean islands by the Spanish in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The explorers were very interested in the alien Taíno culture in the early years of the contact period and described their interactions with them in some detail. The Spanish were dependent on the good will of the Taíno caciques (the Taíno word for "chiefs" or "headmen") for their food and thus had to find a way to fit into the indigenous social and political spectra. This necessity occupied a great deal of their attention in the first few years of the contact period—until supply lines were firmly established from Spain and the local sociopolitical systems had collapsed.

The Caribbean situation is nearly unique in the history of the contact period in the New World. After the Europeans' arrival in the Caribbean, stories of their strange appearance and practices spread rapidly. The European items the explorers brought for trade entered into the existing trade networks of elite goods and often preceded the explorers' arrival in a new area. Similarly, diseases were transmitted along the same trade and communication routes and often registered a demographic effect before the Europeans were there to see it happen. On Hispaniola, however, the process of mutual discovery began unannounced.

The sociopolitical organization of the Taíno Indians is also of special interest to anthropologists interested in how complex societies and governments came into being. The Taíno were organized politically into collective polities of dozens of villages, with one chief, or cacique, having paramount importance. The title of the cacique was inherited and carried special privileges and powers. He played a part in directing the production and distribution of food and goods of his chiefdom, or cacicazgo, and had a central role in mediating between the spiritual and physical world. He was the highest-ranking member of an elite stratum of society that was (to varying extents) separate from a nonelite or commoner stratum (Alcina Franch 1983; Dreyfus 1981; Moscoso 1978; Sanoja Obediente 1983; Sauer 1966; Vega 1980; Veloz Maggiolo 1972, 1977, 1983).

These characteristics make the Taíno sociopolitical system comparable to a wide range of chiefdom societies that have existed worldwide in the last several millennia. The variability of these chiefdom societies, and their place in the trajectory of historical processes that led to more complex empires and states, has been extensively debated in the anthropological literature (Carneiro 1970, 1983; Creamer and Haas 1985; Drennan and Uribe 1987; Earle 1977, 1987; Feinman and Neitzel 1984; Fried 1967; Friedman 1974; Haas 1982; Kirch 1984; Service 1971; Spencer 1987; Upham 1987).

In this book I reconstruct in narrative fashion a series of events from the early contact period and place the events, the actors, and their motivations in as rich and complete a historical context as possible. This reconstructed context draws on the product of centuries of historical, archaeological, and cultural anthropological scholarship concerning the early voyages of discovery, the explorers themselves, and the New World peoples they encountered.

Particular attention is paid in the narratives to the interactions of the elite stratum of Taíno society—its patterns of succession, inheritance, marriage, trade, and warfare—and the processes through which these multivillage polities were held together as a unified entity.

Using historical data from the sources available from the early contact period has many inherent problems. Observations of the Spanish and Italian chroniclers of the period were conditioned by their own theories or prevailing European interpretations. Taíno culture was viewed through fifteenth-century European eyes, and the written records that survived were often crafted with particular political objectives in mind. The journal that Cristóbal Colón kept on the first voyage, for example, was above all his report to the king and queen and was designed to show him and his decisions in the best possible light. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote his extensive works to chronicle what he perceived to be the brutal destruction of the Indian populations at the hands of the Spanish. Others (e.g. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés) took the perspective that the Indians were little more than a curious feature of the natural environment.

Nondocumentary sources of information have also proved useful in the present study. Archaeological data from the Greater and Lesser Antilles (discussed below) help in the reconstruction and description of Taíno culture, and in some cases historical descriptions of villages visited by the Spaniards can be correlated with their archaeological remains (e.g. Deagan 1985; Goodwin and Walker 1975; Veloz Maggiolo et al. 1976). In a more general sense, artifacts and physical or architectural remains can be associated with ethnohistorical descriptions of their use and meaning.

Modern geographical tools as simple as a detailed map provide an interpretive advantage that the explorers did not have. Another dimension is added to the ethnohistorical and archaeological record by more recent ethnographic work among South American Indian groups that are linguistically and historically related to the Taíno (Alegría 1978; Arrom 1967; Sanoja Obediente 1983; Siegel 1988).

Any reconstruction of the events of the early contact period, and of Taíno culture generally, must incorporate these diverse sources of data and make effective use of them. Each set of data, however, lies in the domain of different traditional disciplines—history, anthropology, archaeology, and human geography. In a period in which disciplinary boundaries are frequently and easily crossed, the problem remains to find a methodology and mode of explanation that is equal to its integrative task (Campbell 1969). The use of narrative, traditionally a tool of the historian, has reemerged as a vehicle for relating causal explanation (Stone 1979). This trend may reflect a growing consensus about the complexity of human societies and the inability of past (and current) normative approaches to explain this complexity adequately (Hodder 1987a, 1987b).

The approach taken in this study combines historical description in a narrative form with anthropological interpretation. This method derives in part from anthropological interpretations of historical and ethnohistorical data such as Sahlins's in Polynesia (1981, 1985) and Geertz's in Indonesia (1980), as well as a historical tradition of applying anthropological models and interpretations to documentary evidence (as in Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, 1981-84) within a broadly historical rubric (Braudel 1980, LeRoy Ladurie 1981). Geertz's concept of anthropological analysis as "thick description" (1973:3-30) is an important point of departure for the present study.

A narrative style is appealing in dealing with the ethnohistorical documents of the conquest period in the Caribbean in part because of the analytical limitations the documents possess. Only in a very limited way could they be reified to a quantifiable set of data acceptable to the more numerically oriented schools of historiography or anthropology. Associated with every piece of ethnohistoric information is a sort of confidence value; not every observation or opinion can be afforded the same certainty. The narrative method thus offers a forum in which different classes and qualities of data can be presented in a similar context.

Another reason for approaching the historical documents in a narrative fashion is to attempt to tackle in a new way a problem encountered by earlier analyses of the Taíno. Many of the ethnohistorical studies undertaken on the Taíno in this century have organized documentary material via a normative methodology (similar to the editorial structure of Julian Steward's Handbook of South American Indians), examining Taíno cultural traits as they fall into a series of categories (Cassá 1974; Gómez Acevedo and Ballesteros Gaibrois 1980; Rouse 1948; Sauer 1966; Tabío and Rey 1966; Veloz Maggiolo 1972). This strategy also appears in earlier interpretations of the Indians of the Caribbean (Charlevoix 1731-33; Nau 1894). This categorical or trait-list approach has been very productive, imposing an interpretive structure on the diverse documents from the contact period. Within this framework, however, it is difficult to avoid presenting Taíno sociopolitical institutions as relatively static and discrete entities. The view emphasized here is of a sociopolitical system that was highly integrated. That is, it is almost impossible (and perhaps counterproductive) to separate the social and symbolic roles of a Taíno cacique from his political roles, or to differentiate the economic from the ceremonial importance of Taíno feasts (Helms 1980, 1988; Sahlins 1981).

Concerning the Ethnohistorical Sources

The documents used in this study are taken both as compilations of historical data with varying degrees of accuracy and as texts within a European literary context. Because of the richness and vitality of the documents, and because they recount stories which are our principal concern in this book, it is easy to lose sight of the intellectual and literary milieus to which the documents contributed and within which they must be assessed.

The sixteenth century was a crucial turning point in the intellectual history of Europe. The discovery of the New World coincided with the full florescence of the Italian Renaissance and just preceded the emergence of Renaissance thought in northern Europe and England. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) were contemporaries of the events examined in this study. Through the literary genius of writers like Shakespeare (1564-1616), the cultural structures of the Middle Ages were transformed and given a modern, secular voice. Patterns of rational or scientific inquiry which persist to the present were novel and audacious at the time. Copernicus's Concerning the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs appeared in 1543, as did Vesalius's Concerning the Structure of the Human Body, and both met with tremendous popular and ecclesiastical criticism.

The ways in which information was disseminated were also changing radically just as Las Casas, Martyr, and Oviedo were writing. The diffusion from China of practical kinds of paper and the invention of a printing device with movable type (the first Gutenberg Bible was printed around 1454) provided the functional basis for scholarship to become a secular enterprise. It is estimated that by the year 1500 more than twenty-five thousand separate editions of books had been produced, totaling perhaps as many as twenty million volumes (Febvre and Martin 1971:368). Between 1480 and 1500 the first printing shops had opened in Spain (p. 262).

The degree to which the chroniclers of the conquest of the Caribbean were participants in the European intellectual revolutions differs in each case. On one hand, Pietro Martyr d'Anghiera, an Italian intellectual, was the archetypal Renaissance thinker. He was brought to the court of Castille to tutor the royal heirs precisely because he represented the Renaissance intellectual tradition of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. On the other hand, Cristóbal Colón has been aptly described by Todorov as a "medieval mentality" whose spiritual worldview stands in such sharp contrast to the emerging secular vision of the Renaissance (1984:1-13). According to Todorov, Colón's passion for discovery was motivated by his dream of providing money for the liberation of Jerusalem from the infidels (p. 10)—a rebirth of Crusader ideals three hundred years out of date.

The most important series of documents used in this study are the writings of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas. In practical ways Las Casas embodied the humanistic concerns of the Renaissance, while embracing the philosophy of the older sacred order. He was born in Seville in 1474 and was educated at the University at Salamanca (Giménez Fernández 1971). His father, a merchant, and uncle had gone to the New World on one of the early voyages, perhaps the second or third voyage of Colón. In 1502, when he was around twenty-eight, Las Casas followed them to the New World. He became a priest on Hispaniola but participated in the brutal conquest of Cuba. There he was a landholder and encomendero with Indian slaves. His strong and unpopular convictions about the treatment of the Indians did not manifest themselves until a dramatic conversion experience in 1514. He participated in an unsuccessful attempt to colonize Venezuela, lived for periods in the Valley of Mexico and in Guatemala, and was made bishop of Chiapas. Returning to Spain in 1547 at the age of seventy-three, he continued work on his major manuscripts. He lived to be ninety-two years old, dying in 1566 (Hanke 1970:i-xviii).


Excerpted from Hispaniola by Samuel M. Wilson. Copyright © 1990 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Samuel M. Wilson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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