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An outbreak of a disease known as the “black vomit” prevents the English from strengthening their hold in “The New World” in the eighteenth century, with huge repercussions; the untimely death of an emperor prevents Chinese and Portuguese explorers from meeting along the coast of West Africa in the fifteenth century; the most significant factor in the Spanish exploration of North America turns out not to be Spain’s mighty armies or her unrivaled fleet, but the lowly mosquito. In human history, little things can make a big difference, as Samuel Wilson demonstrates in The Emperor’s Giraffe and Other Stories of Cultures in Contact.Focusing on individuals caught by chance in pivotal times and places, Wilson explores the ways in which seemingly small decisions made during the initial “contact period” between two cultures have had a huge impact on the course of history. Many of the stories illustrate that, despite thousands of years of isolation, the states and empires of the Old World were remarkably similar in structure and organization to those of the Americas. And the course of events in these past societies was at least partially determined by decisions made by people very much like ourselves—armed with imperfect knowledge and fueled by personal agendas.More than anything else, The Emperor’s Giraffe shows that the consequences of these “contact periods” are still very much with us, in some rather surprising ways. Who could have predicted that the British colonization of the West Indies would come to a symbolic end with a 1950 EnglandWest Indies cricket match? Who would have guessed that centuries-old European folk tales would make their way to America and be brought back to Europe hundred of years later in the guise of Disney characters? Little known events with large consequences and remarkable characters fill these interesting, informative, and sometimes surprising essays.
Even before the 500th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Caribbean, most people were tired of hearing about him. If history were scripted for drama, Columbus would never have been cast in the lead. When historians wanted to make Columbus a hero (as they did in 1892, for instance), they had to gloss over a lot of historical facts and even make up whole plotlines to make him look good. The real Colombo or Colon (his surnames in his native Italian and adopted Spanish) was the sort of man who often cheated and bullied people. He tormented those from whom he wanted something and alienated nearly everyone else. As much as anyone in the early years of the conquest of the Americas--Native American or European--he was in over his head much of the time. In a sense, he was so fallible and human that it is perhaps fortunate he ended up where he did in history, if only because he is such a difficult person to romanticize.
The following four chapters dealing with the Columbian voyages and their aftermath have a lot to do with Columbus, but the focus also falls on some of the people around him. He found himself in competition with several Taino rulers in the Greater Antilles, butfor even longer periods he was allied with some of these men. As indigenous leaders suffering the first wave of European impact, they were dealing with awful predicaments, and they needed to figure out some way to read Columbus. It is hard to imagine that there was any real communication and cooperation across this huge historical, linguistic, and cultural divide, yet it was there. In looking at both sides of this exchange, however, it is tragic that so little of the Taino's own views and ideas of the Europeans were preserved. One would like to know more of what they thought of Columbus.
Another group of people who figure in these chapters were Columbus's competitors and others involved in the endeavor to find a western, transatlantic route to the Far East. This was a big enterprise in the mid-fifteenth century, involving England, France, the Iberian kingdoms, and the large Italian city-states. To undertake a transatlantic venture a group had to gain the support of geographers, cartographers, and other scholars for the project and then obtain government sponsorship, raise funds, and do all of the other logistical things the voyage required. High-ranking people across Europe paid attention to these projects, as the correspondence in "Columbus's Competition" shows.
The times discussed in these opening chapters set the stage for many of the other chapters. The Columbian voyages and the events that followed did not seem like monumental events in Europe, at least not to the extent that we might think with hindsight. Europeans viewed the Atlantic venture as a part of an ongoing process of extending their sphere of trade and influence. They had long dealt with other people who were not like them in Africa, Asia, and the Islamic world, and they thought of the early encounters with the people of the Americas in the same way. These early interactions were to have great significance, however, and looking at Columbus and the people around him gives us a place to begin exploring the phenomenon of culture contact.
Columbus My Enemy
In May 1497, the Taino ruler Guarionex was enmeshed in a potentially disastrous political situation. Five years had passed since the strange and dangerous Spaniards first appeared on the northeast shore of Hispaniola. For five years Guarionex had attempted to mediate between the foreigners and his people and to maintain his power and prestige among the other Taino caciques, or chiefs, who were sometimes his confederates, sometimes his competitors, in the complex political terrain of the Greater Antilles.
Two years earlier, Guarionex had witnessed the utter devastation the Spaniards could wreak in battle. Together with the other chiefs in La Vega Real--the largest, most fertile, and most densely populated valley on Hispaniola--he had set out to destroy the small force of Spaniards. Tens of thousands of Taino, perhaps as many as one hundred thousand, had gathered from the largest chiefdoms on the island. They faced only about 200 Spaniards. But in battle the fury of the strangers had been awesome: Twenty men with armored clothing had ridden through his people on enormous animals, inflicting horrible wounds with their lances and swords. Men on foot used terrifying weapons that exploded fire. The Europeans' large dogs ran before them and with uncontrolled violence tore through the Taino warriors. The Spaniards' goal seemed to be not merely to impress or subdue the Taino or to embarrass the chiefs into joining them as subordinates but to kill as many people as possible. Even after the battle they tortured to death some of the most respected chiefs in La Vega Real.
Soon afterward, however, the foreigners' ferocity strangely abated. They gave the remaining chiefs remarkable presents--glass beads, copper bells, brightly colored clothes. Faced with these powerful and unpredictable creatures, Guarionex had agreed that he and his people would be their subjects. From the Spaniards' signs and the few Taino words they could speak, Guarionex understood that their leader, Columbus, demanded submission not to himself but to some even more powerful chief who lived on an island of which Guarionex had never heard.
Guarionex further agreed that his people would pay tribute in food, cotton, and gold. To placate the Spaniards, he offered to plant fields stretching for more than 100 miles, from the north coast of Hispaniola to the south. The Spaniards, however, appeared to want gold more than anything else: They demanded that every man of fourteen or more years give them one of their little copper bells full of gold every three months. Gold was relatively plentiful in surface deposits on Hispaniola, and although they valued it, the Taino did not mine it extensively.
Still, the Spaniards required more than tribute. Because the Spanish ships came so infrequently and brought so little food, the colonists constantly roamed the countryside demanding the hospitality of the Taino villages. Sometimes hundreds of Spaniards and the Indians that followed them would descend on a village for a few weeks. They called for food and seemed to eat much more than a Taino would. And they did not eat just the food that was ready to be harvested; they also ate the manioc that normally would have stayed in the ground for another six months, and so after they left, famine followed.
By 1497, after two years of epidemics and famine following the arrival of the Spaniards, the other chiefs were pushing Guarionex to put up some resistance. Guarionex was a coward, they argued; groups of Spaniards who hated Columbus and his kin were living in Taino villages and had promised to help the Taino in battle if they would rise up again. The Spaniard Francisco de Roldan led a small army of dissatisfied Spaniards; he had told the chief Marque that he would help drive the Spaniards out of Concepcion de la Vega, the fort that controlled the center of the island. Roldan promised that if the Taino won, the Spaniards would stop demanding tribute. His offer was attractive to many of the chiefs in La Vega Real. Most of them were subordinate to Guarionex in the Taino hierarchy of social and political status, but their opinions were extremely important.
The Taino world stretched more than 1,000 miles from east to west. Beginning more than 2,000 years before the arrival of the Spaniards, the ancestors of the Taino had moved into the Caribbean archipelago from the northeast coast of mainland South America. They spoke a language (called Taino) of the Arawakan family, one of the most widely dispersed languages in South America. By AD 700, after occupying the Lesser Antilles and Puerto Rico, they had pushed farther into the islands of the southern Bahamas and the western Greater Antilles--Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Cuba.
The ancestors of the Taino were people of the tropical forest, who made their living by growing manioc and other root crops and by hunting, fishing, and collecting wild animals and plants. In the centuries of living in their new home, however, the Taino way of life had become distinctively Caribbean. Ways of growing and collecting food had been adapted to island environments; social and political institutions had emerged that allowed a dense population to endure successfully in an island context. The sea served to unite, rather than separate, the Taino. The elaborate oceangoing canoes of the chiefs could hold as many as 100 people, and voyages between islands were routine.
In addition to intermarriage between high-ranking lineages, the large chiefdoms of Hispaniola and the other Greater Antilles interacted with one another through a ball game. As in Mesoamerica and parts of South America, the Taino played the game on large, flat courts lined with stones or earthen embankments. The game was played with a gum rubber ball, which could not be caught or struck by a player's hands or feet. For the Taino, the game was much more than sport: It was a focus for religious festivals, feasting, trade, intermarriage, and the (relatively) peaceful resolution of conflicts.
Since the ancestors of the Taino had moved onto the islands of the western Greater Antilles, the chiefdoms had been growing larger and more powerful. In 1492 Guarionex was one of the five most powerful chiefs on Hispaniola, ruling tens of thousands of people scattered over hundreds of square miles. All the villages of the central Vega Real--some seventy or more--were under his control through stratified tiers of less powerful chiefs. Most of his many wives had come from the highest-status families of these surrounding villages; his marriages helped forge the social and political bonds that held the chiefdom together. Some of his wives were from even farther away, from powerful lineages that ruled the other large chiefdoms of Hispaniola.
Among the Taino, a chief's power was measured by his ability to convince others that his authority sprang from his birth into a maternal lineage of high status, his special relationship with supernatural spirits, and his political acumen. But his position was vulnerable; he could be deposed by his brothers or nephews or even by a member of another lineage. This Guarionex greatly feared. Despite misgivings that the rout of two years earlier would be repeated, he lent his support to the planned uprising.
Even as Guarionex was being pushed into battle by his confederates, Don Bartolome Colon, Columbus's brother, learned of the impending uprising in La Vega Real. He had heard of Roldan's plan to join with the Taino to take over the fort at Concepcion de la Vega. If Roldan succeeded, the pro-Columbus faction would be cut in half--part would be in the coastal colony of Isabela and other forts in the north, part in newly founded Santo Domingo and other settlements in the south. Moving quickly with the 300 Spaniards he had with him, Bartolome came into La Vega Real from the south. His men reinforced the fort, but they were still vastly outmatched by the surrounding Guarionex-Roldan alliance.
In many ways Bartolome was the more capable of the Columbus brothers. He was described by Bartolome de Las Casas, an important chronicler of the early contact period in the New World, as "a man who was prudent and very brave, more calculating and astute than he appeared, and without the simplicity of Christopher. He had a Latin bearing, and was expert in all of the things of men.... He was taller than average in body, had a commanding and honorable appearance, although not as much so as the Admiral."
As long as the Columbus family was the dominant Spanish faction of Hispaniola, Bartolome was its de facto leader. He alienated members of rival factions to a lesser extent than his brother and interacted more effectively with the Taino elite. In the two years since the first uprising in La Vega Real, he had learned to speak some Taino and had developed relationships with many of the chiefs, including Guarionex. He knew that the Indian leaders were becoming desperate.
As Bartolome moved into La Vega Real, Guarionex and his confederates were assembling and preparing for battle. The allied chiefs were scattered in several villages within the central valley. The situation was different from two years earlier, when the Spaniards had so overawed the Taino that no man could stand before them. Now the Taino understood the power of the swords and horses, and the firearms had lost some of their terror. Moreover, they truly felt that they had no other hope but to defeat the Spaniards.
The force of fewer than 400 Spaniards at Concepcion could not survive a determined attack by thousands of Taino. The fort's small blockhouse could not even hold them all, let alone allow them to withstand a siege. In the morning, the Taino would attack. Bartolome realized that the situation was growing more dangerous by the hour. He had been drawn into fighting the Indians in the area where their strength was greatest, and if Roldan intervened, horses, armor, and firearms would offer little advantage.
In a breach of Taino battle etiquette that was devastatingly effective for its novelty, Bartolome staged a midnight raid on the surrounding villages. His plan was to capture many of the chiefs before they could attack in the morning. Small groups of horses rode into the villages and carried off fourteen chiefs before any defense could be organized. Bartolome himself went into the large village of Guarionex and took the chief back to the fort. Las Casas wrote, "They killed many of the captured leaders, from those who appeared to have been the instigators, not with any other punishment (I have no doubt) except by burning them alive, for this is what was commonly done."
The raid threw the Taino into chaos. Without their chiefs they were doubly lost. Their leaders not only directed warriors in battle but also mediated between the Taino and supernatural spirit-helpers, who could bring them success. In the morning, according to Las Casas's account,
Five thousand men arrived, all without weapons, wailing and very upset, crying bitter tears, begging that they be given their king Guarionex and their other leaders, fearing that the caciques would be killed or burned alive. Don Bartolome, having compassion for them and seeing their piety for their natural leaders, and knowing the innate goodness of Guarionex, who was more inclined to put up with and suffer with tolerance the aggravations and injuries done by the Christians, rather than think of or take vengeance, gave them their king and other leaders.
Compassion it may have been, but Bartolome and his men were still in the middle of thousands of desperate people, and Roldan was still waiting in the wings. Bartolome knew that without the political organization the chiefs provided, the tribute system would quickly collapse. Fate had cast Bartolome and Guarionex as strange allies, each dependent on the other for his authority and survival.
This partnership, however, was fragile. Famine and disease were unabated in the villages, and among the Taino the feeling of despair continued to grow. Guarionex was unable to protect his people from either the tribute demands of Columbus and the Crown or the unofficial demands for food and gold made by the anti-Columbus faction of Spaniards. Increasingly, Guarionex was viewed as a tool of the Columbus family, and his support from the other chiefs, from the pro-Roldan faction, and from his own people began to evaporate. He was able to maintain his position as a powerful chief for a little more than a year after the fourteen chiefs had been captured but then had to flee La Vega Real with his family.
Even then Guarionex could not find safety, because Bartolome, fearing that Guarionex would return with an army, hunted him down in the mountains of northern Hispaniola, where he had sought refuge. Guarionex and his people had been hidden by Mayobanex, the most powerful chief in the northern mountains and perhaps a distant kinsman of Guarionex's. Bartolome's capture of Guarionex brought about the destruction of this chiefdom as well, by the same strategy used elsewhere--capture the chiefs as hostages to ensure their peoples' tribute payments. Guarionex was held in chains at Concepcion until 1502, when he was sent to Spain. His ship sank in a storm, and he died along with all the ship's crew.
The same forces that combined to bring Guarionex's rule to an end in La Vega Real were acting on all the other chiefdoms on Hispaniola and, ultimately, on others throughout the Greater Antilles. By 1500, most of the large political structures that existed on Hispaniola in 1492 had collapsed. For the Taino, political disintegration and the decimation of the population occurred simultaneously.
The impact of the Europeans' arrival was felt differently on other islands of the Caribbean, just as it was in different parts of the New World. Ponce de Leon's conquest of Puerto Rico began in the early 1500s and quickly brought about the destruction of the Taino way of life there. On Cuba the first Spanish attempt at colonization was less intense, in part because no gold was found and in part because the discovery and conquest of Mexico diverted the attention of Spanish fortune seekers. Indian populations there were not completely destroyed. In the eastern Caribbean, the Carib Indians were largely by-passed by early colonizers. Their descendants survive today as the Garifuna of Central America, although their preconquest island culture has been transformed greatly through five centuries of interaction with Africans and Europeans.
The indigenous societies of North, Central, and South America survived the arrival of Europeans with different degrees of success in what we have come to view as the remote contact period. Five hundred years, however, is a short fragment of human history. We are still negotiating the coexistence and synthesis of peoples with African, European, Asian, and Native American ancestries and heritages. Guarionex's struggle to retain his political status, to navigate the treacherous early years of the Spanish conquest, and ultimately to save his own life is just one story in this continuing process.
Excerpted from The Emperor's Giraffe by Samuel M. Wilson Copyright © 2000 by Samuel M. Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
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