The arrival of western civilization, as expressed at the time by the recently unified Spanish monarchy, constituted a radical transformation for the lives of millions of people who lived in the Americas. Tainos and Caribes were the peoples who inhabited the islands visited by the three ships led by the explorer Christopher Columbus in search of an alternate route to India to increase trade for the Spanish crown. The first encounter between the Europeans and the “Indians” occurred on the island of Guanahani in the archipelago of the Bahamas. The inhabitants received the strangers with gifts and curiosity. Columbus responded with courtesy and anxiously sought evidence of the great treasures he expected to find in the Far East. He named the island San Salvador and went on his way. Thus began the European expansionist movement to the “New World.”
During the four voyages Columbus made to what the Europeans called the Caribbean, he sailed along the coasts of its islands and Central and South America. In the name of the Catholic kings of Castile and Aragon and the Catholic Church, he took possession of the land and gave it new names. Before returning from his first voyage, Columbus established Fort Navidad on Hispaniola with a complement of 30 men, with the mission of establishing trade agreements with the Tainos, the native inhabitants of the island. But when he returned the following year, he found the fort destroyed and the men dead. Despite that, he established the first base for the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Caribbean islands and the American continents on the same island, which was then called Haiti and was the center of the Taino culture in the Antilles.
At first, the Spaniards tried to establish a trading post, as the Portuguese had done on the coasts of Africa, to trade for the gold the Tainos brought them. The Tainos could not produce a sufficient amount to satisfy Spanish ambitions, however, because there was a difference between the Tainos and the Spaniards that went beyond physical attributes or skin color. The Tainos had a self-sufficient society but did not seek to gather a surplus, while the Spaniards — like all Europeans of the era — based their society on the incessant accumulation of wealth. They decided to look for gold themselves and forced the Tainos to take on the laborious task of washing the sands of the rivers in search of the precious metal.
Because Queen Isabel declared the inhabitants of the new territories to be subjects of the crown, they could not be enslaved. The Spanish parliament established the “encomienda,” a regimen of forced labor in which the Tainos, in exchange for their labor, were given homes, food, clothing, education and religion. This regimen was implemented in all of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The colonial authorities in the various conquered territories assigned hundreds of Tainos to work for the Spanish conquerors and the Catholic Church forcing them to work in the gold mines or planting cassava to feed the Caribbean population. The truth is that the Europeans followed very few of the legal safeguards that were created to protect the indigenous people, denying their freedom and their previous way of life.
For the Tainos, the arrival of western civilization was devastating. They were uprooted from their communities and forced to live near the gold mining operations or wherever was convenient for their bosses. Their culture and way of life was disdained as primitive or savage, even among the few Europeans who worked on their behalf. Their religious beliefs were banned and they were forced to practice Catholicism. Their food, dress and ways of life were replaced by Spanish customs. They were also subject to a rigorous work schedule and violent and cruel discipline.
The Tainos rebelled against the Spanish occupation of Hispaniola, but the superior arms and the warlike ways of the invaders defeated them. The same occurred in subsequent years in Puerto Rico, in a rebellion led by Agüeybana, the Brave, and in Cuba, by Hatuey, a chief who fled from Hispaniola and alerted the Tainos of eastern Cuba of the bad intentions of the bearded invaders. Meanwhile, the survivors of the war of conquest could not accept the situation. They left their children, escaped to the mountainous interior or to the islands populated by the Caribes. Some resorted to collective suicide. The majority, however, died from illnesses brought by the Europeans for which they had no natural resistance.
Despite the cruelty shown by the Spaniards in the treatment of the Tainos for not accepting their rule, there were voices that spoke out against the abuse. Friar Antonio de Montecinos and Bartolomé de las Casas energetically protested to the royal authorities. The results of their efforts were the BurgosLaws of 1512, which regulated the treatment of the Indians covered by the “encomiendas.” These legal measures could not be enforced from Spain, however, and the colonists did whatever was in their own interests with very little oversight.
The Spaniards made great profits by extracting gold from Hispaniola. This capital paid for the conquest of the nearby islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Boriquen, where they gained even more gold. On these islands, the history of assigning the Tainos, their attempts at rebellion and their defeat was repeated. With the reduction in the Taino population, the work force for the gold mines also decreased. The Spaniards then brought in Indians from neighboring islands and declared war (ironically called the “Just” war) on those who resisted for not accepting the Catholic religion. Prisoners of war were enslaved.
By the third decade of the century, the gold deposits were practically used up, but not before bringing great profits to the colonizers, the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown. Thanks to these riches, Spain became the most powerful kingdom in Europe in the 16th century. In 1516, the first sugar mills were established with investments of machinery and slaves, but with very little success. The lack of credit and labor, as well as transportation problems and attacks by the Caribes, made it very difficult to develop this industry, which would later become fundamental in the course of the region’s history.
For the Spanish, the Greater Antilles were a colonial laboratory. There they had their first contact with native populations and learned to interact with them, an experience that became very important when they expanded into continental areas. There, the Europeans also adapted to the climate and the food, and their plants and animals adapted to the Caribbean environment. On Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba — sites of the first Spanish settlements in the Caribbean — men, food and animals were gathered for expeditions of conquest to “Solid Ground.”
Records show that the large majority of the Spaniards who journeyed to “do the Americas” in the first century of colonization were from Andalusia and Extremadura. There were also Spaniards from other regions, however, as well as Portuguese and Italians among the first colonizers in the Caribbean. They founded some twenty settlements during the first decades of the 16th century. There were few stone or masonry structures other than the forts that guarded the gold and protected the population from indigenous attacks. Prominent families built their houses of wood, while the majority of the colonists built theirs like the Taino huts and slept in the same hammocks. Also similar to the Tainos, the basic food was cassava bread. It is curious that despite labeling the Tainos as savages, to justify colonization of their land and submitting them to a state of servitude, the colonists adopted much of their lifestyle and their knowledge of the land and the climate to be able to survive in the New World.
During the early years after the Conquest, the new settlers lived under the constant threat of attacks by the Caribes, who allied with the Tainos in a desperate attempt to retake their islands. As the century passed, it was the pirates and corsairs —at the service of European kingdoms that were enemies of Spain — who were responsible for attacks against Spanish settlements in the Caribbean. The main objective of the corsairs was to attack the ships that transported American riches to Spain. Other times it was nature that presented danger in the form of the hurricanes that crossed the region in the hot months. The colonists also suffered from famines due to droughts or because they used the slaves or workers covered by the “encomienda” only to search for gold, giving the utmost importance to their ambition for wealth.
After the third decade, thanks to the greater promise of riches on the continents, colonists no longer stopped at the islands and those who were there wanted to leave. The limited immigration, along with the decline in the indigenous population and the arrival of the slaves produced a population that was mostly black and mixed-race, over which a few thousand Spaniards ruled. Because most of the Spaniards were men, it is assumed that they took African or Taino women as mates, leading to an increase in the mixed-race population on the islands and a significant genetic exchange during the first century of colonization.
By 1570, there were only 24 settlements in the Spanish Antilles inhabited by 7,500 white Spaniards, 22,150 “Indians” and 56,000 blacks or mixed-race people. These settlements in the Caribbean were Spanish more by political imperative than by ethnic or cultural reality. Censuses showed that individuals identified as “Indians” appeared on some municipalities’ lists as “vecinos,” a designation meaning they were married and owned land, and therefore had recourse with the municipal councils. It is interesting the extent to which some Tainos and their descendants were able to adapt and survive somehow the near extermination of their people caused by the arrival of the Spanish. To survive, they had to assimilate culturally to the new reality and eventually they were absorbed in the genetic mix. The strong centralism created by the crown to administer the colonies and the influence of the Catholic Church were fundamental to the basic conception of the Spanish societies and brought cohesion to the New World.
With the success of the Spanish colonial enterprise in the Americas and the consolidation of its empire, other European powers increased their efforts to establish colonies in the New World. At first, England and France attacked Spanish interests to decimate their forces and to try to break Spain’s monopoly on the region. In this way, the Caribbean became another front in the wars among the European nations. To counteract these attacks, the Spaniards reorganized the defenses for their trade and their settlements in the last decades of the century. They organized the construction of a system of fortifications and established garrisons at strategic positions throughout the archipelago to protect their commercial trade routes. Thus, settlements such as Vera Cruz, Cartagena, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Santo Domingo, San Juan and Florida became walled cities with a greater emphasis on military purposes than production. Among the settlements in the Caribbean, Havana benefited the most from these changes because it was along the route between the rich colony of Mexico and Spain. They also normalized maritime traffic by scheduling fleets to protect their merchant ships form pirates and corsairs. They established a fleet of fast ships to defend shipping and patrol the Caribbean waters. The system worked as long as the Spaniards demonstrated military superiority over the other European kingdoms, a situation that would change in the following century.
As part of the colonial reorganization, the Spanish crown concentrated its colonization efforts on the more profitable continental zones and abandoned the smaller islands, declaring them “useless.” This allowed other European kingdoms to settle them in subsequent years, little by little. While the Spaniards discouraged settlements in the archipelago during this century, the English, French and Dutch corsairs continuously threatened the shipping of Spanish riches between the colonies and the home country by attacking ships and ports. By the first decades of the 17th century, other European nations were able to break the Spanish monopoly on the region.
Africans first came to the Caribbean on Columbus’ second voyage, when the process of conquest and colonization of the “New World” began, and with it came slavery imposed by the Spaniards. Slavery was a known and accepted institution in the “Old World.” There were efforts to combat it, however. For example, the Catholic Church prohibited members of its congregation from enslaving other Christians. Therefore, when Queen Isabel designated the native Americans as subjects of her realm, and therefore Catholics, they could not be enslaved, at least not in a legal sense. In Europe there were Arab, African and Slavic slaves, most of them working as servants, but not as forced laborers in mining or farming.
Not all Africans arrived as slaves, and some participated in the colonization and conquest. Such was the case with Juan Garrido, who at 15 years of age went to Lisbon from western Africa, became Catholic and learned European manners. He later moved to Seville, and from there he left for Hispaniola as a servant for Pedro Garrido, from whom he took his surname. In the colony, he rose to a military post by participating in the war against the Tainos on the island. Alongside Juan Ponce de Leon, he took part in the conquest of Puerto Rico and Florida. Years later, he moved to Cuba, and from there he went to Mexico as part of Hernan Cortes’ expedition. He established a residence in New Spain, married and had three children and lived there until he was 67 years old. For his participation in the conquest of the new territories for Spain, Garrido was compensated with lower-ranking positions in the colonial administration. There were also other blacks who participated in the conquest, such as Sebastian Toral in the Yucatan or Antonio Perez and Juan Portugues in Venezuela.
The vast majority of the black Africans who came to the Caribbean were brought forcibly as slaves, however. At first, only “ladinos” —those who had been Christianized and spoke Spanish — were brought, as domestic staff for the high-ranking Spaniards and to control the indigenous people. With the reduction in the Taino population, however, the Spaniards began to bring in “bozales,” or recently captured slaves, to take on the exhausting work of mining gold or, later, working in the sugar mills. The exploitation of the New World brought a radical change to the lives of many African cultures, as they were the main source of labor for the Caribbean enterprises over the next four centuries.
African slaves, of either kind, fought back against their oppression from the beginning. As early as 1503, Nicolas de Ovando, the main administrator of the new territories, lamented in his reports to the crown that the “ladinos” incited the Tainos to rebel and escape to the interior of Hispaniola. Other slaves also escaped to the islands controlled by the Caribes, and descendants of these populations still persist today and are known as “black Caribes.” These societies of escaped slaves consisted of villages or outposts and organized themselves to resist the constant attacks from white slave owners. They, in turn, attacked the Spanish settlements to acquire food, working tools, weapons and women. The presence of these communities was a constant threat to the colonial order imposed by the Spanish crown in the Caribbean, which had great difficulties repressing them.
Rebellions by slaves against their conditions were constant throughout the century in all parts of the Caribbean region. In 1522, there was an uprising by slaves of Governor Diego Colon on Hispaniola. In 1530, there was another uprising in the Panamanian city of Acla, as well as in Venezuela in 1532, and the following year in Cuba and Panama. In 1547, there was a prolonged rebellion led by Sebastián Lemba on Hispaniola and another in 1550 led by Juan Criollo, a second-generation slave who also rebelled against the cruelty of slavery. In 1579, rebel blacks in Portobelo, Panama, forced the Spanish colonists to sign a peace treaty that collectively freed them after several years of struggle.
During this first century of European conquest in the Caribbean, cultural and genetic foundations were laid for what would become the typical population of the islands. From the beginning, the Spanish colonization unleashed relationships of violence and conflict among the Spaniards, Africans and indigenous people, which also led to important cultural and genetic exchanges. With the relatively early exhaustion of the gold mines and the original inhabitants, the islands were relegated to the role of defending the Spanish empire. Production was secondary during the rest of the century. Because of this, racial and social relationships, though always present and rigid, were not as severe and cruel as they became in the following centuries. For various decades, a mostly black and mixed-race population lived under the rule of a white, Spanish minority. During this century, a very racially and culturally mixed population developed within the framework of Spanish Catholicism and became the basis of the process of creating the Caribbean.
Author: Pablo Samuel Torres
Published: February 17, 2012.
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