The Taino and the Spanish
Cristóbal Colón landed on an unknown island in the Caribbean on October 10, 1492. He planted banners in the beach claiming the land for the Spanish throne. Colón’s perceptions and interactions with the indigenous people, the Taino, sparked the events that lead to the colonization of the Americas. Colón’s perceptions of the Taino were misinterpreted by him. His misconceptions about the Taino were built from a compilation of his own expectations, readings of other explorers, and strong religious influence
in Western Europe
. The Taino also misunderstood the Spanish
as well. Their false beliefs about the Spanish were driven by their religious beliefs as well as their mythology. Through misunderstandings backed by the religions, physical appearances, and the histories of both the Taino and the Spanish, the Taino believed that the Spanish were god-like figures that fell from the sky, while the Taino were perceived by the Spanish as simplistic, uncultured natives, that would be easily converted to Christianity and used as servants (Wilson, Hispanola p. 48-49).1 To better comprehend these events one must look at the preceeding events in both the lives of the Taino and The Spanish.
Before the time of Cristóbal Colón, Spain had recently had several encounters with colonization. They had taken over the kingdom of Granada and the Canary Islands. These colonizations gave Spain their model for subsequent colonizations. The dominance of Christianity in the colonizations was quite evident. Religious unity was believed to be required for social order and was a premise for the exercise of power (Quesada, Implicit Understanding p. 97-107).2 This relates to the Taino in that the Spanish believed the Taino would be converted easily to Christianity. Colón himself says in himself in his diary: “I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion (Colón, The Diary of Cristobal Colón’s Voyage to America p. 69) .3
The Taino’s mythology and religion persuaded them to believe that the Spaniards had fallen from the sky (Wilson, Hispniola p. 48).4 This is seen in their myths about the creation of the world in which their god, Yaya, created the ocean (Oliver, The Indigenous People of the Caribbean p. 141-144).5 Since the ocean was almost a supernatural essence to the Taino, seeing the Spanish coming from the ocean in enormous vessels lead the Taino to believe that they had something to do with the supernatural. Also, Colón inadvertently triggered connections to their religious beliefs. He handed out mere baubles to befriend the natives, and yet these things held important religious significance to the Taino. The types of trinkets that he handed out were glass beads, brass bells, and red caps and clothing. The color red was seen as protection from bad omens, and related to the Taino’s serpent god. The brass bells being musical were equated by the Taino to their shamans maracas. They also were made brass which was supposed to be protection from diseases (Roget, Indigenous people of the Caribbean p. 170-171).6 All of these things had magical properties to the Taino. This coupled with the Spaniards arrival, granted no other choice for the Taino, but to believe that the Spanish were supernatural.
The physical appearance of the Taino offered much to support Colón’s belief that they were simplistic and uncultured. They represented no “civilized” culture that he knew. They, in fact, displayed many traits that Western Europe’s countries believed to be uncivilized. “His [their] lack of an ordered urban or rural existence, his [their] inability to manufacture and to employ the material artifacts of advanced civilizations...and by the absence of a sophisticated spoken and written literary culture (Phillips, Implicit Understandings p. 50).7 The Taino didn’t have a written language. They didn’t know what swords were. They walked around completely naked (Wilson, Hispaniola p. 46-47).8 Therefore, the Spanish held the Taino to be a simplistic uncultured race through their appeances. They could only believe that the Taino were uncivilized.
As time and the word of the Spanish passed through messengers, the Taino grew more accustomed to the Spanish. They came to see them as great chiefs, or caciques. Seeing that they were like men, and that they were interested in material things, the Taino came to think of them as men with great power, as they looked upon their shamans. The caciques of the Taino came to see that the Spaniards would be valuable allies, even if they were only men. Colón developed a more personal relationship with the caciques, by this time (Wilson, Hispaniola p. 62-69)9 . His more friendly relationships with the caciques aided the Taino in their customization to the Spanish. Yet, Colón’s biggest misunderstanding, that he was in the area of China, constantly persisted because of Colón’s rationalization, exectations, and misinterpretation of certain Taino words. The Taino believed that he was looking for the realm of the dead, because of his incessant search for gold.
They gave him words like cibao, goanin, and coroa. Colón took these as the names of places (Roget, The Indigenous People of the Caribbean p. 172-173).10 Colón expected to see the great cities described to him in journals such as that of Marco Polo’s. Colón also saw that the appearance of the islanders, their skin coloration and build, resembled the Canary Islanders. He told himself that this was to be expected because they were on the same line of latitude as the Canaries (Colón, The Diario of Cristobal Colón’s Voyage to America. p. 68-69).11
Through all of these references one must recall the thought that the Taino kept no written records of the events described. This means that all of the sources from which the Taino point of view is taken, are tainted by a European angle. Within these parameters the evidence displayed, although in appearance is a two sided view, is a slightly one sided perspective. Despite this, the evidence is clear that through the religions, appearances, and histories the Taino and the Spanish misread each other in a great number of encounters. These encounters were formed long before they took place. The Taino, especially because of their mythology, immediately take the Spaniards for supernatural beings. The Spanish and their expectations, previous encounters, and religious influences could believe nothing, but the fact that they were indeed in the vicinity of China. To simply look at the encounters at face value, would negate the idea of viewing incidents in history globally (Abu-Lughod, The World System in the Thirteenth Century p. 23)12 . Following the idea of global history, the understanding of the events that took place when Colón and the Spanish encountered the Taino is dependent upon the understanding the religious and historical backgrounds of both. One must understand that the mythology of the Taino, the expectations of the Spanish, and the appearances of both played a major role in the reactions of these two cultures when they collided.
Colón, Cristobal. The Diario of Cristóbal Colón’s Voyage to America, Transcription and Translation Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley Jr.
de Las Casas, Bartolomé. The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. Translation, Briffault, Herma, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London © 1992.
Quesada, Miguel. Miguel Quesada, “Spain 1492: Social values and structures,” Stuart Schwartz, ed. Implicit Understandings, Cambridge University Press.
The Mission. Directed by Joffé, Roland. Written Credits, Bolt, Robert. Genre, Drama. ©1986.