Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back from Extinction: The Taino People of the Caribbean

The Taino people were the gentle Native folk who encountered Christopher Columbus upon his arrival over 500 years ago. They shared the Caribbean islands with the more aggressive, warlike Caribs. Lynne Guitar in her article for the Kacike Journal argues the transcultural miscommunication and understanding that was created between accounts by the Europeans and the reality of their situation in the Caribbean.

If you were to read Columbus' journals about the first encounter with the Tainos, you would read about their nakedness and lack of shame. Guitar writes;
Think about the term “naked.” It’s a Eurocentric term that means not to be “dressed,” not to be covered with cloth. After describing the Taínos’ nakedness, the Spanish chroniclers went on to describe the Taínos’ elaborate arm and leg bands, tattoos and painted adornments, headdresses, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, the caciques’ (chiefs’) elaborate belts, masks, and feathered capes, and the naguas--finely woven cotton “skirts”--that some of the
Taíno women wore. That’s a lot of clothing and accoutrements for a supposedly naked people! (The women’s naguas, by the way, were more loincloths than skirts, for they did not hide the
women’s buttocks and were not meant to hide their pubic areas, either. Like today’s
Western women wear wedding bands, the naguas indicated that the women who wore them were married, and the nobler a woman was, the longer was the nagua that she wore.) (p.3).
The miscommunication is applied by Guitar to all aspects of reporting, including reports of their extinction.
Today we know that most of the Taínos were not killed by abuses endured under the
because they had no immunities to them, and after 1519, of smallpox. In tropical areas like Hispaniola, between 80 and 90% of the Native Indians died of plagues that often preceded the actual arrival of the Spaniards, for the germs and viruses were carried by messengers bearing
news from plague-ridden areas. An 80-90% loss is a significant and horrifying loss. It is so horrifying that it obscures the fact that 10 to 20% of the Taínos survived.

A re-examination of the documents of the era reveals the origins of the myth of Taíno extinction:
  • When the chroniclers wrote that all of the Indians of Hispaniola were gone, they were, in fact, following the lead of Las Casas, who exaggerated the Taíno population decline in order to convince the emperor to abolish the encomienda system (see note 1) and, instead,
    establish missionary villages for the Indians’ conversion.
  • The chroniclers also wrote about the Taínos in comparison to the denser populations of Native Indians later discovered on the Mainland; this is especially true about Oviedo, who
    spent his early years in today’s Panama.
  • The chroniclers were also repeating what was written in letter after letter to the Royal Court by encomenderos on Hispaniola who exaggerated their losses in order to gain sympathy and
    royal permission to import more African slaves, who were believed to be “stronger” than the Taínos because they did not fall prey to the diseases that decimated the Indians.

  • The legacy of the miscommunication was that the Taínos became extinct. However, Dr. Guitar does show that they were not extinct, but rather surviving in severely reduced numbers elsewhere on the islands.

    This article provided a very interesting read into the interpretation of ethnological reports. Be sure to read the whole article here.
    Note 1: Encomienda (ānkōmyān`dä) [Span. encomendar=to entrust], system of tributory labor established in Spanish America. Developed as a means of securing an adequate and cheap labor supply, the encomienda was first used over the conquered Moors of Spain. Transplanted to the New World, it gave the conquistador control over the native populations by requiring them to pay tribute from their lands, which were "granted" to deserving subjects of the Spanish crown. The natives often rendered personal services as well. In return the grantee was theoretically obligated to protect his wards, to instruct them in the Christian faith, and to defend their right to use the land for their own subsistence. When first applied in the West Indies, this labor system wrought such hardship that the population was soon decimated. This resulted in efforts by the Spanish king and the Dominican order to suppress encomiendas, but the need of the conquerors to reward their supporters led to de facto recognition of the practice. The crown prevented the encomienda from becoming hereditary, and with the New Laws (1542) promulgated by Las Casas, the system gradually died out, to be replaced by the repartimiento and finally debt peonage. Similar systems of land and labor apportionment were adopted by other colonial powers, notably the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French. Source


    Anonymous. 2007. "Ecomienda System definition of the Ecomienda system in the Free Online Encyclopedia". The Free Dictionary.Columbia University Press. Available online Taken from: L. B. Simpson, 1966.The Encomienda in New Spain (rev. ed. 1966); J. F. Bannon, Indian Labor in the Spanish Indies.

    Guitar, Lynne. 2002."Documenting the Myth of Taíno Extinction".Kacike:Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology. Available online:

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