The earthquake in Haiti is not the first calamity that has befallen the people of this beautiful Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The first was a man-made one.
The people who originally resided on the island were an Arawak-speaking people called the Taino. They came to be known as Indians, from the Spanish word in-dios meaning “People of God,” because of the paradise-like existence they lived in. Eventually, all indigenous people in the Americas would be given that name.
“Taino” itself refers to being a good and peaceful person. Some estimates of the Taino population in the 15th century are as high as several million. The Taino were a productive society who grew many types of plants and vegetables, including corn, tomatoes, beans and cassava, that have helped feed our world. Fruit orchards were said to cover whole valleys. Cotton, a material not used by European peoples in the 15th century, was woven into cloth.
With abundant marine resources to live off of, the Taino world was a thriving one. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 changed all of that. Some of his men were criminals, given the opportunity of freedom if they sailed to the New World, others were soldiers and surveyors who sailed in order to make their fortune, and most were searching for gold.
In the beginning, the relations between the Spanish and the Taino were favourable. However, they would soon turn for the worse.
Columbus set up the small colony of La Navidad. The Spanish men at La Navidad began to brutalize the Taino, with each Spanish male taking as many as five Taino women for his pleasure. One Spanish soldier would eventually brag about having a hundred Taino women.
The Taino rebelled and destroyed the Spanish colony. Upon their return to La Navidad, the Spanish began to hunt down the Taino with their superior weapons. Eventually, it was decided by the Spanish that every Taino male, female and child would have to supply the Spanish with gold or have a hand cut off. Taino were also used by the Spanish for sword practice.
The colony of Isabella near present day Santa Domingo, on the Dominican Republic side of Hispaniola, became so full of abuses that it was said to be haunted. The Taino refused to go near there and even some of the Spanish were said to be afraid.
In the Valley of Vega, the Taino offered to feed the Spanish as much as they wanted, as long they stopped their attacks. The offer wasn’t taken and the Spanish ended up killing as many as 700 Taino.
Anacaona, a Taino woman leader, became one of the last to be smited by the Spanish. Tricked into coming to a meeting for peace, she and the other leaders with her were roasted alive.
As the Taino population was killed off, they were replaced by fortune seekers and landless migrants from Spain. By 1507, African slaves began to replace the Taino as the main Spanish workforce. By 1542, only 200 Taino remained.
Those who survived would eventually mix with the African slaves. Some remained in the mountains, fighting on, but eventually they would capitulate to the Spanish.
Today, there are no more Taino left to suffer in the aftermath of the recent earthquake.
Brian Rice is an associate professor of education at the University of Winnipeg.
Published in Volume 64, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 28, 2010)