The story of the 'Caribs and Arawaks'
By Kim Johnson
The story of the Arawaks, the Caribs and the Spaniards is a well known tale told to every Caribbean child. We all, from the least educated to the most widely read, accept it almost instinctively that there were, before the Europeans landed on these our islands, a peaceful and gentle tribe of
Amerindians called the Arawaks who had inhabited the entire Caribbean
archipelago. So generous and guileless were these people that they embraced the Spaniards and provided every comfort for them, only to be repaid by being mercilessly slaughtered so that within a few decades not one Arawak was alive.
Although it is rarely stated there is a clear implication that, for all of its cruelty, the extinction of this people at the hands of the Spanish could almost be seen as a blessing in disguise.
This is because there was another tribe, a ferocious one called the Caribs, who were on the verge of pouncing on the Arawaks and putting them to an even more horrible end. These Caribs were, you see, eaters of human flesh. Following hard on the heels of the Arawaks, they had gobbled their way up the Caribbean archipelago, settling on each island like a swarm of locusts in a field, and only moving on when they had gorged themselves on every available Arawak. By the time of Columbus's arrival, the Caribs had eaten their way through the Lesser Antilles and already were licking their chops for the meat walking about in Puerto Rico.
And yet, also instinctively, the distastefulness of that story makes it difficult to swallow. Its nightmare quality seems to represent the final, ultimate indignity perpetrated against the first Caribbean people - already victims of the first holocaust unleashed on the world by European civilization. So we wonder, is that what really happened? Could there not have been be another side to it? Now that the 500th anniversary of Colum-bus's arrival has passed, perhaps we should look again at the chronicles of the time. Because, having taken our place in the modern world, we must define what we have brought to it. And to do so, what better place to start than at the beginning?
Setting our minds to this task, then, the first matter at hand is the
business about the Arawaks: who were they? And the first startling fact we encounter is that when Columbus arrived at Hispaniola there were no people who were called 'Arawaks', and there never had been. If you were to go to Santo Domingo today people would tell you that their Amerindian ancestors were the 'Taino'. Actually, Indians of the Greater Antilles did not call themselves 'Taino', no more than they called themselves 'Arawak' - that name was given them in 1935 by Sven Loven, a Swedish archaeologist, from the word denoting in the Indian lauguage the ruling class of their society. -------(1) But let us not quibble: seeing as we do not know what the Greater Antilleans called themselves, we shall make do with Taino.
If the people of the Greater Antilles were not Arawaks, neither did they passively accept Spanish depradations. Most of us are familiar with the story of Hatuey, the chief who organized to fight the Spanish and who was, when captured, burnt at the stake. Repent and go to heaven, they told him as they lit the fire. If there are Spaniards in heaven I would rather go to hell, he replied. Nor was Hatuey the only defiant one. There were several others, men like Guarocuya (Enrique) in Hispaniola, Uroyoan in Borinquen (Puerto Rico) and Guama in Cuba, who confronted the strange, terrifying European weapons - the man-eating dogs, the guns, the mounted soldiers, the naval galleons - with great courage and determination.
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