Historian Dr. Lynne Guitar, Ph.d.,
A historian examines how and why the Myth of Taino extinction began.
The Tainos of the Caribbean islands are extinct, begins Cave of the Jagua, Antonio M-Stevens Arroyo's otherwise excellent book on Classic Taino
mythology. For better part of 500 years that's what all the chroniclers, historians, archeologists, sociologists, etc have reported. Estimations of just when the Taino extinction took place, however, vary from late 1518 to the 18th century.
1989, I began studying the classic Tainos of Kiskeya (Dominican Republic). At first, I accepted Taino extinction as historical fact. As I progressed through a dual B.A an M.A and a Ph.d, reading not just secondary sources but thousands of documents from the
era reports to and from the Spanish Crown, roal laws and decrees, trial testimony, censuses, petitions, wills-- I discovered that the Taino extinction was a myth. IN a few cases, the Europeans mythmakers had humanistic exxcuse for what they did. In most cases
however, the myth of total Taino extinction was a cover-uo to conceal greed or incompetence, and to fuel international religious economic and political competition.
Those statements sound cold and calculating, like premeditated myth making.
No group of Spaniards got together, however, and said. "Hey, guys, we can really pull a fast on on future generations. Here's what we'll do......" The Myth management began with individual acts.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote in his
diario that the Taino were a pacific people. During the same voyage, at the "Gulf of Arrows" however, he discovered that the Taino could be fierce warriors. Nonetheless wanted to convince King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabel that the Taino were a people ripe for conversion to Catholicicism so that he could get permission for a return voyage, so he emphasized the peaceful and profitable parts of his adventures. That set the stage. Chroniclers of the "conquest"
of Hispañola would alsofocus on how "willingly" the "peaceful" Tainos negotiated with the Christians, accepted their tributary status, and even adopted Spaniards into thier noble families. The battle successes of Caciques like Caonabo were underemphasized
in the chronicles of the era, their gullibility overemphasized. And the chronicles hardly mention all the Tainos who fled Spanish domination: They fled "so they never have to speak to Spaniards, " testified one resident. "They flee to the mountains and forests.
"testified another, hiding themselves so as not rto suffer from that work" assigned to them by their Spanish encomenderos---mining, growing food and, by the 1520's, working in the suagr cane fields and mills. Hundreds of docuements report Indians fleeing to
remote regions or other islands.
Even today, with the population of the island more than ten times higher than it most likely was in the late 15th and 18th centuries, there are many isolated areas of Hispañola that one can only
approach on foot or muleback. And the Spaniards never controlled the whole island, only gold-bearing areas, a few scattered villages, and the region around Santo Domingo. Indian flight was not the kind of information the Spaniards on Hispañola liked
to reveal, however, for doing si was a blunt admission that the island was not totally under their control.
In 1514 there was a major redivison of the Tainos who had not fled. The accompanying census is always cited as evidence that the
Taino of Hispañola were on the verge of extinction, for only 23,000 are listed. But it is clear that many children and old people, too young or too old to work, were not counted. And Tainos who had fled, of course were not included. A 1515 letter to
from the corwn proivides evidence that even Tainos under Spanish control were hidden from the census takers so that they could not be redistributed.
The myth of Taino really took hold, however, with the New World's first smallpox epidemic
in late 1518/early 1519. No doubt it did kill a great number of those Indians who had survived the wars, labor exploitation, the earlier epidemics and the accompanying famines, for they lacked the immunity that the Europeans and Africans had. The effects,
however, would have been less severe among Indians living in remote regions of the island, The epidemic gave teh Spanish colonists a justified excuse to appeal to the crown for African slaves, whom they believed to be more suitable than Indians fpr rasing
and producing sugar cane; sugar was the island's new economic focus for the gold deposits proved to be shallow. Document after document reveals that Spaniards exaggerated the death rates among their commended Indians so they cold get permission to bring
in more Africans.
In 1519, the Cacique Enriquillo rebelled, fleeing to the Bahoruco, where he successfully hid out, attacking Spanish settlements, for for fourteen years. The Spaniards couldn't catch him, nor most of the other Indians
and Africans who ranaway to join him. They were called cimarrones. Bartolome de las Casas, who clearly exaggerated mistreatment and deaths among the Tainos to gain protection for the Indians
in new discovered lands, wrote that only natives of Hispañola who survived past 1530 were those with Enriquillo. Documents prove him wrong. Numerous Indian cimarrones were still being repoprted as late as 1549.
Moreever, Alonso de
Fuenmayor's census of 1545 provides evidence that african laborers only outnumbered Indians in nine of Hispañolas twenty-nine sugar ingenios. Out of a total of 9,210 + workers, 59% were Indians. Most census, however, hid Indians, listing them as "Spaniards"
or including them among the uncounted "others." in part this was to prevent discovery by the church or crown. By the 1530's Indian labor, whether forced or voluntary" was strictly regulated. But if you didnt admit to having Indians....Another reason censuses
were vague and misleading is that the categories of Indian, African and Spaniard were not "racial" designations as they are today. They were socio-economic markers and cold shift, especially the category of "mestizo," which didn't appear in the
censuses until the 1580's.
Francisco de Barrionuevo, the captain de Barrionuevo, the captain who negotiated peace with Enriquillo in 1533, observed that in the ruaral regions of the island, "thereare many mestizos, sons of Spainiards and
Indias, who generally are born on small farms and depopulated towns." Continuiing, he made the seemingly paradoxical statement that "outside of this city, you could say that everything is depopulated." He meant that outside of Santo Domingo there were few
Spaniards in residence and that teh mestizos he had seen lived more like Indians, thus politically and economically powerless. They were not worth counting. Barrionuevos's contemporaries would not have found his statements paradoxical.
In 1555, four "pueblos of Indians of which no one (previously) knew" were discovered. Two were near Puerto Plata, one on the Samana Peninsula, and one on Cabo de San Nicolas. Indications are, as the reduced population os Spaniards concentrated in and around
the capital, the Cimarrones began moving back into the abandoned river valleys. Taino society had evolved to include Africans, other Indians and mixed peoples. These Taino wore clothes, smelted steel, and spoke mostly Spanish or perhaps a Spanish/Taino creole,
but otherwise lived much as their ancestors always had---much as many Dominican campesinos still live today. The same pattern of myth making, Taino survival and socio-culural evolution no doubt occurred on the other Antillean islands.