The story of the ‘Caribs and Arawaks’
My family entire family is from Trinbago. Though we have been taught that all the indigenous people of the Americas were wiped out by European Imperialism and Genocide against Indigenous people. There are still many areas in the Caribbean and Central/ South America where not only have they survived but thrived and revived the culture of the Carib and Taino People. I have relatives that are Garifunas my paternal Grandmother being one who migrated to Trinidad at age six with her mother from Dominica one of the strongholds of Garifuna people today. I also have other branches of my family tree in which Carib blood survives as well including my Maternal Grandfather who was of Ithiopian descent via his father and Carib via his mother. Below is a brilliant treatise by Kim Johnson about the unknown history of Carib and Taino people. All Indigenous Americans are descendants of the Original Civilization of the Americas called the Olmec who were predominantly an African people.
The story of the ‘Caribs and Arawaks’
By Kim Johnson
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.
As we all know, these Indians of the Greater Antilles lost in their war against the invaders. The Ciguayan’s terrorism were a symptom of his helplessnes, for by his time the labour in the mines, starvation, suicide, diseases against which they had no immunity, all of this had almost completely extinguished the Indians on Hispaniola. Although the Indians did not all die on Spanish pikes or under their hunting dogs, it was all premised on the presence of the Europeans, which hinged on military considerations. And the Indians were greatly outmatched by the Spanish in a military sense. It was difficult for them to abandon their crops and wage guerilla warfare. In addition, the Spanish quickly learnt the technique capturing and killing their leaders by trickery. In a general sense we might say that the Indians, whose idea of war entailed not so much killing men as capturing women, were fatally handicapped in responding to the savagery of the Europeans. An analogy might be taken from the Indians of North America who considered a great warrior to be not one who killed the enemy; rather, the hero was one who stole something from him in battle, perhaps his shield, without harming him. The Ciguayan came too late.
Materially, the Indians fought with different weapons from the Spanish; socially and morally, they held different concepts of war.
Thus the ‘peaceful Arawak’ on closer inspection turns out to be nothing other than a dead Taino. “Those who have perpetrated these crimes call the uninhabited places ‘peaceful,” wrote Gonzalo Fernandez de Ovideo y Valdez (1557), who was there at the time and who was far from being an Indian sympathizer. “I feel they are more than peaceful, they are destroyed.” ——–(3)
So now we see where the ‘peaceful’ aspect of the story comes from, but what about the name ‘Arawak’? After all, even the 16th century chroniclers refer to the ‘Aruacs’. Indeed, there are people living in Guyana today called Arawaks. These same people, however, if you enquire, call themselves ‘Lokono’. (That is a word which, in their language, means “the people.” Many, perhaps most, of these tribes call themselves “the people” in the words of their language. What do they call others? The Akawaio, also known as the Kapong, called the Arecuna ‘Kapongbei’ meaning, ‘similar to people’.)
Who were these Lokono? Why were they called Arawaks if, when the Europeans first came, they didn’t call themselves that?
In the 15th century Lokono was just another tribe which lived in villages scattered throughout the northern Guianas, the Orinoco delta, and Trinidad. It was just one tribe among many. In Trinidad alone, in addition to the Lokono, there were the Nepoio, the Yao, the Shebao, the Carinepagoto, and others. Later tribes to migrate to Trinidad included the Kalipunians (California), the Chaimas (Carapachaima), and the Chaguanes (Chaguanas).
There was one distinctive feature about the Lokono, however, (actually the Nepoio – a Cariban speaking tribe – shared this characteristic with them) and that was their close relationship with the Spanish. They exchanged food and slaves for metal tools such as hatchets and by 1520 came to be known as “friends of the Christians.” (4) And one particular Lokono town, described by Oviedo y Valdes as “a famous place, praised by the Indians of the coast,” was called… ‘Aruacay’. (5)
Already Hispaniola was a wasteland, and the Spanish had turned their attention to other places including Trinidad. That is why, when Antonio Sedeno tried to settle here, the chief named Baucunar felt obliged to gather together several tribes and give the Spanish a sound licking they would not forget for many years. Writing from Cubagua in 1534 Sedeno told the King of Spain that “No one here will now go to Trinidad which has become hateful to Spaniards.” ——– (7)
Nevertheless, nobody was safe from the Spanish, nobody on this Pearl Coast except, for a while, those “friends of the Christians” who dwelt in Aruacay. So while it is true that none of the early chronoclers explain why the Lokono throughout the region began to call themselves “Aruacas” the answer seems to stare us in the face: it was a way of saying to the Spanish, we are the same tribe which feeds you, so give us a break. It had nothing to do with being ‘peaceful’. Indeed, according to Antonio Vasques de Espinoza in 1620, “the tribe of the Aruaca Indians is among the most valiant in those parts; feared for their bravery by their neighbors and adjoining tribes.” ——(8) And when Spanish gratitude for Lokono ;friendliness’ wore thin Espinosa reported that: “for these and other well-grounded reasons they cancelled their fealty to the Spaniards, who had sad need of them; indignant over past abuses, they rebelled; and not a Spaniard dares enter their provinces, under risk of no less than loss of life.”
Already, however, there had become fixed in Spanish eyes, two groups of ‘peaceful’ Indians: the dead Taino and the friendly Arawaks. Strangely enough, though, it took the genius of later centuries to equate the two and label the erstwhile inhabitants of the Greater Antilles ‘Arawaks’. Briefly, in 1782 F.S. Gilij, a missionary, studied 39 languages of Venezuela. He identified nine language families including Cariban and Maipuran. Shortly after him another linguist, Von den Steinen, changed the classification ‘Maipuran’ to ‘Arawakan’ after realizing that the Lokono spoke a dialect of the Maipuran language tree. When Daniel Brinton in 1871 realized that the dialect of the Taino was also an offshoot of Arawakan, the matter was settled: those living in Guyana were henceforth “True Arawaks” and those in the Greater Antilles “Island Arawaks”. But both were ‘Arawaks’!
Why not? Aren’t Frenchmen, Spaniards and Italians really quite alike and could be equated by their common Latin roots? Ah, but France, Spain and Italy have societies more or less similar in economy and in politics. The differences between the Lokono tribal clans and the Taino chiefdoms were vast, more akin to the differences between India and those other societies which speak dialects of Sanskrit, namely the Latins, the Slavs, the Rus-sians, the Celts and the Gauls. Could you say that an English-man is really an Island Indian?
Who were these Caribs? They first entered the picture as a rumor Columbus had heard from the Taino. “All the people I have met here,” he entered in his diary, “have said that they are greatly afraid of the ‘Caniba’ or ‘Canima’.” ——- (9) Actually we cannot know what Columbus was told because he had a remarkable ability for seeing what he wanted to see and hearing what he wanted to hear. And, after all, the caniba could be “nothing else than the people of the Great Khan, who must be very close by.” ——–(10)
Ovideo y Valdez suggested that the word meant ‘brave’ in Taino language. As much as a century later ‘Carib’ was still sometimes used as an adjective to describe different tribes. Thus, in 1620 Vasquez de Espinosa could say: “The island of Granada is thickly peopled with Carib Indians called Camajuyas, which means lightning from heaven, since they are brave and warlike.” ——(11)
By then, somehow, Columbus’s ‘Caniba’ were being called ‘Caribe’. The English used ‘Caribbees’ ‘Charibs’ or ‘Caribs’, the French used ‘Caraibes’ and, for those on the mainland, ‘Galibis’. Fr. Raymond Breton, who lived amongst the Indians in Dominica from 1641 to 1655, said, however, that the men called themselves ‘Callinago’ and the women called themselves ‘Callipunam’. Today, among anthropologists, the favoured name is ‘Kalina’ but those still living in St. Vincent call themselves ‘Garifuna’.
But if the linguists have clouded the issue of Arawaks with their palaver about Arawakan language speakers, they have also demystified the vulgar ideas about the Carib race, since, we are told, these ‘Caribs’ spoke a dialect of the Arawakan language family. In other words, linguistically the Caribs were really Arawaks and ironically, according to the linguist, Douglas Taylor, “the various but similar words referring to ‘Carib’ may go back to an ancestral kaniriphuna, meaningful in Arawakan but not, I think, in Cariban.”——–(12)
Either way, such was the impression created by the Lesser Antillians that the Spanish and other Europeans took the matter of their eating humans quite seriously. For instance, the story was spread in the 16th century that some Dominican Caribs, after eating a Spanish friar, all fell ill. Thereafter, the Spanish, whenever they stopped off at Carib islands, they made sure to dress their sailors in sackcloth, just in case. The Caribs, it was thought, found Spaniards to be stringy and grisly, as opposed to the French who were rather delicious and the Dutch who tended to be fairly tasteless.
For all its seeming detail Spanish knowledge of Kalina culinary habits was actually negligible, far more so than that of the French. It is true that the Kalina and the Lokono raided each other’s settlements for captives or revenge. And there was practiced, by both tribes, some degree of ritual cannibalism. In the 17th century account of Adriaan van Berkel who lived with Lokono in Berbice, and the 16th century account of Luisa Navarrete who was a Kalina ‘slave’ in Dominica, both tribes after successful raids killed one or two male captives in a victory ritual and put pieces of their flesh into the pot. An arm or a leg was preserved to remind them of their hatred of the enemy. That was more or less the extent of it.
There has a never been found any archaeological evidence as would indicate widespread and systematic cannibalism, evidence such as scorched human bones, bones with knife or saw cuts or which are unnaturally fractured, bones widely scattered. Nevertheless, such niceties were less than appreciated by the conquistadores who needed slaves. And if Queen Isabella had in 1503 prohibited any man “to arrest or capture any Indians… or to do them any harm or evil to their persons or possessions,” she had also consented to the exception of, “a people called Cannibales …(who) waged war on the Indians who are my vassals, capturing them to eat them as is their custom.” What could be more practical for a Spaniard, then, than to discover as many ‘Canni-bales’ as there were Indians. After all, the Queen had explicitly ordered that “they may be captured and taken to these my Kingdoms and Domains and to other parts and places and be sold.”———(13)
In her order Isabella specifically mentioned the coast of Tierra Firme in the region of Colombia, an area which was only visited once previously by Rodrigo de Bastidas who had been peacably received. The Queen’s information, it seems, had come from Uraba la Cosa who deliberately misled her to justify his 1504 voyage of plunder and slaving from Cumana to Uraba.
“If they were cannibals in those days,” queried the french pirate- priest Pere Labat (1722) who knew the Caribs of Dominica intimately, “why are they not cannibals now? I have certainly not heard of them eating people, whether Englishmen with whom the Carib are nearly always fighting, or Allouages Indians of the mainland near the Orinoco with whom they are continually at war.” ——-(14)
The symbolic cannibalism which, it seems, certainly existed must have declined, ironically, after the Europeans arrived on the scene. Thereafter war ceased to be a ritual and became a matter of desperation. No Indian needed a white arm or leg to invoke a hatred for the new enemy.
But the raiding continued, increased even.
In a sense, women were, actually and symbolically, the first commodities. Thus, the earliest precious items of exchange, almost functioning, centuries before Columbus, as a money for the diverse tribes reaching from the Amazon to the Greater Antilles, were described by Pierre Barre in 1743 as follows: “This stone is of olive color, of a slightly paler green… The most common shape one gives to this stone is cylindrical, length of 2, 3, up to 4 inches, by six or seven lines in diameter, and drilled their whole length. I have seen some of them that were squaraed, oval, to which one had given the shape of a crescent and imprinted upon it the figure of a toad, or some other animals.” —–(17) Such a stones, the price of a slave, were believed to be the products of a mythic tribe of women who later came to be called the Amazons. They were made of a maleable rock from a special lake – only when taken into the sunlight did the ‘piedras hijadas’ became hard. Frogs, water, greenness, softness, the longditudinal bore, these were the universal Indian symbols of the female.
This prehistoric attitude might have logic foreign to our overcrowded world but, within limits, the prosperity of the neolithic clan was directly in proportion to its size. The wealth and power of a man were judged by the extent of his family. High mortality rates placed a premium on fecundity. Consequently, women were valued for their reproductive capacity. Here lies the true reason for their exclusion from the dangerous business of warfare and hunting even, or rather especially, when it was a matter of survival or extinction. It has nothing to do with women being a weaker sex. And here lies too the true origin of sexual, and all subsequent forms, of inequality.
“The men only hunt, fish, and cut down trees when a new clearing has to be made, which does not happen often, and do other small jobs,” observed Pere Labat, “The women have to do everything else. When the men return from hunting they just throw their game down in the doorway of the carbet, and the women pick it up and cook it, or if they come back from their fishing, they leave the fish in the canoe and not even mention it. The women have to run to the canoe to get the fish and cook it at once, for they are expected to know that the fishermen are hungry. In a word, the women are born servants and remain servants all their lives.”—— (18)
This changed, lost its primitive character, with the appearance of the Europeans. The attrition which the tribes suffered made raiding more vital to augment their declining numbers. At one time the Kalina of Dominica held over 70 captives – Spaniards and negroes, men and women – some of whom had been captured from the ‘Arawaks’ of Trinidad.
The process Luisa witnessed in 17th century Dominica had taken place centuries before at the fringes of the Roman empire and was well underway in western and central Africa: tribes primitive enough to have been relatively egalitarian were evolving into more complex societies. By this process a sexual division of labour geared to reproduction was evolving into a social division of labour geared to commodity production. And this entailed the emergence within the tribes of different classes of people, some of whom exploited the labour of others.
And yet, we must not overstate this case. It was precisely the pristine primitiveness of the Kalina, the fluidity of their societies, which allowed them to wage guerilla warfare for three centuries. The hierarchic Taino chiefdoms of the Greater Antilles, the Aztec state society of Mexico, both having hereditary leaders, were paralysed when these leaders were captured or killed – something the Spanish quickly learned. Even without this, they would have been incapable of resisting for any length of time once their economies were disrupted. That is why many of the Taino died of starvation. Not so the Kalina: they just ran up into the bush, chose a new war leader and returned for revenge.
Thus, in 1560 at Rouen Montaigne met three Indians brought by a navigator from the Amazon. What are the privileges of chiefs, he asked one who had been himself a chief. The Indian replied, “it was to march forward in any time of warfare.”——- (21)
No wonder the Garifuna, a tribe of mixed Carib-African stock, were able to keep the Europeans at bay in St. Vincent until well into the 18th century. They only acceeded to being deported by the British to Honduras in 1797, and even so skirm-ishes continued on the island until 1799. Only in 1803 did the British feel confident enough to offer a reward of $20 “for each Charaib man or woman killed or brought in prisoner.” ———(22)
To my mind, people have not really understood the nature of revenge, seeing it as an aspect of the Indians’ vindictiveness. Imagine a tribe, one so simple that there is really no police or leader or council of elders. How did a man redress an injustice? He took personal revenge, a course of action which easily turned into a feud. Lex talionis, said William Hilhouse describing the Arawaks of Guyana in 1825, “is observed rigidly… Most of the blood feuds originate in jealousy, and the revenge of connubial injuries, of which they are highly resentful.” —–(23) “If anyone among them suffers an injury or affront without endeavouring to revenge himself, he is slighted by all the rest and accounted a coward, and a person of no esteem,” said Rochefort (1658).—–(24) Pere Labat, speaking of the Kalina, was more forceful: “Frown at an Indian and you fight him. Fight an Indian and you must kill him or be killed.” ——- (25)
This individualism was not, as often thought, just a matter of spite ‘it was condition of the Indians’ mode of existence as much as the courts of law are of ours and as such it was practiced quite apart from the varying cultural attitudes, the differences in tribal temperament, such as those noticed by most observers. And consequently this had to be impressed upon the mind of the Spanish. The primitive individualism of the Indians, then, in ways came close to being a definition of freedom.
“Many carib Indians,” complained Antonio de Herreira (1547), the last of the great chroniclers, “were coming from the islands, of Trinidad, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Santa Cruz, Matino, and other islands, causing great damage.” —–(26) And this continued for quite some time. Take the example of the Nepoio named Hierreima whom the Spanish in Trinidad enslaved: he ran away, killed two Spaniards, and thereafter dedicated his life to killing the rest. In 1636 a Netherlander, Jacques Ousiel, wrote: “This Hierreima came to Tobago… offering his services in driving the Spaniards out of the aforesaid island with 100 or 80 white musketeers and 400 Indians that he would add thereto, declaring that as an assurance of his good intentions and purposes, he would leave all their women and children and old men as hostages.” ——-(27)
The ensuing years did see the Spaniards being driven out of all but the three largest islands of the Caribbean. But the spoils of those victories went to the English and the French, not the Indians. So Hierreima is as forgotten as is the Ciguayan. The Lokono and the Kalina, although they are still to be found in the Guianas, their memory has been covered with calumny. And now, looking back, we wonder what was this all about? What remains? Did it only mean that Spain got a few less gold trinkets and pearls and the smaller islands were preserved for the English and the French to later turn them into sugar factories powered with African blood? That the word ‘anthropophagi’ could be replaced by ‘cannibal’? And the memory of the past linger on only as a demeaning myth of peaceful Arawaks and warlike Caribs?
There is another story to be told, one so subterranean that at times it seemed only exist as a dream. We pick up the trail in the writing of Thomas More who set his fictional island of Utopia in the Caribbean where was also located Erasmus’s Fortunate Isles. It was plaited of a thread inspired by the courage and egalitarianism of both Arawaks and Caribs. It first found expression in the startling idea of Las Casas that, “the inhabitants (of Cuba) had the right to wage war on the Admiral and his Christians in order to rescue their neighbors and compatriots.” Symptomatically, it was the French, who colonised the Carib islands, who took it up – Montaigne, Voltaire and then Rousseau’s noble savage. By 1776, the year of the American Revolution, when Abbe Raynal picked up the thread, the Indians had been replaced by Africans. “The slave, an instrument in the hands of wickedness, is below the dog which the Spaniard let loose against the American,” he wrote: “A courageous chief only is wanted.” Those lines were closely read, over and over, by a middle-aged black slave in San Domingue who shared the same dream. His name was Toussaint L’Ouverture and his dream was no less than the dream of freedom.