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The Changes Experienced by a Hierarchial Society of Latin America

Updated on February 1, 2013
The New World, 17th c. maps
The New World, 17th c. maps | Source

The arrival of Europeans in Latin America profoundly changed reality for the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola. Although the European side of the conquering is more commonly told, the effect the conquest had in changing the perspectives of Latin American Kingdoms, including the societies functioning on the island, which came to be known as Hispaniola, was deeply profound. When the Spanish conquest of South America is considered at large, the fact which is so unfortunately overlooked is the extent to which “the Spaniards and the Mexicans were not really fighting the same kind of war. On the material plane, they fought with different weapons: on the social and moral, they had totally different concepts of war”.[1] Until this reality is taken account for an accurate understanding of Atlantic perspectives cannot wholly be garnered. Although there are no accounts written by the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola documenting their perspective, the written records of European minds including Montaigne, Las Casas and Columbus successfully contrast the native experience of colonization with that of the Spanish conquistadors.

The fertile island of Hispaniola was the first territory to experience the arrival of Europeans and what an introduction it was. Hispaniola boasted six hundred leagues of coastline, and a healthy populous of people who had no urge to acquire material items and consequently, “were neither ambitious nor greedy, and were totally uninterested in worldly power”; or such was Bartholomew de Las Casas’ opinion on the natural condition of the indigenous peoples.[2] Christopher Columbus arrived on the island haphazardly after the sinking of the Santa Maria. He recorded his observations in letters that he wrote to the crown; editions of which have been preserved and added to the historical record. They provide vital insight into the native experience of the Spanish landing. Columbus’ journals give insight into the nature of the natives and how they responded to the landing of the Spanish on their island. A brief reading of any account will show that the Europeans experienced a gentile native who was more curious than he was hostile or wary. With time however, this experience would change as the Europeans had arrived with an ambitious and resource driven agenda. Columbus’ letters tell of a young population of people who “go naked as their mothers bore them”. They were documented as very willing to trade the most valuable (by Spanish standards) goods for the most menial as Columbus’ men would trade glass beads, bells and pieces of iron for such things as cotton, cane spears and earthenware as such modern materials were foreign and therefore intriguing to the islanders.[3] Columbus writes about his extreme interest in evangelism among the indigenous peoples and the extent to which he thinks it will be successful among them as he writes: “they should be good servants and very intelligent, for I have observed that they soon repeat anything that is said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, for they appeared to me to have no religion”.[4] Of course, one must remember that Columbus writes to please his monarch sponsors the King and Queen of Spain and that he has every interest in portraying his voyage as successful as possible. From the events documented in these letters it is possible to discern that the native experience of the Spanish landing was more of a novelty than it was for the Spanish as the natives had never experienced Europeans nor had they encountered many of the materials the Spanish brought with them. Columbus’ founding of La Navidad and La Isabela made the Spanish presence on the island a perpetual reality.

Changes experienced in Hispaniola on account of the arrival of the Spanish began immediately. The most evident change which took place was the extreme population decrease among native islanders. The relative fragility of the natives on Hispaniola has been well documented; they were, according to European accounts, small framed, slight and agile people who had no immunity to European diseases like smallpox, typhoid, and consumption; diseases which would sweep in and destroy entire tribes. Estimated figures delineate that from an initial island population of 250 000, by 1550 there were said to have been only a few hundred indigenous peoples left on the island. This population decrease, though largely due to the infectious nature of European-borne diseases was also aided by the brutal treatment of the natives by Spanish lords who were comfortable perpetrating horrific brutalities upon the indigenous peoples because of their perception of them as animals and slaves. The abominations carried out against the natives were recorded in gory detail by a number of conquistadors including Las Casas, Montaigne, and Cortes some of whom condemned the actions of the Spanish while others identified the cruel and inescapable hand of economic ambition. For example, Montaigne exuded an air of appreciation for the simple lives of the natives; believing that “the nations of the New World live better without magistrates and laws than ours that are over run with them”.[5] In perfect contrast to Montaigne’s sentiments we have the records provided by Columbus. Columbus was tolerant of the native peoples because he viewed them as more useful in their ignorance and more likely to be “converted by love and friendship than by force”.[6] Of course, Columbus could not help but examine the aspects of the New World which might be immediately beneficial to Europeans. He appreciated their little log boats “made from tree-trunks”, their vast quantities of cotton, and his interest in locating their source of gold never wavered.[7] Although Montaigne uses evidence that had built up long after Columbus’ expeditions, the significant dissimilarity of their interests in the New World is quite evident.

The frustrating reality that modern historians have only the words of European observers to consider when seeking to understand the indigenous experience is aided in part, by the archeological record which has since come to a rough understanding of Taino culture prior to the Spanish landing. Unlike those kingdoms discovered in central and western Mexico which were highly developed socially, economically and technologically and outshone the industrial centres which were developing in Europe the island of Hispaniola was small, very fertile and could successfully provide for a relatively small population of tribes smattered about the island who were comfortable with a sustainable and nomadic (in part, if necessary) lifestyle. With time, Spain explored further areas of the New World and encountered access to resources which were more valuable to them than those available in Hispaniola. Development of the colonial presence on Hispaniola and the islands which neighbored it increased, if slowly, as the island became a frequent stopping point for ships facilitating trade in the area. Consequently large, bustling port cities developed such as Tortuga (which was actually on a neighboring island). The development of these large cities and the depletion of the resources it took to fuel them and the ships which passed through them effectively disabled the native populations’ ability to carry on with life as it had been prior to Spanish colonization.

Life for the Taino, the indigenous community who populated the island prior to the Spanish landing was perhaps more structured and developed than has been appreciated in history. The chiefdoms which existed on the island of Hispaniola, though not remembered in the historical record as being as momentous as the monarchies of central and western South America, were formidable and developed in their own way. At the time of Columbus’ arrival there were five chiefdom's or territories on the island of Hispaniola. These chiefdom's were led by chieftains to whom the natives would pay tribute. There was a definite hierarchy on the island. Society was divided into two classes of commoners and nobles. Chieftains were either male or female and oversaw these two classes under the advisory of priests or healers who could also be male or female. The Tainos lived largely an agrarian lifestyle and traveled between islands to fish and hunt via large dugout canoes. The little societies would live in larger metropolises called yucayeques which featured large circular buildings wherein 10-15 families would be ordered according to class. At the center of these small towns was a plaza which would be used for public announcements, ceremonies and festivals and religious rituals.[8] And Taino religion was of no base nature either which threw a wrench in Columbus’ hopes that the natives would be godless and easily converted. Taino religion was a centuries’ old, deeply engrained and complex belief system which threaded throughout all aspects of Taino life. A plethora of Gods permeated all elements of nature and needed to be appeased through body modification, and extreme worship (fasting and purging) if the Taino’s wished to be favorable looked upon.[9] It can be noted therefore, that the aggressive nature of the Spanish towards the indigenous peoples may well have been ignited by the fact that the natives “did not intend to change their religion having so profitably followed their own for such a long time”.[10] Furthermore they were not interested in taking advice on faith from anyone other than their friends and family, let alone foreigners whose origins and intentions they were unsure of.

Though largely a peaceful community, which practiced trade with neighboring tribes, the Taino had enemies, particularly tribes of Carib origin who were mostly smattered around continental South America. Looking at their previsions for war which was largely based around the construction of wooden clubs and cane spears, one can understand how the Spanish and later French were able to dominate their relatively menial weapons. Consequently, Taino society was completely overpowered by colonial forces and was further devastated by smallpox, intermarriages and forced assimilation into the plantation economy that Spain developed on the island.[11] Chief Agüeybaná (The Great Sun) is remembered as one of the principal chiefs who welcomed the Spaniards to the island in 1493 and helped them construct the first Spanish settlement. The approachability and hospitality that the Spaniards experienced from Agüeybaná would have made it apparent to them how easily they could betray this hospitality and conquer the island to use in their grander economic plans.[12] The fate of the “good” people, as their name directly translates, for at least the next three centuries would be one of shattered tranquility; their otherwise peaceful world forced to give way to disease, death and virtual cultural extinction.

In conclusion, there are plenty of European reports on the cultural genocide which took place in Lain America at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors and these accounts can shed light on the indigenous experience when coupled with what has been gathered in the archeological record. The radical and unpleasant changes which took place among the Taino of Hispaniola were of a nature which was not akin to the kindly gentile mannerisms of the tribe. Across Latin America every facet of indigenous culture and lifestyle was compromised and largely eradicated due to the Spaniards technological advantage which rendered native revolt ineffective. Because there are no eye-witness accounts documenting the aboriginal perspective, it is the mission of historians and archaeologists to sift through the plethora of European accounts for indigenous voices of the indigenous Atlantic peoples as without their account the historical record can be only marginally complete.

Works Cited

Columbus, Christopher, and J. Cohen. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus. New York:

Penguin Books, 2004.

Columbus, Christopher, and J.M. Cohen. Journal of the First Voyage. New York: Penguin

Books, 1969.

Jacobs, Francine. The People Who Welcomed Columbus. Texas: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992.

Las Casas, Bartolome, and Nigel Griffin. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. 1991.

Montaigne, Michel, and Donald. M Frame. The Essays of Montaigne, Complete. Stanford:

Stanford UP, 1958.

Saunders, Nicholas. The Peoples of the Caribbean. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

Screech, Michael Andrew. Montaigne & melancholy : the wisdom of the Essays. London:

Duckworth, 2000.

Soustelle, Jacques. Daily Life of the Aztecs: On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Stanford:

Stanford UP, 1955.

[1] Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs: On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1955), 213.

[2] Bartolome Las Casas, and Nigel Griffin, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, (1991), 41-55.

[3] Christopher Columbus, and J.M. Cohen, Journal of the First Voyage, (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), 26-39.

[4] Christopher Columbus, and J.M. Cohen, Journal of the First Voyage, (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), 26-39.

[5] Michel Montaigne, and Donald. M Frame, The Essays of Montaigne, Complete, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1958), 165.

[6] Christopher Columbus, and J. Cohen, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 28.

[7] Christopher Columbus, and J. Cohen, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 30.

[8] Nicholas Saunders, The Peoples of the Caribbean, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 271-300.

[9] Nicholas Saunders, The Peoples of the Caribbean, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 271-300.

[10] Michael Andrew Screech, Montaigne & melancholy : the wisdom of the Essays, (London: Duckworth, 2000), 104.

[11] Francine Jacobs, The People Who Welcomed Columbus, (Texas: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992), 107.

[12] Francine Jacobs, The People Who Welcomed Columbus, (Texas: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992), 107.


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