During my research for this my eighth and bilingual book of poetry, The Sonnet of Puerto Rico: El Soneto Borincano, I discovered there was a lot of
information about Christopher Columbus missing in the history books in regards to his encounter with and treatment of the indigenous Taino people of Jamaica,
Cuba, Hispaniola (later Haiti and Dominican Republic), and of course, San Juan Bautista (later Puerto Rico).
Current information is changing, if it hasn’t already, the world’s view of the admiral once thought to have been a hero and discoverer of the New World. Since
the Taíno did not have a written language, all of the information gathered about them has been obtained through Columbus’ log of his voyages, Columbus’ letters
to and from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus’ journals, documented consequences as a result of a papal bull by Pope Alexander VI, and
other documented sources, letters, and diaries of individuals who were witness to many of the atrocities perpetrated against the Taíno.
Overall, the story of the Taino is a tragic and heart wrenching tale, and the most damaging account is given by Bartolome de las Casas, the friar who translated
the journals of Christopher Columbus, the clergyman who was witness to the acts of inhumanity by the Spaniards, the likes of which he had never seen before.
In his, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Casas tells exactly what happened to the natives of the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and all the islands the
As I continued my research for my book, there were a couple of things that I had to push aside because they turned out to be either myths or erroneous. What I
learned about Columbus in school I took as fact. I never questioned it. Whatever the history books said happened had to be true, and I was no expert on the
subject. For one, the books said Columbus wanted to prove the world was round, and two, that the three ships he sailed with to the New World were called La
Niña, La Pinta, and La Santa Maria.
According to historian William Fowler, in an interview with Tony Cox, of National Public Radio (NPR), on October 10, 2011, Fowler pointed out Columbus
didn’t think the world was flat, as we were taught in school, because every educated European at the time understood the world was round. What Columbus
wanted to do was prove he could sail around the world, but the experts were right when they said it was impossible. Columbus had underestimated the size of
the earth, which was at least ten times larger than he had calculated. As for Columbus’ three ships, Fowler enlightened the listeners with a little correction in
"Santa Maria, that is the correct name,
but sailors in Columbus' time, like sailors
today, often nickname their ships. So, they
didn't call the Santa Maria the Santa Maria.
She was built in the province of Galicia.
And so, her nickname was La Gallega. Now,
as far as the Niña goes, that wasn't the name.
That was the nickname for the vessel. The real
name of the Niña was Santa Clara. She was
nicknamed Niña because her owner was a man
named Juan Niño. Now, as far as the Pinta goes,
well, we really don't know. Clearly, Pinta was
her nickname, but what was her real name,
So, on August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail for the New World from Palos, Spain with three ships, Santa Maria, Santa Clara, and the nicknamed Pinta. In my
opinion, based on the name of the first two ships, in all likelihood, the Pinta’s real name could have been a name with Santa in front of it. One name, and a
favorite of Queen Isabella, was Santa Teresa, but we will never know unless in time the real name is discovered. If that is not satisfactory for some people, we
can always go with the nicknames. We can say Columbus sailed with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Gallega. Furthermore, we don’t know if he was indeed from
Genoa, and in Italy, Christopher Columbus’ real name was Cristoforo Colombo.
Under the Mongolian Empire’s influence over Asia, Europeans used a safe route, called Silk Road, to India and China. Then Constantinople fell to the Ottoman
Turks in 1453 and the safe passage became dangerous and difficult. Another way to Asia needed to be found, by sea, and Colombo figured he could find a way
by sailing westward, and he makes the attempt, first stopping on the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa for repairs, final restocking, and then he heads
across the Atlantic on September 6, 1492 from San Sebastián de la Gomera.
Instead of finding the East Indies, an island is spotted about 2:00 on the morning of October 12, 1492. Colombo named it San Salvador, which was about 314
miles southeast of what is now known as Nassau, The Bahamas. The natives called the island Guanahani. The natives he encountered, the Lucayans, Tainos, or
Arawaks, were peaceful and friendly. He describes the natives, (The Log of Christopher Columbus, by Robert H. Fuson, pp. 73-74, 80), in his log of that day,
“They are friendly and well-dispositioned
people who bear no arms except for small
spears, and they have no iron. I showed one
my sword, and through ignorance he grabbed
it by the blade and cut himself. Their spears
are made of wood, to which they attach a fish
tooth at one end or some other sharp thing.”
“They ought to make good and skilled servants,
for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to
them. I think they can easily be made Christians,
for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases
Our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highness
when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”
Then he adds:
“With 50 men you could subject everyone
and make them do what you wished.”
After visiting five of the islands in the Bahamas, Colombo sets sail again and makes it to Cuba on October 28, 1492 (Fuson, pp. 92-93), landing at Barlay, which
was near the eastern tip of the island. Here Colombo thought he had found China, and after investigating the island, and not having found the Emperor of China,
he visited a Taino village, where he and some of his men were the first to observe the smoking of tobacco, which they themselves indulged in. He then left Cuba
and headed for the island of Hispaniola on December 5, 1492.
According to Colombo’s logs, he landed on an island the natives called Haiti, but he quickly changed it to La Española, which was later changed to Hispaniola
(now Haiti and Dominican Republic). On one of his excursions around Cuba, on December 25, 1492, the Santa Maria ran aground and had to be abandoned, so
he had to take over the Santa Clara (Niña).
Negotiating with a local chieftain he had become good friends with, named Guacanagarí, since the Pinta had been separated from the other two ships,
arrangements were made to leave thirty-nine of his men behind in a small settlement named La Navidad. At this point in his travels, the island of Puerto Rico
was not part of his journey.
On January 16, 1493, Colombo headed home, to Spain, but he reached Lisbon, Portugal first on March 4, 1493, the same year he would head back to sea, this
time discovering Puerto Rico before landing back at Hispaniola. He proved to be an exceptional admiral, with great skills in navigation, bringing home two ships,
which were leaking all the way to Lisbon, where he was invited to visit with King John II of Portugal and the Algarves. He was received and treated with
honors, and the king had Colombo’s ships repaired free of charge. At this point, Colombo was considered a hero, but he was not entirely happy with his first
In Spain, Colombo is also welcomed as a hero. He displays all of his findings collected in the Indies, believing he had indeed discovered it, although he wasn’t
entirely convinced. He especially displayed the gold objects, and paraded several natives he had brought along, one whom he had named Diego, and the
monarchy was charmed. The sovereigns asked Pope Alexander VI to recognize their claim to the newly discovered lands, and it was granted, but solely on the
condition that the natives be converted to the Holy Faith, (The Tainos by Francine Jacobs, pp. 44). Later on, by not converting the natives to the Holy Faith,
Colombo uses the dominion over the natives for his own purposes.
At daybreak, on September 25, 1493, “seventeen ships, three caracas, of one hundred tons each, two naos, and twelve caravels, sailed from Cadiz amid the
ringing of bells and enthusiastic Godspeeds of thousands of spectators.” (The History of Puerto Rico by R. A. Van Middeldyk, pp 5). Good fortune followed
Colombo and they had fine weather and fair wind for almost the entire trip, and in twenty-one days they spotted land.
Since it was Sunday, Domingo being the Spanish word for Sunday, they named the first island they came to Dominica, then the next island they named, Marie-
Galante, and he went on naming islands, finally arriving on November 19, 1493 at an island he named, San Juan Bautista (later Puerto Rico). Near the landing-
place was found a deserted village consisting of a dozen huts, and during their time in port, not a single native showed himself. So, on the morning of November
22, 1493, the fleet lifted anchor and proceeded on a northwesterly course, and reached the bay of Samana in Española before night, and on November 25th he
was back at La Navidad.
When Colombo returned to the fort of La Navidad, built during his first voyage, located on the northern coast of Haiti, he found the fort in ruins, destroyed by
the native Taino people. The corpses of eleven out of the thirty-nine men he left behind were among the ruins, and the others were found dead elsewhere on the
island. From here on, Colombo never returns to explore San Juan Bautista. That task would eventually be left to Juan Ponce de Leon.
Meanwhile, relations between the Tainos and the Spaniards begins to fall apart, fueled by the fact that the task of controlling the hundreds of noblemen,
adventurers, soldiers, and workers was becoming a threat to a peaceful environment. Many were bored, ill, hungry, impatient, homesick after three months, and
the colonists no longer had faith in promises of gold and wealth. (Jacobs, pp. 49). Colombo sensed a serious threat in their hostility, and in the background, the
natives began to realize that the Spaniards were not gods, but mortals after all. Yet, the natives still felt compassion for the troubled Spaniards, much to their
Probably the first instance of cruelty to the natives documented after Colombo returned to Hispaniola occurred during an expedition to Santo Tomás from Isabela
under the stern command of Alonso de Hojeda. There was a rumor the natives had stolen some clothing and was said to be in possession of a local chief.
Hojeda captured the chief and took his brother, nephew and one of the nitainos (low ranking but important person) prisoner also. (Jacobs, pp. 51, 56)
“The terrified Indians were taken to their village plaza.
There, as the Tainos watched in horror, Hojeda viciously
cut off the ears of the respected nitaino. The mutilated
victim, the cacique and the others were taken away in
chains to Isabela and brought before Columbus.”
“If the bewildered and frightened prisoners had hoped
For mercy from the white chief, none was forthcoming.
The Admiral [Colombo] ordered that they be beheaded.”
If not for the pleas for mercy from another cacique (chief) Colombo knew, the order would have been carried out without question. Colombo relented, because
he was indebted to the chief, and he let the prisoners go free. Though Colombo had directed that the Tainos be treated kindly and with respect, he had turned
loose an army of hungry soldiers. (Jacobs, pp. 52).
“The Spaniards swept across the once tranquil plains
like a plague of swarming locusts, leaving ruin and
famine in their path. Taino villages were sacked, and
the little food stored in their huts was taken. The oppressed
Tainos fled their villages, abandoned their carefully
cultivated conucos and became refugees in their own land.”
In less than four years of Colombo landing on Hispaniola, one-third of the Taino population would perish at the hands of the Spaniards. Also, the Tainos were
beginning to suffer in increasing numbers from introduction of foreign diseases, such as smallpox, yellow fever, plague, measles, and influenza. (Jacobs, p. 53).
The Tainos had no immunity to these diseases, and more Tainos perished as time went on; and in about a decade, two-thirds of the Tainos would die from these
As we follow the continuing saga of the Tainos, we get to the account given by a young, catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas who transcribed
Columbus’s journals and later wrote about the violence he had witnessed. The fact that such crimes could potentially go unnoticed by future generations was
deeply troubling to him. He expanded upon the extent of Colombo’s reign of terror within his multivolume book entitled the "History of the Indies":
"There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians;
so that from 1494 to 1508, over 3,000,000 people had perished from
war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this?
I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it."
In his book, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Casas details the horrible events, and they are many. Account after account seems to make the
previous already horrible acts even worse. Here are the details of just one more incident of many:
“Which Spaniards no sooner perceived, but they, mounted on
generous steeds, well weapon’d with lances and swords, begin
To exercise their bloody butcheries and strategems, and over
running their cities and towns, spar’d no age, or sex, nay not
so much as women with child, but ripping up their bellies, tore
them alive in pieces. They laid wages among themselves, who
should with a sword at one blow cut, or divide a man in two;
or which of them should decollate or behead a man, with the
greatest dexterity; nay farther, which should sheath his sword
in the bowels of a man with the quickest dispatch and expedition.
So horrible were the events that Colombo was arrested and taken back to Spain, but because the royal treasury was being stocked rather nicely with gold and
other valuable commodities, Colombo was pardoned and allowed to sail on another voyage, but he was ill, and on May 20, 1506 Colombo died in Valladolid,
Spain, and two years later, it would be Juan Ponce de Leon who would go to San Juan Bautista in the year 1508, and he would do to the Tainos of Puerto Rico
what Cristoforo Colombo did to the natives of all the surrounding islands.
Later, the Pope's declaration ultimately had dire consequences for native inhabitants of the Americas. Beginning in 1514 Spanish conquerors adopted "the
Requirement," an ultimatum in which Indians were forced to accept "the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world" or face persecution. [The
Spanish struggle for justice in the conquest of America, Lewis Hanke, p. 33]. If Indians did not immediately comply, the Requirement warned them:
"We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall
make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them
as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your
goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can."
In retrospect, we can’t judge all the Spaniards by what one man did or what one man, in command, allowed others to do in the name of God, King and Queen,
and country. Colombo most assuredly, finding there was really very little gold in the New World he had discovered, and having lost the shipwrecked Santa
Clara, and two-thirds of the natives dying of diseases the Spaniards brought to the islands, he did what he thought necessary to save face, and maybe save his
own neck. We really don’t know, but still, actions speak louder than words.
We certainly can’t condone the annihilation of the Taino natives, under any circumstances. As much as the Italians wanted to celebrate a hero, since Colombo
was really working for the Spanish monarchy, it may be better to step back and distance themselves from the Admiral. They could pick another true hero to
celebrate, and Columbus Day could be changed to Indigenous Natives of the World Day instead.