The Journey of Christpher Columbus
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Before the Voyage
Columbus Voyage Timeline
Native Peoples
Columbus After 1943

Native Peoples—the “Indians”

Tainos, Caribs, and Others
Culture of the Classic Tainos
Eastern Tainos, Western Tainos, Island-Caribs, and Guanahatabeys
Learning about the Tainos and Others

Tainos, Caribs, and Others

Columbus among the Indians
Columbus among the Indians

The groups of native people incorrectly labeled “Indians” by Columbus were actually a diverse mix of different tribes which spanned the islands of the Greater and Lesser Antilles. The people Columbus encountered are known as the Tainos. The different groups that lived in the Bahamas at the time of his arrival were the Eastern, Western, and Classic Tainos; the Island-Caribs; and a small group called the Guanahatabeys. According to most recent findings, the natives were spread out among the large and small islands of the Caribbean, with the Tainos dominating the landscape.

Culture of the Classic Tainos

The Tainos were an advanced people who relied on agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Of the three groups of Taino people—Classic, Eastern, and Western—anthropologists and historians know most about the lives and social structure of the Classic Tainos. Information about their daily activities has been unearthed in parts of present-day Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Bahama Islands. The evidence corresponds with the descriptions written by Columbus and other European sailors who ventured to the New World. Through the physical artifacts and written testimony of contemporary individuals, historians are able to piece together the lives and histories of the Classic Taino people.

During his journey, Columbus encountered many large villages along the shores of Cuba, Hispañiola, and Puerto Rico. Each village was governed by a chief who oversaw numerous social and political functions. Both men and women were eligible to become chiefs. A few villages would be grouped together into loosely organized districts. Each district was ruled by one of the village chiefs. These district chiefdoms were then organized into groups of regional chiefdoms, headed by the most prominent district chief. The structure of the Taino government is comparable to the current political system of the United States. The Classic Taino population was split into two social classes, as defined by the class-conscious Europeans who studied them—the nobility (nitaíno) and the commoner (naboria). There was no third class, since slavery and forced labor were not found in the Taino society.

The layout of each village was similar. The chief’s house (called a bohío) was situated in the center of a large plaza, surrounded by all of the houses (caney) belonging to the other members of the community. Homes had thatched roofs and dirt floors, with most people sleeping on hammocks hanging within or just outside of the caney. Food and other goods were stored in baskets hung around the walls of the homes. Chiefs and other high-ranking people sat on throne-like stools, called duho, which had spiritual figures and signs carved on them.

These figures, called zumis, were seen throughout the village. Every person in the group had zumis in their homes and on their bodies. They were used as decoration, praise to the gods, and symbols of luck and good fortune. Classic Tainos decorated their bodies to represent different aspects of their personal lives, their village, or their culture. Most wore little clothing, as is evident through Columbus’s journal entries, although women usually were clothed according to their marital status. Unmarried women wore decorative headbands, while married women wore short skirts called nagua. Belts, necklaces, and headdresses distinguished chiefs, nitaínos, and naborias from one another. Both men and women painted their skin, especially for special events and ceremonies. The most common color used was red, which may explain why “Indians” have been associated with having red skin.

In addition to hunting birds, fishing, and trapping iguanas, the Classic Tainos ate a wide variety of plants and vegetables. Their principle crop was cassava. The plant, which is poisonous if eaten raw, was used to make bread, soup, juice, stews, and other foods. It was also used in religious rituals and ceremonies. Along with cassava, the Classic Tainos grew sweet potato, corn, squash, peppers, and peanuts. They supplemented these vegetables with meat and fish to make flavorful dishes. Tobacco, smoked in cigar form during religious ceremonies and everyday occasions, was very popular.

Food and religion were often interrelated. One of the two supreme gods depicted in the zumis was Yúcahu, lord of the cassava and the sea (where the Tainos found fish and other sources of food). In order to honor and please Yúcahu, the Tainos would offer food to the zumi. The second major deity was Atabey, Yúcahu’s mother, the goddess of fresh water and fertility.

Sport and recreation also played a large role in the lives of the Taino people. A game called batey was played on large rectangular courts in the central plaza. Batey was played with a rubber ball which the players had to keep in motion, bouncing it from one person to another within the boundaries of the court. The two teams, each consisting of ten to thirty players, stood on opposite ends of the court. They would then serve the ball to the other team, which would try to keep it bouncing without going out of bounds. The participants weren’t allowed to use their hands or feet, making the game a difficult test of athleticism and strategy. Both men and women played batey, but always separately. Bets and wagers were often made between teams, players, and spectators.

Villages and districts often fought one another to avenge murders, resolve disputes, or enforce agreements between chiefs. The greatest victory for the Classic Taino people was not in the murder of their enemies but in the capture of their property. A warrior earned respect and fame from his village if he succeeded in taking the weapons, shields, and other battle gear from his opponents while sparing their lives. This practice ultimately contributed to the destruction of the Tainos. In battle, the Tainos would allow their Spanish and Carib adversaries to live, a courtesy their opponents did not return.

Eastern Tainos, Western Tainos, Island-Caribs, and Guanahatabeys

While the Classic Tainos were the most populous group in the Antilles, there were other important groups also living on the islands.

The Eastern and Western Tainos were very similar to their Classic neighbors, but had slightly less advanced societies. The primary difference among the three Taino groups was their level of hostility. The Western Tainos were very peaceful and passive. They welcomed Columbus and his men without caution and were helpful in aiding the Europeans’ recovery from their long voyage. The Classic Tainos were more warlike, but overall were not a very violent society. Eastern Tainos, however, tended to be much more hostile. Their close proximity to the Caribs caused them to be more violent and aggressive. When Columbus encountered them in the Virgin Islands on his second voyage, it is not surprising that they attacked him and his men.

Island-Caribs were thought to be violent, blood-thirsty savages. Tales of cannibalism and torture at the hands of these native peoples traveled throughout the Antilles, reaching Columbus when he arrived on the islands of San Salvador and Cuba. These tales were never substantiated, though the basis for them is well-documented. The Caribs were not cannibals, as the Tainos feared, but they did practice rituals and ceremonies in which they cut off the limbs of their enemies and cooked them. They believed that by doing this they would gain the skill and prowess of the opposing warrior. It was a sign of respect and admiration for their enemy.

The Carib society was less complex than that of the Tainos. They lacked permanent chiefs and were constantly at war with each other and their neighbors. Chiefs were elected for each battle, so no leader lasted longer than the length of any given war. They often invaded their Eastern Taino neighbors to raid their villages for wives. Their violent nature contributed to the horror stories that were spread from one Taino village to another. While the tales were exaggerated, the threat from the Caribs was real.

The final group in the Antilles was a small tribe called the Guanahatabey. They were located on the westernmost end of Cuba and tended not to mix with the other tribes. The Guanahatabey spoke a different language than their Taino neighbors, so different that Columbus’s interpreter could not converse with them. They were far less advanced than any of the other groups in the area. For the most part, the Guanahatabeys lived out in the open or in caves, living off of the sea. Shellfish, fish, and fowl were the main sources of food. They organized themselves into small bands instead of villages, never setting up a complex form of government like the Classic Tainos. Because of their location they were a very peaceful and passive people, similar to their Western Taino neighbors. With little to fear from other tribes, the Guanahatabey were generally free to live in peaceful solitude.


The enslavement, torture, murder, and extermination of the native people of the West Indies followed quickly on the heels of Columbus and his men. It was obvious from Columbus’s journal that the Tainos were not as used to battle and warfare as the Spaniards. Columbus notes that “with 50 men you could subject everyone and make them do what you wished” and that the natives were “such cowards and so fearful” that they were, therefore, easy to rule. This idea was carried back to Europe, setting the tone for the relationship between the natives and the European explorers.

The search for gold was the primary cause for the mistreatment of the native people. On one of Columbus’s later voyages he ordered his men to complete certain tasks to ensure their survival as a colony. His men, however, disliked such hard labor and refused to act. When Columbus returned a few months later to find things worse than when he left, he punished the natives for the failure of his own men. He blamed them for destroying the settlers’ property, stealing their food, and instilling fear. In retaliation for these acts, few—if any—of which had actually occurred, he had his men round up over 1,500 Taino men, women, and children, then forced the Tainos into slavery.

Columbus, in need of a cargo other than gold and spices to ship to Spain, decided to send the Taino slaves as a show of the wealth available in the New World. He loaded the “best men and women” onto ships and sent them off to Europe, thus beginning the widespread enslavement of the native peoples.

While a fairly large number of men and women were enslaved and sent back to Spain, the fate of those left behind was equally disturbing. With each new island conquered and tribe taken, the leader of the current Spanish expedition would gather the captured natives and ask them to swear their allegiance to Spain and the Pope. This ritual was concluded with the following warning:

I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and Their Highnesses. 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 your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.

The natives understood little of this, since the oath was given in Spanish—a language the natives were never taught. The punishment for failure to agree with the above declaration was severe. The natives were forced into slavery. These slaves were then made to do the work of their captors. From finding gold to building settlements, the natives were forced into hard labor under terrible conditions. And if they failed to comply with the orders from the Spanish guards, they were often beaten, tortured, and killed.

Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish missionary who fought for the rights and protection of the native people, gives accounts of this mistreatment in his books on the Spanish invasion of the New World. He describes in vivid detail the punishments that the natives received at the hands of the soldiers and guards. The search for gold was so important to the Spanish leaders that they forced nearly all of the slaves, except young children, to look for the valuable metal. Those who found enough to fill their quota were given a token which they wore as proof of their success. The biggest problem for the people forced to look for gold was that there was very little of it on the islands. The vast amounts of gold of which Columbus spoke when he returned to Spain were nowhere to be found.

Any attempt by the natives to fight back was put down immediately and efficiently by the Spanish invaders. Those who led and participated in a revolt were punished by death. In order to undermine the authority of chiefs within the Taino villages, the Spaniards would gather thirteen of the leaders and, before a gathered crowd of enslaved natives, burn them alive.

This ruthlessness took its toll on the Taino population. When Columbus arrived at Hispañiola in 1492 there were an estimated 8 million people living on the island. By 1496 the population had been cut nearly in half; three to four million natives had died in less than four years. By 1508 the population was less than one hundred thousand. By 1518 there were fewer than twenty thousand. And by 1535, the entire native population of Hispañiola was gone. In just 43 years an entire culture had been eliminated. In fact, every island in the Antilles experienced similar purges and rapid decreases in population.

Learning about the Taino and Others

The death and destruction of millions of people and their cultures has led to a lack of evidence about their lives. Researchers have been hard-pressed to find credible and complete relics of the Taino past. The most solid evidence we have which can provide insight into the lives and conditions of the Taino people is from the Spanish. Through Columbus, las Casas, and others historians are able to piece together an often incomplete picture of life on the islands. The recent discoveries of long-forgotten villages in the Antilles have uncovered pieces of pottery, remains of dwellings, zumis, and batey courts which give researchers a first-hand look at Taino life. The other way in which the history of these extinct people can be shared today is through the oral traditions of present-day native people. Although currently no government recognizes an official Taino group, people who say they are descendants of the early Taino are beginning to reclaim their culture. Through the telling and retelling of stories, fables, legends, and myths the customs and cultures of the early Taino and their island brethren live on. It is the legacy of the first inhabitants of the Americas.


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The Journey of Christopher Columbus